The “American Nectar”: William Hughes’s hot chocolate

With January well underway, we’re delighted to share a toasty treasure from the Folger’s collections: an early modern recipe—and a wealth of information about its origins—for hot chocolate. Hot chocolate, brought to Europe and Britain from the Americas, was hugely successful in the early modern period, and it hasn’t lost its appeal since.

This begins a series of posts on early modern recipes from the Folger vaults, each associated with a well-known chef or food influencer, that we’ll be sharing in the months ahead. Four of the recipes, including this one, have been developed by Marissa Nicosia, based on a recipe from the Folger archives; Nicosia is an Assistant Professor of English at Penn State Abington and author of the blog Cooking in the Archives: Updating Early Modern Recipes (1600-1800) in a Modern Kitchenwhere you can find even more information about these adaptations. A fifth recipe, associated with Hercules, a chef kept in slavery by George and Martha Washington, is by Michael Twitty, the James Beard award-winning author of The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African American Culinary History in the Old South.


When pirate botanist William Hughes wrote about his adventures with plants in the Americas, he devoted an entire section of his book The American Physitian (1672) to “The Cacao Nut Tree,” which he distinguished from all other American plants. Hughes paid particular attention to the properties and the preparation of chocolate. In the opening of the section “Of the making of Chocolate into Drink,” he calls the beverage “the American Nectar.”

Select a page to see it at a larger size.

By calling hot chocolate the “American Nectar” Hughes invoked the idea that chocolate was a drink consumed by deities, and pleasurable for those mortals lucky enough to sample it. Chocolate was a revelation to European colonizers. A decade before Hughes published his book, Henry Stubbe called chocolate the “Indian nectar.” British writers repeatedly appealed to its almost otherworldly properties.

Although there are no references to chocolate in Shakespeare’s works, there are quite a few references to nectar. Most poignantly, the potent flower that Puck wields in A Midsummer Night’s Dream contains a powerful nectar that intoxicates the anointed with powerful feelings of love (Act II, scene 2). A powerful nectar is equal parts pleasure and danger: Hughes chose an evocative moniker for his hot chocolate.

Encountering chocolate in early modern cookery books offers evidence of Britain’s troubled colonial past. Accounts of chocolate drinking, recipes listing chocolate among the ingredients, and casual references to chocolate all bear witness to the material and informational exchanges between indigenous peoples and European colonizers in the Americas. Theobroma cacao is a fragile equatorial plant and the seeds that we process into chocolate products are not, on first sight, obviously edible or the source of the dizzyingly delicious chocolate delights available today. Indigenous Americans prepared a range of healthful and delicious beverages with chocolate. Europeans only learned to consume chocolate by mastering highly specialized indigenous knowledge.

Photo by Teresa Wood.
Cocoa nibs. Photo by Teresa Wood.
Photo by Teresa Wood
Chopping chocolate. Photo by Teresa Wood.

When I set out to make William Hughes’s hot chocolate, I was presented with a wealth of possibilities for how to sweeten, thicken, enrich, scent, spice, and spike my drink. Here is a list of all the ingredients that Hughes reports that indigenous peoples and European colonizers put in their hot chocolate:

chocolate, milk, water, grated bread, sugar, maiz [corn flour], egg, wheat flour, cassava, chili pepper [hot and sweet varieties], nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, musk, ambergris, cardamom, orange flower water, citrus peel, citrus and spice oils, achiote [annatto seed], vanilla, fennel, annis, black pepper, ground almonds, almond oil, rum, brandy, [and] sack.

Some of these preparations could serve as a meal replacement, others as an energy drink, and yet others as a healing tonic to soothe the body. These possibilities are all present in indigenous American usage and Hughes catalogs them for his British readers. As you prepare your own hot chocolate using this recipe, season to taste. Let your own spirit of adventure and personal tastes guide you as you season your mix and prepare a warming cup.

Ingredients. Photo by Teresa Wood.
Ingredients. Photo by Teresa Wood.
Photo by Teresa Wood
Photo by Teresa Wood.

INGREDIENTS

This recipe makes 2 cups of hot chocolate mix.

1/4 cup cocoa nibs
3 1/2 ounces or 100 grams of 70% dark chocolate bar, roughly chopped
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup breadcrumbs or grated stale bread (optional for a thicker drink)
1/2 teaspoon chili flakes (substitute 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon for a less spicy drink)
Milk (1 cup of milk to 3 tablespoons of finished mix)

PREPARATION

Toast the cocoa nibs in a shallow pan until they begin to look glossy and smell extra chocolatey. Combine all ingredients in a food processor, blender, or mortar with a pestle. Blitz or grind until ingredients are combined into a loose mix. Heat the milk in a pan on the stove or in a heatproof container in a microwave. Stir in three tablespoons of mix for each cup of heated milk.

NOTES

Hughes lists many other ingredients that indigenous Caribbean people as well as Spanish colonizers added to their hot chocolate. Starting with a base of grated cacao, they thickened it with cassava bread, maize flour, eggs, and / or milk, and flavored it with nutmeg, saffron, almond oil, sugar, pepper, cloves, vanilla, fennel seeds, anise seeds, lemon peel, cardamom, orange flower water, rum, brandy, and sherry. Adapt this hot chocolate to your taste by trying these other traditional flavorings.

Finished hot chocolate. Photo by Teresa Wood.
Finished hot chocolate. Photo by Teresa Wood.

LEARN MORE

The information and ideas in this post about chocolate and the knowledge exchanges between Europeans and indigenous Americans are inspired by Marcy Norton’s Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World (2008).

For more information:

Kuhn, John, and Marissa Nicosia, “Early Modern Euro-Indigenous Culinary Connections: Chocolate,The Recipes Project.
Nicosia, Marissa, and Alyssa Connell, “Chacolet,The Collation blog, Folger Shakespeare Library.
Tigner, Amy, “Chocolate in Seventeenth-Century England, Part I,” The Recipes Project.


This recipe was developed by Marissa Nicosia for the Folger exhibition, First Chefs: Fame and Foodways from Britain to the Americas (on view Jan 19–Mar 31, 2019), produced in association with Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, a Mellon initiative in collaborative research at the Folger Institute.

Special thanks to Amanda Herbert and Heather Wolfe for their help.

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