Sunday, 19 October 2008


In my prepubescent years, my favourite after school treat was a rich, dark, moist Chocolate Brownie. At about the age of eleven, I happened upon the stained pages of my mother’s special recipe. It was like opening a secret door to pleasures of the flesh yet to be realized. Many afternoons, I would surreptitiously make these forbidden sweets for myself and my younger sisters to consume in advance of my parents’ arrival home from work. Little did I know that we were reenacting the modern equivalent of a ritual of indulgence inherited from the ancient world?

As I have subsequently learned, of all the foods available to the modern world, the Chocolate Brownie is surely the most potent combination of healthy and hedonistic. Like other temptations of the flesh, brownies have their divine origins. In the beginning, and there is always this apocryphal beginning to anything forbidden, was man’s innate curiosity to explore all things exotic and empowering.

Apparently as early as 600AD, Mayans and Aztecs made a drink called xocoatl from the seeds of the cacao tree. These cacahuati seeds or gift from the gods were transported by the God, Quetzalcoat, traveling to Earth on a beam of light from Paradise. Roasting and grinding the cacao seeds produced a nutritive paste which could dissolve in water. Adding a few spices, the Aztecs drank their beverage, chocolatl, anticipating its promised aphrodisiac powers and universal wisdom. Hence the cocoa bean became the new apple of the civilized world.

Columbus, in his explorations of Mexico, had tasted the fruit, but it fell to Hernando Cortez in1519 to capture Emperor Montezuma’s recipe for xocoatl and bring it to Spain. Once the potency of this elixir was realized, the Spaniards hoarded and sweetened the peppery chocolate pot by adding cream, sugar, and vanilla.

Unlike Eve, who generously shared her discoveries and beguiled her Paradise, Spanish monks kept the drink a national secret for almost a hundred years. Coincidentally, on the wedding night of King Louis XIV to a Spanish royal, Marie Therese, the groom sipped the forbidden fluids exported with the trousseau of his bride, and a new age began. Chocolate Houses sprang up all over France and later England.

Initially, this expensive, delectable, libidinous substance was available only to the elite, male gender. Such goodness could not be contained, however, and soon chocolate was being served, not only as a beverage, but also, in the form of rolls and cakes. Many luscious variations on the original Mexican combination of choco (foam) and atl (water) have been created through the centuries. But none can quite surpass the Chocolate Brownie. Even before attaining dictionary status, the first known recipe for this dark delight appeared in the Sears Roebuck catalogue in 1897. Genesis stories abound, one of which suggested that the confection really began, like so many great discoveries, as a grand accident, when one addled cook forgot to add baking powder to a chocolate cake recipe.

In recent history the healthy benefits of chocolate have been scientifically acknowledged. But generations of women, on any continent, have known of chocolate’s antidepressant powers. While we are now learning of serotonin and the other hundreds of chemicals that also make us feel good, the fact of how it works still remains a mystery. But so does love.

As I think of it now, my youthful, covert operation of conjuring and conjoining butter, sugar, flour, eggs, and chocolate really spoke to the innate Eve who resides in us all, confirming our insatiable seeking after knowledge in its dense richness and truth. Temptations have no subtlety. Rich, dark, succulent, addictive: all are adjectives of our essential nether realms. Denial is impossible in the face of chocolate beguilement.

1 comment:

persephone said...

Delicious article Marylou ! I learned a lot about Chocolate origins from reading this....'a Ritual of Indulgence'.

I have a recipe book of my mother's as well with stained pages indicating the BEST recipes. I also have some great early memories of learning to bake alongside her.

When my husband was my boyfriend and we shared his birthday together the first time, I baked him my specialty, a deep dark devil's food cake with marshmallow icing as a surprise . He was gracious but admitted that he disliked dark chocolate. I went on to marry him even so but did have some serious doubts. Not like Chocolate...would we survive together?

I'm off to find some chocolate now as I have a sudden craving and I think there might be some ancient baking squares if I root about in the cupboard.