Wednesday, April 02, 2008

What Mona Lisa Didn't Eat

Why didn't Mona Lisa have any chocolate? Well, only the Mayans and Aztecs knew about chocolate before the exploration of Mexico. To read about what she did eat, see my earlier post -- Mona Lisa: By Request -- Renaissance Pasta or, What Did Mona Lisa Eat?

If you are interested in chocolate and how it was discovered, see Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate (1998). Coe describes how, on August 15, 1502 (a very short time before Leonardo painted Mona Lisa) Columbus and his men captured a "tremendous dugout canoe ... as long as a galley." This huge boat (possibly as much as 164 feet in length) appeared to have been from Yucatan. It was rowed by slaves; the cargo included cotton garments, flat war clubs and other weapons, and many foods, including a type of "almonds" that were later found to be used as a medium of exchange in Mexico -- that is, cocoa beans. Columbus never learned what the Mayans used the "almonds" for, other than money.

Years later -- 1517 or 1519 -- subsequent explorers learned of the native cocoa-based beverage, which was bitter and sometimes flavored with that other new-world flavor, hot chili peppers. During this first contact with chocolate, they were "baffled and often repelled by the stuff in the form of drink." Even in 1575, a historian of these voyages called it "more a drink for pigs, than a drink for humanity." (Quotes are from p. 106-109 of The True History of Chocolate.)

If Mona Lisa had lived to be 120, she never would have seen anything like a modern chocolate bar. The evolution of chocolate from a bitter drink to a sweet, chewable chocolate bar began with brittle and dry candies in the 18th century, but these weren't smooth or made in molds. Not until 1828 did Van Houten invent the process for making chocolate into cocoa, and 1847 is the date of the earliest chocolate bars -- according to Coe, "the world's first true eating chocolate." (p. 243)

The item in the picture here isn't the first chocolate bar I've seen with Mona Lisa on it. Her face, I think, signals quality, a masterpiece, the ultimate -- but doesn't signal anything she or Leonardo could have experienced.

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