Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Chocolate Literary Journeys

The cacao bean seems to possess an inherently seductive quality that inspires some people to travel great distances in pursuit of its origins and perhaps its deeper meaning. These journeys have been the source of several great adventures, and great works of literature.

I recently borrowed a copy of Paul Richardson's Indulgence: Around the World in Search of Chocolate from the local library. In the introduction to this culinary travelogue he writes, "as the geography of chocolate took shape in my mind, I began to plan a series of journeys that would take me from the steamy cacao plantations of the equatorial zone to the workshops of Europe's chocolate artisans."1 Richardson's spiritually-tinged travels--through Mexico, Venezuela, Spain, Italy, France, the United States, and Great Britain, only to find (over the internet) a chocolate revolutionary on the beaches of New Zealand and (in person) a Latin-American cacao mystic in Barcelona--are entirely his own, as are his literary insights. What is interesting is that he is joined by so many other authors, of non-fiction and fiction alike, who have chosen to physically follow chocolate production through world's varying cultural climates with a passion usually reserved for sex and a rigor more commonly associated with the fields of politics and economics.

When I was living in Guatemala, I encountered James Runcie's historical novel, The Discovery of Chocolate. Runcie invents a sixteenth-century Spaniard who attains immortality after tasting Mayan chocolate and whose life story traces the evolution of chocolate, the history of colonialism, and the depths of human intimacy all at once. I quickly passed on the book and the recommendation I had been given to savor the tale, and soon I decided to stock brand new copies in my shop where most everything else was second-hand. Alongside The Discovery of Chocolate, I sold Joanne Harris's Chocolat (another tale whose European protagonists are rooted in Central America and propelled through different lands by the power of chocolate) and Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate (whose wonderfully alluring though elusive title refers to the state of the water used to prepare Mexican hot chocolate, which is--like the emotions of women in love--boiling over).

Enough books touch on this theme to make the case for a separate Library of Congress subject classification, but the most supremely well-written and well-researched of these is The True History of Chocolate, by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe. The intricate chronology laid out by the Coes is the foundation upon which generic chocolate histories that appear in mass-market coffee-table books and cookbooks are based. James Runcie generously thanks the authors for inspiring the historical and emotional journey of The Discovery of Chocolate, and in Indulgence Paul Richardson refers to The True History of Chocolate as "the book that has become the Bible, the Koran and the Torah of chocophiles everywhere."2

The True History of Chocolate is a book whose own history is as romantic as that of chocolate itself. The project was started by Sophie Coe, an anthropologist, a culinary historian, a lover of chocolate, and the wife of one of the leading scholars of the ancient Maya, Michael Coe. She died in 1994, after conducting an enviably extensive amount of research but before she was able to complete a draft of the book. Her husband, then, became the one to finish the project. "After Sophie's death that May," writes Michael Coe, "I began work, faced with the not small task of organizing the thousands of pages of notes that she had left, and familiarizing myself with their contents. This took over six months, by the end of which I felt confident that I could put together the kind of chocolate history that she had envisioned."3 The book was published in 1996.

1. Paul Richardson, Indulgence: Around the World in Search of Chocolate (London: Little, Brown, 2003), 11.
2. Ibid., 31.
3. Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2004), 8.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent story bouts chocolate books MIss Emily, I has enjoyed it, oh lordy i has!

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