Radio Readers BookByte: Food Becomes Currency

Sep 18, 2017

Chocolate coins may have had roots in ancient times. An article published by the Museum of the National Bank of Belgium Shows how cocoa beans (used to make chocolate) were accepted as currency in the 1500s by the Aztecs.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Hello, Radio Readers – I’m Jason Harper, food and fiction connoisseur (as well as a solely self-proclaimed chef and author) coming to you from Hays, Kansas. Food is used in several ways throughout Joanne Harris’ Five Quarters of the Orange, fictional WWII exploration of a set siblings. On multiple levels, food peppers this novel and leaves the reader with quite a lot to chew on. 

In my first Book Byte, I discussed how creating a great book is a bit the same as baking a delicious dessert, and then I compared recipe steps from Five Quarters of the Orange to the elements of storytelling.

Today, another food angle in Five Quarters of the Orange is how these characters in the novel use food as a kind of currency — partly as a currency of collusion with German soldiers. Chocolate, oranges, bread, and many more examples feed the storyline.

For centuries, food has been used as a form of money. I would like to serve up the following three morsels of trivia of how food was historically a kind of currency that might tantalize our Radio Readers: 

1) An article published by the Museum of the National Bank of Belgium Shows how cocoa beans (used to make chocolate) were accepted as currency in the 1500s by the Aztecs. This “commodity money” became the most common means of payment among them for everyday, low-risk/ low-value transactions. A few examples include 

1 good turkey hen would cost 100 cacao beans; 1 turkey egg went for 3 cacao beans; 1 fully ripe avocado was yours for 1 cacao bean; and 1 large tomato equaled 1 cacao bean.

2) My wife was born and raised in Mongolia, and she told me that as a kid growing up, far away from any city or town, she used to trade fresh farm eggs for ice cream on sunny summer days. And depending on the time of year, she’d exchange vegetables from her family’s farm for a set of sundries at the local apothecary. 

3) Throughout my travels overseas, I used food as money to placate the countless children roaming the streets of Manila, Bangkok, Saigon, and Asunción, the capitol city of Paraguay. Oftentimes, within little more than a half a block from any given hotel in these faraway places, a crowd of kids would suddenly appear out of nowhere, hands raised, eyes pleading, tugging on my shirttail, asking me for money. I’d heard stories that sometimes those kids you’d hand money to would get robbed right afterwards by older, bigger kids who were waiting in the wings, so I decided to stock my cargo pockets with small pieces of candy to hand out instead of cash in hopes that they could at least keep something. 

Overall, it seems “currencies” have flexible values, depending on the context, time, place, and situation. While our characters in Five Quarters of the Orange colluded with the enemy using commodities instead of cash, we know that not only was this practice nothing new, but perhaps it may be a next step in the global economy.