Cocoa as Corruption: The False Association between Chocolate and Unholy Indulgence

The revered botanist, Carolus Linnaeus, gave the name Theobroma to the Mesoamerican cacao tree in 1753, which literally translates to “food of the gods.”[1] The appellation serves a dual function as it reflects both the rich taste as well as the storied past of chocolate. This history is a complex one involving countless players, chief among which were the people of the ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations, the Spanish colonizers, and as I will further examine in this blog post, religious clerics. Centuries before chocolate could take its place as the universal delicacy it is today, chocolate had to overcome its reputation as the decadent indulgence that represented to many believers the evil lures of temptation. As this blogpost does contain a multimedia component, I will weave in two examples of contemporary film and literature which draw from this theme of chocolate being perceived as unholy temptation, and attempt to show how, in the broader scheme of history, religious institutions, (namely the Catholic Church), have often branded this semblance of pleasure and gratification as sinful. This false association has even permeated through modernity as the two examples I will be alluding to, Como Agua Para Chocolate (Laura Esquivel, 1989), and Chocolat (1999) are relatively recent in origin when compared to the early history of chocolate. I ultimately intend to argue that, despite the long strides that popular culture has made in the broader conceptualization of chocolate, there will always be those who cannot dissociate something so decadent with the allegedly wicked connotations they incur.

The ritual drinking of cacao depicted in the “Codex Borgia,” a Mesoamerican divinatory manuscript.

In ancient Mayan and Aztec times, cacao represented a vital life force and was incorporated into various rituals and sacred practices.[1] So how, one might ask, could chocolate have gone from being the “food of the gods” in one culture, to an enticement from the devil himself in the Catholic Church of the 16th and 17th centuries? As we’ve discussed in class, chocolate played an integral role in the history of early colonialism. The process of transculturation which resulted from resources being shared across nations and empires led to a blending of the “old” with the “new,” or more aptly, a blending of the native with the new. One of these transcultural changes began within the Catholic Church. Though Europeans stripped chocolate of its original ritualistic import, it came to take on new meanings, as a status symbol indicative of socioeconomic class, as homeopathic remedies that appealed to chocolate’s medicinal effects, and more. In the latter half of the 16th century however, the Catholic Church embarked on a quest to dictate which behaviors or attitudes were appropriate for the church, clergy, and the community of the faithful to uphold. Priests debated amongst themselves whether or not chocolate consumption should be allowed during church-mandated fasting days. According to Professor Carla Martin, these debates resulted in a resurfacing of the “pagan past” of chocolate.[2] Up until that point, the introduction of chocolate to western Europe had proven quite successful. Suddenly, with this remembrance of chocolate’s once pagan ritualistic significance, chocolate took on, perhaps for the first time, its ill-reputation as an immoral indulgence. Eventually, Pope Alexander VII declared in 1662 that chocolate did not, in fact, break the ritual fast, but this did not put a concrete end to the negative implications of chocolate consumption.[3]

Tita and Pedro’s gastronomical exchange in Laura Esquivel’s Como Agua Para Chocolate, 1989

In 1989, Mexican novelist Laura Esquivel published her best-selling book, Como Agua Para Chocolate, in English, Like Water for Chocolate. The book falls into the genre of magical realism, owing to the various supernatural themes scattered throughout the novel. Central to the plot is Tita, the youngest daughter of a traditional Mexican family that is endowed with an enchanted culinary gift. Through her intricate recipes, she is able to communicate her ardent love for her childhood sweetheart, a man who Tita’s mother has betrothed to her eldest sister despite his intention to marry Tita. The scene above depicts one of the more poignant episodes of Tita and Pedro’s gastronomical exchange and in it, Pedro even refers to Tita’s creation as the “food of the gods.” Although chocolate is not a part of the particular recipe in the chosen clip, it accentuates the theme of “indulgent” food being directly tied to evil since the delight Tita, Pedro, and Gertrudis take in the meal is representative of, if not the very mystical consummation of, the scandalous love affair between Tita and Pedro. The title of the book alludes to the law of heat in the science of cooking which refers to the fact that water must be brought to the brink of boiling multiple times before it can be introduced in the preparation of hot chocolate. In a similar fashion, Esquivel’s novel tells the tale of a fiery romance between Tita and Pedro which is only physically consummated after decades of suspense and sexual tension relayed between the two lovers in the form of Tita’s cooking. The implication being, food which incites pleasure is almost certainly bound to something more wicked, and as the channel for such pleasure, food is rendered itself sinful.

“Cacao as corruption” in the 2000 film adaptation, Chocolat.

Another contemporary example of this line of reasoning can be seen in the 1999 novel, (which inspired the eponymous 2000 film), Chocolat. The story follows the life of chocolatier, Vianne Rocher, who arrives to a small provincial town in France with her daughter to open up a chocolate shop. With this repressed French village in 1959 as its setting, Vianne’s arrival into town at the beginning of the Lenten season does not bode well with the hyper-orthodox Catholic mayor, Reynaud. Joanne Harris, the author of the 1999 novel, depicts her protagonist as a progressive free-spirit who does not ascribe to religious conventions and who has an illegitimate child who she rears in quite a liberal fashion. The construction of her character as such makes it easy for the traditional mayor to chastise Vianne for her immoral behavior in tempting the townspeople during the ecclesial time of abstinence and abnegation. In the above clip, Judi Dench’s character confesses to the crime of “corrupting with cocoa,” to which her daughter responds indignantly. The villagers, for the most part, agree that Vianne’s chocolatier trade is sinful in origin, content, and aim. However, in the end, even the righteous Reynaud succumbs to the temptation of chocolate in the memorable scene linked below.

“Giving into temptation,” the conservative mayor, Reynaud finally succumbs to the temptation of Vianne’s chocolate confections.

In conclusion, I think it can safely be speculated that some people will always confine themselves to their own traditional conceptions, intent on making their own distinctions between the sacred and the profane. Speaking as someone who was raised in a very conservative, Catholic household (and who still today holds a special place in her heart for the Catholic faith), I have seen this relationship been drawn time and time again between the object of pleasure and the direct source of evil. I, however, am of the persuasion that to write the sweet treat off simply because a religion promotes self-denying practices is no reason to render chocolate evil in all its forms. I confess that over-indulgence of anything typically errs on the side of gluttony, which crosses the line into problematic territory when it comes to Judeo-Christian convention, but even being the proud, believing Catholic that I am, I would confidently affirm that moderation is key, and I for one, will not be giving up chocolate anytime soon.

[1] Coe, S.D., and Coe, M.D. “The True History of Chocolate.” 1996. 17

[2] Coe, S.D., and Coe, M.D. “The True History of Chocolate.” 1996. 39

[3] Dallas, Kelsey. “The Little-Known Relationship between Religion and Chocolate.” Deseret News. Deseret News, February 8, 2015.

[4] “When the Church Said ‘No’ to Chocolate.” When the Church said “No” to chocolate: Mexico Cuisine. Accessed March 25, 2020.

Multimedia Cited:

Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion. Accessed March 25, 2020.

The early history of chocolate. Accessed March 25, 2020.

Miramax. “Chocolat | ‘Chocolatier or Confessional’ (HD) – Judi Dench, Juliette Binoche | MIRAMAX.” Youtube video, 2:39. December 1, 2015.

Miramar. “Chocolat | ‘Giving In to Temptation’ (HD) – Alfred Molina | MIRAMAX.” Youtube video, 3:42. December 1, 2015.

Movie clips. “Like Water for Chocolate (3/12) Movie CLIP – Tita’s Magical Meal (1992) HD.” Youtube video, 2:42. September 29, 2011.

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