American. Chocolate. Week.

March 15, 2019

Yes, American Chocolate Week lasts seven days, March 17-23, 2019. But is it really about America? Or chocolate? It depends on your perspective.

 

1) 'American' at its etymological root would refer to whatever Amerigo Vespucci was snacking on in Florence circa 1492, which could not have been chocolate. Vespucci’s lifetime spans the period when Christopher Columbus voyaged for the Crown of Spain to what he believed was the Indies (Asia). There, he famously happened upon civilizations that were unknown to Europe but which he took to be part of the known: the eastern edge of the Indies, reachable by sailing west instead of east from Europe. Ten years later, on the heels of Pedro Cabral, Vespucci made the voyage to Brazil for Portugal and developed sophisticated estimations of longitude. Charting the coast and guessing global circumference, he reasoned that he was not at the edge of Asia but on another continent entirely.

 

Thanks to cartographer Martin Waldseemüller, who mapped the world based on this new theory and credited it to the Florentine explorer, those continents now bear a Latinate form of Vespucci’s first name: America.

 

Universalis Cosmographia, Martin Waldseemüller, 1507

 

 Detail, modern-day Brazil, which Vespucci had explored, marked "America"

 

Perhaps it was that the first name was more readily returned to its Latin form than the Italian-sounding Vespucci and sounded pithier, or perhaps Waldseemüller preferred Americus because it has Germanic roots in the heroic name Emmerich (loosely translated: brave/strong ruler). This would, in any case, be a fine week to muse on what life would be like in the West if the New World had instead been called Vesputia (from the Latin Vesputius).

 

For one thing, instead of the mythic link to bravery that “America” gives the West, those of us who now occupy this land would instead grapple with our connection to wasps, the emblem of the Vespucci family:

  Vespucci Coat of Arms, Florence, Italy


2) The celebration of American chocolate this March will commemorate the making of candy from cocoa powder, which originated in Europe. The modern era of chocolate began with industrialization in the nineteenth century. Then again, this week we might instead celebrate the socio-ethnobotanical fact that chocolate was always American in the continental sense of the word. The Olmec and Maya drank it on the Yucatan peninsula, then their Aztec conquerors learned its medicinal and political cachet from them. The Aztec in turn taught the Spanish and in return, lost their empire to Spain shortly after Vespucci sailed and the continent was named by a German.

Jefferys and Fadden, A Map of the British Colonies in North America, 1775.

British Library. London. Boston Public Library Digital Collection.

 

A perversity of the early American chocolate trade is that the English brought the taste for chocolate to the colonial Americas—that is, back to the Americas, when they conquered the coast of the northern continent and became a formal British Empire. The English landed in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, took Jamaica from Spain in 1670, and commenced a century of acquisition that foiled Dutch, French, and Castilian forces in the New World.

 

3) Historical chocolate was not candy in Mesoamerica, Europe, or British America. Enter British subject Benjamin Franklin, who had occasion to mention chocolate in his autobiography. Circa 1750, chocolate boomeranged from Jamaica to the English dining table to the North American battlefield. Websites on colonial chocolate like recounting a particular anecdote about the drink: soldiers took chocolate on campaigns. Compelling evidence for the use of cacao tablets in wartime comes from Franklin’s discussion of an infamous campaign against the French.

 

In the summer of 1755, British Major General Edward Braddock attempted to take French Fort Duquesne. Located in present-day Western Pennsylvania, the site gave the French advantage in British-held Ohio County, then the western edge of colonial civilization. The French had penetrated by pushing south from Canada to establish a series of forts below Lake Eerie. Though they too had wrested their territory from the Anishinaabe Niswi-mishkodewin (Council of Three Fires), warriors of this tribal alliance-- Ojibwe, Ottawa, and Potawatomi--fought alongside the French against the British in the French and Indian War. The battle in question, known as Braddock’s Expedition, required munitions for months.

 

After discussing the campaign with the Major General, Franklin came to the aid of Braddock’s “subalterns” (low-ranking officers), who faced harsh conditions in combat with little hope of procuring provisions “in so long a march, thro' a wilderness, where nothing was to be purchas'd.” (Lancaster, April 26, 1755) To ready them with what they would need he consulted his son, William Franklin, a 25-year old captain in the provincial British troops. He had worked in colonial encampments and knew what soldiers needed in the field. William made the list and Franklin secured the funds to supply the goods.

 

My son, who had some experience of a camp life, and of its wants, drew up a list for me, which I enclos'd in my letter. The committee [of the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly*] approv'd, and used such diligence that, conducted by my son, the stores arrived at the camp as soon as the waggons. They consisted of twenty parcels, each containing

 

6 lbs. loaf sugar.                                 1 Gloucester cheese.

6 lbs. good Muscovado do.               1 kegg containing 20 lbs. good butter.

1 lb. good green tea.                          2 doz. old Madeira wine.

1 lb. good bohea do.**                       2 gallons Jamaica spirits.

6 lbs. good ground coffee.                 1 bottle flour of mustard.

6 lbs. chocolate.                                 2 well-cur'd hams.

1-2 cwt. best white biscuit.                 1-2 dozen dry'd tongues.

1-2 lb. pepper.                                    6 lbs. rice.

1 quart best white wine                      6 lbs. raisins.

1 quart best white wine vinegar.

 

Topping the list are both white and unrefined (molasses) sugar. While Muscovado could be imported directly from Haiti and Barbados (until the Sugar Act***), white sugar from India and the Caribbean made the trip to England as Muscovado in casks to return to North America in the shape of a cone (loaf). Tea, coffee, and chocolate follow sugar as staple imports. Many of the other items could have been sourced in North British America, but in the tightly regulated colonial economy even cheese provisions came from England.

 

Muscovado sugar barreled in Barbados, then whitened and made into cones in England.

Coffy the Negro's Doggrel Description of the Process of Sugar, 1823.

 

Parcels with tea leaves, coffee beans, and chocolate tablets would only have made sense for troops heading out to make camp overnight. All three drinks require fire to steep and brew them. The long march through the wilderness of the Allegheny Mountains to fight the French earned them that right. But the sack of Fort Duquesne was meant to last only a few days of the long campaign that would take the soldiers on foot all the way to Niagara. As the general told Franklin before he set out from Ft. Cumberland, “Duquesne can hardly detain me above three or four days; and then I see nothing that can obstruct my march to Niagara.”


The Red Coats figuratively and then literally did not see the thing that would obstruct the march: warriors of the Anishinaabe tribes. Major General Braddock had never fought on colonial territory, failed to listen to advice from the seasoned local commander in his ranks--a young George Washington--and led his men to slaughter-by-ambush in the woods.**** Two thirds of the 1300-man regiment died. The Major General fell with them in retreat, along with two thirds of his fellow officers and nearly all of their support staff. The combined French and Indian casualties numbered under 25. What Franklin called Braddock’s Expedition is known in hindsight as Braddock’s Defeat and considered the worst setback to British troops in the eighteenth century.

 

Franklin dryly noted in his autobiography that he was glad to get payment for the parcels and wagons in advance. (!)

 

 Hershey's Cocoa Ad, El Paso herald, (El Paso, Tex.), 13 July 1918.

Chocolate was pure and still worthy of the American battlefield. Not anymore.

 

4) Historical “American chocolate” reeks of irony. If Braddock's regiment had survived to consume the chocolate, an indigenous Mesoamerican drink would have fueled the hostile take-over of indigenous (and French-occupied) land by the British. That's irony enough, but there is more.

  • Twenty years later, Britain imposed sugar, paper, and tea taxes (1764-73) on Northern British America to pay the Braddocks of the Red Coat ranks for the wars they were waging there. Those taxes would turn out to be another Braddock Defeat for the Crown. Having again failed to consult the Washingtons and Franklins living in North America, who were tired of being economically hamstrung by King George III, Britain lost the North American colony to revolution. George Washington, who marched the survivors back to Fort Cumberland for England, became the first American president. The British Franklin's 1752 kite stunt turned into the American Franklin's great contribution to the understanding of lightning and electrical charge.

  • Just over one hundred years later in 1894, American-born Milton S. Hershey converted the Lancaster Caramel Company into a chocolate manufactory in none other than Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where Franklin had secured parcels filled with British drinking chocolate for Braddock’s troops before they set out on the deadly campaign.

  • In the 20th century, Hershey’s built a worldwide empire using milk chocolate recipes that contain only about 11% cacao nib. The modern FDA allows a candy to be called “chocolate” with as little as 10% cacao in the mix. England requires 20% and the EU 30%. Most of the "chocolate" is sugar and, of course, processed milk.

As Coffy the Negro's book (above) was meant to illustrate for children, sugar processing was terrible, dangerous work. Massive plantation farming in the Caribbean fed an insatiable desire for it in Europe and its colonies. Dependence on sugar, especially for the boom in confectionery over the course of the 19th century, forged an association of blood with sugar (not unlike 'blood diamond') for the toll it took on enslaved African lives. The Anishinaabe, for their part, are still fighting the (now Canadian) government for the territory they have left, though their battles are waged in court.

 

 

*The colonial government structure set up by William Penn for the Province of Pennsylvania.

 

**Chinese black tea, sometimes a blend of Pekoe and Souchong but could refer to any black (as opposed to green) tea.

 

***The Sugar Act taxed North American molasses imports directly from the Caribbean in an attempt to force colonists to purchase it more cheaply from Britain—a perverse economic boomerang. The Stamp Act required all American printers to use paper from London that was stamped with proof of tax paid. Revenue from the paper funded British troops, especially on the Appalachian frontier. This duty levied on goods for the purpose of raising funds (as opposed to regulating trade) effectively asked the colonies to pay for their own protection. Along with the Sugar and later Tea Act, the Stamp Act infringed upon the economic autonomy of the colonies. They rebelled.

 

****Ambush needs nuancing. The French learned of the advancing British troops too late to organize a defensive strategy at Fort Duchesne. The French and Indian "ambush" was in fact an impromptu maneuver orchestrated using native surprise tactics that proved highly effective.

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