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Drug Harvest from God's Pharmacy

C. Le. Roy, frontispiece, Boutique Pharmaceutique ou Antidotaire, 1637

Along with women who wrote hot chocolate into cookbooks and letters, cultural critics reporting on social manners and habits were among the first to herald the age of hot beverages at the French table. Already in cookbooks, which feature recipes ranging from medicinal cures and culinary favorites, chocolate could appear as both a drug and a food. In the last decades of the seventeenth century, the appraisal of chocolate as a medicine, still visible in Madame de Sévigné’s letters, receded behind a small Parisian campaign to identify it formally with dining etiquette. Since exotic drinks brought with them elaborate codes of preparation and consumption, they fit right in with court cuisine and also the budding field of professional chefs (post to come).

As an earlier post by McKenzie Martinez and Eric Nhem argued, the first comprehensive guide to the production and consumption of all three hot beverages—coffee, tea, and chocolate—was published by Philippe Sylvestre Dufour in 1671. The Uses of Coffee, Tea, and Chocolate (1671), set a precedent for subsequent treatises in France and across Europe by attaching Antonio Colmenero’s legendary study on chocolate to a lead section on coffee followed by a middle section on tea. One of his enduring contributions to cacaosophy of the period was his insistence on the similarity of the drugs. Chocolate’s special status in Spain and England would indeed be watered down in the French treatises of the second half of the century. But that would not make chocolate less desirable. On the contrary, hitching an imperial Mesoamerican drink to the tonics of Manchu China and the Ottoman Middle East only enhanced its image.

To group together drugs formally known exclusively through their cultural heritage, Dufour turned his scope away from the geographic specificity of nations in his introduction. The derivation of all medicines, no matter where they are from, directly from Nature’s bounty provided him an apt metaphor: God as pharmacist. As Dufour explains in the preface, Nature spreads divine wisdom across the globe in the form of uniquely diverse, climate-specific plant life. Distributing medicine across nations and propitious climates benefits man, Nature’s finest “work of art,” who is also spread out across the globe. There is a hitch in this theory, which Dufour acknowledges: plants grow in varied environments and soils and cannot always be transplanted. Is God-the-pharmacist then unfairly providing certain drugs to the inhabitants of one land and denying them to others?

He reasons that God must necessarily have the world’s best interest at heart, even if that motivation does not seem apparent at first glance. Dufour the merchant-tradesman sees in it an invitation to explore and connect. Divine Providence, he argues, distributed medicines for the human body across the world “to better foster in this way the mutual commerce of nations and to cement civil society, for which she seems always to have had the highest esteem” (5). Rhetorically extracting the drugs from earthly geopolitics makes them the property of God, not the people that inhabit the land and grow them. In that sense coffee, tea, and chocolate are locally farmed, but divinely offered to all mankind.

This argument for sourcing drugs worldwide rests on the suggestion that refusing to share its local bounty makes a nation a “monster” and the enemy of human progress. All cultures should be interested in trading their products, according to this logic, to “cement civil society” around the world. Recognizing the global spread of God’s pharmacy, as Dufour does here, could then produce dynamic cultural exchange based on trade.

As it happens, Europe used brute colonial force to extract the raw materials and recipes for chocolate from Mesoamerica. If his political argument thus sounds revisionist in 1670, it nonetheless serves his preface well as the rationale for gathering the “three medicines” together in one volume about Parisian health and etiquette. Once coffee, tea, and chocolate make sense together, they can also borrow from each other’s best consumption habits to become elite social beverages for France (next week's post).


Parts of this post were adapted from Christine A. Jones, "Exotic Edibles: Coffee, Tea, Chocolate, and the Early Modern French How-to," Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 43:3 (2013): 623-653.

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