Ambrosia over Apocalyptic

Cocoa pods for sale in West Africa.

I cannot link cocoa to the biblical world. But it might be fun to try.

If cocoa had originated in ancient Israel, the prophets might have been more relaxed. With a little Cadbury on their fingers, the Assyrians or Babylonians or Romans might have been more content to stay home. Why, if chocolate had migrated from the Old World to the New (instead of the other way round), we might have been spared the genre of apocalyptic literature altogether! Just imagine the possibilities!

As it is, we must place cocoa’s late appearance in the human story as simply another tick in the timeline of progressive revelation: (light soundtrack begins) “It  just keeps gets better and better, richer and richer . . .”  

Cocoa was discovered by the Spanish when they came to the New World. For the Aztec Indians, it was simply and singularly cacahuatl, “The Seed.” This product without peer wandered into Spanish ascacao before finally landing in my English mug as cocoa.

James secretly brings along his own refreshment: cocoa power mixed in water. In the bottle, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the Volta River.

This sticky discussion arises as we bounce along a westward path out of Accra, Ghana. Our jeep is piloted by (almost Doctor) James, a former student of mine who now teaches at Ghana Christian University. Guiding us from the back seat is Edem and KK, leaders in the Abeka Christian Church (James seems to have a better grip on verbal systems than highway systems).

After learning that Ghana is the second largest producer of cocoa in the world (neighboring Côte d’Ivoire is the first), I am driven to ask the question.

“Could we stop somewhere for a look at a cocoa tree? I don’t think I’ve ever seen one before.”

Unfortunately, I learn that the Ashanti region to our north is a much better place to look for cocoa. What’s worse, I was just through there last week; but was hunting plodding elephants instead of podded trees.

Edem pulls out his cell phone to humor me and begins calling acquaintances down the road. Nothing turns up. We are too far south. These men know their cocoa though. Edem’s father is a cocoa farmer, as is KK’s uncle. The two explain how to grow cocoa trees and how to harvest, dry and pack cocoa beans. It is fascinating. They know something of the local history of the industry as well.

“The first cocoa seed was brought here from the island of Fernando Pó.”

I never heard of it.

“Is this island in the Americas?” I ask.

No. It is a volcano in the sea. “Off the coast of West Africa.”

I smile. It is getting better and better. All we need now is a monster gorilla and we can really go apocalyptic.

The men don’t know how the cocoa bean got to the jungle island. But they do know the name of the one who brought it to Ghana.

“His name was Tetteh Quarshie.”

Further inquiry fails to locate Tetteh on anybody’s timeline. But its a good name to know. I am already thinking of an unsuspecting dinner party where I can spring this tidbit, Alex Quebec-like.

We turn north toward Kakum. While passing through a village, James sees a man walking on the road and squeals the protesting vehicle to a stop. Edem says something to the man out the window, and to everyone’s everlasting joy, he knows just where we can find our elusive tree. We lock the jeep and follow him into the thick rainforest.

Our little cocoa expedition.

Now, what I have failed to relate up to this point in the story is that Ghana teems with snakes. Not just little squirmy ones either. I’m talking about biting cobras, spitting cobras, green mambas, black mambas, goat-swallowing super pythons, in short, the whole writhing, loathsome mess. As we step lightly along this path-less-traveled, I find myself rapidly losing enthusiasm for the quest. Fortunately, the hike ends before real panic sets in.

Our friendly pod picker.

Before us, a large cocoa tree uncoils. A spectator (that we somehow picked up along the way) scampers up the trunk a picks a pod. He throws it down. A second spectator produces a machete out of thin air and lops the pod in half faster than I can say Marie Antoinette. I take note of his crisp proficiency. He is just the kind to have around in case a giant spitting cobra takes an interest in cocoa parties.

The tree has several large pods affixed directly to its trunk. They look like fat pointy cucumbers, six to eight inches long.

Elsewhere, we note the flowers (right) that grow into pods (left).

Inside the pod nests a cluster of snow white beans bathed in something that looks like elmer’s glue.

Edem fishes one out of the gunk with his fingers and pops it in his mouth. He encourages me to do the same.

“Don’t chew, just lick it.”

Snow white cocoa beans in the pod. Each bean has a parchment-like covering.

I am a little hesitant, but the love of all things chocolate compels me.

The pod rolls around on my tongue. A moment passes. Then it carries me away. It is a sweet and delicious ambrosia.

I will trade it for apocalyptic literature any day.

Cuckoo for cocoa. James on left, Edem on right.