Perfection in pursuit of a confection

The True History of Chocolate
October 11, 1996

The Mayan year 3881, corresponding to ad713, was a time for celebration in the city of Muk'at, which appears on maps of Guatemala as a ruin named Naranjo. King K'ak' Til was only 25 years old, but under the tutelage of the queen mother, Lady Wak Chanil, he had restored the glory of his troubled domain, winning military victories and erecting stone monuments. He also commissioned a master craftsman, Wakab Nal, to paint festive scenes on ceramic drinking vessels. Tall and cylindrical, they held about a quart. The intended beverage was chocolate, made from ground cacao seeds and poured back and forth from one container to another to give it a topping of foam. K'ak' Til gave one of his painted vessels, made to celebrate the first harvest from newly planted cacao trees, to a noble family in a neighbouring town. When a man of that family died at an early age, the mourners filled it with chocolate and placed it in his tomb. That is where it was found a few years ago by archaeologists, at the place now known as Buenavista del Cayo, in Belize.

Stories like this one can be told in such detail because we are dealing with a civilisation that had writing. The main sources for Mayan texts, beyond the few books that survived the Spanish invasion, are stone monuments and pottery chocolate vessels. Painted around the rim of the Buenavista find is an inscription that says: "This drinking vessel for cacao from a new grove was shaped for K'ak' Til Chan K'awil, the blessed king of Muk'at, by the brilliant artisan Wakab Nal." The story of how texts like this one were deciphered has been superbly told in Breaking The Maya Code by Michael D. Coe. While he was writing that book his wife, Sophie D. Coe, was at work on The True History of Chocolate. When she fell ill and died, he completed her project, staying true to her sense of delight in the subject. Among food historians, she was without equal in her knowledge of the Americas.

The True History begins in the tropical forest along the southern shore of the Gulf of Mexico, among the Olmec precursors of the Maya. By around 1000bc they had domesticated Theobroma cacao, the tree whose seed pods are the source of chocolate, and their language may have been the source of the Mayan word kakaw. The cultivation of this tree is no simple matter, requiring year-round moisture, temperatures that never drop below 60F, and deeply shaded mulch for the breeding of the midges that pollinate cacao flowers. Before the seeds can be ground into chocolate they must be fermented (together with the pulp that surrounds them) until they germinate, after which they are dried, roasted, and winnowed.

In pre-Columbian times the cultivation of the cacao tree spread to favourable areas along both coasts of Mesoamerica, and the seeds were traded throughout the interior highlands. They served not only as a luxury food item but as a medium of exchange (complete with counterfeit versions) that lasted well into the colonial period. Spanish colonists, who could not legally enslave Indians, cut labour costs by using African slaves to work new cacao plantations on the coasts of Ecuador and Venezuela. Most of the chocolate consumed by Europeans in the 17th and 18th centuries came from groves near Caracas, much of it transported by Dutch merchants who obtained it in exchange for fresh slaves. Eventually the English and French set up their own slave plantations in the West Indies. Today most cacao is produced in West Africa and Southeast Asia, but the finest grades still come from Mesoamerica.

Another story in this book is that of famous consumers of chocolate. In addition to the Mayan kings and queens named on their own drinking vessels, they include such rulers as Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin, whose cacao warehouse was looted by Cortes's men, and Louis XIV, whose guests at Versailles could expect chocolate on every occasion. The jasmine and ambergris in the baroque chocolate recipe of Cosimo III de' Medici were intended to be scented and tasted, but there were other individuals who used the taste of chocolate as a cover for sinister additives. If the last cup of chocolate drunk by Pope Clement XIV was indeed poisoned by Jesuits, they were only following what had become a well-known recipe for murder.

The first European writer to pen some memorable lines on the subject of cacao was Peter Martyr of Milan. In a 1612 English translation from his 1516 Latin, we read that the people of what he was the first to call the New World "have money, which I call happie, because I this groweth upon trees." Self-confessed lovers of the taste of chocolate are numerous among later writers, among them Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, Samuel Pepys, the Marquis de Sade, Voltaire, Goethe, and (in the case of the chocolate bar) Jack Kerouac. To the names mentioned in the book I would add a couple of fictional lovers of chocolate, Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Joyce's Stephen Dedalus. Along with Kerouac, they belong to an age in which factory production has democratised the consumption of chocolate. So does Henry David Thoreau, whose "Civil disobedience" essay points back to the region where the whole story started. When he finds himself in jail for refusing to pay taxes that would support his country's war against Mexico, the brown bread he is given to eat is accompanied by a pint of chocolate.

The book's happy ending comes with the 1994 introduction of a new brand of chocolate bar, Maya Gold, in the United Kingdom. The cacao for this confection is not mass-produced on Old World plantations but on small plots in Belize, and no pesticides or chemical fertilisers are used. The plots are not unlike those of the ancient Maya, and they are worked by the same people who presently own them: the Kekchi Maya.

Dennis Tedlock is professor of English and anthropology, State University of New York, Buffalo.

The True History of Chocolate

Author - Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe
ISBN - 0 500 01693 3
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £16.95
Pages - 280

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