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Sugar, Spice, and Everything Twice

The Coco-Nut Tree, 1739

The Coco-Nut Tree, 1739

Penelope Jephson was most famous for having married Simon Patrick, prolific bishop, anti-semite, and controversial “paraphraser” of the Bible from Genesis to Song of Solomon, published in 10 volumes. This epic study would be published alongside other bible commentaries through the mid-19th century. More to the point of this blog, Patrick may have had an equally prolific appetite. Jephson amplified her cookbook shortly before marrying him in 1675. If her chocolate recipe predates her marriage, we can only wonder if her conservative husband subsequently allowed her to make it. One wonders because the raw materials that go into her 'paraphrase' of the chocolate paste are wantonly luxurious.

To make chocolato

Take a pound of the cacao nuts finely beaten or searsed, half a pound of hard sugar finely beaten or searsed, an ounce of cynamon, half an ounce of nutmeg, half an ounce aniseede, half a dram of long pepper, as much of Jamaica pepper. Beat and searse all those spices, then put in two stickes of vanillas beaten and searsed (two drachms of Achiote beaten and searsed) with ambergrise as you like to taste. When all those are pounded and well mixt, roast them in an earthen pan till they are as hot as you can endure with finger in it. Keep it well stirred that it burn not then put it into a mortar and beat it very fast till it begin to oile, so as it will work like paste, then make into paste.

Like the Chacolet made by Rebeckah Winche (1666), Jephson’s recipe (circa 1675) results in a paste, or what I am fond of calling the 'chocolate bouillon cube'. That’s the start for the chocolate drink, not the drink itself.

Inscribed during the years that saw the landmark French treatise by Philipe Dufour and also the epistolary discussion of chocolate by Madame de Sévigné in France, Jephson’s recipe might be considered the apogee of the tradition of English cookbook entries. That distinction has nothing to do with the popularity of the recipe and everything to do with its ingredient list. She demonstrates knowledge of multiple threads of reception and culinary use—Aztec, Spanish, and English—which she weaves together. While Thomas Gage mentioned all of these ingredients (as well as cloves), he suggested they be mixed and dosed according to the body’s needs. No printed recipe before Jephson’s creates such a mordant and historically revelatory concoction.

  • Cacao “nuts”

  • There was a century-long debate about how to identify the beans. Monikers included seeds, nuts and kernels. Rebeckah Winche used “nuts” in her recipe. William Hughes wrote about the various names in 1672 offering “Cacao-Kernels or Nuts” in his title and TOC but ultimately voted in favor of kernels for cacao (the bean’s resemblance to corn in its pod?), though that did not catch on. The term nut endured especially in botanical illustration, sometimes also written “coco nut.” That spelling of cacao fell out of favor, perhaps owing to its confusion with the other tropical fruit. The language of cacao/cocoa stabilized over the course of the 18th century. (See head image)

  • Half pound of sugar

  • Rebeckah Winche’s recipe calls for 1/10th of a pound of sugar per pound of cacao, which makes Jephson’s incredibly sweet. That a recipe could require that quantity of sugar provides evidence of an already robust slave trade and says something of where she might have learned of it.

  • Cinnamon, nutmeg, anise

  • This particular collection of spices paired with cacao does not appear in a treatise before Jephson. It represents all of the major areas of the East Indies if we consider that cinnamon is from South Asia (Ceylon, controlled by the Dutch), nutmeg (which Winche called “musk”) from a small sub-set of islands off of Indonesia, and anise from the Mediterranean. The suggestion here is that along with sugar and cacao, this recipe speaks to the extent of English expansion around the whole globe and the health of its trade routes by the mid-17th century.

  • Long pepper, Vanilla, Achiote

  • These ingredients come directly out of the Mesoamerican play book. The “long pepper,” identified as Chile in earlier treatises, is here paired with Jamaica pepper. That particular strain came from England’s major holding in the Caribbean and the site of its large slave plantations, and the main source of cacao for import.

  • Ambergris

  • The most luxurious ingredient and one that pops up earlier in Winche’s recipe, the intestinal secretion of the sperm whale was (understandably) costlier even than sugar. This ingredient fell squarely out of recipe books in the eighteenth century, perhaps because it was as much as status symbol as a desirable flavor. In short, it was gross.

The oddest aspect of this recipe is that it combines all the recipe traditions to date and, because of its panoply, has the allure of a hard-to-swallow medicine rather than a delicacy waiting to happen. Yet, it appears in the culinary section of the book and not the medicinal section, so was inscribed as a social drink. Even a pound of sugar would have trouble masking the spiked musky flavor produced by the combination of pepper, nutmeg, and ambergris. When would Jephson have made and served the resulting extravagantly biting chocolate drink? We’ll never know, but we can say with relative certainty that it would have been about as hard to swallow as a paraphrase of Job.

For fun, see Amy L. Tigner's classroom exploration of Jephson's recipe.

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