Bookcase Location: TOP SHELF – Essential
Get it Here
Both an academic & popular title, True History is an authoritative social account of cacáo & a compendium of the tree’s rich lore & voyage from the Americas to global phenomenon. Literally & physically a labor of love as Sophie Coe died in the very act of writing this history that was completed by her equally erudite husband, a fellow anthropology professor at Yale, who was pivotal in recognizing the PSS (Primary Standard Sequence) that in conjunction with several other key links ultimately allowed Dr. David Stuart at Harvard to decipher Mayan glyphs that adorn their pottery vessels.
If some passages read a little anemic, hungering to bite into more meatier material, this can be attributed to: a) the enormous scope of covering 3,000 plus years in a readable format of just over 250 pages; b) scant pre-Columbian archeological evidence (though this is gradually changing), leaving much of the currently accessible ancient record to be gleaned largely thru linguistics; & c) a sizable portion of the European history of chocolate amounts to a Page 6 gossip rag dishing the activities of profligates & degenerates among its aristocracy.
Though some sections have become eclipsed by later publications (particularly relating to Mesoamerica), the Coes’ book remains indispensable & seminal on several levels. No one should read it as a course on the botany of cacáo, nor for its discussion of chocolate processing (limited in length as those sections happen to be), both of which are suspect or even incorrect, perhaps casting doubt on the rest of the material. Those areas lie outside the authors’ specialization, at a remove from their scope of study. This is, after all, a historical account & primarily a social history. True, some of those data-points are debatable too, including one of the more storied if fictionalized etymology on the word ‘chocolate’ – a corruption of several terms spoken by aborigines.
Possible neologism: kakawa (from the Mije-Sokean language family, a loan word perhaps dating back to circa 1,000BC & the Olmec civilization around San Lorenzo) + cacahuatl (Nawa language for ‘cacáo water’) -> kakawatl (a term appearing in the 1st Nawa-Spanish dictionary published 1551, expanded in 1571 by Alonso de Molina); + chocol haa (Mayan for ‘hot water’)… Spaniards quite likely glossed Mayan chocol (hot) + Nawa atl (water) = chocolatl (cited by botanist Francisco Hernández ca. 1580)… eventually boils down to -> chocolate (originally noted in José de Acosta’s Historia Natural, 1590). Why didn’t Conquistadors just use the Nawa cacahuatl in the first place? Because caca in Spanish means shit.
(However grotesque, hence plausible, this may sound to our ears today, influenced as they are by the Victorians, the Middles Ages, remember, belong to the Renaissance when crude bodily functions such as snots, spit, burps, farts, & crap enjoyed, according to literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, deeply moving associations – all positive! – with decay & renewal in the cycle of life & death of which the people back then supposedly were less afraid[?])
What remains invaluable about the Coes’ work is that they presented for the first time a concise, unified, & in-depth history of chocolate in a single volume – one that’s largely accurate – & they read as well as cite original sources (including the codex of Mayans & Mexìcâ/Aztecs & 16th Century Spanish manuscripts), prompting others to pursue further research to improve the field. Prior to them, most popular histories simply regurgitated chocolate folk tales. (Granted, the Coes’ True History has its antecedents too, most notably René Millon’s 1955 Ph.D. dissertation at Columbia University titled “When Money Grew On Trees”. Even by today’s measure, very little escaped his grasp, quite remarkable considering he published it over a half century ago.)
Little wonder this book became a seminal work & scholastic watershed that has influenced countless other historians, archeologists, anthropologists, & even botanists, plus geneticists (not to mention practically every chocolate maker on the planet) to take a more serious-minded approach to a subject too widely viewed as just a piece of candy.