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Simon Majumdar Interviews UCLA Professor Teofilo Ruiz:

The History of Chocolate

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Bonus Episode 1 Show Notes:
Teofilo Ruiz Interview

A very special interview of UCLA Professor Teofilo Ruiz. The interview covers, among others, the impact of the introduction of chocolate to the Old World. 

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TRANSCRIPT

EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn't Know You Didn't Know About Food

SIMON MAJUMDAR INTERVIEWS UCLA PROFESSOR TEOFILO RUIZ

SHOW INTRO MUSIC

SIMON MAJUMDAR (SM):

Hey, everybody. It's Simon Majumdar here. And welcome to the latest episode of Eat My Globe, things you didn't know you didn’t know about food. Now, if you haven't listened to last week’s episode about the HISTORY OF CHOCOLATE, I really urge you to go back and listen to that, because on this very special episode we've invited a great guest who's going to give us a more academic, rounded view of some of the things that I put in there and really expound on them. So, go and listen to that. We'll take a break. We'll sit here with a glass of hot chocolate waiting for you to come back, and we'll start very soon.

 

BREAK MUSIC

 

SM:

So, my special guest, please introduce yourself to our wonderful audience here on Eat My Globe.

 

Teofilo Ruiz (TR):

My full name is Teofilo, which is a Greek name, though I am not Greek. All my students and friends called me Teo, which is easier. I am a distinguished teacher, distinguished professor of history and in Spanish and Portuguese at UCLA, and also the holder of Wellman Chair in medieval history.

 

SM:

Wonderful. And it's great to have you on the show. And again, I just wanted to say thank you to UCLA with whom we create this show in cooperation. They're fantastic to work with, the whole team there. And we couldn't do this show without them or it certainly wouldn't be anywhere near the show that it is without them.

 

What we're going to do on this episode is to hopefully expand upon some of those ideas and arguments that we talked about last week on the evolution of the chocolate industry and how chocolate came to the West. But I know you particularly have some thoughts on things like the Columbian exchange that I've discussed a great deal.

 

So, let's just start with chocolate and how it was found in the Mesoamerica and how it moved to Spain. Because I know without Spain probably chocolate, the chocolate industry as it were, would have been delayed by a great deal because they were very much the first people involved in it, weren't they?

 

TM:

Yes, indeed. The first Europeans who bring chocolate to the New – to the Old World. The history of chocolate, it's very complex, and it falls in line with all those plans that were domesticated by humans. And there is a great deal of domestication of plants in the early Mesoamerica but throughout the Americas, potatoes are domesticated 10,000 years ago.

 

We are not sure when is that the cacao, cocoa beans were domesticated. But it could be pre, kind of in the BC period probably as early as 1400 BCE. And then you see many different ways throughout Mesoamerica and by the great cultures of Mesoamerica, the old Mex, the Mayans, and the Aztecs. And as it happened, I was just in Costa Rica and one of the things selling in a coffee plantation, were also cocoa leaves and also cacao and chocolate, very much mixed with sugar.

 

It is probably the first Europeans to have seen cacao beans and see the use of them may have occurred in the early 16th century in the fourth voyage of Columbus. But the first true record is from Cortes in the early 16th century, 1521, then recorded by Bernal Díaz del Castillo who wrote many, many years afterwards. Something that he called "The True History of the Conquest of Mexico." And so it comes to the old world as many of the products did in the 16th century.

SM:

And with what others kind of products would it have been coming from the Americas into the West with. So, what other things were they-

 

TR:

Well, of course the Spaniards, which is really the Castilians who come to the New World and who encounter the New World are interested mainly in the spices, which there were none in the Caribbean, and of course in silver and gold. But nonetheless, they took several plants, and that's part of the larger Columbian exchange. Coffee, which have essentially, we brought first to the New World from Europe, because it is an African plant it's a Middle Eastern plant. But sugar was also came to the New World, but from the New World to the Old, you have things like a cocoa, what will become chocolate.

 

You have tomatoes, which will not be eaten in Europe until much, much later. You have potatoes, which also will not be eaten in Europe until much, much later for a variety of reasons. And then of course, most significantly corn.

 

SM:

And I believe that with a lot of these products, a lot of these crops, the initial European reaction as I know it was with chocolate, was a little bit unsure, wasn't it? I mean, I know that I read about Columbus thinking that these things were just almonds when he first saw cacao seeds and they couldn't quite understand. I think it was his son Ferdinand, couldn't quite understand why they were scooping them up whenever they drop them on the floor. They were so worried about them. And I believe that some of the English pirates who first ever encountered them thought that they were sheep droppings. I mean, is this something that we saw a lot with the Europeans who first encountered some of these strange ingredients?

 

TR:

Well, they knew that they were something that people could drink, and in fact, it was something that was drunk by the elite in Aztec society or what is called Mexica society. So they knew about the importance and there are several references in the sources from the 16th century, Spanish sources, about the use of these beans as form of currency. So they knew of their value.

 

Now, if you think about cocoa leaves, cocoa beans, or you could think of coffee beans. It is not always obvious how they are to be used or how do you get to use it. You have to eliminate that, the skin of the products. You have to process it. So that there is a whole knowledge of it. That was not initially obvious to Europeans. So, they brought it to Europe, they took one of the uses in Mesoamerica which was a kind of a health issue or health use, as a form of medicine, because these plants are very bitter, and the cacao is a very bitter product and it is only when it's mixed with sugar that it becomes essentially something that is flavor as a form of drinking or eating.

 

SM:

And I'd love to talk about how that happened. It went from being, as you said initially, even when it first came to Spain, it was seen as a medication. I know there were discussions about how it could help gout, it could help all kinds of other problems. It was even, I know cited as an aphrodisiac. But how did it go from being this kind of medicinal thing that I believe initially it was for the nobility, to this sweeter, wider, more consumed drink by a wider group of the population. And how did that process happen over what kind of period was that from its first arrival in Spain?

 

TR:

I think that there is no immediate knowledge on when someone tried to combine this. Probably with honey rather than sugar since in the areas in which the cacao would have arrive in Europe and in Spain, in Castile, there was no sugar production, which is was something limited to the area of Valencia and the encounter or conquest of the Americas was really a Castilian process. So I think this probably, this product was mixed with honey. It was believed to be an aphrodisiac. And so it had a clientele right then and there.

 

SM:

[Laughs]

 

TR:

And essentially when, [laughs] well at the same time we had sweet, were considered to be aphrodisiacs.

 

So Malmsey for example, a kind of Madeira wine, is considered to be an aphrodisiac. So it probably was mixed with, since already had a kind of a history as an aphrodisiac in Mesoamerica. It was combined probably with honey first and with sugar later. And of course the taste is very particularly unappealing. And since I know that you are a lover of chocolate, you could see why this is so.

 

I was just in Costa Rica, as I was saying before, and they gave us a kind of chocolate dose and the amount of sugar in it was extraordinary. It was incredibly sweet.

 

Now, even to this very day, people in what is today, Mexico, especially in the area of Oaxaca which was one of the main producers of cacao beans and of chocolates, what we call it today, is still the preferred they're chocolate or their cacao not necessarily as very sweet. And which is why the popularity of things like mole, for example, which is combination with the spices and that's something else that has to be said here about the use of a chocolate in Mesoamerica or before the coming of the Castilians or the Spaniards, and in fact even afterwards, which is, it's not only, it is an aphrodisiac, it is medicinal. It is also an alcoholic beverage. It can be fermented.

 

And it was always mixed with chiles, with spicy things. So if you think of mole negro today, which is consumed in large numbers in Los Angeles and in Oaxaca and northern parts of Mexico. It's never really sweet. It's a very special kind of taste that is not bitter either. But that it has a consistency and a taste which is quite unique.

 

SM:

That transfer back and forth, you've talked about the chocolate, obviously, coming to Europe from Mesoamerica and also then that love of sweetness going back over time into the communities there and in places where we're still seeing very sweet preparations of it, that forms part of this transfer that I've talked about in a number of episodes. In fact, I did talk about it when I wrote about a very British dish -- THE HISTORY OF FISH AND CHIPS -- and I talked about potatoes. And obviously we had that back and forth and I'm going to write about it, I'm sure, again.

 

We had this exchange that I've talked about a lot, which I call the Columbian exchange after Alfred Crosby's book of the same name. And I wonder if you'd care to touch on that because this is, I think, one of the things that had one of the biggest impacts on the world, not just on the way we eat, and obviously this is a food podcast, but in the way that the demographics of the countries now exists because of movements of people and economies and the way that we trade. And I know that something that you've studied particularly, and I'd love to know whether you think the Columbian exchange is a useful model still, and what those kinds of impacts were?

 

TR:

I think that the Crosby book, even though is now more than two decades old, is still a really significant contribution to our understanding of what took place. It's not just a transference of food from one place to another. There's also the social and cultural implications of these exchanges. When the Europeans came for the first time to the New World in the early 16th century, although it is absolutely certain, there is archaeological evidence of a Norseman, of Viking foundation, probably coming from Greenland, around the year 1000. And it's called L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. And there is archaeological evidence of that.

 

There is of course also in the sagas references to Vinland, which is, and of course there is a famous Vinland map. There is however, an even more puzzling thing, which is one of the murals, or several of the murals in Chichen Itza, the great Mayan temple, there are a fresco depicting three white man having their hearts excised, and in the background there are three Viking ships. So it is not incredible that these people may have sailed south, following the coast, that they ended up in Yucatan, and for their sins, they were sacrificed at the temple.

 

SM:

Right.

 

TR:

But that's something else. That's something, that's something that's another, in another class.

SM:

No, it's a fascinating story. I just wanted to touch on it because quite frankly I hadn't heard that before. Although I obviously knew about the Vinland sagas and the expeditions up there and Leif Erickson. But anyway, back to our story. He says after going off in a tangent, let's talk more about the Columbian exchange.

 

TR:

So I think that what happened is that when Europeans come, or at least in recorded history, they come for the first time, face to face with this New World. It led to something that has been described more than 20 years ago as the shock of the new because the discovery of America challenged all the established or the, I will not say the discovery, the encounter with America challenged all established mythologies about the world. These are people who have never heard of Christianity. These are people in the outskirts of the world who are not this monstrous phrases.

 

Who are these people? There's a great deal of energy is spent in trying to define what has been found and how. There is a dramatic ecological transfer, not just from the Americas to the Old World, but from the Old World to the New.

 

From the Old World to the New, you have the importations of livestock, you have the importation of sickness, smallpox, measles and the like. They are going to absolutely obliterate most of the population of the Caribbean islands, and most of the population in the valley of Mexico.

 

You have also… they bring, the bringing of livestocks and so on because the Castilians were not used to the diet or to the climate of the world they discover, and they are still wanted to produce and eat the things that they were used in Spain … will transform the ecology of these Caribbean islands, and in some respects of the mainland. If you look and read the descriptions of the Caribbean in the purse accounts, the second voyage of Columbus by Dr. Alvarez Chanca. This a paradisical islands with thick vegetation and they're turning into places for grazing of lands and the introduction of cows and pigs, which are very disrupting to the ecology. Land, ships, and tools will actually have tremendous impact. So that's the first, should we say level of that. There is a possibility that natives also gave the Spaniards some illness. There is a big debate on the spread of syphilis, which is not clear that it originated in the New World. It probably originated in Africa. And he had been in Europe before, and there is a record of deaths from it in the early 16th century. It was called the Spanish evil, the Spanish sickness.

 

You could see why, but it is not clear that it came from the New World. But all the things come from the New World. Precious woods. Bullion. In the world, Europe, which was a starve for silver. There was no really reliable gold or silver mines in Europe. And the import of silver, mostly silver, less so gold, is something that has a tremendous impact on European society, because it led to a price inflation. There was inflationary trend that would have great impact on the societies and economies of European countries. And then the products. Chocolate, tobacco, and there is a great book by Marcy Norton on the impact of tobacco and chocolate on the European world. Potatoes, which the Europeans refused to eat because they believe that the leaves were poisonous and because this is a, a commodity that grows underneath the ground, and they would not eat until the price of grain rose to such incredible levels that they were forced to eat corn in very poor areas like Galicia, or in areas of Italy, which is why you have today products made of corn in this areas. Or tomatoes.

 

And if you think of the number of products, you are someone who is interested in cooking and food and so on. Think of the number of products that are so clearly associated with native or traditions of countries in Europe. Poland or France or Ireland or Italy, and in which there are products that are really dependent on the potato. This is only 200 years old. They came from the New World and the 16th century, but are not really develop or eaten until the very late 18 or the early 19th century. Think of vodka. Things that we completely associate with other cultures are really originated in the New World.

 

SM:

So it really, in a way, the Columbian exchange, this exchange of products, this exchange of crops, just totally redefined the New World. And things that we now take for granted, whether it is a bar of chocolate or eating a bag of chips, is something that at the time really was redefining. And we're only talking, as you say, a few hundred years ago.

 

In return, I think we will, we see that the Columbian exchange, or this exchange, changed those other countries from which they were taken, the Mesoamerican particularly, it changed that as those areas totally, didn't it? I mean, they are now…

 

TR:

Yeah.

 

SM:

... and I'd love to talk about that and I know particularly I always think about, we think about these things in terms of crops, but one of the biggest changes, which has caused problems both socially and politically as we move on, just because of the different demographics, was that change to the people who were there. And I'd love to touch on that.

TR:

Well, for example, sugar is a product that comes from the Old World to the New. It's imported because the climatic conditions are very, should we say, proper for the growing of sugar. Sugar plantations begin to appear in the Caribbean and in some parts of South America. Or in some parts of Central America where there is the growing of sugar cane. But sugar cane, which is a plantation system, means a different kind of forms of slavery. It means the replacement of native labor, which in the Caribbean, this appears very quickly by imported African slaves. It means the development of theories about why one has a legitimate right to enslave other people. There is a connection between certain products, certain economic regimes and methods of productivity or production and certain social institutions such as slavery.

 

So … the missionaries who came to Mexico City in the middle of the 16th century. And so the great ruins of Tenochtitlan, which happened to be the largest city in the western hemisphere in 1521 when Cortes sacked the city, they could not believe that the people who they saw every day in their daily life working in the streets or working in the farms and so on, the natives who have been subjugated by the Spanish could be the same people who have built those monuments. That is to say to a certain extent, although all these things of course, have to be taken with a grain of salt. These people have been so degraded by conquest, by the altering of the ecological world in which they live by the introduction of new products, the introduction of illnesses into their lives, that it transformed the manner in which these people essentially lived and have lived for many, many centuries now. So that essentially … what you have is the … the construction of societies that are very, very different from the ones that existed before.

 

SM:

Do you see that this process is still being worked through and by that I, let's return to the subject of chocolate and one of the things that I noticed, and this is using Africa as an example, is that Cote d'Ivoire produces a huge percentage of the amount of cacao in the world, or cocoa now with the grounds, but makes almost none of the cash. And even now these are independent countries rather than colonized countries, their trading agreements have been set up so economically at least they're still being colonized. Do you think this is something that we're still working through from that process that Crosby talked about?

TR:

Indeed. Because the four great producers of a cocoa leaves, cocoa beans or cacao, a really four African countries in Equatorial Africa. Cote d'Ivoire and Congo and so on. And there are the politics of dependence exist. Again, they are the producers of raw materials which they export and which is transformed. But there is something even more sinister about this, is that we know that while slavery was not necessarily this only sole method of growing cacao or cocoa beans, there is slavery to this very day in the western African countries. There is child slavery because children are preferred as the form of labor.

 

They are more docile and more easily controllable, which is experience of the industrial revolution in the 18 and early 19th century. That is to say you employ women and children in the factories because they are easy to manage than males. So we have a situation where slavery is still with us and there are campaigns throughout the world to essentially target those companies that use the cacao beans from these countries where slavery is practiced to this very day. So you could see the, how complex this is. In a product that has so many positive elements to it. Social, cultural valence, chocolate has such cultural valence. I was looking at your podcast and you love Madrid, and what is more being in Madrid and going to the Plaza Mayor and having a cup of chocolate with churros? And in fact there is a favorable place to do this right off outside the Plaza Mayor.

 

SM:

Yes, San Ginés, I have been in there many times, many dozens of times.

 

TR:

And it opens, it stays open until 7:00 AM because the people, when they come out from the clubs and from dancing, and Spain being a country where life is much later, they all go, they to have chocolate in the morning to replenish themselves.

 

Well think of Harry Potter. It is chocolate that you give to children who are scared of dementors to essentially return hope. So we have given to chocolate search valence or our para chocolate and then the movie and the novel. Mexican novel, and how you have to do incredibly hot water to prepare your chocolate.

 

SM:

Chocolate as you say, has become so much a part of culture all around the world. And it has this fascinating history and often quite dark history. It has a dark side to its current existence with the problems that we see in some of the west African nations. But I think that's beginning to turn around, hopefully, slowly, with people being more aware of it.

 

TR:

And I think like every other product. It has a kind of a contradictory nature. It is something which we associate with hope, with getting yourself back into business. Keeping the dementors in our lives away by eating a little bit of piece of chocolate. I have a piece of chocolate every evening. Just a little bit just to taste it. So it will not make me balloon into unwanted weight. But I need to have that taste. And I prefer also the dark and somewhat bitter chocolate over the sweet ones.

 

SM:

Me too. I think we have a lot in common because I always have, part of me is very British and I have my cup of tea every evening and part of me always has to have my little bit of chocolate, which is I think is a good place to kind of round up there because I was going to ask you and you've just answered the question of whether you actually like chocolate after doing so much work studying it. I know sometimes I can't sit at home and watch food TV programs, which I work on a lot just because, not because they're not wonderful just because I do it all the time as a living. And it's a bit like what we call an England, a busman's holiday where the busman takes his time off from work and then spends it driving his family around. So I wondered whether you actually like chocolate, but I'm glad to hear that chocolate is still something that you have to have.

 

TR:

Ah yes, in very small proportions. But the taste of it, and I think you just use the title from Dorothy Sayer’s novel, Busman Holiday.

 

[Laughter]

 

SM:

[Laughter]

 

And do-

 

TR:

A Dorothy Sayers novel, yeah.

 

SM:

[Laughter]

 

And do you have a specific kind that you, I'm sure everyone out there will go, well here we have an expert not only on where chocolate came from, but types of chocolate around the world. Do you have-

 

TR:

I must say. Yes, I am a little bit, I go to Paris every summer, and they are great chocolatiers in Paris.

 

SM:

Of course.

 

TR:

I visit one that it dates from the 18th century. 1764 is the foundation of this pastry and chocolate shop. But I like, I think something that I got in their chocolate, with a little bit of caramel and sea salt.

 

SM:

Oh, well that's a great combination. I think that savory nature of the salt with a little bit of sweetness and bitterness from the chocolate.

 

TR:

Yeah.

 

[Laughter]

 

SM:

I think that's a great point to wind up because we've gone through some of the darker points of dark chocolate as it were. But now we've come back to enjoying chocolate, which I think people should. And what I said in the podcast last week, and I'm sure hopefully you would echo is that when people go out and buy some chocolate, just do some research into where they're getting it, make sure they're getting it from companies who are fighting against child slavery and fighting against some of the darker practices of the chocolate industry.

 

TR:

Perfect. I agree with that completely.

 

SM:

It's been wonderful of you to join me. I really appreciate it. I'm sure everybody who listens to this will have picked up some extra information from last week's episode, particularly about that Columbian exchange. And I think the impact that we had on those territories, the impact they had on us and how much we owe to them. And I think it's something that we take for granted often when we eat something that we have like --tomatoes and potatoes -- that seem very every day, but the history of them has had such an impact on the world, and I really appreciate you taking the time to come on Eat My Globe and share that with us.

 

TR:

And I am very thankful to be included in your program.

 

SM:

Excellent.

 

TR:

Many, many thanks. Thank you.

 

SM:

Thank you so much. Take care.

 

BREAK MUSIC

 

SM:

If you enjoyed these podcasts, you may want to check out a fun series of videos I did with my friends at Pureflix.com. In “Simon Says,” I cook dishes from around the world and give a little bit of history about how they were made, but it's a lot of fun. So do go and check them out streaming exclusively on Pureflix.com.

 

Do make sure to check out the website associated with this podcast at www.EatMyGlobe.com where we will be posting the transcripts from each episode along with all the references and resources we used for putting the episodes together.

 

There is also a contact button, so please do let us know if there are any subjects you would like us to cover.

 

And if you like what you hear, please don't forget to subscribe, recommend us to your family and friends, and give us a good rating on your favorite podcast provider.

 

Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar. We’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.

 

CREDITS

 

The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”

[cash register sound]

and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History, and Nicole Gilhuis, for their notes from this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with the research and the preparations of the transcript for this episode.

Published: April 7, 2019