The Deep Dark Secrets of Chocolate PT: 2

Publication Year: 
1975

As with most of life's basic pleasures, the precise origin of cocoa is unknown. The Aztecs, Mayans and Toltecs were busily cultivating the cacao plant over 3,000 years ago, however, and the Indians of South America still revere the ancient god of the air and high places, Quetzalcoatl, who brought cacao seeds to Earth from Paradise. Quetzalcoatl's mythic deed seems to parallel the Promethean introduction of fire to the ancient Greeks. Just as Prometheus had incurred the ill will of Olympus, Quetzalcoatl's generosity angered his fellow deities in the Aztec pantheon. They flayed him alive in punishment and sent forth what was left of him to wander the world as a disembodied ghost.

Quetzalcoatl promised to return, a myth that gave Cortez a brief advantage many years later, when the credulous and worshipful Aztec peasantry mistook him for their long-lost benefactor. But by that time Quetzalcoatl, for all his esteem in the imagination of the lower orders, had slipped somewhat in the regard of the ruling class: The great Aztec Montezuma and his court took their chocolate pretty much for granted and drank it mainly in homage to Xochiquetzal, the goddess of love. Among other things, it was this decadent state of affairs among the Aztec leadership that made the subjection of the Mesoamericans a pushover.

Bernal Diaz del Castillo, in his classic True History of the Conquest of New Spain, writes of Montezuma's meals: "From time to time they brought him, in cup -shaped vessels of pure gold, a certain drink made from cacao, which he took when he was going to visit his wives." In fact, Montexuma drank none other than chocolatl, a bitter cacao product that he considered "ambrosia for the gods." Chocolatl was prepared by drying, roasting and grinding cocoa beans, which were then pressed into cakes after being inflamed with such spices as red peppers and chili, with perhaps a little maize thrown in. To serve these cakes were mixed with water - latl was the Aztecan word for water, and choco described the sound made as the cocoa was whipped in a bowl. The finished product had the consistency of honey, and would be siped and held in the mouth for a few seconds until it dissolved.

The Aztec court was so fond of this concoction that its daily intake was well in excess of 2,000 cups, with Montezuma himself accounting for 50-odd chalicefuls. Quetzalcoatl knows, he needed the energy to service his multiple wives and estimated 700 mistresses, whose demands were so strong by nature that Montezuma apparently forbade them to partake of the erethistic liquid themselves. Subsequent authorities disagree, however, as to the precise motivation of this policy: was Montezuma merely being a nasty male chauvinist pig, or was there already a fatal imbalance in the Aztec boy-girl ratio that led to an overpopulation of sexually demanding females? Were the annual mass sacrifices of virgins attempts to abate this trend? Or was Monte merely being coy, preferring to sweeten the aphrodisiacal effects of the potation with the psychological spice of the forbidden? At any rate, the women of the court did obtain their chocolatl, though not without resorting to intrigue and subterfuge. Ultimately, it was a Mexican princess named Donna Marina--"of fine figure, frank manners, prompt genius and intrepid spirit" [Diaz]-- who spread the secret of cocoa to Europe. The daughter of the prince of Painala, Donna Marina was captured by Mayan Indians and kept as a slave, until Hernando Cortez and his soldiers arrived just west of the Yucatan to begin their conquests of Mexico 9or New Spain, as they called it). When the Mayas succumbed to the Europeans, Donna Marina was handed over as a spoil of war. Cortez first presented her to a lietenant, but later took her for his own and had a son by her. Because she knew not only Mayan but also Aztec dialects and quickly picked up Spanish, Donna Marina was invaluable to Cortez. She acted as an interpreter to both the highest royalty and the lowliest chatel.

Among the wonderous things she told him was that cocoa was valued especially highly--in fact, it was money. Cocoa beans were honoured as currency throughout the markets of Mexico and continued to be for 250 years after the conquest. Modern-day Ecuadorians still call the beans pepe de oro, "seeds of fold.' In Cortez's day, ten beans would buy a good rabbit, a hundred a slave, and according to Bishop de Landa, champlain to Cortez's entourage, "He who wants a Mayan public woman for his lustful use can have one for eight to ten cocoa beans." There was even a problem with counterfeiters who would fill hallowed-out beans with dirt and pass them off the pre-Columbian rubes. Whats more, winked Donna Marina, cacao was the "food of the gods," a little bit of which could make a conquistador drop his sword for a bit. Cortez wasn't interested, though and neither was the court of King Ferdinand, who had a look at some cocoa beans brought back by Columbus and saw in them a monumental lack of potential.

It wasn't until Cortez entered the capital city as Montezuma's guest in 1519 that he tried some. Sipping the golden cups in the potentate's gilded palace, most of the Spaniards pronounced the beverage to be rank. Joseph de Acosta commented: "The chief use of this cocoa is in a drincke which they call chocolatl, wherof they make great account, foolishly and without reason, for it is loathesome to such as are not acquainted with it, having a skumme or frothe that is very unpleasant to taste." When Cortez returned to Spain in 1521, he brought back cocoa samples which were not immediately popular, although much of the nobility choked down the beverage for its priaptic benefits. When European pirates captured a Spanish ship, though they persisted in throwing the chocolate overboard, calling it cacuro de carnero (sheep shit).

People began to bad-mouth chocolate for reasons other than its repugnant taste. Witness Marradon, wiring at the beginning of the seventeenth century: "Every kind of intercourse was prohibited between Indian women and the ladies of New Spain. The latter were accused of learning sorcery from the former, who being taught by the devil, committed an infinite number of crimes under the influence of chocolate, of which they were great mistresses." Besides its inflammatory properties, chocolate was often cited as the medium through which Mexican witches contacted Satan.

Ironically, it was a group of nuns in a cloister at chiapas, near the yucatan, who changed the course of chocolate history some time around 1550, when they mixed sugar--- another new commodity--and vanilla with some powdered cocoa. Only a few years later, the drink had become so popular locally that a bishop found himself with a congregation of women on his hands who would "pretend much weakness and squeamishness of the stomach" and thus could not sit through a mass without a cup of the chocolate elixer. At first the bishop let these indiscretions pass, but as the habit became omnipresent, he banned chocolate outright in the cathedral. Harsh words erupted from the congregation, swords were drawn and most of the worshippers switched over the cloister church. Soon after this, the bishop was found dead, apparently from having ingested a cup of poisoned chocolate.

The Church seemed to retain its dim view of chocolate for quite a while. Joan Fram Rauch wrote a treatise in 1624 damning chocolate as "a violent inflamer of the passions,' explaining that if certain monks had been denied chocolate "the scandal with which that holy order had been branded might have proved groundless." As late as 1748, churchmen were arguing whether the use of chocolate violated dietary laws for pious Christians, But the work of the nuns of Chiapas could not be undone. Sweet, rich, seductive chocolate was already on its way to becoming an international habit.

Text: High Times The Deep Dark Secrets of Chocolate, Robert Lemmo, 1975
Image: http://www.pubexec.com/photo/high-times-chocolate

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