Jewish Journal


November 26, 2013

Chocolate freedoms of Chanukah and Thanksgiving


The freedom food of chocolate should star in desserts for Chanukah and Thanksgiving. Puritans seeking asylum in North America and Jews hiding from the Inquisition in New Spain (Mexico) had their first encounters with chocolate in the 17th century. Chocolate paves the religious freedom trail.

A group of Pilgrims traveled to what became Plymouth via Amsterdam and stayed near that city’s biggest chocolate houses. They called chocolate “the devil’s food.” Later, a chocolate cake became popular in Amsterdam; local bakers named it “devil’s food” — what some say became our Devil’s Food Cake. For these Puritan freedom seekers, there was no domestic chocolate imbibing and certainly no ecclesiastical use for chocolate. That devil’s chocolate indulged the senses and distracted from worship.

Themselves suspected of being devils, Crypto-Jews living in New Spain hid Jewish observance from the inquisitors. For them, drinking the popular, local chocolate drink melted them into the local customs of their Catholic neighbors. Chocolate seeped deep into Jewish customs and celebratory meals for holidays and lifecycle events. Indeed, these Mexican Crypto-Jews used chocolate for Shabbat Kiddush because wine was scarce in New Spain. For hidden Jews attempting to follow Jewish dietary laws, the pareve nature of the xocolata, prepared without milk, lent itself to the separation of milk and meat. The chocolate could be enjoyed either with a milk meal or a meat meal. I imagine it being sipped on each night of Chanukah, maybe alongside churros (doughnuts) for dipping. 

Jews used chocolate in meals of consolation. Holding vigil for the dying Doña Blanca Méndez de Rivera, her daughters and granddaughters spent a day in reflection and prayer, fortified by a special meal of chocolate and pickled fish. The proceedings of the trial of Gabriel de Granada report his testimony about the period of mourning for his father, Manuel de Granada:

“Gabriel sent to her the hard boiled eggs and chocolate which was eaten by the said widow and her children. During the six days preceding the said seventh ... sent chocolate one day of the said six.”

At funerals, the Váez family ate chocolate, raisins, almonds, salad and homemade bread.

Chocolate appeared on Yom Kippur menus in the 1640s. This may have been the most frequently observed of the holy days, so much so that many secret Jews even risked writing down the exact date. The theme of atonement resonated for them, as they felt themselves constantly sinning through their public profession of Catholicism. Gaspar Váez broke his Yom Kippur fast with chocolate, eggs, salad, pies, fish and olives. Isabel de Rivera testified that on Yom Kippur, Doña Juana, who was married to the wealthy Simón Váez Sevilla, sent “thick chocolate and sweet things made in her house.” Gabriel de Granada and his family washed down their pre-fast meal with chocolate, having dined on fish, eggs and vegetables. Others reported that they preceded the Day of Atonement with fruit and chocolate and that they broke the fast with chocolate and similar treats. Beatriz Enríquez, at the age of 22, testified that when her husband left for long business trips, she took advantage of her sadness to hide her abstinence from chocolate and food on día grande (big day), or Yom Kippur:

“From the window she pretended to be crying over the absence of her husband and with this suffering she was able to hide from her negras [Negro servants] the fact that she ate nothing and did not drink chocolate that day.”

In order not to eat on Jewish fast days, Amaro Díaz Martaraña and her husband would stage a falling-out with each other in the morning. When chocolate was brought to them, they would pretend to be offended, spill it on the servants, then reconcile in the evening. To offer chocolate at times when it was proscribed and to receive a refusal in response was to communicate through a coded language. These Jews developed such subterfuges to avoid being outed for drinking chocolate on Catholic fast days (which Catholicism permits) or not drinking chocolate on Jewish fast days (not permitted by Judaism).

Other fasts were also framed with meals that included chocolate. Attempting a fast, 15-year-old Símón de León confessed to the Mexican Inquisition that he ran away from home because he had broken a fast that his father had ordered him to keep by eating chocolate. When he could not bear the hunger any longer, he asked his sister Antonia for some chocolate. Juan de León and his Mexican Converso friends preceded their fasts with chocolate and broke the fasts with chocolate.

Even once Jews were arrested by the Inquisition, chocolate continued to be part of their experience during the capture and in jail. Muleteers hired to transport suspected Crypto-Jews to trial drank chocolate and listed it as a reimbursable expense. The muleteers who captured Rodrigo Serrano in Veracruz purchased chocolate at each night’s campsite to be prepared for the next morning’s breakfast chocolate. Chocolate both jeopardized the lives of Jews in New Spain and percolated through their ritual observances. 

Lift a cup of chocolate to the complex diversities and freedoms of our Chanukah and Thanksgiving legacies and enjoy these cookies, which feature two New World foods: Chocolate from Central America and peanut butter from North America.


1 cup peanut butter (crunchy or smooth)

1 cup sugar

1 egg

Approximately 36 dark or milk chocolate
Chanukah gelt coins

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Beat the peanut butter, sugar and egg together. Shape mixture into rounds the size of the gelt, flattening the tops. Bake on buttered cookie sheets for about 12 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool slightly, then gently press one piece of gelt onto each cookie. Cool completely.

Makes about 36 cookies. 


Jewish Journal blogger Deborah R. Prinz’s books, “On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao,” (Jewish Lights) and “On the Chocolate Trail,” contain many delicious recipes; Prinz also blogs at The Huffington Post and The Jew and the Carrot. Lesson plans for teaching about Chanukah and chocolate and other bonus materials may be found at her website Jews-OnTheChocolateTrail.org

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