Melt the cheapest variety of chocolates available over a hot pan of water. Stir till silky and frothy. Add a cup of milk and one spoon of full cream. Two spoons of sugar, if you feel indulgent and if the guests coming, are important and not new money. The nouveau bastards won’t know the difference either way. Serve in the ancestral tea set you preserved after selling off your diamonds. Garnish with the most expensive chunk of chocolate available. Don’t forget to keep a cup aside for him, as a last attempt to stop him from going to the blasted debauched chocolate houses.
In this column, dear reader, as we draw close to an ending, I’d like to go back to the beginning. This beginning is the one of chocolate. Chocolate and the roots of its building into the commodified and much-loved condiment that it is today. What I also look at is an analysis of the significance of chocolate and chocolate houses as reflections of the social processes and change during the Eighteenth Century. Chocolate represents the crumbling of the old aristocracy while indicating the arrival of the industrial age and the revolution for egalitarianism.
On September 14, 1715, Dudley Ryder wrote in his diary:
“Rose between 6 and 7. Got myself ready for my journey to the Hay with Cousin Billio and his wife. At 7 o’clock cousin and his wife came. They would not stay to drink chocolate and so left me to follow them after having drank some chocolate.”
Ryder, Attorney General in 1745 and later Lord Chief Justice, was an uptight man, extremely particular about rules, and the fact that he delayed his trip to drink his chocolate indicates to the careful reader, the obsession of the English citizens of the early Eighteenth Century with this drink, which was very carefully manufactured.
After the first beans of cocoa had hit the European continent in the sixteenth century, the first chocolate drink was sold in a shop called The Coffee Mill & Tobacco Roll. The drink had been earlier sold in Coffee houses, but due to its bitter taste and expensive rates, it was ignored for a cup of coffee that had more caffeine and hence, packed a better punch in a cup.
As Matthew Green notes for Chocolate Houses in London, “For a city with little tradition of hot drinks (coffee had only arrived five years earlier), chocolate was an alien, suspect substance drunk associated with Popery and idleness (i.e. France and Spain)” and, it came from alien lands of the new world for the herb was said to be grown in Central America, giving it a mysterious and sketchy aura for the English elite.
Hence, to generate a demand the market was flooded with a “slew of pamphlets”(Green), posters put up in every nook, diaries and the newspapers carried accounts of chocolate as this wondrous miracle drink that cured hangovers, was preferred by royalty and more popularly, acted as an aphrodisiac.
As William Hughes writes: “[Chocolate] revives drooping spirits and cheers those ready to faint, expelling sorrow, trouble, care & all perturbations of the mind, is an ambrosia … it cannot be too much praised.”
“The public was sold on it” (Green), and soon, multiple Chocolate Houses sprang up across London giving rivalry to the coffee houses and tavern culture. White’s Chocolate House established in St. James’s Street (1699) was one of the most popular. Incidentally, it is also the model for the chocolate house setting for Congreve’s The Way of the World. Its popularity gave the English Government another lucrative opportunity to earn money and so a heavy tax was imposed on it.
The tax ensured that only the wealthy could afford the drink, thereby rendering the Chocolate Houses, spaces for the privileged. The Chocolate Houses also capitalised on the fact that it was aristocracy and the nouveaux rich who were their target audience and hence, introduced an entrance fee of a penny besides the additional cost of chocolate. To cater to every whim of those with the money, the Chocolate Houses transformed into hubs of gambling, political discussion, gossip and all kinds of debauchery the rich and those who aspired to be rich indulged in.
And hence, in “the most fashionable hell” that London was, the Chocolate Houses became the most fashionable and hellish institution around. To be able to afford a drink of chocolate declared one’s status and to frequent the place made one fashionable.
In light of what stood as modish, let’s take a detour to visit the idea of the emergence of London City which ran parallel to the emergence of chocolate Houses in London. What Arthur J. Weitzman notes about the changes in London as it emerges as a city, that “The increase of trade brought wealth to the city and sparked a building boom”, is evident in the fact that multiple stores and institutions started selling chocolate and Chocolate houses opened to cope with the demands.
Also, “there was a steady improvement of civic life as affluence and luxury seeped down through the classes in the city” (Green), and nothing spelt luxury like chocolate did. The drinking of chocolate became a performance that the aristocrats and the new moneyed class (that had earned their wealth through trade; in some cases trade of cocoa itself) indulged in, to establish their status in the society. This ‘performance’ was reflective of a larger anxiety that was prevalent in the society.
The waves of economic change introduced through the opening up of trade marked the cultural transformation from “vestigial feudalism to a new economic order,” one governed by money and not birth or blood. The aristocracy desperately clutching to the power they derived from their status emphasised the performance, and the gentility (the new moneyed classes) indulged in this performance, in turn, to prove their status.
This is also reflected in the first act of The Way of The World (1700) set in a chocolate house. The act has Petulant, the fool and the fop desperate for social ascendance in class, who pays people to call on him in the chocolate house to accord himself importance. If one would look at it in light of Foucault’s discourse on power, this is a clear example of a body made docile by the discourses and institutions of power and then, made to submit to the codes of behavior expected from his aspired-to class.
The relevance of the Chocolate Houses lies in the manner in which Congreve uses it to show the trajectory and irrelevance of the Rake figure in the contemporary times and the New Century. As many critics have noticed, the Restoration rake did become the reformed rake, as morality triumphed and sentimental comedy took over.
Richard Braverman argues that the failure of Fainall – the rake figure in the play, and hence positioned as the villain, lies in the fact that he hadn’t adapted to the changing times unlike Mirabell. Fainall hence represents the old crumbling aristocracy in the face of the new society governed by money.
In an analogy related to the chocolate house, Braverman writes that Fainall’s power has been proven symbolically impotent. His Rakish status is outdated and dead when he asks, “Bring me some Chocolate.”
Braverman writes,“Fainall is himself powerless by the location of his ‘court’. He holds forth in a chocolate house, a venue of new men and social equality, rather than the tavern, where rakes traditionally assemble to restore themselves after a debauch.”
Fainall’s court, representative of royalty and aristocracy, has been replaced by a chocolate house. An institution governed by power and privilege secured through birth and blood has been replaced by an institution governed by money.
In a paradox, the social set up of Chocolate Houses, governed by money, ends up democratising power and debauchery. Debauchery and Rakishness earlier reserved for the elite, are now due to the power of the money, available to all. Hence, to spin the words of a common anecdote to suit the purpose of the argument — when everyone is a debauched rake, no one is a debauched rake.
In another paradox, the chocolate house becomes a symbol is of, in this context, one associated with the spirit of Revolution in the eighteenth century. The spirit of the chocolate in the Chocolate Houses reflects a democratisation of society based on money but also, the debauchery and cruel decadence of the rich and the royal, in sharp contrast with the dying poor, which became a premier cause of the French Revolution itself. One has to but look at the instance of the royal family’s Flight to Varennes in 1791 where Marie Antoinette refused to part with her silver chocolatière, to realise the significance of the chocolate symbolism.
Chocolate Houses, were as Braverman calls them: “A venue of male sociability reserved for news and gossip, wit and especially cards.” The decadence associated with gambling ran so deep as to destroy whole inheritances, fortunes and even kill people. The addiction to gambling and the destructive power of it is evident in the legendary White’s betting book, which archives wagers from 1743 to 1878. It consists of bizarre predictions like:
“Mr Howard bets Colonel Cooke six guineas that six members of White’s Club die between this day of July 1818 and this day of 1819’, reads one typical entry (Colonel Cooke won). Elsewhere there are bets on which celebrities will outlive others; the length of pregnancies; the outcomes of battles; the Madness of George III; the future price of the stock; and whether a politician will turn up to the Commons in a red gown or not.”(Green, 2017)
To return to the cruel underbelly of the cruelty of Chocolate Houses – what chocolate itself was representative of was slavery. Labelled by Carl Linnaeus, the 18th-century scientist as Theobroma cacao — food of the gods – it was a product of the exploitation of the slaves, from the plantation culture in the colonies of Africa to the very trading of cocoa beans as a commodity along with the slaves.
Another insight that further reflection upon the connection of Slavery and Chocolate offers is into the relationship between the Old World and the New World. A chocolate according to James F. Gay was more “American than American Pie.” It was one of the few things, a subset of trade practices that was linking the two worlds together amidst their fraying strands of connection as the New World declared its independence.
Chocolate allowed other products of slavery to flourish, like Sugar. If one were to compare the recipe of Chocolate drink between the two centuries the comparison yields the following result.
In 1692 the following recipe was published by M. St. Disdier of France:
“2 pounds prepared cacao
1 pound fine sugar
1/3 ounce cinnamon
1/24 ounce powdered cloves
1/24 ounce Indian pepper (chile)
1 1/4 ounce vanilla
A paste was made of these dried ingredients on a heated stone, and then it was boiled to make hot chocolate.”
By 1700, Sidney Mintz notes, “Chiles” disappeared completely from the recipes and was replaced with an extra ounce of sugar. He attributes this to the significance of sugar as a luxury product that “embodied the social position of the wealthy and powerful.” He further elaborates “sugar’s usefulness as a mark of rank—to validate one’s social position. To elevate others, or to define them as inferior.”
The aristocracy’s clinging to chocolate to define their status and the increase in the portion of sugar and cocoa which represents the new money culture emphasises how Chocolate became a symbol of the Old and New period. The fact that the bitter cocoa extract of the 1650s which was discarded by all became the envious frothy “food of the gods” liquid of the eighteenth century symbolises the nature of the change that the turn of the eighteenth century brought. It was a change that said loud and clear that the aim was to not destroy the old culture, but in the true essence of its utilitarian economical reasonable ideology, the purpose was to preserve the best parts of the old, while recreating a convenient New.
The seeds of the Industrial Revolution themselves can be seen in the production of cocoa as people discovered newer implements to mass produce chocolate as demand for it increased. In France, 1776 Dorset invents a hydraulic processor to grind cocoa beans into a paste, facilitating the first large-scale production of chocolate. The constant inventions and experimentation with the recipe of the drink and its associated implements hinted at an age obsessed with science and innovation.
To conclude, chocolate and chocolate houses themselves became an emblem of social relations and more importantly a social change in the eighteenth century. The consumption and production peaked and declined with the beginning and ending of the century, connoting the whimsical time of the Eighteenth Century.
The production declined in line with the revolutionary ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity but when chocolate returned in the Nineteenth century as a product of an Industrial mass production rather than, the colonial upper-class decadence, it was here to stay.
As I end my last column of the year, it is but obvious for me to enquire of the reader if you have stayed with us from the basting through the roasting and finally plating?
If yes, I hope that the next time you look at that chunk of chocolate in your hand or read about the picnic of Blyton’s Famous Five, you will think of food as more than just bread and butter that Anne made and Julian ate.
Yours Truly is an ambitious young adult who writes about the only thing they are accomplished in: eating.
Written by Devika
Column icon by Kanishka
Featured image by Sanna Jain