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NONFICTION

More Than Just Dessert : THE TRUE HISTORY OF CHOCOLATE. By Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe (Thames and Hudson: $27.50, 288 pp.)

August 25, 1996|Rose Dosti | Rose Dosti is a columnist with The Times Food section and the author of "Dear SOS: Thirty Years of Recipes From the L.A. Times" and other books

The story behind "The True History of Chocolate" is a stopper. Author and anthropologist Sophie D. Coe sets out to write the definitive history of chocolate based on a lifelong interest in pre-Columbian food and culinary history. She buries herself in the ancient Biblioteca Angelica in Rome, turning the pages of 400-year-old books in search of chocolate data. Then in the winter of 1993-94, she was slowed down in her research and writing by a painful disease, which was at first misdiagnosed. Then the bad news came: cancer. She had only a few months to live.

Realizing she would never be able to complete her history, her husband, Michael Coe (he is professor of anthropology emeritus at Yale University), promised he would finish the book under the proviso that she remain the senior author, since the book would be almost completely based on her research.

After her death, Michael Coe did, indeed, complete the work (and no small task it was, covering 3,000 years of chocolate's history) as a labor of love.

Coe writes in his introduction that "although I could never hope to duplicate the wry and ironic humor that enlivens her previous book, I hope that something of her wit and scholarship can be found in this one."

Of that, both Coes can be sure.

"The True History of Chocolate" goes beyond scholarly excellence. Every inch of unraveled data is set in a bright halo of journalistic energy that only occasionally goes flat with too much textbook detail, and this definitive history of chocolate must certainly be regarded as a textbook.

Anyone who loves chocolate and is interested in the generics of the product and its fascinating history and development as it has affected almost every part of the world will be riveted by its revelations.

Chocolate has been a pawn in trade wars, the bait of lovers, the poison of enemies, the tool of conspiracies that have tumbled nations.

One cannot imagine a single fact about chocolate that is missing from this extraordinarily researched book. The Coes take the reader on a whirlwind journey through time, starting with chocolate's intriguing yet unpalatable beginnings 3,000 years ago in the jungles of lowland Mexico and Central America, where Maya and Aztec royalty used the bitter seeds of Theobroma cacao as both coinage and as a symbol of human blood in rituals.

The Coes' history gallops through the millenniums, with the destruction of the Aztec capital in 1521 and emergence of a new era for the cacao bean when chocolate eating was transformed and creolized by Spanish conquerors who invented new terminology for the product and the word itself (from Maya chocol and Aztecan atl). With Spaniards in control of trade, an era of international expansion of the costly bean created havoc on the high seas. English pirates and adventurers sailing under Elizabeth I's flag preyed on Spanish ships, terrorized Spanish ports. Buccaneers burned shiploads of cacoa beans thinking they were sheep. Each load consisted of 24,000 beans, considered a fortune in cacao.

Transformed and taste-altered, the drink traveled to Europe with an impressive reputation as a medicine, aphrodisiac and stimulant, which also had to fit in with the rules about fasting prevalent in Catholic countries. And with the emergence of the well-hyped product to New World markets, black slave labor became the inglorious byproduct.

What fun Sophie Coe must have had digging into old cookbooks to explain the elaborate preparation of the drink and dishes produced for noble and ecclesiastical tables during the era of expansion, when chocolate traveled from Spain to the rest of Europe.

Italy and other countries experimented with chocolate not only in cakes but also in pastas, meat dishes, lasagna and macaroni.

The Coes cite recipes found in a cookbook by a priest, Felici Libera from Trento: "sliced liver dipped in chocolate, flour, dipped again, then fried . . . black polenta with chocolate, bread crumbs, butter, almonds and cinnamon . . . chocolate soup made with milk, sugar, cinnamon, egg yolks and pour over toast." The same soup was called "health soup" in 18th century Germany, the Coes tell their readers.

During the 18th century, chocolate became associated not only with Europe's royalty, aristocracy and the church but with talk of revolution circulating wildly throughout the growing number of coffeehouses where chocolate was served as an elitist drink.

The early 20th century and the industrial revolution brought us the invention of solid chocolate for eating. Thanks are due, in part, to the mass production techniques perfected by Milton Hershey, the Walt Disney of chocolate makers, who established his candy business in Pennsylvania Dutch country and built Hershey Chocolate Town, complete with bank, department store, schools, parks and gardens, hotel and golf course.

Other familiar names associated with chocolate follow: Coenraad Johannes Van Houten, John Cadbury, Philippe Suchard and Henri Nestle and Jean Tobler.

There's Rudolphe Lindt, a Swiss chemist who discovered a process for making powdered milk by evaporation when mixed with water.

The reader might get a bit bleary-eyed reading the minute details of the content (cocoa butter and cocoa solids) of preferred cocoa bean varieties, like Crillo and Forastero; of the process of harvesting, fermenting, drying, roasting and finally winnowing, in which the "thin, useless shell is peeled off, resulting into a bean that can be ground into a substance known in the trade as 'cacao liquor.' "

Still, one can easily relish the details. There are enough delicious commentary, bemused opinion and solid research to give charm and insight to "food of the gods."

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