Forgetting Chocolate: Spouted Vessels, Coclé, and the Maya
by Stephen Houston (Brown University)
The Romans and the Greeks before them cherished the taste of a particular resin. Tapped from silphium, a wild plant growing along the coast of North Africa, the flavoring went well with roast meat, brought savor to tripe, udder, and sow’s womb, partnered nicely with vegetables, salted tuna, and sea squirt (an invertebrate anchored to ocean floors), helped digestion, and even went into eye-drops (Dalby 2000:17–19). But its popularity and fussy conditions of growth undid the plant. Grazing sheep displaced its natural habitat, and the last root went down the gullet of the Emperor Nero (Dalby 2000:18).
Beloved foods come and go. How many Europeans still consume garum, that smelly fish sauce—Pliny the Elder called it a “secretion of putrefying matter”—traded throughout the Mediterranean and into the furthest reaches of the Roman empire (Curtis 1983:232)? Legionnaires in a British or German military camp doubtless grumbled if they failed to receive their ration or special issue of oil. In the United States, molasses, a viscous treacle resulting from cane refining, sweetened many foods in the 19th century, but gradually gave way to refined sugars. Boston’s Molasses Disaster of 1919, in which a burst tank released a brown tsunami 15 feet high, killing 21 people, would be unthinkable today, for a variety of reasons (Molasses Disaster; I am told that hot days still trigger a cloying odor in the neighborhood). Mostly, though, such quantities are not needed. Shoofly pie, of gooey molasses, is no longer much on the menu, although it was in my Pennsylvania childhood.
Consider, if one can, another unthinkable: forgetting chocolate or cacao, from a plant found wild and later cultivated in ancient America. Avid debate surrounds the pharmacological effects of this “chemical kaleidoscope”—whether it serves as an anti-depressive or libido enhancer cannot be easily shown ...