Pillbox

Norton discusses origins of chocolate

Early chocolate was made of ground and spiced cacao beans served as a beverage. It bears little resemblence to today’s sweetened milk chocolate bars and candy. (credit: Courtesy of benketaro via flickr) Early chocolate was made of ground and spiced cacao beans served as a beverage. It bears little resemblence to today’s sweetened milk chocolate bars and candy. (credit: Courtesy of benketaro via flickr)

Chocolate is something we can all relate to, whether from the advice of Forrest Gump’s mother or memories of past Valentine’s Days. But contrary to its modern form, chocolate started out in Latin America as a liquid in its early days.

Marcy Norton discussed the origins of chocolate in a lecture last Monday in the Giant Eagle Auditorium in Baker Hall, as part of the Kim and Eric Giler Lecture in the Humanities and the Humanities Scholars Program.

Norton is an associate professor of history at George Washington University; a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley; and an award-winning author of the book Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World. Her lecture, titled “A Sensational Drink: Chocolate Before and After the Spanish Conquest of Mesoamerica,” focused on the chocolate side of her work.

She began by explaining the origins of this type of chocolate in order to rid any thoughts audience members had of candy bars and truffles. As a liquid, chocolate was prepared using ground cacao beans and was thick, red in color, and flavored with vanilla, cinnamon, and other spices.

Norton’s lecture focused on chocolate’s place in Latin America and its eventual spread to Europe. She described accounts of chocolate’s assumed psychotropic qualities that caused reactions similar to drunkenness: over-excitement, dancing, and singing. Since chocolate was the first stimulant drink to arrive in Europe, Norton speculates that these qualities associated with early chocolate make sense and that people today are simply desensitized to the stimulant.

Much of the lecture was spent discussing the romantic implications of the frothy chocolate drink and the significance of its foam. Many examples of chocolate being poured from high heights — the way to create the special foam — show up in artists’ portrayals of the time. Norton’s favorite image on the subject involves a depiction of heaven, earth, and hell that includes chocolate as one of the middle levels, signifying its importance in the life of the Aztecs.

Mapping its journey across the Atlantic, Norton explained that chocolate began its integration into Europe through colonial officials, merchants, and clergymen. The clergy’s role in the spread of chocolate caused a good bit of uproar in Europe ­­­­— sparking a debate on whether chocolate could be consumed during times of fasting — and influenced a sub-genre of poetry comparing chocolate to the Eucharist and other religious symbols.

Tim Haggerty, a professor in Carnegie Mellon’s department of history, described the lecture as not merely a discussion of chocolate, but as “using the study of chocolate as a vehicle to discussing culture.” Norton’s lecture involved both of these broader topics and served as an in-depth example of work in that field.