The Chocolate Cure
A little chocolate can cure many ills. But melancholy, fatigue, and infertility? The history of chocolate as medicine.
Any women’s health magazine worth its low-sodium salt substitute can tell you about three things: How to flatten your abs, how to please your man (yoga helps, ladies!!!!!!), and how to scientifically justify eating chocolate.
Of course, many of these studies are funded by, well, chocolate companies. And it’s not as if these studies are lies – the cocoa plant does contain all of these good things. But most adults also have the good sense to know that just because there are flavanols hiding somewhere in our chocolate bars doesn’t mean we should nosh on those sugar-filled treats multiple times a day. (Although a study funded by the US National Confectioners Association showed that “there is no link between the number of candy-eating occasions” and obesity. Not that candy doesn’t cause obesity, just that there isn’t a link between obesity and how many times you break off a piece of your Kit-Kat bar.)
While it might seem to us cynics that the whole chocolate-as-health-food thing is simply a new ploy by Big Wonka to market more chocolate, the cocoa plant actually has a long history as health-booster. In fact, from the time Spanish explorers brought chocolate to Europe all the way until the 1900s, chocolate was considered to be more medicine and less treat.
When the Spaniards brought chocolate back to the Old World in the late 1500s, medicine in Europe still centered around the four humors, that lovely combination of black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm thought to be sloshing around inside of all of us. Each of these humors had additional properties, being labeled “hot,” “cold,” “dry,” or “wet.” The thought was that when the humors were off balance, that’s what caused us to be sick – and ingesting certain foods and drinks with complimentary hot/cold and dry/wet compositions could help remedy this balance.
Spanish royal physician Francisco Hernandez was the one who assigned chocolate its humoral balance – cold and dry. (Mmmm. Cold, dry chocolate.) Actually, the hot/cold/dry/wet thing didn’t have anything to do with the actual physical properties of cocoa. In fact, during this time, chocolate was frequently the opposite of cold and dry – consumed as a hot and wet beverage. When Europeans prepared their chocolate for drinking, they combined it with a sweetener and spices, the exact combination usually relating to the particular patient’s specific needs. In Chocolate as Medicine: A Quest Over the Centuries, authors Philip K Wilson and William Jeffrey Hurst note:
Meloncholics (i.e., those of cold and dry, black bile predominant temperaments) were told to sip a lukewarm chocolate drink without any chilis but with a few anise seeds. Phlegmatic (cold, wet, phlegm prominent) temperament patients were given a hot and spicy chocolate drink. Sanguine (warm, wet, blood predominant) temperament patients should be given chocolate drink without corn flour, whereas those choleric (warm, dry, yellow bile predominant) patients should receive “milder, more temperate” forms of chocolate drink.
And oh boy, those folks thought they could cure a whole lot by balancing their humors with chocolate. In 1745’s A Treatise on All Sorts of Foods, Louis Lemery notes that the cocoa-nut – “the chief ingredient” of chocolate – is “very good for allaying and embarrassing the sharp Humors,” and he shares this testimonial story:
The Patient was in a miserable Condition, but taking to the supping of Chocolate he recovered in a short Time; but what is more extraordinary is, that his Wife in Complacency to her Husband, having also accustomed herself to sup Chocolate with him, bore afterwards several Children, though she was looked upon before not capable of having any.
You hear that ladies? Not only do we go choco-holic during our periods, but that chocolate can fertilize our barren wombs too! OMG!!! 2cool!!!
Even when the humoral theory of medicine faded out of fashion, people remained convinced of chocolate’s cure-all properties. In an 1845 issue of The Magazine of Science, and Schools of Art, there’s this note:
Chocolate is a very important article of diet, as it may be literally termed meat and drink; and were our half-starved artisans, over-wrought factory children, and rickety millinery girls induced to drink it instead of the innutritious and beverage called tea, its nutritive qualities would soon develop themselves in their improved and more robust constitutions.
And of course, in the 1800s and early 1900s, there were chocolate tonics to cure all ills, some more legit than others – Dr. Day’s Chocolate Tonic Laxative and Hauswaldt Vigor Chocolate, among other.
Throughout all of this, people did also consume chocolate solely for pleasure – although not nearly to the extent that they do today. By some accounts, the wives of Spanish colonists were obsessed with drinking chocolate, and in The True History of Chocolate, writers Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe state that, “There is a misconception among some food writers that solid chocolate confectionery is a fairly modern invention… Yet there is evidence that such sweets were being manufactured early on in Mexico… [and] They almost certainly graced many a banquet table in Baroque Europe.” But despite all of this eating of chocolate as sweet, it wasn’t until the 1950s that chocolate was solely marketed for pleasure, no medical claims attached.
So if you feel like you need a healthy excuse to allow yourself to eat chocolate, you have years of history backing you up (and I didn’t even touch on all of the uses the Mexoamerican people had for cocoa before it got into the Spaniards’ mitts). But guys? Chocolate is delicious. You shouldn’t feel like you need to justify eating something delicious with a bunch of health data, whether it’s modern or historical. Eat chocolate to enjoy the taste of chocolate.
And to fertilize your barren womb.• 12 February 2014
|Spiced Chocolate Cake|
For the cake:
½ cup butter
For the chocolate fudge icing:
For the cake:
Cream the butter and add a cup of the sugar; beat the egg yolks, add the ¾ cup of sugar; beat the two mixtures together. Melt the chocolate and add to the mixture; sift baking powder with the flour three times, add with the spices and thoroughly mix; add the milk and the flavoring, and mix; fold-in the stiffly beaten egg whites. Bake in two thick layers, and put together with choice of icing.
For the icing:
Place all ingredients in a saucepan; mix well and cook until a small amount dropped into cold water will form a very soft ball. Allow to cool and then beat until thick enough to spread on the cake. Eight tablespoons of Cocoa may be substituted for the chocolate. Equal parts of light brown and granulated sugar may be used. One teaspoon vanilla while beating is an improvement.
Meg Favreau is a writer and comedian living in Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in Table Matters, McSweeney’s, The Big Jewel, The Huffington Post, and The Smew. Her book with photographer Michael Reali, Little Old Lady Recipes: Comfort Food and Kitchen Table Wisdom, was released in November 2011 by Quirk Books. She's currently the senior editor at the frugal living and personal finance site Wise Bread, and a regular guest on American Public Media’s Marketplace Money.