Thursday, July 09, 2009

Can Anyone Write a Better Chocolate Book than Sophie Coe?

I met with one of the members of my thesis committee yesterday, and she told me that "you've done enough reading. It's clear. You don't have to do any more. Please stop." I'd just turned in forty pages chronicling my adventures and misadventures with chocolate in Guatemala--forty pages which referenced Richard Rodriguez, Joan Didion, Daniel Chacón, and, of course, Sophie and Michael Coe. In my experience, any magazine article, quirky novel, or scholarly monograph about chocolate inevitably draws on the culinary-historical-archaeological synthesis in the Coes' The True History of Chocolate. That's because the culinary-historian-and-archaeologist couple, who drew the title of their book from Bernal Díaz del Castillo's The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, were meticulous about going back to and making sense of the primary texts about the chocolate-related intersection of European and American cultures: Díaz, Thomas Gage, Fray Bernardino de Sahugún. Marcy Norton, a historian at George Washington University, sets out to build on or redirect that true chocolate history in Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World. The pairing is less familiar to our modern minds than coffee and cigarettes, but Norton's concern is that the two new-world products cacao and tobacco migrated to and transformed the old world simultaneously. "The question that drives this book," she explains, is, "What, exactly, did it mean for Europeans--bound as they were to an ideology that insisted on their religious and cultural supremacy--to become consumers of goods that they knew were so enmeshed in the religious practices of the pagan 'savages' whom they had conquered?"

Norton's attempt to intertwine the cultural and psychotropic stories of cacao and tobacco is compelling, but the book often seems to be an amalgam of already studied and published facts. She doesn't have a terrible amount of evidence to suggest that the link between the her two colonial commodities was anything more than theoretical, and her comparisons are often strained and repetitive. In the absence of a more concrete relationship, the book might have benefited from more creative juxtapositions. For example, Norton mentions that "[w]hen Indians on the island of Hispaniola (probably) offered Columbus a bouquet of dried tobacco leaves, it did not stimulate great excitement," but she misses the opportunity to draw a connection to the explorer's similarly blasé response to cacao. In The True History of Chocolate, the Coes write that "the first European encounter with cacao took place when Columbus, on his fourth and final voyage, came across a great Maya trading canoe with cacao beans amongst its cargo," and they later provide an account of the contents of the canoe (including the cacao beans or "almonds") written by Ferdinand Columbus, the explorer's son:

For their provisions they had such roots and grains as are eaten in Hispaniola, and a sort of wine made out of maize which resembled English beer; and many of those almonds which in New Spain are used for money. They seemed to hold these almonds at a great price; for when they were brought on board ship together with their goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen.

The definitive history, it would seem, is the Coes' history. Even Norton suggests, in a footnote to her introduction, that "[f]or a synthesis on pre-Columbian chocolate, see Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate (London: Thames and Hudson 1996), 11-104." She goes on to mention that "[s]ince the publication of the True History, there has been a boom in pre-Columbian chocolate studies, well represented by the contributions in Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao."

I came home from my meeting yesterday and read a good portion of the Chocolate in Mesoamerica anthology, edited by Cameron L. McNeil (who references the Coes in her first paragraph), which includes specialized articles about the Sonconusco region of Guatemala and about the uses of the alien-spacecraft-like cacao-relative pataxte. But then I did stop reading--I had to, in order to start writing.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I CANNOT wait to see what you add to the choco-cannon.

10:54 AM GMT-5  
Anonymous Michael Szyliowicz said...

I found this post very insightful. I take a personal and professional interest in the history of chocolate as a chocolatier. I’m planning to send out a “Chocolate Book” this winter that dives into the history of chocolate and includes colorful images throughout to really bring it to life, and would love to send you a copy if you’re interested.

2:59 PM GMT-5  

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