For the Love of Chocolate

I hope you had a lovely Valentine’s Day last weekend, though I expect you celebrated it without the salt-filled, hard-boiled egg of colonial times. It’s far more likely that you gifted or received a box of chocolates, or maybe split a bar of chocolate with a special someone. But where did this association between romance and chocolate come from?

Chocolate, in fact, has a very long history of being associated with romance and sexuality, going all the way back to the MesoAmericans. They thought it enhanced sexuality and sexual performance, and it also played a role in betrothals and marriages. This is a logical continuation of chocolate’s symbolic representation of blood on two levels. One, chocolate as blood represented life and vitality, therefore also enhancing sexual performance. Two, specifically in the case of domestic unions, the bloodlines of two families were being joined through intermarriage.

Spanish conquistadors delighted in sharing titillating stories about the beliefs of MesoAmericans with their readers back in Spain, so not everything they reported back should be taken at face value. For example, the story that Montezuma would consume copious amounts of chocolate in order to enhance his sexual prowess is likely an exaggeration, but it does illustrate the point that chocolate was already gaining a romantic reputation.

In the follow years, this association continued to grow in both MesoAmerica and Spain, but the focus was increasingly on its libidinal properties and not its symbolic role in domestic betrothals and marriages. In the early sixteenth century, chocolate-based love potions were commonly used to attract the affections of men in New Spain and Guatemala. By the seventeenth-century in Spain, chocolate was considered a flirtatious, even seductive, gift.

Clearly chocolate’s reputation as a romantic aphrodisiac has a long pedigree, but modern science does not back that reputation up. In fact, very little evidence has been found of any food having aphrodisiac qualities. These foods, including chocolate, are really just benefiting from the power of association. Physiologically, chocolate can lift your mood and increase energy, which could in turn have positive effects on a romantic encounter, and psychologically, chocolate enjoyed with a special someone in the past may be subconsciously remembered when enjoying chocolate again in the present.

Valentine’s Day is once again behind us, but don’t let that stop you enjoying chocolate with your special someone all year long – no salty eggs here, folks!

Source: Marcy Norton, Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008).

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