The Curing Chocolate of Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma of 1631

By R.A. Kashanipour

 
The Indies, personified as a maiden, give the gift of chocolate to the Atlantic world, personified as Poseidon. Front piece to Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma’s, Chocolata Inda, Opusculum de qualitate & naturâ de Chocolatæ (Nuremberg, 1644). Image courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library.
“The number of people who drink chocolate is vast,” wrote the seventeenth century Spaniard, Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma, “not only in the Indies, where the beverage originated, but also in Spain, Italy and Flanders, and particularly in the royal court.”  In the early modern world, the consumption of chocolate was ubiquitous across the Americas (as noted here).  According to Colmenero de Ledesma, a physician and surgeon who traversed the Atlantic to explore colonial Spanish medical practices and remedies, chocolate represented the great gift of the Indies (see image above).  

In Colmenero de Ledesma’s 1631 account titled Curioso tratado de naturaleza y calidad del chocolate , which represented the first full-length printed account dedicated to chocolate, the surgeon celebrated the beverage and confectionery for its healthy and healing qualities. “My desire,” he noted in the opening of the work, “is for the benefit and pleasure of the public, to describe the variety of uses and mixtures so that each may choose what suits their ailments.” Borrowing from indigenous traditions in Mesoamerica, chocolate fit a variety of uses. It could be everything from a ritual beverage to a healing elixir to an everyday imbibement.

 
Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma’s Curioso tratado de la naturalez y calidad del Chocolate (Madrid, 1631). Image courtesy of the the Bibloteca Nacional de España.

By the end of the seventeenth century, chocolate was popular across the Atlantic, particularly in the Europe’s imperial capitals and Atlantic port cities.  However, in spite of its wide-spread use at the everyday level, its consumption was the subject of confusion and consternation by skeptical physicians and the learned classes. Colmnero de Ledesma noted that many Europeans of the era debated its qualities and application.  “Some people say that it obstructs, others that it makes one fat. Some say that it soothes the stomach, while others that it heats and burns. And some say that they drink it every hour, even in the long-days of summer.  I stand to defend this confection … against those that may suggest that this beverage is not good and healthy.”

Colmenero de Ledesma suggested that the consumption of chocolate was both salubrious and satiating.  In the Curioso tratado, he offered a four-part discourse on the qualities of the confection, noting its universal humoral attributes.  “Chocolate, as the Indians call it,” he wrote, managed to contain the four critical elements of heat, humidity, cold, and dryness.  It could be oily and earthy, thick and airy, moist and dry, soft and hard. As a medicament, cacao, the “principal basis” of chocolate, served as an astringent and purgative.

The key to the varied uses of the confection, however, existed in the art of its preparation. By properly incorporating a wide variety of herbs and spices from the New World, chocolate could enliven appetites, elevate moods, and conserve one’s health.  Poorly tempered concoctions could cause illness. Hinting at the Spanish disdain for the subjugated native populations of the colonies, he suggested that the chocolate could also release debilitating qualities, writing that “[t]hose that mix maize, or paniço, in Chocolate produce harmfully release melancholy humors.” Nevertheless, the artful combination of elements could produce a healthy and restorative beverage. 

Colmenero de Ledesma’s Recipe for Chocolate

To every one hundred Cacao beans, mix two large chiles of the type that are called Cilparlagua in the Indies (or you may use the broadest and least spicy chile found in Spain). Add in one handful of anise seeds along with the leaves of the herb called Vincaxtlidos and the other called Mecasuchil [mecaxóchitl], if the stomach is tight. Or, as we do in Spain, mix in the six flowers of the Roses of Alexandria, which are beat into a power.  Add one pod of the Vanilla of Campeche, two sticks of cinnamon, a dozen almonds and hazelnuts, and a pound and half of sugar. Add in enough achiote to give it color. 

To prepare the beverage, Colmenero de Ledesma suggested that the ingredients be ground on a metate, explicitly reserved for grinding cacao. All ingredients, save the achiote, were to be dried and ground individually into a powder. Begin, he directed, by grinding the cinnamon, then the chile with the anise, then moving to the others.  Next carefully mix each pulverized ingredient into the cacao a little at a time. Finally, add the achiote.  Over a low fire, the pulverized mixture is to be seared and dried into a paste, which was to be spooned onto paper or a plantain leaf. The cooled paste would form a tablet that could subsequently be dissolved with water and sugar.

Consumed cold or warm, Colmenero de Ledesma’s recipe for chocolate would invariably have something novel to the seventeenth century palates on both sides of the Atlantic. In the Americas, chocolate was traditionally consumed as a frothy, spicy beverage, free of the sweetness of modern cocoa. Colmenero de Ledesma’s recipe, however, combined herbs and spices of the New World. It is noteworthy that the university-trained Spanish surgeon appropriated and Hispanized indigenous terms, including cilparlagua and mecasuchil, and established them as key colonized aspects of the concoction.  Moreover, the addition of sugar fundamentally redefined the experience of the beverage.  Rather than taking on the earthy and bitter qualities of the cacao, the sugar would have lent an overwhelming sweetness to the beverage.  

When produced with the right art and process, Colmenero de Ledesma suggested that his recipe for chocolate could be remedial, protective, and healthy. “Through my experience in the Indes” he declared, “when visiting a sick person in the heat, I was persuaded to take a draft of chocolate, which quenched my thirst. And, in the morning, if I had fasted, it warmed and comforted my stomach.” Within a decade, Colmenero de Ledesma’s curious treatment of chocolate would be translated and published in England, France, Germany, and Italy. Chocolate, to echo his own conclusion, was “no small matter, to have pleased all.”

A Recipe for Teaching Atlantic World History: Food and the Columbian Exchange

By Zara Anishanslin 

Polly Platt, Map sampler (1809), Made in Dutchess County, Pleasant Valley, New York, United States, Purchase, Frank P. Stetz Bequest, in loving memory of David Stewart Hull, 2012, 2012.64, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Polly Platt, Map sampler (1809), Made in Dutchess County, Pleasant Valley, New York, United States, Purchase, Frank P. Stetz Bequest, in loving memory of David Stewart Hull, 2012, 2012.64, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Teaching (and learning) Atlantic World history can be a depressing business. It requires thinking about the causes, course, and effects of some of the more horrific events in early modern history, such as the enforced migration of millions of enslaved Africans to Europe’s Atlantic colonies. Yet Atlantic World history has its more uplifting aspects, too. After all, it is a story of creation as well as destruction. Native American, European, and African people came together in cooperation as well as conflict. Exchanges among Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans fundamentally transformed cultures, politics, economies, and—of most interest in this forum—food and recipes on both sides of the Atlantic. Chances are, whatever recipes you regularly eat, at least a few owe their existence to transatlantic exchange between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Sebastiano del Piombo, Portrait, said to be Christopher Columbus (born about 1466, died 1509), 1519. Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 00.18.2, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Sebastiano del Piombo, Portrait, said to be Christopher Columbus (born about 1466, died 1509), 1519. Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 00.18.2, Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Beginning with Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to the Caribbean in 1492, plants, animals, and diseases new to Native Americans arrived in the Americas and Caribbean, while plants, animals, and diseases new to Europe and Africa, similarly, made a transatlantic journey in the opposite direction. In addition to well-known commodities like sugar, tobacco, coffee, and cocoa that traversed the Atlantic, more prosaic crops, animals, and germs crossed the Atlantic, at times accidentally. Things like pigs, cattle, horses, wheat, dandelions, rice, and smallpox travelled west; things like sweet potatoes, potatoes, corn, turkeys, guinea pigs, tomatoes, and (perhaps) syphilis travelled east.  Such exchange formed the roots of the “Columbian Exchange,” as historian Alfred Crosby termed the phenomenon in his seminal 1972 book of the same name.

When the ship of French explorer Samuel de Champlain ran aground in what he called Port Saint Louis in 1605, he described seeing gardens and fields filled with beans and corn, inhabited by Native Americans who met the Frenchmen in canoes filled with freshly-caught cod.  Native American food and crops captivated the imagination of  Europeans like Champlain.  This is evident from his map of Port Saint Louis, which  took care to illustrate lushly tall fields of corn as well as items of navigational interest.

What Champlain called Port Saint Louis became better known as Plymouth, Massachusetts. Fifteen years later, English colonists who arrived there described a very different place; a depopulated community so devastated by smallpox that Native Americans “were in the end not able to help one another, no not to make a fire nor fetch a little water to drink, nor any to bury the dead.”[1] Such were the disastrous effects of the Columbian Exchange.

MaizeDeityUnknown Aztec artist, Maize Deity (Chicomecoatl),15th–early 16th century, Mexico, Mesoamerica, basalt statue, Museum Purchase, 1900, 00.5.51, Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
MaizeDeityUnknown Aztec artist, Maize Deity (Chicomecoatl),15th–early 16th century, Mexico, Mesoamerica, basalt statue, Museum Purchase, 1900, 00.5.51, Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

But in its focus on corn, Champlain’s map also carries (if you’ll excuse the pun) seeds for teaching other, at times much less devastating, aspects of the Columbian Exchange—in particular, its impact on global consumption patterns, cuisine, and recipes. Corn was a fundamental food staple of indigenous peoples in the Americas, important enough to embody religious meaning to cultures like the Aztecs, who worshipped both maize god, Centeotl, and goddess, Chicomecoatl, seen in the statue below holding two maize ears.

Corn held very different symbolic meaning across the Atlantic. There, along with tobacco, palm trees, parrots, and representations of Native American bodies, corn became an iconographic symbol of  exoticism, often used in maps, paintings, sculpture, and ceramics.

SK-A-4254-2
Jacob van Campen, Still Life with a Bowl of Corn, Artichokes, Grapes and a Parrot 1645-1650), SK-A-4254-2, Courtesy of Rijksmuseum, The Netherlands

But “Indian corn,” like many other plants and animals that traversed the Atlantic after contact, ended up on tables in Europe, Africa, and Asia as well as in paintings and maps. What does teaching and learning about the Columbian Exchange look like if, to take but this single example,  we thought more deeply about corn? What were the long-term effects of food like corn crossing the Atlantic? What does following a plant like corn back and forth across the Atlantic tell us about changing tastes in Europe and Asia, about the ability of Native Americans and Africans to retain cultural heritage through culinary techniques and ingredient choices, and about the hybrid food practices of new, creole cultures established in the Americas and Caribbean?

Students read anthropologist Sidney Mintz’s fascinating book, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (Viking, 1985) in my class. So they are well aware of the often devastating but always transformative effects of people’s desire to consume and produce an edible commodity like sugar. But the histories of life and labor on an eighteenth-century Jamaican sugar plantation can seem, like the  histories of Native Americans, French, and English in seventeenth-century Massachusetts, very far away. What would letting students look at Atlantic World history through a more personally meaningful lens do to their understanding of these faraway histories of contact and exchange? What would choosing recipes they love that are based on food that migrated transatlantically tell students not only about the past, but also about their own families and tastes? How would it illuminate the theoretical concept of creolization?

What would happen, in short, if students researched “Recipes of the Columbian Exchange”?

Recipe for the Assignment:

Choose a recipe. Although not necessary, you might want to choose one that has personal meaning to you or your tastebuds.

The only criteria to be met are that:

1) the recipe MUST be one that would not exist were it not for the Columbian Exchange and

2) it must be a recipe, with more than one ingredient

First, describe the recipe. List its ingredients, identify its name, and provide information on how it’s cooked.

Second, go into more analytical and historical detail about it. What are the environmental origins of its ingredients? Which ones are those we can trace to the Columbian Exchange? Who first made it? And where? Why is the recipe important to you? What does it tell us about the contact between peoples and the exchanges of things that characterized Atlantic World history?

Tune in tomorrow to hear students chime in on what they learned by using recipes to think about Atlantic World history.

[1] Bradford, William, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, ed. Samuel E. Morison (new York: Knopf, 1952), 271.