Blog Post 236 – Chocolate

It’s getting to be the time of year when we start stockpiling a hoard of sugary treats, most of which will be making it into the plastic pumpkin pails of princesses, pigmen, and pirates. Alternatively, many sweet delights will soon be festooning gingerbread constructions as roof tiles or patio pavers, as well. By which I mean it is, of course, Halloween-to-Yuletide season, a prime time for candy, especially CHOCOLATE!

This holiday gets a lot of attention for its connection to various death festivals, guising, and deals with the darkness, but I thought I’d briefly look at an aspect of the shadowy season with a sweeter side. I’m mostly going to focus on chocolate—largely because it’s a food indigineous to the Americas but also because it’s just yummy—but I will also detour a bit into sugar-based folk magic and lore as well. We covered some of these elements on a special episode for our Patreon followers a year or so ago (a sort of “dessert” episode for our Cornucopia of Magic show), but there’s still lots of good stuff I had to leave on the plate even back then.

Image of a cup of hot cocoa surrounded by cocoa beans and a molinillo
In Mesoamerican culture, cocoa was used as a ceremonial drink and was almost exclusively brewed by women.

I’ll start with a bit of the better-known but still endlessly fascinating lore of the cocoa bean. Many people know that it was used as a strong drink even long before we started piling tiny marshmallows into steamy mugs. The Aztecs and Mayans both brewed it for use in domestic life and rituals, often using a specific device called an molinillo to stir the unsweetened beverage into a heated froth. Importantly, in parts of Mesoamerican civilization, the brewing of cocoa was reserved for women, and through that association (and the frail fears of insecure men) sometimes accusations of witchcraft would surface. In one case, a construction worker believed his wife was using magical poisons on him to make him more complacent, because he suddenly found himself compelled to make the morning chocolate drink for both himself and his wife. He went to local Inquisition authorities, also noting that he could no longer, um, “stir his cocoa” in other ways, and they responded by claiming “All this cannot be a natural thing,” and sending his wife, Cecilia, to jail. Mixing magical ingredients into cocoa seems to have been a common fear, but not without foundation, as at least one recorded curandera recommended that a woman named Doña Luisa de Gálvez wash her nether regions and then use the water to brew her husband’s cocoa. She had a good reason, though, since Doña Luisa’s husband was apparently physically abusive.

In another case, a woman named María de Santa Inés (also called “La Panecito,” or “the little bun/pastry”) was thought to serve her enemies with pastries stuffed with chocolate, leading them to act out of character.

Chocolate was long regarded with fascination and suspicion by Europeans, and eventually became associated with concepts of decadence and luxury. Through that connection, it also became associated with concepts of “sin,” as evidenced by treats such as “death by chocolate cake” or “devil’s food cake” (Watts).  That connection between the indulgent nature of chocolate was also what led to suspicions among Catholic priests and Church officials during the days of Colonial subjugation of the Indigenous peoples. As the Inquisition spread among these Colonizers, the connections between women, chocolate, and poisoning and magic became a frequent focal point of legal and ecclesiastical trials, such as the cases of Cecila, Doña Luisa, and Maria de Santa Ines.

Illustration of two women in a dorm. One feeds fudge to another. A Vassar pendant hangs on the wall behind them.
Women attending colleges like Vassar in the 19th and early 20th centuries were known to have illicit “fudge parties” where they socialized and made pans of chocolate fudge.

Mesoamerican women weren’t the only ones to be associated with wrongdoing because of chocolate, either. It turns out that a number of young women at schools like Vassar in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would hold illicit “fudge parties,” at which they would use heating lamps to bake up trays of fudge in their dorm rooms. There are legends that link Vassar alum Emelyn Battersby Hartridge (class of 1892) to the creation of fudge in the first place. The late-night snacking was officially forbidden but the young ladies made so much fudge that eventually, schools like Vassar became famous for their chocolatey treat. The fudge parties had the air of a seance at times, with one New York Times article describing them as “sitting on sofa cushions…in a mystic circle around an alcohol stove, from which the odor of ‘fudge’ rises like incense.” The food became a symbol of education and liberation among college women during the late Victorian period.

The power of chocolate is not only in its taste, however, as any realtor knows. Frequently, they will bake a tray of chocolate chip cookies in a home they are trying to sell. It provides a nice treat during an open house, of course, but the scent of sugar and chocolate in the air adds a sense of domestic bliss and is thought to stimulate feelings of joy and pleasure among prospective buyers. Draja Mickaharic mentions a similar trick in his Spiritual Cleansing and recommends burning a blend of sugar (usually brown sugar) along with spices like cinnamon and clove to create a happy atmosphere in a home. Using a bit of brewing cocoa could help add a sense of uplift, warmth, and coziness to a space relatively easily. That meaning also appears in the lore of dreams, with the famed Aunt Sally’s Policy Player’s Dream Book saying that a nighttime vision of chocolate “fortells good health and a happy life.” I’ve found that drinking an infusion of cocoa, cinnamon, and chili peppers with a touch of honey before bed seems to stimulate dreaming for me (although your magical mileage may vary).

Halloween is hardly the only holiday we associate with sweets and chocolate, either. We all know about the cookies of Yuletide or the candy in heart-shaped boxes on Valentine’s, or even the molded chocolate bunnies (shudder) we find at Eastertide. In 1922, however, Cleveland, Ohio began observing another sugar-infused holiday called “Sweetest Day.”  The story goes that an employee of a local candy company thought there needed to be a day when people would take treats and spend time with the “forgotten” of society in order to add some sweetness to their lives. The employee, allegedly a man named Herbert Birch Kingston, would visit the elderly or orphans and bring them little tokens and treats to lighten up their day. The holiday caught on and became a local favorite for a while. Even silent screen starlet Theda Bera got in on the act, reportedly delivering ten thousand boxes of chocolates to hospital patients. It’s celebrated on the third Saturday in each October, which puts it right up against Halloween, but adds an element of community care to the mix that makes it quite sweet indeed (Watts).

Because of chocolate’s status as a luxury item introduced late to Europe, the magical lore connected with it among Europeans and European Americans tends to be more recent. A widespread belief among people in the twentieth century (and even today) claims that chocolate is a potent aphrodisiac. While some investigations have found it can have stimulating and circulatory-improving effects (which might indirectly influence some people’s sexual interest or performance), there’s not a direct 1:1 connection that is scientifically observable. That doesn’t stop it from being associated with sex and romance, of course, and we still see plenty of people offering up their paramours decadent chocolate treats to cap off a sensual meal (and there’s always the traditional heart-shaped cardboard box stuffed with a variety of filled chocolates on Valentine’s Day, although you can frankly keep that weird mint flavored one).

Illustration of three chocolate kiss-type candies. Their labels say SATOR, AREPO, and TENET. The background resembles chocolate bar pieces.
Chocolate’s extreme moldability makes it ideal for figural magic.

One of chocolate’s other advantages is its extreme moldability. Acquiring a silicone or plastic mold in almost any shape makes creating magical effigies very simple, and if you’re using chocolate to make a magical treat the shape can be matched to the intention very easily. Similarly, filling a piping bag with chocolate makes for an easy way to write magical words that can then be consumed by the intended subject of the spell. Thus, if you were trying to bring some romance into your life, you might create a heart shape, fill it with your name and a few words describing an ideal lover or partner, and consume that before heading out on the town for the night (or, in more recent years, before browsing your Tindr or Grindr app). You could also try carrying little “kiss” style chocolates with your phone number on the paper flag (or other interesting spells) as something to hand out to potential partners.

And, of course, if you just want to make your words a little sweeter, having a bit of chocolate before any situation seems to help. Because at least you just had chocolate, right?

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

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