catherine macpherson researches the roots of chocolate & finds out what all the fuss is about

illustration by grace gao

excerpted from the print magazineÖ

I feel a little like I imagine the Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes might have felt. Reports from early Colonial Mexico suggest that Cortes was not really taken with chocolate himself, yet he schlepped quantities of cacao beans back across the Atlantic, aware of the importance that cacao held for the Aztecs and thus believing it would somehow be important to Spain.

I study chocolate and its history in Canada. I know, dream job right? But I donít feel all that lucky and sometimes ask myself: why does this substance that clearly evokes strong positive reactions in others only evoke indifference in me? (if, in fact you can even evoke indifferenceÖ)

Iíve come to think that itís chocolateís contemporary omnipresence that has dulled my enthusiasm. The gaga reaction to a food that sits shrink-wrapped and saccharine at every checkout counter has me perplexed. I know from my research that chocolate it supposed to be special, but I struggle to understand why. I recently attended a gathering of other historians researching chocolate. They all enthused over the magnetism of the subject while I forced a wry smile and felt like a hypocrite among my peers.

Perhaps itís true: familiarity breeds contempt. Chocolate is readily available, in all shapes, sizes and colours. Most mass-produced chocolate tastes the same the world over. Its association with love and tokens of affection has pretty much been reduced to kitsch, and its sacred symbolism long forgotten. Still, I canít just dismiss it.

A Nova Scotia native, Catherine Macpherson is a freelance food writer, independent researcher, occasional caterer and all-around bon vivant. She holds a Masterís of Gastronomy degree from Boston University, and is certified in the Knowledge of Cheese. She strives to eat as locally as possible.

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