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Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage

Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage edited by Louis Evan Grivetti and Howard-Yana Shapiro. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons; 2009. Hardcover; 975 pages. ISBN: 978-0-470-12165-8. $103.95.

Such is the power of chocolate (Theobroma cacao, Sterculiaceae) to elicit our passions and emotions that, as it traveled through time and our human story, it left a profound and indelible imprint on many cultures and religions. Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage is an extensive work that documents chocolate’s multiple roles throughout history by exploring source material in a methodical and detailed fashion.

This edition was compiled over a decade (1998–2009) by the Chocolate History Group of the University of California – Davis, and supported by Mars, Incorporated, a global manufacturer of confections, including chocolate. The group gathered together original texts from pre-Columbian America, early America, and Europe, exploring the development of chocolate in culinary and medicinal traditions. Much of the research was done with archive and library research, as well as fieldwork in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and other important cacao-producing Central American countries. It also documents cacao’s journey in the United States, where a significant amount of the world’s chocolate is manufactured and consumed.

At 975 pages, it is a comprehensive compilation of facts gathered from pre-historic Mayan pottery and codices, handwritten Hispanic-era documents and letters, and translations from Spanish into French and Portuguese that chart cacao’s trade routes. Port records and account ledgers were perused and examples of Chinese menus, advertising billboards, local advertisements, and early accounts of manufacturing techniques that describe its global reach and how it was utilized. The chapters on chocolatières and other chocolate accoutrements describe chocolate’s adoption into French aristocratic circles during the reign of Louis XIV, assuring its prestige as a luxury and highly desirable beverage. Later, diaries and military records examined the use of chocolate and its specialized vessels during the American Civil War.

For this extensive work, many specialists and scholars dedicated their expertise to the project; paleographers helped to properly interpret nuances of early texts in a variety of languages. One-hundred-and-fifteen professionals — experts in agronomy, anthropology, archeology, biochemistry, dietetics, economy, genetics and plant breeding, statistics, nutrition, and many more — lent their skills and time to produce reliable information on the social, religious, culinary, and medicinal history of chocolate.

The Chocolate History Group chose early on “not to produce an integrated global history of chocolate,” which would have required an even more monumental effort to produce several thousand pages. The group believed that the information would have been out of date before it could be published as the story of chocolate is ever unfolding. Rather, the group chose a thematic approach to reveal “the sustained importance of chocolate through the millennia.”

For culinary historians and food scientists interested in the culinary and medicinal aspects of chocolate, the book includes recipes divided into four categories by chronology and geography: pre-Columbian era, early New Spain, 18th and 19th century New Spain/Mexico and Europe, and 18th century North America. Of interest is how the consumption of chocolate evolved from eating the raw beans in their cottony pulp to roasting or toasting the beans and making a drink that was used by healers to treat infections, severe cough and phlegm, and to reduce fevers and bloody dysentery. The chapters on chocolate recipes describe how cacao beans developed as a drink with the Spaniards who introduced one of the first instruments to froth the beverage — a stirring rod called a molinillo — which is still in use today. Spices were added over the centuries to enhance the flavor of the beverage and original texts translated into English from original French and Spanish manuscripts describe chocolate’s journey as the beverage gained popularity throughout Europe in the 16th through the 18th centuries, and in North America during the 19th century. As noted in many recipes, while the flavor of the drink improved as more ingredients were added, chocolate never lost its medicinal cachet. The Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné, who is responsible for giving the cacao tree its Latin binomial, Theobroma cacao (Theobroma means “food of the gods” in Greek), reportedly said that the brew cured him of his hemorrhoids. In effect, the chapter concludes that it is difficult to separate the health and pleasurable aspects of chocolate. Chocolate has always had a dual purpose as food and medicine.

Early American cookbooks from the 18th and 19th centuries continued to emphasize the medicinal benefits of chocolate in what sociologists call their “cultural context,” as various immigrant groups imposed their customs, which reflected medicinal, culinary, sexual, and moral influences.

Chocolate-making has greatly changed since pre-Columbian times and never in its history has it been available to so many people and in so many forms as it is presently. The evolution of chocolate manufacturing is reported in great detail, with illustrations of the tools, roasters, butter presses, and mills used to mechanize and refine the making of the chocolate as we know it today.

Nutritionists and dieticians, holistic and alternative care practitioners will find interest in the chapter on “Twenty-First Century Attitudes and Behaviors Regarding the Medicinal Use of Chocolate.” While food as medicine fell out of favor in the first half of the 20th century, there is a movement in the 21st century toward “functional foods.” Cacao’s flavonols and other polyphenols are investigated, as are chocolate’s “health promoting benefits,” particularly its cardiovascular functions. The results of a study conducted to discover American consumers’ knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors toward chocolate as a health-promoting food may be of particular interest. The study’s methods, analyses, and results are fully described as well as the present governmental views, definition, guidelines, and recommendations on “functional foods.” The chapter also delves into the adulterants and extenders found today in mass-produced chocolates.

Each chapter concludes with an acknowledgement of the individuals involved in the research on that section, with useful endnotes and several pages of references that may be utilized to pursue additional research.

Fifty-six chapters and 11 appendices, including 64 pages of illustrations, in this hefty five-and-a-half pound tome bring together a treasure trove of information on chocolate that should appeal to food historians, chocolate connoisseurs, artisans, writers, and researchers. As a reference guide, it is a masterful work, with new and previously unpublished information that will provide an unrivaled anthology of chocolate to study for years to come.

—Christine Raaphorst Roesch, MPC Park City, UT