there was neither chocolate nor tobacco in europe -- 12/11/18

Today's selection -- from Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures by Marcy Norton. Before Columbus, Europeans had neither tobacco nor chocolate. By the mid-1600s, both were the province of Europe's elite:

"If, in 1491, you had crossed the Americas north to south, visiting the far-flung communities between the sub-Arctic tundra and the southern shores of South America, one thing you would have noticed was the ubiq­uity of tobacco. In some places, you would have seen people sucking on dried leaves mixed with crushed seashells, while elsewhere you would have passed others inhaling snuff or puffing on corn-husk cigarettes, long­-stemmed pipes, or cigars. In many places, people applied tobacco topically to treat wounds and infections or ingested tobacco concoctions to fight parasites. Despite Amerindians' diverse uses for tobacco and its wide geo­graphical distribution, I suspect you would have noticed a common ele­ment: Across the western hemisphere, people saw it as essential to their physical, social, and spiritual well-being.

"During your travels southward, at some point before you arrived in the Aztec Empire in central Mexico, you would have begun encountering chocolate consumers. In this chocolate zone, which stretched at least as far south as present-day Nicaragua and Costa Rica, people, at least the powerful ones, consumed a beverage made from the dried fermented seeds of the fruit of the Theobrama cacao tree. The fact that the cacao seeds ('beans') functioned as currency throughout the region would have tipped you off to its value. You might also have noticed that in this region people saw chocolate as similar in nature to blood -- both of them were liquids coursing with life-giving force. Chocolate, reddened with the spice achiote, was prescribed for hemorrhages, shared during marriage ceremonies, and offered in sacrifice to thirsty, sensuous deities. Tobacco, not infrequently, accompanied the consumption of chocolate.

"If, in the same year, you had visited Europe, you would not have encoun­tered these two quintessential American goods, for neither existed outside of the western hemisphere. Their spread eastward was one of the consequences of the chain of events sparked by Christopher Columbus's accidental discov­eries. For some, the infiltration of tobacco and chocolate by the early seven­teenth century into Madrid, the seat of the Spanish Empire, defined a new epoch. In 1627, the courtier Francisco de Quevedo, a biting satirist and devo­tee of both goods, made an ugly joke of it. 'The devil of tobacco and the devil of chocolate,' he wrote, 'told me that they had avenged the Indies against Spain,' wreaking more harm with snuff, smoke, and chocolate drinks than the conquistadores 'Columbus and Cortés and Almagro and Pizarro' had wrought across the Atlantic. He observed how these goods had transformed his compatriots' bodies: tobacco habitués afflicted by 'snuffling and sneezing' and chocolate-indulgers with gas and dizziness. Quevedo be­lieved these physical symptoms marked an even more disturbing metamor­phosis. European tobacco and chocolate aficionados had become idolaters. In emulating the inhabitants of the New World, they had transferred their faith in Christ to these 'entrancing,' diabolical substances (which chocohol­ics 'venerated' while smokers were 'apprenticed for hell').

A Lady Pouring Chocolate by Jean-Étienne Liotard (1744)

"Though when Quevedo wrote this passage tobacco and chocolate were only at the beginning stages of their Old World conquests, he was prescient about their path toward global dominance. A recent study found that caf­feine and nicotine are, respectively, the first and third most widely con­sumed psychoactive substances in the world. Nicotine's ranking is due, of course, to the spread of tobacco. Chocolate is not, strictly speaking, a caf­feinated substance since it contains only trace amounts of caffeine, but it is rich in caffeine's molecular relative, theobromine. Moreover, one cannot understand the triumph of coffee and tea without chocolate, for the latter was the first stimulant beverage used in Europe, and Europeans' initial experiences with chocolate informed, perhaps even precipitated, their sub­sequent adoption of these other beverages. ...

"On November 6, 1669, the king of Spain, Charles II, turned seven. In honor of the event, the viceroy of Valencia threw a party at his palace. The fête occasioned the consumption of tobacco and chocolate, and reflection on the meaning of that consumption. There is good reason to think that the illustrious guests (titled grandees aplenty) convened at a set moment to enjoy fine chocolate served in expensive jícaras. Tobacco was present too, but, unlike chocolate, it was probably not the case that its consumption was scheduled on the agenda; rather, somewhat on the sly, during moments stolen between gaming, feasting, and dancing, men and women might dis­creetly take out their fancy tobacco boxes (silver, gold plated, inscribed with 'curious' designs) and offer some of their contents to a friend for smoking or snuffing. The festivities culminated with the awards ceremony of a poetry competition held in honor of the king. The competitors (noble­men, clergy, and lawyers among the group) had submitted verses on pre­scribed topics (e.g., write about a jovial dispute among the numbers 7, 6, and 9, representing, respectively, the age of Charles II, the day on which he was born, and the month in which he was born; describe a bullfight that took place on a rainy day). Topic number five was to 'write in praise of chocolate and vituperation of tobacco,' with the explanation that 'we can­not neglect hospitality at this party.' Two of the winning verses on this topic were published a few weeks later. A poet with a doctorate in law sub­mitted that chocolate is 'manna,' while tobacco is a 'mania.' Chocolate prepares one for heaven, tobacco for hell. Tobacco is 'garbage,' chocolate a tasty medicine. Tobacco only feigns gallantry, while chocolate deserves its great acclaim. For his composition, a Carmelite friar offered that chocolate is 'that inspirational Ambrosia,' while tobacco turned an 'astute' man into a 'beast.' Yet, as even the poets duly recognized, tobacco was as much part of the habits of 'grandees and lords' as was chocolate. As at the banquets held in Mesoamerica, aristocratic parties such as these ensured the reciprocal exchange between symbolic and material artifacts, the power of what was said about the goods enhancing the experience of their con­sumption, and the latter grounding the symbolic notions."



Marcy Norton


Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures


Cornell University Press


Copyright 2008 by Cornell University


1-3, 173-174
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