By Kim Groves.
At first glance I thought the floor was filthy, but the dark colored dust that was stuck between the tiles was not dirt, but chocolate. I scuffed my boots a little in it, like a child. I stood around the storefront trying to look casual. Like I knew what I was doing. I was watching the people and trying to figure out the process. The process of buying chocolate.
There was an old woman with a huge bulging plastic bag of bread. I smiled at her and she seemed to accept me. She showed me the ticket she held that indicated her special order of chocolate. We talked a little. She wasn’t paying the slightest bit of attention to the fascinating elaboration that was going on in front of us. A line of strange looking machines were grinding and whipping and combining. The smell that came off the warm metal was incredible. After a performance of some minutes, a man handed her a plastic bag full of a dark semi-solid mass. I leant in, leading with my nose, but before I could examine it more closely, it disappeared amongst a rustle of plastic and skirts.
The ancient Mexicans believed that the cacao bean was a gift from the gods, and thus only high priests and nobles were permitted to drink it. For a period, the raw bean actually served as a currency. It was originally prepared without sugar, and was instead sweetened with honey. It was believed to have many health benefits, including settling stomach problems, and stimulating healthy blood and heart function. The aphrodisiac effect was noted also!
It was the colonizing Spanish monks who introduced chocolate to Europe, where it was taken up most earnestly by the Swiss. Today the bean is grown in almost all sub-tropical regions of the world. It is a product bound up in both gastronomical pleasure and economic and political complexity.
Ever since that first day amongst the chocolate shops on Calle Mina, I have begun to experiment. More almonds. Less sugar. A certain touch of cinnamon. It is up to you how you add to this ancient magical bean. I admit, in my attempts I have burnt the tongues of quite a few friends. But, personally, I like it hotter than it’s good for a person. I take pleasure in handing someone, drenched and hassled by Oaxaca’s afternoon rainstorms, a dangerously steaming cup. And of course, in Oaxaca, bread accompanies chocolate like cheese does wine. The verb ‘sopear’ is a favorite of mine. It is practically bad manners not to dunk your bread straight into your cup.
The act of mixing the chocolate as it melts into water immediately took on a special meaning for me. Every time I roll that wooden tool between my fingers I sense that I am doing something that generations and generations of women have been doing before me. It speaks to me of the feminine power to transform something ordinary into something divine. Chocolate for me is something that symbolizes the combining of earth and water and fire.
The Mexican phrase, como agua para chocolate, made famous by Laura Esquivel’s novel of the same name, describes someone in a state of anger or passion. Ready to boil and burn, like water for chocolate. I personally like to think of it more in terms of being ready to transform, or about the richness and potential to rally and change…