Book Reviews

Book Review: The True History of Chocolate by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe

I picked up this book while planning our cruise through the Panama Canal. One of the excursions we chose was to a cacao plantation and chocolate “factory” and I was curious about how chocolate migrated from Central America to Europe during the colonial era. Sophie B. Coe seems to be the foremost authority on the subject. Unfortunately, she did not live to see this book published. She was still working on it when she died in 1994. Her husband Michael finished her work and published it in 1996.

This history of chocolate dates back to the ancient civilizations of Central and South America including the Olmecs and Aztecs. Coe extensively details the history of chocolate in these civilizations, as well as how the different regions affected its ability to grow as well as the taste. The details of the pre-Columbian use of chocolate is something routinely missing from discussions about it. Mostly, we seem to focus on Europe and North America when we talk about chocolate. It was also a form of currency in this civilization.

Coe also details how chocolate was prepared in those times, which is quite different from how we see it today. Mostly, it was a foamy drink where the actual foam was the best part. The extensive processing it underwent to get to this point for them was a marvel of the era. The beans themselves attracted monkeys that would split them open for the sweet insides, leaving behind the seeds that would be collected and then ground up, similar to coffee beans, and prepared into that foamy drink. It was thought to be collected in the wild, but more recent evidence points to it being a cultivated crop.

It was the Spaniards who began exploiting the crops of Central and South America, and the cacao bean was a favorite of theirs. Coe details how the Spaniards made a monopoly of the cacao drink to the point that other European nations could not get their hands on the much-desired delicacy. Eventually, chocolate houses sprang up all over Europe. It battled with tea and coffee for popularity in Europe.

Coe dispels many of the myths surrounding chocolate as well. She is very knowledgeable on the subject, and especially of the history of Central and South America. When I started reading the book, I was looking for something more about the chocolate trade in the colonial era. This book went well beyond that and the attention to detail was complete. I was thoroughly engrossed while reading this history, and again, I learned way more about the colonial era of this continent than I ever did in school. Coe does not retreat from detailing the genocide of the native populations by the White Europeans, including enslaving many of them and sending them back to Europe in chains. It is a damnation of the colonial era, as it should be.

Coe has included recipes from as far back as the 18th century as to how chocolate was prepared. They were worth trying as it is a much richer and tastier drink than modern envelopes used to make hot chocolate. It was the Swiss who finally developed the milk chocolate that is so popular today.

The details here are simply amazing. The research is extensive and creates a complex picture of just how the chocolate we know today came to be. I found it to be easy to read and follow, although I am one who does enjoy my history. It’s really fascinating to follow the research through the ages and realize just what an important part it played. From the currency of the ancient civilization in Central and South America to the Spanish monopoly, chocolate was one of the more desired and fought-over commodities in our history, yet now we treat it as a mere sweet treat. I learned the difference between the grades of chocolate and the ingredients used that makes for the differing tastes. We Americans have become used to an overly-sweet quality to our chocolate that actually masks some of the rich flavor.

I highly recommend picking this up and taking a look. While we were on our tour, I was able to fill in details for my son that were missing from the presentation. And do make sure to try the recipes!