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The True History of Chocolate Hardcover – May, 1996
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Top Customer Reviews
Michael Coe has taken a book about the history of Theobroma cacao (the chocolate plant) and turned it into an apology for the Aztecs and a bitter diatribe against Spain and, more diffusely, against Europeans in general, and against those benighted slobs who eat chocolate with less than 70% cacao. In the process, he commits many gross errors in scholarship that are severe enough that the critical reader begins to distrust him.
I developed a fascination with the Aztec and the Maya as a very young child and remember reading books about them in the very early 1970's. Even then, European and American scholars recognized that Aztec human sacrifice -- even the sacrifice of little children to Tlaloc in the cornfields -- wasn't carried out in a mood of sadistic glee, but because according to Aztec theology the gods and the sun needed blood in order to live or the universe would be destroyed. Aztec society was highly literate and they were supreme bureacrats, and they themselves documented tens of thousands of human sacrifices. They also documented the extent that royalty had to let their own blood by pulling spiked cords through their lips, and the fact that wars were carried out for the sole purpose of capturing prisoners so that priests could sacrifice them. One does not need to minimize anything about Aztec theology in order to condemn the Spaniards for dehumanizing the Aztecs. And, at that same time that the Spaniards were dehumanizing the Aztecs, they were themselves torturing people for the sake of their eternal salvation, but torturing people nevertheless. Given the choice between the tools made available to perpetrators of the Inquisition, and an obsidian blade and a heart amputation, most readers would choose the more-rapid Aztec death over the brutal and miserable slow torture at the hands of the Inquisition. No question.
But even Coe acknowleges that the Aztecs were an imperialist culture engaged in aggressive war for the sake of territory, victims for human sacrifice, slaves, T. cacao, and other wares.
This is an argument that does not need to be had. And if anyone is interested in a truly scholarly work about pre-Columbian Meso-American life, then read 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann. This new work, which contains scholarship unavailable to the Coes, shows that the population of the New World exceeded that of contemporary Europe, and provides clear-eyed descriptions based on the archaeological record, and based on new DNA research, of life during that time.
But the purpose of the Coe's book, ostensibly, is to give the reader the history of chocolate, not to go into long diatribes against Spaniards, or to make comments like this "Our almost exclusive devotion to taking our chocolate 'straight' is singularly unimaginative." Um, well, we don't. We eat chocolate on top of every sweet thing known to man, mix it with our coffee, and we even brew it in our beer. We consume it in solid, powdered and liquid form. We just don't mix it with chili, or drink it cold mixed with cornmeal. This hardly translates into "unimaginative" cooking, any more than the Aztecs are unimaginative because they only took their chocolate in liquid form.
Coe's defensiveness concerning the Aztecs causes him to discount eyewitness accounts by Aztecs and Spaniards alike. Apparently, the Aztecs felt that T. cacao was an intoxicant and an aphrodisiac. The Coes vehemently disagreed that it was, and vehemently disagreed that the Aztec king would ever need an aphrodisiac, and besides, the Spaniards all were constipated from their bad diet. Yes, it really does get that silly.
In fact, it gets so silly, that Michael Coe by the end of the book is defending the Marquis de Sade as an epicure who's getting picked on by the authorities. Yes, chocolate is circuitously involved, but anyone who quotes the Marquis de Sade as an authority on pleasure needs to have his head examined. Anyone who's read 120 Days of Sodom knows why.
The Coes can't be faulted for their ignorance of medical and pharmacological research that had yet to take place as of the writing of their book, but current research shows that chocolate has a direct impact on neurotransmitters in the brain that affect the sense of well-being and of ones that might put the consumer in a more amorous frame of mind. And T. cacao is a mild stimulant. The medical reality, though, could be said to be irrelevant. The Aztecs served chocolate to the bride and groom at wedding ceremonies. The Aztecs associated chocolate with life-giving blood. To the Aztecs, chocolate was associated with sex. It constitutes the worst form of cultural imperialism to suggest that the Aztecs didn't know what they were talking about, and discount eyewitnesses who emphasized Aztec usage of chocolate consistent with this Aztec cultural view. The Aztecs don't need the Coes to tell them what their chocolate really means to them, because the Aztecs explicitly stated it in their liturgy, poetry, sculpture, commerce and ceremony. And the Coes might want to reconsider the accuracy of the Aztec position since our culture also considered chocolate to be an aphrodisiac prior to the recent scientific discoveries, which is why American men give it to women on Valentine's Day.
The Coes also make much of the fact that, they say, chocolate can't be an intoxicant, so the Aztecs are a bunch of puritans when they say that it is. We have already discussed that T. cacao causes an altered state of consciousness by affecting neurotransmitters. In our world, to be intoxicated one's motor skills must be affected, as when one consumes alcohol or marijuana, or one's judgment must become completely obliterated, as when one consumes cocaine, hallucinogens, or crystal meth. But from this we do not conclude that all those Aztecs are making it all up; a reliable scholar does not discard contemporary accounts and contemporary usage, but instead concludes that the Aztec concept of "intoxication" does not coincide with the Western concept. One concludes that the Aztec usage of the word is more nuanced than ours.
Coe discounts one eyewitness who fails to agree with him on the subject of when Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin consumed chocolate at a "colossal event" by saying that "it should be kept in mind that these are the recollections of an old man in his eighties." And so Coe dehumanizes an eyewitness based on his age for the simple sin of failing to agree with him. Coe's basis for disagreeing with the eyewitness is that chocolate can't possibly be an aphrodisiac and how dare anyone suggest that Motecuhzoma needs an aphrodisiac just because he has a large harem.
Coe's huffiness affects his scholarship later when discussing the origin of the word "chocolate." He takes up the Maya verb "chukola'j" which means "to drink chocolate together." But he is mystified that Europeans did away with the Nahuatl term for chocolate: cacahuatl. Only at the very end of a long monologue does he grasp the most obvious point: No speaker of any Romance language wants to drink a runny brown substance called "caca"-anything. The name changed from cacahuatl for the same reason that we no longer refer to that long-eared furry animal that hops and eats carrots as a "coney" -- and coney rhymes with "money." We call it a "rabbit." But we still keep the association with coney, as when we talk about a woman of ill-repute performing the coital act with the frequency of a rabbit, and when Emma's father tells newly-widowed Charles Bovary, "We'll have you shoot a rabbit in the fields to help you get over your sorrow."
The Coes' failure to recognize the emotional and social impact of language, and the sense that they know best, and that the Aztecs must stop their silliness in thinking they needed an aphrodisiac, and the Europeans must stop being so benighted, is part of a whole unappetizing and academically-deficient package.
Ironically, the book ends with a snobby list of select chocolates that we are told meets the Coes' specifications as true chocolate -- all of which contain at least 70% cocoa. This list is entirely inadequate. There are terms of art for discussing the taste of chocolate, just as their are for wine, beer, coffee and tea. A reader who wants to be told what certain chocolates taste like could easily find more lively and comprehensive guides that teach the reader what to look for in the finest chocolates, and those terms of art, just as such guides are available for connoisseurs of wine, beer, coffee or tea.
I am grateful for the picture of what a cacao pod looks like on the tree and split in half. I have been walking around all my life with a totally erroneous picture in my head.
But other than that, the Coes' biases, their stated refusal to consider eyewitness accounts and other scholarship if it does not conform to their pre-established bias, the lack of good humor, the hateful tone, and the prescription for Valrhona chocolate or else you are a benighted slob, all make for unappetizing reading.
I can't help but think there is more trustworthy scholarship out there, and more enjoyable sources to consider when reading about chocolate.