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History of Chocolate

Aztec statue of a male holding a cacao pod
While chocolate may seem like a contemporary food, it has its roots in ancient Mayan culture. Chocolate is derived from cocoa beans, which are housed in the pods of cacao trees. The Mayans of Mesoamerica carved images of cocoa beans into the walls of their temples and planted cacao trees from the rainforest in their gardens. They harvested, fermented, dried and roasted the cocoa beans over a fire. The cocoa beans were then crushed between two stones until they formed a fine paste. The paste was mixed with cornmeal, chili peppers, water and other ingredients to make a spicy and bitter chocolate beverage. The Mayans drank chocolate socially and during religious practices and ceremonies.
Cacao tree with pods.
By the 1400s the Aztec Empire controlled much of Mesoamerica and adopted cacao as an important resource. Since the Aztecs couldn’t grow cacao in the dry soil of Central Mexico, they traded with the Mayans and other groups for cocoa beans. Cocoa beans were used in making a chocolate beverage, and they were used as currency. Conquered people and citizens in cacao-growing areas paid taxes to the Aztecs in cocoa beans. While most Aztecs used cocoa beans as money, only the elite class like rulers, priests and warriors drank the chocolate beverage. In both Aztec and Mayan societies, chocolate was consumed at sacred ceremonies, and cocoa beans were presented by priests as gifts to the gods.

In 1521 during the conquest of Mexico, Spaniards saw the value of cocoa beans and began to ship them home. Following the Aztec example, the Spanish made a chocolate beverage. Since cocoa beans were expensive to import, the beverage served as a symbol of high social status for the next 300 years. Only Spanish nobility could afford chocolate, and drinking chocolate became a trend in the Spanish court. Soon Spaniards were adding sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, and other spices to their chocolate beverage and heating it. The high demand for chocolate required millions of people to harvest, tend and process cacao and sugar. For 200 years the conquered peoples in Mesoamerica were responsible for providing this labor. Plantation owners produced large amounts of chocolate inexpensively by using slave labor.

In the Spanish Catholic Church, the clergy recognized the nutritional properties of chocolate and allowed people to drink it during fasting periods in the 16th Century. Chocolate is naturally high in calories, so it made fasting easier. In 1915 Cortés called chocolate a "divine drink which builds up resistance and fights fatigue." He said "a cup of this precious drink permits a man to walk for a whole day without food," (Field Museum). Chocolate contains caffeine and theobromine. These chemicals may cause feelings of alertness and restoration.

Almost 100 years after chocolate was introduced to Spain, other European countries discovered chocolate. Chocolate became very popular in the European royal courts. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, chocolate was available and affordable to the public. In France, however, chocolate was reserved for members of the French aristocracy. Europeans began growing cacao in Ceylon, Venezuela, Sumatra, Java and the West Indies. Waged and slave laborers from Africa worked on these plantations and in chocolate mills to grind the cocoa beans.

Cocoa beans in their pods.
In London the first chocolate house opened in 1657. Comparable to today’s coffee houses, chocolate houses were social places where you could drink hot chocolate in the company of others. People often discussed politics and gambled. Some chocolate houses only allowed men, while others did not discriminate. Although the coffeehouse trend didn’t catch on immediately, coffeehouses grew in popularity as time went on. By the late 1600s, many Europeans were adding milk to their chocolate, creating a smoother texture and a lighter flavor. This was essentially the first milk chocolate.

New machinery, like the steam-driven chocolate mill, enabled chocolate to be mass produced. This advancement brought down the price of chocolate and allowed chocolate to be made in a solid form. In 1828 the cocoa press was invented, which separated cocoa butter from cocoa powder. This allowed batches to be more consistently mixed. The additions of ingredients like alkaline salts and milk made chocolate darker, smoother and milder. Early chocolate was gritty and oily, and these new developments vastly improved the texture and flavor of chocolate. Chocolate was made into candy bars and added to cakes and pastries for flavoring.

Today chocolate is mostly machine-made, but cacao is still grown by hand. Some chocolate manufacturers have their own farms, but most cacao is grown by independent farmers. The farmers still manually harvest, ferment, dry and package cocoa beans before they are sent to manufacturers. Cacao is now grown in many countries across the equator because of the high demand for cocoa beans. Chocolate manufacturers constantly experiment with recipes and ingredients to create new varieties of chocolate.

Interesting Facts about Chocolate

  • Cacao is used in cosmetics and medicine.
  • Unsweetened chocolate may fight tooth decay because of cacao’s antibacterial agents.
  • A Harvard study found that men who ate chocolate lived one year longer than those who did not.
  • Healers in Oaxaco, Mexico use chocolate to treat scorpion and bee stings and to help bronchitis.
  • Like red wine, fruits, vegetables and teas, chocolate contains antioxidants. Dark chocolate contains twice as many antioxidants as milk chocolate.
  • Cats and dogs cannot digest the chemicals in chocolate, making it dangerous or toxic to pets.
  • During WWII American soldiers introduced the Japanese to chocolate.
  • In Mexico chocolate is an offering during the Day of the Dead festival.

References

"All About Chocolate: History of Chocolate" The Field Museum.

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