Early Modern Euro-Indigenous Culinary Connections: Chocolate

By John Kuhn, Wesleyan University and Marissa Nicosia, Pennsylvania State University-Abington College

On a chilly November afternoon, we gathered in a student lounge to grind cocoa nibs in a borrowed molcajete and read early modern recipes with a class of undergraduate students. Inspired by previous hands-on exercises, we asked students thinking about indigenous cultures in the seventeenth-century Atlantic to consider recipes as a kind of evidence. [1]

This pedagogical exercise took place at Wesleyan University in Fall 2016, in John’s course entitled “Pirates, Puritans, and Pequots: Literatures of the Early English Atlantic,” which brought together the literary archives of the English Renaissance and the first century of English expansion westward into the Atlantic. The course’s final two sections dwelt extensively on Anglo-indigenous and Anglo-African contact, real and imagined, in the early Atlantic. In these units, students engaged with a recent wave of scholarship that has attempted to expand our sense of the colonial archive. Scholars like Walter Mignolo, Elizabeth Hill Boone, and Birgit Rasmussen have shown the limitations of approaches to the question of early modern indigenous history that focus solely on texts produced by Europeans; Saidiya Hartman, in the slightly different context of transatlantic slavery, has made a related point about the archive. One way around this problem—that of the European near-monopoly on textual production and the ties between textual production and the often violent action of colonial development—is to turn to the techniques of material history, thinking through how the circulation of objects and technologies worked in the newly global economies of the seventeenth-century. Attending to these stories helps expand our ideas about agency and cultural contact. This is perhaps clearest in the history of food and, particularly, the wide-ranging influence that indigenous technologies and tastes relating to tobacco and chocolate had in the period, as Marcy Norton’s work has demonstrated. Turning to the history of food, then, has the potential to show students a more nuanced story about cultural contact that uncovers the agency and influence that indigenous cultures exerted back across the Atlantic.

We had the idea of bringing these scholarly insights about Anglo-indigenous contact to the classroom by tracing food history through English recipe books: unruly documents rich with medicinal, culinary, and other household materials such as accounts and records of births and deaths. On the one hand, these books provide rich material about places, people, ingredients, and practices unlike other archives. On the other hand, they are difficult to read, classify, and often mute on the conditions of their making and aspirations of their makers. Among the many things recipe books can show us about food history, these manuscripts bear the record of indigenous influence in Europe.

Winche’s recipe for ‘chacolet’. Source: Folger Shakespeare Library: http://luna.folger.edu/luna/servlet/s/d3uh21
Making chacolet. Credit: John Kuhn

Rebeckah Winche’s hot chocolate is a case study in rendering a familiar food strange. [2] Our recipe workshop had two distinct parts: transcription and cooking. Transcribing a few recipes, including Winche’s receipt for “Chacolet,” introduced students to using recipe books as sources and to reading secretary and italic handwriting. The recipe starts with roasted and ground cocoa beans. It is heavily spiced with vanilla, cinnamon, and chili pepper and sweetened with sugar. The instructions advise you to form your chacolet mix into cakes and let them cure for three months before using. This is a delectable and portable preparation in its original form. We didn’t wait three months. Following the practices Marissa developed in the Cooking in the Archives project, we asked students to identify the key ingredients and practices in Winche’s recipe. Then we distributed three different updated versions of the original recipe. One group started with roasted cocao beans and ground them by hand in a molcajete. Another used cocoa powder. We taste-tested the different mixes, all possible modernizations of Winche’s original recipe.

Making chacolet. Credit: Marissa Nicosia

Students had prepared for the workshop by reading Marcy Norton’s “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics,” and this was the starting point for our discussion. As we moved through the ingredients and Marissa spoke about them in turn, students were also struck—as we had hoped they would be—by the vast global trade networks embodied in a single recipe. They were also, once the final product was assembled, interested in the strangeness of the hot chocolate—both the graininess of the hand-ground nibs and the unfamiliar spiciness added by the chili pepper—helping them to see the way that indigenous chocolate-making tastes were influencing even English recipe keepers like Winche living in London and Buckinghamshire. This exercise, paired with a later digital material history project that examined the many objects found in Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative,[3] produced in the contested Anglo-Algonquian Massachusetts borderlands around the same time, helped students to see the way that material history can reveal new stories about cultural contact in the early modern world.

[1] Amanda E. Herbert, “Chocolate in the Classroom”; Amy L. Tinger, “Making Ink”. Marissa has written about teaching with recipes here: “Cooking Almond Jumballs at the Folger Shakespeare Library

[2] For more information about Winche’s manuscript, take a look at this post written for the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective Transcribathon. Elaine Leong, “The Winche Project.”  Here is a link to images of the manuscript. Marissa also has also written about preparing this hot chocolate recipe. Alyssa Connell and Marissa Nicosia, “Chacolet,” The Collation. Amy L. Tigner wrote a wonderful series for this site about chocolate recipes in early modern manuscripts: Tinger, “Chocolate in Seventeenth-Century England, Part I”; Tinger, “Chocolate in Seventeenth-Century England, Part II”.

[3] This digital project, called “A History of Mary Rowlandson in Seven Objects,” built on the insights about material history begun in this cooking project, and can be found here.


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