Monday, June 20, 2011

Why Shakespeare Never Wrote a Sonnet About Chocolate

brief thoughts about where food comes from

If we were to take the magic time machine trip back to hang out with Shakespeare, a number of things would feel very strange indeed. Spoken Elizabethan English would sound to our ears not like posh British English but more like a four-way cross between Appalachian hillbilly English, bad pirate movie English (sort of an “aarggh, mateys, shiver me timbers” kind of sound), Spanglish (“Digame the truth, mija”), and some dialect form of Klingon. (For those who are curious, yes, there is an edition of Hamlet that has been translated into Klingon. It will not be on next year’s Honors syllabus though, not even if Scott Covell teaches the class.)

Elizabethan English is rich and exciting, though to many modern readers, seemingly distant. It is not, really. William Shakespeare did not speak (nor write in) “Old English,” despite that common expression, but instead in what linguists formally call “Early Modern English.” His English is our English, just sort of the preliminary moonshine and chitlins version.

After a few days in Shakespeare’s London, most of us would adapt to this earlier version of English and would, for example, be able to order a beer—and be able to curse the bartender if he short-changes us. (Any mug of ale that costs more than a penny is vastly overpriced.) You could pass the time at cockfights or waiting for a public execution, but there would be no Starbucks to go to: coffee and tea are not yet known either.

On the street, the Elizabethans would stare at us—so tall, so fat, and with such white teeth—but after a while, after we stopped noticing the stench of unwashed humanity and got used to using outhouses (or just the open street), we would begin to miss the little things. Shakespeare never ate fish and chips, since the potato had not yet made it from the Incas to the English yet. If he had pizza (unlikely), it was made with olive oil, not tomato sauce. There were no tacos, but if there had been, there would be no salsa and no guacamole, since the avocado, like vanilla and tapatío sauce and ears of corn and chocolate, comes originally from Southern Mexico and Northern Central America. Of all of the genocidal and ecologically disastrous consequences of the European “discovery” of the New World, one thing is true: for those of us who survived, our dinners became a heck of a lot more interesting.

Take, for example, chocolate.

The word comes to us through Spanish via the Aztecs, unless of course it doesn’t, and it is instead a Mayan word that got to us some other way. As usual, the experts are not quite sure.

The plant itself has been in cultivation for three thousand years.

Here is how to make a candy bar. First, go to a hillside near the equator and cut down the rain forest.

Next, plant cacao trees. These will need a few years to grow tall, mature, and produce fruit. The cacao pod while growing on the tree looks like a dangling kind of squash, about twice the size of a grapefruit, in shades of streaky green and yellow. Some turn bright red. One person in Ghana compared them to the gentleman parts on a bull. The pod is slightly grotesque and yet almost ornamental: Tim Burton as botanist.

Let the pods ripen. Harvest them with a machete. For the tall ones, you will need a medieval pole-ax. Next, cut the pods open and scoop out the seeds. (So far, it’s a bit like making a jack-o-lantern.) Next the seeds need to ferment. It won’t taste like chocolate without this step, but instead, more like deeply bitter coffee grounds. As soon as they have fermented, we need to rush the cacao pod seeds out into sunlight, to dry, or else they will begin to mold. This is the tropics, after all, where even a pair of wet socks can turn into a stinking green mess in just a few days in the back of the car. On a small farm, the drying is just done in the front yard.

In the photo above, this woman in Ghana was very proud of her crop, and wanted me to take her picture.

Her friend looks like she is off to help Henry V defeat the French at Agincourt. Apparently she was known in the village as the Bruce Lee of machete harvesters, and she let us handle her tools: these blades were strong, straight, and perfectly honed.

After the seeds are dried, they go into gunny sacks and enter the modern industrial process. Along the way, sort of like coffee, they will be graded, roasted, and processed into various forms that all will end up—with varying amounts of milk, sugar, butter, and monosodium glutamate—in a celebrity endorsement (or just at toddler-eye-level next to the check-out line at Wal-Mart).

Note the drawing of the quetzal bird, a kind of brilliantly colored, long-tailed trogon. This is the name of the unit of currency in Guatemala but shouldn’t be on the wrapper of a candy bar, since in the interaction evolution of fruit, pit, and dispersal agent, quetzals may have helped God to invent the avocado. The trick is to invent a product that is so good to eat that birds will come from miles around to gorge on it, and then, as they fly off, your seed pod (too big to digest) will pass through and be dispersed. The Christmas sprig of mistletoe works this way: in the wild, it is a parasite, often on sycamores, but the seeds get pasted onto branches after the berries are gnoshed on by cedar waxwings and other flocking birds, who eat the berries and then “plant” them, incidentally, along the tops of branches. Cacao seeds I will assume were meant to be distributed by forest-dwelling and ground-feeding rodents like the agouti, but this is, the blog hosts want to rush to explain, wild speculation on Charles Hood’s part. Perhaps they had no other purpose than just to wait for Willy Wonka to come along and make magic happen.

So pity Mr. Shakespeare. He inherited an English so fresh and malleable that he could invent a thousand (some say 3000) words and nobody would mind. All of his food was organic and beer cost one cent. On the other hand, he had lice and bedbugs, people often died in their twenties and thirties, and there was not a single chocolate bar anywhere in Great Britain, not from the back alley alchemists' shops to the most lavish dinner table laid out for Queen Elizabeth. The royal drink of the Aztec court—enriched with vanilla and chili and other still-secret ingredients—was unknown to him. If only history would have been different, we might have had a sonnet that started, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Well, then, how about to something sweet and delicious from Trader Joe’s?”

Lit classes and Valentine’s Days would have turned out very differently.


  1. That would be very interesting, being able to talk to Shakespeare. I'd probably try to squeeze every bit of information I can from him to share to everyone. We can learn so much more from him.

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