Some Like it Hot

June 15, 2018

 

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European bodies first made contact with chocolate in the tropics. By default, then, they encountered it as a warm-weather drink. Aztecs drank it as a brew with a thick froth, a preparation they learned from the Maya. Common ingredients besides cacao included achiote, an herbal powder that reddened it, and Chile pepper. Europeans found the idea of drinking an unctuous spicy beverage in the heat impractical and surprising; hot chocolate and chocolate milk are still not high on the list of sports drinks. Humoral theory further demonstrated to them that treating an overheated body with an elementally warm substance would not do the trick. Heat was calmed by the introduction of cool, and vice versa, not by mixing like temps with like.

 

Anti-intuitive as it sounded back on the Continent and (very likely) to a reader today, chocolate prepared according to Aztec methods was designed to replenish the depleted body and quench the thirst. Whatever their initial aversion or incredulity, Europeans internalized this principle. Those expecting to extract from cacao the medical marvels it was rumored to perform relied on the potential of its fiery heat to cure and recommended it accordingly.

 

Early in its pharmaceutical history, Antonio Colmenero wrote the book on chocolate and humoral theory. Colmenero argued that chocolate challenged the Gallenic dictum, “Two contradictory qualities, and disagreeing, cannot be, in gradu intense, in one and the same Subject…” (3). During his time in Mexico, he had seen Criolla—women of Spanish descent born in the colonies—make chocolate from cacao. Crushing and mashing the beans, they drew unctuous butter out of what appeared to be a cold, hard substance. Today we know those parts of the bean as the butter and the nib. That is to say, the cacao bean had “diverse parts, which Nature hath given it,” which, when mixed, “doe artificially, and intimately mixe themselves one with an other; and so the unctuous warme, and moist parts, mingled with the earthy…” (6) The result was a humorally complex paste, rendering chocolate both astringent and fatty, biding and opening.

 

He showed that its heat—in the form of a fatty “scum” drawn out when the chocolate was whipped—tempered its cool nature. In fact, the heat gave it the curative powers with which he would credit the bean, which, again, he witnessed with his own body.

 

I coming in a heat to visit a sick person, and asking for water to refresh me, the perswaded me to take a Draught of Chocolate; which quench my thirst; and in the morning (if I tooke it fasting) it did warm and comfort my stomacke. (12)

 

Humid and replenishing, chocolate could be taken like Gatoraid. This was the first palpable evidence presented to Europe of cacao’s virtue as a drink for hot days and for the generally overheated and depleted.

 

 La Marquise de Sévigné, circa 1670

 

In the 1670s famed epistolary courtier and early French chocolate drinker, Madame de Sévigné, recognized the charge it sent through her system as a pick-me-up. Her first mention of chocolate in the letters she wrote to her daughter, 11 February 1671, lauds it as the essential fortifying supplement for a depleted, weakened immune system:

 

But you are not well. You have not slept at all. Chocolate would restore you, but you do not own a chocolate pot—I’ve thought about that time and again. How will you manage?

 

Over spring, as the weather warmed, she acquired new medical wisdom that turned her faith to panic about the threat of being overheated or even burned internally by the drink. On May 13, she cautioned her daughter that chocolate could overload a body whose temperature was already elevated:

 

I implore you my best girl, my most lovely, not to have any chocolate... […Court Physician Jean] Pecquet tells me that you have a lot of bile and humoral fluids in your system right now—it would kill you.

 

To attenuate this sort of panic among aristocrats experimenting with the popular chocolate in their own bodies and climates, doctors of the mid-century again sought to translate early Aztec wisdom into best European practices. Writing as the American Physician, William Hughes suggested drinking chocolate in the northern summer to approximate the tropical conditions of the Tropics. In hotter regions, as in European summer,

 

…out of which more open pores, the blood and radical moisture doth by exhalation more freely transpire; and therefore of necessity Nature doth require a better supply to maintain the internal heat. (142-43)

 

 

Drawing out Colmenero’s anecdote about chocolate refreshing his fatigued and overheated body into a wider context, Hughes goes on to promote the hot chocolate drink generally as the dietary equivalent of a “good dinner.” Chocolate benefits “all such that require a speedy refreshment after travel, hard labor, or violent exercise, exhilarating and corroborating all parts of the body” (145). This passage allows Hughes to elaborate on the concern about taking chocolate when the body is not in need, that is, in a general state of health or experiencing very cold weather. Being fortified can have the adverse effect of causing a body to take weight: “For myself, I think I was never so fatter in all my life as when I was in that Praise-worthy Island of Jamaica, partly by the frequent use thereof” (147). Furthermore, opening the pores in the cold, when the body desperately needs to retain heat, that is, putting “flame to fire our natural parts,” “must of necessity be our ruin” (142).

 

A trip to the Tropics or any old northern summer day prove the ideal time to purge, owing to the natural opening of the ‘sweat-vents’ in ambient heat. Yet, for all his emphasis on summer as the prime season for northerners to enjoy chocolate, especially those who participate in violent exercise, Hughes cannot deny that the purgative work of the drink keeps a body breathing any time its tissue might harbor toxins:

 

Chocolate is most excellent, it nourishing and preserving health entire, purging by Expectorations, and especially by the sweat-vents of the body, preventing unnatural fumes ascending to the head, yet causing a pleasant and natural sleep and rest; preserving the person vigorous and active, sending forth all vicious humors to the Emunctories [parts of the body that remove waste]… (143)

 

This Ambrosia, as Hughes calls it, this excellent Nectar, revives anyone of “drooping” in body or spirit. In the swelter of summer, when everything droops, chocolate comes to the rescue.

 

Over the course of the 18th century, this “alimentary medicine” remained a frequently prescribed antidote to many, many ailments. Pierre Buc’hoz claimed to “really know of no other remedy” that more perfectly cured hectic fevers, consumption, scurvy, gout, rheumatism, other afflictions of a similar nature, and pulmonary tuberculosis (120-21). For those weak in constitution, he even created a new recipe for “medical chocolate” (chocolat de santé) that crossed early French and early British ingredient suggestions, and which he first published in an issue of his journal La Nature considérée (1778). This healthful tonic combined cacao with green almond for thickening and brown sugar for taste. Adding cloves, which heated and calmed stomachs, and cinnamon, prized for its flavor and also as a stimulant, enhanced those effects in cacao (qtd. in Dissertation 117).

 

Pierre Buc'hoz, Dissertations sur l'utilité... , p. 93

 

Chocolate also became an ingredient in a whole variety of edibles, preparations he furnishes in what he calls his ouvrage économique, a book destined for a general public seeking advice about self-medicating as part of home economics. In what may be the most thorough emphasis on alimentary preparations to date, Buc’hoz lists 16 ways of making chocolate to eat (124-30), including one delicacy very close to one later credited to and published by Alexander Hamilton in 1792.

 

Of the 16, which include a drink whipped thick with an egg, those preparations particularly suited to summer swelter include: chocolate meringue cookies (cooked at a very low temperature), chocolate pastilles, chocolate mousse, iced chocolate cannelons*, and chocolate ice cream. Less appetizing in the heat, though no less intriguing, are velouté of chocolate, chocolate shaped like olives, and chocolate "cheese" (that is, chocolate made with egg and formed in small cheese molds).

 

Because Buc’hoz lists the ingredients but not the amounts for his chocolate meringue cookies and although this all-American cookie may well be French, our pick for most historic summer treat is the recipe credited to Hamilton for "crispy intensely chocolate cookies," or chocolate puffs:

 

 

 

 

*A small fluted mold for serving butter or cheese chilled, and for icing cream and chocolate cream. Today similar copper molds are commonly used to make the dessert named for the shape: cannelés.

 

References

 

Buc'hoz, Pierre. Dissertations sur l'utilité, et les bons et mauvais effets du tabac, du café, du cacao et du thé ... Paris: The Author, de Bure, and the widow Tilliard & Sons,1788.

 

Colmenero, Antonio de Ledesma. Curioso Tratado de la naturaleza y calidad del chocolate [1631] Trans. Don Diego de Vades-forte [Captain James Wadsworth]. A Curious Treatise of The Nature and Quality of Chocolate. Written in Spanish by Antonio Colmenero, Doctor in Physicke and Chirurgery. London: I. Okes, 1640.

 

Hughes, William. The American Physitian, or, A Treatise of the Roots, Plants, Trees, Shrubs, Fruit, Herbs, &c. Growing in the English Plantations in America ...Whereunto is Added a Discourse of the Cacao-nut-tree, and the Use of its Fruit; With All the Ways of Making the Chocolate. The like never extant before. London: William Crook, 1672.

 

Kumin, Laura. 18th Century Crispy Intensely Chocolate Cookies. 21 Nov. 2017 Mother Would Know. Accessed 8 June 2018.

 

Sévigné, Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Marquise de. Madame de Sévigné, Lettres. Vol. 1. Ed. Emile Gérard-Gailly. Paris: Gallimard / Pléiade, 1953. [Translations mine]

 

 

 

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