Today is a snow day, which is something that I haven’t had in a long, long time. My work schedule has been adjusted so that I have Mondays and Wednesdays off to take a food history class at one of the nearby colleges. But all the schools in the city are shut down today because of the big snow storm, giving me my first day in a long time with no work, no school, no family obligations and, really, nothing to do but whatever I want. I slept in and then spent several hours on the phone with T., my best friend in Seattle.
Before I called T., I made Mexican hot chocolate, which has become G.’s and my special occasion drink. The specialness started in the fall, when I was trying to get G. to go see a doctor. He hadn’t been to one in years. He would go see the nurse at work if he had a headache or something minor was bothering him, and he’d been to see his sinus doctor, but he hadn’t been to a regular doctor for a physical or checkup in a decade or more. I decided he was old enough to start getting annual checkups, and I asked, then nagged, then begged him to go. He wouldn’t. Apparently, going to the doctor when you don’t have a severe, perhaps fatal, illness is something only girlie men do. So, I made Mexican hot chocolate for G. and told him that it was a bribe to get him to go to the doctor and that he would get another cup once he went. He made an appointment that afternoon, and I bowed to the power of the hot chocolate.
We had Mexican hot chocolate again on the morning of New Year’s Eve. I have a very clear memory of me making hot chocolate while G. sang along with a song on our iPod. It was the calm before and after the storm. His father was out of the hospital and had started eating again, however little it was. My grandmother was still alive. My mother had not yet been told she had skin cancer. Death and grief were just around the corner, but we didn’t know it. We were quietly, contentedly happy.
The first thing G. had asked for that morning was hot chocolate. Part of the reason it’s so special is that he can only have it in the morning because if he drinks caffeine after noon, he won’t sleep that night. And, since we have conflicting schedules and spend very few mornings together, there are few opportunities for me to make it for him.
I was thinking about the relationship between scarcity and value this week while writing a paper for my food history class. The paper was on the Columbian Exchange, which was the transfer of foods and other goods between the Old and New Worlds after Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492. Europeans brought coffee, sugar and livestock to the Americas and took back corn, potatoes, tomatoes and peppers.
The Mexican hot chocolate we drink is a near perfect combination of Old World foods — sugar, milk and cinnamon — with discoveries from the New World — cocoa, corn and vanilla. The Maya and the Aztec drank chocolate long before Columbus landed, but their version — made with chilis and without sugar — was nothing like what we have today.
It was, however, a rare and special treat. Among the Aztec, chocolate was reserved for warriors and political and religious leaders. When the Spanish took it back to Europe, it quickly won favor among the social elite but would have been too expensive for most people to afford, even if they’d had the opportunity to buy it.
Slavery made hot chocolate available to the masses. The Portuguese and then the Spanish established sugar plantations in Central and South America that they ran with slave labor. In about 150 years, sugar went from being an expensive medicinal spice to a cheap sweetener used in coffee, tea and cocoa. Chocolate itself became affordable as the Spanish increased production, first with Indian labor, and then when the native population died off, slaves brought from Africa.
The price of sugar has never fully recovered from a price collapse in the late 1600s, when the market became saturated with sugar from the Caribbean. And cocoa became relatively cheap once the Portuguese and others moved production to their colonies in Africa. Criollo cacao, the form preferred by the Aztec and early Spanish, was too finicky and susceptible to disease to do well in Africa, but the tougher, more bitter forastero cacao did fine. Most Americans today have never tasted criollo, which is still grown in Central American but remains an expensive luxury.
Sometimes, I think about how lucky I am to be born in this country in this century. I suppose I could ponder the advantages that come from being white, American and living in an era when woman can vote, own property and hold nearly any job they want.
But more often, I think about small luxuries. For example, I have a clothes washer and dryer in my building. I can do my laundry without ever going outside. When my mother was born, my grandmother had no washer or dryer and had to wash all the cotton diapers by hand. I am amazed she went on to have three more children.
I have a similar sense of wonder with my hot chocolate. Asians, Arabs and Europeans built trade routes and undertook hazardous voyages of six months or more to acquire cinnamon. Africans were taken from their homes and worked to death so that Europeans could get chocolate and sugar. Cinnamon, sugar, cocoa and vanilla: they were foods worth killing for, perhaps dying for. And for me, it’s just a two-block walk to the grocery store.
That’s partly why I am grateful that G. can’t have chocolate after noon. His limits force me to choose carefully when I am going to have chocolate, and because I don’t have Mexican hot chocolate every day, it remains special. I don’t want to take for granted something that was so rare and hard-won for so many for so long.
Atole con Chocolate
Source: West Coast Cooking by Greg Atkinson
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Combine cornstarch, sugar, cocoa powder and cinnamon in a pan and whisk together. Add milk and whisk over medium-high heat until mixture comes to a gentle boil. Stir in vanilla extract.
Pour into mugs and let cool to the desired temperature. Don’t let it cool completely to room temperature or it will become too thick.