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The Cacahuatl Eater: Ruminations of an Unabashed Chocolate Addict
by Jonathan Ott
Publisher:
Natural Products Co 
Year:
1985 
ISBN:
0961423412 
Reviewed by Lux, 9/24/2008

I have an unreasonable amount of affection for this little book – it is one of the most prized volumes in my library. Jonathan Ott wrote it nearly a decade before his magnum opus Pharmacotheon, and The Cacahuatl Eater is both lighter and sweeter than its more famous younger brother. In its pages, Ott focuses his prodigious intellect on a topic that is manifestly worthy of his erudition: the natural and cultural history of chocolate.

Ah, beloved chocolate … you are rich, lush, and enticing. Both commonplace and exotic, bitter and sweet, prosaic and poetic, you nourish love and offer solace at love’s end with equal facility. Is there any miracle that you cannot accomplish?

Judging from the evidence presented in the book, I am not alone in my high opinion of this ambrosia – in 1982 Americans ate 9.1 pounds of chocolate per year, an amazing 0.8% of their diet. But if anything, Ott surpasses my enthusiasm with a tone that is positively rhapsodic; this book is first and foremost a love letter to his favorite food. But wait! There’s more!

The Cacahuatl Eater leaves no stone unturned in telling the story of mighty chocolate. Ott sketches the cultivation of the plant Theobroma cacao from seed to sprout to fruit, then follows the harvested bean all the way through the production process to the dessert plate. He considers the cultural history of cacao, focusing on its use by the Aztecs, who not only drank a frothy, bitter beverage brewed from its beans, but used them as currency as well.

The reception of chocolate in Europe and North America receives little attention; instead, Ott moves on to argue that chocolate is nutritious. Contrary to popular belief, chocolate contains more nutrients than carob, that ghastly simulacrum. It contains high amounts of protein, calcium, potassium, iron, vitamin A, and other minerals. While it also contains a lot of carbohydrates and fats, when eaten in moderation it can be quite nutritious.

Perhaps of particular interest to the Erowid reader, Ott makes a case for chocolate as a ludible drug, pointing to its high levels of theobromine, a caffeine-like alkaloid found in high concentrations in cocoa. Theobromine has cardiostimulatory and diuretic effects similar to caffeine, but does not produce the stimulation that inhibits sleep. In a self-experiment, Ott reports that discontinuing regular theobromine use produces physical withdrawal symptoms similar to those caused by caffeine withdrawal.

One metric for the value of a book is the degree to which it inspires further curiosity about its subject matter. The Cacahuatl Eater is a veritable will-o’-the-wisp that has captured my attention and my imagination, sending me running to the chocolatier after being seduced by Ott’s lavish prose. It also sent me running to the bookstore to search for recommended books, and generally awakened my fascination to this ubiquitous psychoactive confection.

This book contains marvels and delights for both the connoisseur and the neophyte. I should disclaim that Ott is precisely my kind of weird, and it is possible that not everyone will love this book as I do – this is why I give it a stingy four-and-a-half stars. Tragically it has been out of print for several years, but it may be found second-hand with some effort. It is a delightful treasure.


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