(Some of) the curious cultural history of women in chocolate

(Some of) the curious cultural history of women in chocolate

Chocolate is one of the most widely beloved foods in the world today, used in a variety of dishes from chocolate pasta to mole sauces to, of course, decadent brownies.  However, much of what we know about chocolate is fairly recent and limited in context.  Let’s open up a bit of that history and take a look at chocolate through the lens of women.

For much of the 20th century, women have been closely associated with chocolate – mostly by craving it.  While this is a stereotype, it is rooted in a small bit of truth.  Chocolate is in fact the most desired food in the US, and while there is little consensus as to whether or not that desire is fueled by marketing, there’s a distinct possibility that biology plays a role. Dr. Anthony Auger, a researcher at University of Wisconsin-Madison, stated that chocolate seems to affect the amygdala, a part of the brain that regulates desires and emotions. 

(Left: The Princeton Vase, Late Classic Maya, 650CE-750CE. Right: The Codex Tudela, ca. 1540)

But long before today, women were integral to making chocolate.  The earliest evidence we have of women and chocolate is a Maya drinking vessel dated to ca. 750 CE.  This vase, now in the Princeton University Art Museum, was originally made in Guatemala, a prime region for cacao growing since the beginning of human contact with chocolate.  The relationship between women and chocolate continued for centuries, as the Codex Tudela demonstrates.  The Codex Tudela, created about 1540 after Spanish conquest, is an Aztec codex that is made on European paper and bound like a Western-style book. The second half of the book is believed to be a copy of an earlier codex, long since lost, and painted by Aztec artists.  Both images above depict a woman pouring liquid chocolate from one cup to another, a key component of preparing drinking chocolate and a practice that may have originated with the Olmec hundreds of years before the Aztec. 

In addition to the everyday preparation of cacao by women, certain sacred recipes were also relegated to women.  Among the Lacandon Maya, a specialized chocolate drink made with local grasses and balche (an alcoholic drink) is served to appease household gods.  However, like much of Europe and the United States in the 17th century, women in Mesoamerica were also accused of witchcraft.  There are 23 recorded instances of chocolate-related witchcraft as part of the Mexican Inquisition, the earliest dating to 1604, the last to 1781.  Many of these instances refer to the use of chocolate adulterated with bodily fluids and local substances that were intended to be used as love potions or magic to soothe angry or abusive husbands.  History does not record the fates of these women; some of the punishments would likely have been quite severe, especially in one instance where a woman accused another woman of trying to tempt her into a lesbian relationship. 

Francois Boucher depicting a French family happily drinking chocolate.

In the West, chocolate was spread largely through a network of women.  As part of her wedding gifts to Louis XIV, Marie-Therese of Spain provided an intricately carved box full of chocolate.  Her aunt, Anne of Austria, thoroughly enjoyed chocolate and had married Louis XII in 1615. However, Anne held little influence at court, and it was likely Marie-Therese whose love of chocolate helped spread its popularity outside of Spain.  Marie-Therese’s maid of honor, Marquise de Montespan, was also deeply fond of chocolate, and between Marie-Therese’s marriage in 1660 and de Montespan’s affair with Louis XIV shortly thereafter, chocolate’s popularity soared in France.  Other women took up chocolate: Diana Astry’s celebrated recipe book dating from no later than 1708 details numerous British chocolate recipes that appear to be unique to British cooking.  After the Townshend Duties, which levied additional taxes on tea beginning in 1767, chocolate gained in popularity in the US, especially with women who led households, because it no longer cost more than tea.  While these are a handful of examples, they detail a slow but steady growth in chocolate consumption in both North America and Europe, spurred at least in part by women.

Guittard Chocolate, founded in 1868 and today partly run by Amy Guittard.

Today, women continue to play a role in chocolate culture.  Chocolate aesthete Chloe Doutre-Roussel, whose love of chocolate began during her childhood in Mexico, advises Bolivian chocolatemaker El Ceibo and was once the primary chocolate purchaser for the exclusive British retailer Fortnum and Mason.  Dr. Maricel Presilla, a Cuban immigrant to the United States, is a James Beard award-winning author and chef whose work on chocolate has been highly praised.  Amy Guittard is part of the fifth generation of the Guittard family to run Guittard Chocolate, founded in 1868 and one of the oldest chocolatemakers in the US. As ever, women continue to make innovations in chocolate, and not just on the consumption side.  As part of Women’s History Month, it is well worth recognizing women’s contributions to the amazing substance known as chocolate.

Curious about chocolate?  Want to know more about Women’s History Month?  Ask Us!  iueref@iue.edu

And don’t miss KT Lowe’s Women and Chocolate program on Thursday, March 12 at 2 pm in the Campus Library!

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