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Chocolate Fire

Lefèbvre Claude, Marquise de Sevigne, c.1665

The Cacaosopher is veering off script today, in this first full post-election week, to draw an unlikely connection between the Parks & Recreation comedy series and the 17th century’s Madame de Sévigné, the first vernacular advocate of chocolate as an immediate and indispensable antidote for misery.

In response to the election results the P&R writers penned a letter to and America and specifically “young girls” in the voice of fictional character Pawnee Deputy Director of the Pawnee City Department of Parks and Recreation Leslie Knope. She does what any European or American following the advice of Antonio Colmenero would do to restore herself from a state of physical depletion, mental fatigue, plague-induced weakness (or political dystopia): drink hot chocolate.

Leslie opens her letter with the scene in her house as she sits down to write to America after the election results:

Dear America,

Amidst the confusion, and despair, and disbelief, it was suggested to me by a very close friend of mine (I won’t say her name to protect her identity) (Ann. It was Ann) that perhaps a few people would enjoy hearing my thoughts on this election. So I sat down at my computer, cleared my head, and opened a document.

Then I started crying. So I had some hot chocolate, and my close friend (Ann) rubbed my back for a while, and I got myself together, and sat down. And started crying. Then more Ann comforting me, and more hot chocolate, and back and forth like that for about six hours or so, the chain of hot-chocolate-and-back-rubs only interrupted briefly when I had to run to the store for more hot chocolate packets (“Just give me all of them, all the boxes,” I remember saying, through tears, to a very scared stockroom boy) and now I am ready to go….

Leslie’s dependence on hot chocolate for clarity and strength, to the point of microaggressing a clerk to obtain enough of it, has its roots in the very earliest social commentaries on hot chocolate. Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, the Marquise de Sévigné, a high-ranking and highly visible member of the aristocracy under Louis XIV, is best known to history as the first epistolary diarist. She recorded the everyday occurrences of life at the court in hundreds of letters penned to her daughter (and occasionally others) over the last 20 years of her life, 1671 to 1696. The correspondence has proven especially important to historians hoping to reconstruct a sense of the values, material culture, culinary habits, and escapades of the French elite.

Chocolate is one of the earliest medicines she takes up with her daughter, Madame de Grignan, and one of the first themes to recur in the letters.* From the moment she took up the pen in February to the month of September, 1671, Madame de Sévigné returned six times to the subject of hot chocolate. Her first mention, like Leslie’s letter, extols the virtues of chocolate as a curative pick-me-up:

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? (February 11)

Without a pot, you could not brew and serve chocolate, which was consumed hot and frothed in the Mesoamerican style. What’s more, hot chocolate is not construed by Sévigné as a preventative measure but as emergency care in times if sudden need. The right utensils allowed the home brewer to make it on command. Without them, she might suffer for hours or days until the concoction could be prepared. The plaintive lament of a mother to her ailing daughter with no chocolate pot carries the same sense of urgency as Leslie’s run to the grocery store to buy “all the boxes” of hot chocolate packets. Having a chocolate pot on hand in Sévigné’s day, along with chocolate starts that could be stored, was the equivalent of having a hefty supply of instant powder. The pot and the packets were on hand as a first aid kit for whenever the body or the spirit needed them.

In the short two months after Madame de Sévigné pointed out the gaping hole in her daughter’s arsenal of kitchenware and for reasons we may never know, she reversed her judgment:

I’ve lost my affection for chocolate. I was, as always, caught up in the hype. Those who praised it now speak ill of it. They curse it, accuse it of causing all our problems, and call it the source of vapors and palpitations. Chocolate flatters you for a while, they say, then suddenly fires up a fever in you that turns out to be fatal. Even the Grand Master [of Artillery, the Comte du Lude], who lived on it, is now its sworn enemy. How could it be otherwise with me? In the name of God, do not try to defend it, and remember that it is no longer in fashion among us. (April 15, insert mine)

In late winter or early spring of 1671, France's aristocrats had their first and last falling out with chocolate. Poor Madame de Grignan had no doubt, in those two months, secured a chocolate pot for herself. And no sooner was she prepared for home brewing and self-medicating, than her mother admonished her to sear it off. No longer the cure, it was now the cause of a host of aristocratic afflictions. Vapors and palpitations afflicted women in particular and might explain the choice of verbs in this letter. Chocolate "flatters" women at first, but then "fires them up," assaulting them against their will with potentially damaging consequences.

Sévigné's metaphor, fire in the veins, is not unrelated to the simile that shows up in a question Leslie poses about halfway through her now wordy letter: “…is there extra caffeine in that hot chocolate? Because my head feels like a spaceship.” She’s fired up and zooming through an anecdote from her youth that gets her to the point of her story, the place she could have started. “Should I just erase all of that and start with this?” she asks, then answers, “Whatever. I’m pot-committed now…”

What the writers of P&R humorously capture in this letter, designed to be a tragicomic soul-bearing plea to young people to keep the faith in spite of the “doughy-faced, gray-haired nightmare,” is chocolate’s centuries-old reputation as a stimulant. As any chocoholic like Madame de Sévigné or Leslie has learned by trial and error, as much as it restores by fortifying the body's constitution, too much chocolate can leave your heart, the stomach, or the mind blasting off into space with energy.

Following this narrative stage-setting in which the caffeine in cacao nib plays a starring role, Leslie leaves the subject of chocolate to get on with her political purpose. Sévigné, for her part, returns to it several more times, as her relationship to and appreciation for the delicate balance required to self-medicate evolves (next week’s post).

*All translations are my own. A longer version of this week's and next week's discussion of chocolate in Sévigné's letters appears in Shapely Bodies: The Image of Porcelain in Eighteenth-Century France.

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