So You Think You Know The History of Chocolate?
Disclosure: Links to the titles of the books mentioned below are Amazon affiliate links. Purchasing these titles from Amazon helps support TheChocolateLife. My guarantee to you: I have personally read all the books on this list, not including the to-read list.
When it comes to the history of chocolate ...
The True History of Chocolate by Sophie and Michael Coe, is a truly excellent book and it is the first book on the history of chocolate that I read, probably in 1996, the year the first edition was published. It is probably the first book on the history of chocolate that most people read.
While not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, many writers paraphrase only this book in their histories; the narratives are too similar. For me to develop a more complete and nuanced understanding it was necessary to read the works of other authors – sources that added depth, detail, and color to the foundation the Coe’s laid.
One thing I did to help me was to construct a timeline of key events based on my reading to help find and remember connections and interdependencies. To that I added a table of names, locations, technical vocabulary, and other concepts that I could refer to.
Some of the books that contributed to that effort included:
The Chocolate Tree: A Natural History of Cacao, Revised and Expanded Edition by Allen Young. Read this book after True History and New Taste. to fill in even more gaps. This one is the geekiest of the first three books listed here.
The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised. A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes, by Maricel Presilla. The most richly illustrated book in this section, pictures are worth a thousand words.
Crafting the Culture and History of French Chocolate by Susan Terrio. Much of this book talks about challenges related to generational succession in artisanal chocolateries in France, but along the way, many historical factoids and trivia are revealed that I have not found in any other source I have read.
Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage edited by Louis Grivetti and Howard Yana Shapiro. There is a lot of information in this book, which is actually a collection of research papers. These require careful reading as there are some contradictions between some of the papers and some baffling editorial decisions such as the idiosyncratic spelling of ”forestero” [sic] (more commonly forastero) and ”amenolado” [sic] (more commonly amelonado).
Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao. This book contains a collection of papers from several authors covering the topic from perspectives that provide depth and detail to your understanding, and includes a chapter authored by Nat Bletter, co-founder of Madre Chocolate in Hawaii.
Beyond Cocoa and Chocolate
Yes, Virginia, there is more to life than cocoa and chocolate!
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created both by Charles C Mann. 1491 is about the Americas before the arrival of Columbus and its companion volume 1493 is about the Americas after the arrival of Columbus. Both are thoroughly researched and challenge basic assumptions many of us harbor about the European conquest and the effects on people, cultures, and the environment of the New World.
On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee. Although not a history book, this is a book I heartily recommend when thinking about recipe development for cocoa, chocolate, and everything else.
The Cambridge World History of Food (in two volumes). With this book and On Food and Cooking on your shelf you have a dynamic duo of reference sources. While much of the information is available online, having it in book form encourages exploration which can lead to serendipity and creative discovery which are much harder to achieve online because of the way information is consumed. Part V (in volume II), provides a global tour of food and drink. Part VIII (also in volume II) is a dictionary of more than a thousand plant foods, with synonyms, etymologies, and more information that will broaden horizons and understanding.
The Lore Of Spices: Their history, nature and uses around the world. Did you know that sugar was considered a spice and that the demand for sugar and products made from it (including rum) was a primary driver for the exploration/exploitation of the New World? Cacao is one of the roughly forty spices covered in this illustrated book.
Two other titles from Maricel Presilla not directly related to cocoa or chocolate that deserve serious consideration for space on your shelf: Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America and Peppers of the Americas: The Remarkable Capsicums That Forever Changed Flavor
Some Online Reading:
- Chocolate @Wikipedia, while rambling and inaccurate at times, does contain a host of links to resources both internal and external to explore. Another starting point in Wikipedia is the disambiguation page for cacao.
- Focus on Gianduia a 37-part series @DallasFood.Org (2011)
- What's Noka Worth? an 11-part series @DallasFood.Org (2006)
- Mast Bros, What Lies Behind the Beards, a 4-part series @DallasFood.Org (2015) and Mast Bros, an Insider’s Account of a Wholesale Debacle a 2-part series @Medium.com (2018)
- Fact-Checking George Bernardini’s The Reference Standard a 3-part series @TheChocolateLife (2016)
On my to-read list:
The Seven Culinary Wonders of the World: A History of Honey, Salt, Chile, Pork, Rice, Cacao, and Tomato from Smithsonian Press. (I will use any proceeds from affiliate purchases of any of the books listed in this article to buy this book, and others.)
Trivia Question: What is the name of the traditional fermentation vessel shown in the listing image and where will you find these still in use today? Let us know what you think in the comments.
What are some of the books you found most useful in helping understand the history of chocolate? We are not talking about books on technique or process – that is for another article. Are there others not on my list that you can recommend?