ALAN: In your novel Thirteen Orphans, we are introduced to Your Chocolatier, Albert Yu’s Chocolate Emporium. It is described so sensuously that the smell and the taste waft off the page. How much of that is wish fulfillment and how much of it is personal experience?
JANE: If dreams are wish fulfillment, then that’s where Albert Yu’s shop has its origin. One night I had a particularly vivid dream in which an elegant older lady was making her way through a very high-end shopping mall. Her destination proved to be an exclusive chocolate store. The dream was so vivid I could smell the aroma of cocoa, even taste the small square of chocolate – maybe one inch to a side – that the old lady ate.
That’s how I met Albert Yu and Pearl Bright – and developed a desire for a chocolate that exists only in dreams. I’m glad I was at least able to translate the sensation into words!
ALAN: Wow! That’s a powerful dream. I wonder if Kage Baker ever dreamed like that? Her novels of The Company are a positive paean of praise for chocolate. She analyses its charms in great detail and it was in her novels that I first came across the word “theobromine” which, it turns out, is the active ingredient mainly responsible for the effect of chocolate on the human mind and body.
JANE: Ah, see, that proves you’re not a chocoholic… I’ve known that forever. Here in Albuquerque, there’s even an expensive chocolate shop called Theobroma.
Do you know that “theobromine” means “food of the gods”?
ALAN: I’d not actually noticed that, but once you told me, my (very small) classical education kicked in and it made sense.
JANE: See? Classical educations can be useful!
As names go, Theobromine is certainly an improvement over “xantheose,” the original name for this particular alkaloid. I tried to look xantheose up on-line to see what it means, but the search engine kept redirecting me to theobromine.
Eventually, I went and checked several of my elderly print dictionaries, including the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and Webster’s New Third International Dictionary. I struck out there, too, except to learn that “xanth” is a common prefix in the names of derivatives and compounds.
(Gee, I wonder if Piers Anthony knew this?)
Anyhow, you’re a retired scientist. Can you tell me what xantheose means – if it means anything?
ALAN: Yes I can, sort of. The -ose suffix indicates that the chemical is a sugar. You’ve probably heard of sucrose, glucose, fructose and the like, but it’s a large family of chemicals and many other sugars exist.
Xanth, as far as I can tell, comes from the Greek Xanthos meaning yellow, so xantheose is, presumably, a yellow sugar. I suspect the name might have been changed to theobromine because actually the chemical is an alkaloid rather than a sugar, though the distinction is blurred. Many alkaloids contain sugar groups in their structure…
Alkaloid names tend to have an -ine suffix attached to the plant name that the alkaloid is extracted from (strychnine, for example, is an alkaloid found in the nut of the tree Strychnos nux-vomica). Theobromine follows this naming convention (theobroma is the genus of the cacao plant) but is itself a very misleading name because the chemical does not actually contain any bromine at all – even though the element bromine is approximately the colour of chocolate.
All in all, the nomenclature of this compound is really rather a mess, whichever name you choose…
JANE: Rather like chocolate itself… Seems appropriate somehow.
Y’know, in those same “hols,” you mentioned that you had just read Piers Anthony’s second autobiographical work How Precious Was That While. From your comments about it, I gathered that you had read his other autobiographical work, Bio of an Ogre. Does he ever say where he got the name “Xanth” for his Fantasy world?
Did it have anything to do with chemistry or the color yellow?
ALAN: There’s nothing about the derivation in How Precious Was That While. I can’t really comment about Bio of an Ogre because it’s been many years since I read it, and I no longer possess a copy – it was a casualty of the Great Library Purge of 2014…
But getting back to chocolate for a moment – about a 20-minute drive from where I live is Silky Oak Chocolate. They have a cafe and shop where you can buy handmade chocolates and they also have a Chocolate Museum which tells the story of 3000 years of chocolate history. They have a huge collection of chocolate paraphernalia, including a 2,500 year old Mayan Chocolate pot.
From the descriptions on their website, I suspect that their stock corresponds rather closely to Albert Yu’s stock. If you ever come here for a holiday, I promise to take you there.
JANE: (suspiciously) Just take me there or buy me a piece of chocolate? The latter would be delightful, the other would be torture. Wait! Except that I’m a grown-up and can buy my own chocolate. Really, there are wonderful advantages to being an adult.
Count me in… Now to figure out how to manage a holiday in New Zealand.
ALAN: You’ll love it as long as the weather is on your side…
JANE: That sounds ominous. What do you mean?
ALAN: I’ll tell you next time.