cakes, prose, woes -- the photos, food & thoughts of a french-speaking seattle-native in brazil

In the end, you're just happy you were there—with your eyes open—and lived to see it. -AB
In the end, you're just happy you were there—with your eyes open—and lived to see it.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Chocolate Lady

There is a woman known to all the employees of Mora as the "Chocolate Lady." With graying braided hair tuffing from beneath an old head scarf, she enters the cafe no less than two or three times per week to sample chocolate flavors that she has, despite her proffered visage of surprised ecstasy, tasted on many occasions. She comes to us with her stories and musings on the cacao bean, unawares to the whisper murmured among coworkers as she crosses the threshold: "chocolate lady is here." Immediately launching into her chocolate dialog, her Athenian presence is more reminiscent of the knave Hermes, for despite her sincerity of bestowing her erroneous ideas on the history of chocolate upon the youth of Mora, she knows how to play the game. Her stories vary day to day; their content unimportant when juxtaposed to their purpose, that being free ice cream. She has sampled many but has slyly never offered a schilling, often abandoning her chocolates to melt into sorrowful puddles on the bar counter as a precursor move of her vanishing act. If intercepted by the register operator before reaching the counter she retreats to try her luck the next day. Few could view her intentions as nefarious, her identity and where she hails from have yet to be garnered. Whether she needs us truly for a sweet treat, or rather is fond of our company and polite counter banter, her jeux is harmless and we let her play it. However, her diagnosis of the cocoa bean strikes me with disagreeable chords, for foxing products is one thing, but askew "historical" information (in my book) is quite another. Unable to claim exact factual expertise on the drug, I had no choice but to commence a wee bit of research so as to quell that nagging (embarrassing) feeling in the back of my head caused by misrepresented "historical" facts. Alors, merci Chocolate Lady, your musings will always be welcome in exchange for a small trifle of fleeting chocolate bliss.

The first consumers of the cocoa bean were not, against popular belief, the Aztecs, but rather the Olmec tribe of the region that is now Venezuela (circa 1000 BCE). The beans first task was to nourish traveling Olmec warriors, the bean was finely ground and added to liquid. Cocoa was a highly valued crop as it was used as a trading medium with neighboring tribes, such as the Mayans who introduced the bean to modern day Mexico around 4oo BCE. The Mayans cultivated a deep adoration of chocolate and created specific chocolate drinking cups for their spicy and pleasurable drink of the ground bean mixed with red pepper and other spices. As with nearly all civilizations in every time period, highly sought after commodities represented wealth and status, reserved only for those of the more noble stations (cocoa will make a reappearance as a luxury of the wealthy and noble upon its introduction into Western Europe). The Aztecs acquired the pallet for cocoa from the (conquered) Mayans. The Aztecs, however, took their cocoa cold, and stewed the ground powder with vanilla and chilies to make a beverage "suitable for the gods." Cortes conquered the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan in 1521, and, noting the monetary value of the Xocoatl bean as a mesoamerican currency, quickly took over the market.

The Spanish introduced the cocoa bean (misspelled from the Mayan cacau) to Europe, a mere addition to the already commodity driven society of the modern era; the cocoa bean joined the coveted "exotic" luxuries of tea, drugs, silk, china, salt and spices. Despite Belgianese claims, the Spanish were the first to sweeten the chocolate drink with sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, and pepper. The popularity of cocoa spread throughout most of Western Europe, chocolate houses emerged in many major urban centers, the precursor to the cultural hub of the coffeehouse, and the drink emerged as highly popular amongst Catholic communities, for (like the cod) it was viewed as ideal nourishment during fasts. In the early nineteenth century the Dutch finally introduced the world to milk chocolate after the invention of a cocoa press that removed nearly all the fat from the bean, resulting in a dry powder that could then be added to milk.

What emerged was a world wide market for creative and sensual niceties: enter the Cadbury family in 1853, the Swiss Henri Nestl
é and Rudolphe Lindt in 1879, and the Americans Milton Hershey in 1894, and Frank Mars in 1920. A new culinary field of chocolate erupted: sauces, cakes, kisses, bars, puddings, and drinks. To address briefly Chocolate Lady's favorite subject of discussion--particularly with the male employees--chocolate is overwhelmingly the trifle of love, as a coveted aphrodisiac and symbol for passion (borrowed from the Aztec belief that it stimulated men) it has acquired, if not sustained its reputation as the all time guilty pleasure. Chocolate, from an unromantic scientific perspective contains high levels of phenylethylamine and seratonin which produce happy senses associated with feelings of being in love. I may add though from a personal opinion, that chocolate is useless if not black. Yes! 70% cocoa or higher, I believe that the chocolate palate ripens with age, as I would not touch dark cocoa when I was a child. Chocolate is a world love affair, and aside from those poor souls avec an allergy, none can resist seduction for long. Chocolate is comfort, decadence, passion, and good reading. Though hopefully more palatable than Silverstrein's unwrapped, this account has merely scratched the story of cocoa, there are countless biographies of the bean (Chocolate starring Johny Depp is quite good actually) available for those with the bug for discovery of civilization's secrets. The cocoa bean, again as the cod, deserves a second glance as it has a rich story, and an even richer role in the simple pleasures that remind us of the simple Hershey slogan, Be Happy.

A bientôt


Ryan said...

The Aztecs, one of my favorites to study. I was quite dissapointed when my Latin American professor hardly spoke of Cortes.
Your writing style is spectacular!

Mallory Elise said...

Thank you you're too nice.
How can one speak of Latin American history and not mention Cortes? yikes. I love Spanish exploration too, my favorite by far of the bastard colonial empires.