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Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Popes, priests and persecution: Catholicism and chocolate


This blog is an extract from a chapter of a book I am now completing:"A history of food and dining" which will be published to 2021


Popes, priests and persecution: Catholicism and chocolate

When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico, they encountered many new foods that would transform the dietary habits of Western Europe. They brought back potatoes, tomatoes, chillies, vanilla, squash, French and Lima beans, peanuts, pineapples and  avocados. But there were one food that would be regarded as a gastronomic luxury: chocolate. 

Chocolate was consumed as a hot drink by the Aztecs and was quickly adapted by the Creole community that mixed Aztec and Spanish traditions. Creole women found it hard to stay focused during lengthy high masses and never ending sermons delivered by the Dominican friars in the city of Chiapa Real, on the Mexican-Guatemalan border. Their maids would arrive during mass bearing chocolate drinks and biscuits to sustain the concentration of these devout women. However, the Bishop noted that there was a competitive element among the Creole women to ascertain who could have their chocolate drink and biscuits served up in the most luxurious style. He decided to excommunicate anyone partaking of chocolate during mass and despite the pleas of the English Friar, John Gage who recorded these events, his order was implemented. The women abandoned the Basilica and moved to the non-Dominican community who were more than happy with their financial contributions and where they could continue enjoying chocolate drinks during mass. Alas, the bishop died from a poisoned chocolate drink  and Gage records that the finger of blame lay with his female Creole flock. 

The Dominicans and the Jesuits didn’t see eye to eye on chocolate. The two orders detested one another with the Dominican Friar Gage writing: “But above all, is this envy and hatred found between Dominicans and the Jesuits” and that “of the two, the Jesuits are more bold and obstinate in malice and hatred”. The more austere Dominicans were of the view that the Lenten fast was broken by drinking chocolate while the Jesuits, who as we will see had a vested interest in chocolate, opposed this view. And so, the Vatican was faced with two powerful forces arguing over chocolate and religious fasts. Eventually, a Jesuit-leaning Pope Alexander VII, came down in favour of the Jesuits with the famous law “Liquidum non frangit jejunum”, (“Liquids do not break the fast”). But the argument rumbled on and in time required the opinions of no less than 6 successive Popes before the issue waned.

The Jesuits did have a significant vested interest in chocolate. Firstly, they enticed Amazonian indigenous peoples out of their normal habitat and settled them in villages where they worked and worshipped in the Catholic faith. “Besides regular indoctrination, the natives were constrained to work for the settlers, the Crown and the fathers themselves, although preserving their free status. This was the basis of a system of free Indian labour that was adopted a century later in the Amazon region”. Another account of these settlements describes how the priests micro-managed the lives of these slaves: “So regimented were the natives that it is said that the Jesuit fathers rang a bell every night to tell the men it was time to perform their marital duties with their wives.”

With this labour, the Jesuits became one of the biggest exporters of Brazilian cocoa beans for chocolate processing. On one occasion a ship from South America arrived in Cadiz with several large boxes addressed to the Procurator-General of the Jesuits. The contents were said to be chocolate, but the dockers found them too heavy to lift and, when the customs officers inspected further, they found gold bars coated with chocolate. Between 1743 and 1745, the Jesuits accounted for 80% of all cocoa beans exported from the Amazonian region.

The Dominicans return to the story of chocolate through their very significant role in the Spanish Inquisition. Heresy was a major crime for the Inquisitors, but witchcraft was also very much on their agenda. Chocolate was strongly associated with magic and is mentioned in a report of the Inquisition: “Chocolate was frequently implicated in cases that came before the Spanish inquisition. The several chocolate-associated Inquisition documents presented here, appear as relics from a past era, where distrust, fear and suspicion influenced human behaviours and practice. Prying eyes and ever-vigilant Dominicans characterized the era and one never knew when there might be a knock on the door with an order to appear before the tribunal”.  Magic and chocolate are synonomous.

Joan Harris in her novel “Chocolat”, now a much acclaimed film, tells the story of Vianne and her daughter Armande, who set up a chocolate shop in a sleepy town in rural France and who was made utterly unwelcome by the Mayor and the local catholic priest.  Looking out at the church she muses: “Before Christ – before Adonis was born in Bethlehem or Osiris sacrificed at Easter – the cocoa bean was revered. Magical properties were attributed to it. Its brew was sipped on the steps of sacrificial temples; its ecstasies were fierce and terrible. Is this what he fears? Corruption by pleasure, the subtle transubstantiation of the flesh into a vessel for debauch? Not for him the orgies of the Aztec priesthood”.

The mystical nature of chocolate id also described by Nina Haratischvilli, in her novel “The Eighth life”, which documents the history of Georgia and narrates the story of her great, great grandfather, a chocolatier trained in Budapest and Vienna, who ran a chocolate factory in Tbilisi.  She writes of  her great, great grandfathers chocolate and its “magic secret formula that would revolutionise the taste of hot chocolate… The taste was incomparable: savouring it was like a spiritual ecstasy, a supernatural experience. You melted into the sweet mass, you became one with this delicious discovery, you forgot the world around you, and felt a unique sense of bliss”. 

It is somewhat ironic that the great Christian feast of Easter heralds the highest annual  sales of chocolate in the from of eggs and bunnies, each a symbol of fertility. The next highest period is the day of romance and love Valentine’s day. Sex and magic have helped sell chocolate: “The lady loves Milk Tray “ and “Black Magic”. Despite the naysayers who would peddle the myth of chocoholics, the silken mouthfeel of chocolate and its alluring and seductive  aroma will always be with us.

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