Cocoa as alcohol

Archeologists have found that people in a remote valley in Honduras were making alcoholic beverages from cocoa beans at least 500 years ago, and probably as long ago as 1500 BC. The chocolate drinks had an alcoholic content of about five percent, and were probably used for the same reasons people use alcoholic drinks today: celebrations, entertaining, hanging out together.

Every time I read something like that, it blows my mind. How did those Hondurans know to ferment cocoa beans and make a drink of them? Same thing with the first liquors made from fermented grains. Did it happen the first time by accident? And what about flour? How did somebody figure out that grinding grains into a fine powder would give them something they could mix with water into a paste and then bake it? Or that if they added yeast, the bread would be lighter? And where did they get the yeast, anyway? Or oils. How did people know they could press olives or nuts or seeds and get oil? And even if they knew that, how’d they know all the things they could do with the oil once they got it?

Somebody once told me about an Amazon plant that’s very popular with the natives but will kill you unless you boil it eight times. That has to mean that people died from eating it when it had been boiled only once, twice, three times, etc, until they got to eight. What kind of courage or stupidity did it take to keep boiling it?

One thing that historians mostly agree on is that women were the ones who made the first beers, the first whiskeys, the first bread and oils. Most likely, women were the ones who kept doggedly boiling that jungle plant and keeling over dead until they did it eight times. Maybe that accounts for the way the female brain differs from the male. The left side of our brains communicate more readily with our right sides, which makes us better able to find things in the refrigerator. Maybe that brain development was an outgrowth of the necessity of having a keen eye to notice what could and could not be turned into something to eat. That, plus the necessity of remembering how many times the poisonous plant had been boiled.

It all sort of makes grocery shopping seem terribly mundane, doesn’t it?


One thought on “Cocoa as alcohol

  1. What kind of courage or stupidity did it take to keep boiling it?
    . . .or desperation?? Perhaps there was a shortage of food and it was the answer to starvation . . .just wondering. There was a wonderful short story “The First” about a primitive tribe starving because the dried meat was just too boring to eat any longer “no taste,” and the “first chef” who remembered encountering substances with “too much taste” (salt and garlic), thereby saving the lives of the tribe. I used it in my short story class, in deference to a student who was heading off to chef school. Of course, now that I’ve read your blog, I’m pretty sure “the first” was actually a woman. Women also studied the medicinal properties of plants, and were labeled witches as their reward.

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