food humorfood humor Eat, Drink and Really Be Merry

C’est Si Bon Bon: The Sweet History of Chocolate
by Marjorie Dorfman

What is it about the very word "chocolate" that makes mouths of all ages water? Where did it come from, how is it made and when did civilized society begin giving boxes of it away as tokens of love on special occasions? Read on for some sweet answers on a scrumptious subject, whether you prefer milk or dark, nuts or caramel-filled.

Although many may think of chocolate as a modern encounter of the sweetest kind, it is actually quite old, dating back to 250-290 AD and the Maya of Mesoamerica. During this Classical Period, chocolate was not eaten as a candy, but consumed as a bitter beverage, which played an important role in the religious and social lives of these ancient people. The first evidence of chocolate is found in the stone glyphs and remains of ancient vessels from this time period. The Mayan trade empire extended over southern Mexico, Belize, Guatamala, Honduras and part of El Salvador.

Chocolate was a prized pleasure. Many artifacts depict scenes of people pouring and enjoying chocolate. The tasty secret of the cacao tree, which grew in the rainforest, remained so for many years. The Maya replanted the tree in their own backyards, where, under cover from other peeping ancient eyes, they harvested, fermented, roasted and ground the seeds into a paste. When mixed with water, chili peppers, cornmeal and other ingredients, this paste was transformed into a frothy, spicy chocolate drink. (If ingested properly, it might have even grown hairs on any formidable ancient chest.)

The Maya poured this mixture back and forth from the cup to the pot until it developed a thick foam on top. As sugar was yet unheard of in Meso-american culture, sweeteners probably came from a bit of honey or flower nectar. It was a treat for every citizen, no matter what their status in society, but the wealthy drank their chocolate from elaborate vessels decorated by artisans. These artifacts bear testimony to chocolate’s place in everyday Mayan life. Some depict kings, gods and even animals drinking chocolate. Mayan couples drank chocolate as part of their betrothal and wedding ceremonies.

As is the way of all flesh and civilization, the Maya were conquered by the Aztecs, who by the year 1400, dominated Meso-america, their territory extending from northern Mexico to the Mayan lands in Honduras. At first the Aztecs traded with the Maya for "cacao," but then they required their conquered citizens to pay their tributes in cacao seeds, which became a form of currency. (It is not known if the IRS of the day extracted similar amounts of cacao from the Aztecs to meet the demands of running a busy city-state.) Like the Maya, the Aztecs also consumed their bitter chocolate drink seasoned with spices, adding for use in their rituals, achiote (the seeds of the annatto tree), which turned the mixture blood-red.

For the Aztecs, the consumption of chocolate extended to priests, decorated soldiers and honored merchants. According to one legend, the god, Quetzalcoatl, brought heavenly cacao to the earth. The Aztecs could not cultivate the cacao tree in the dry highlands of Central Mexico, and so they traded with others to ensure a steady supply. Chocolate was so prized that Aztec traders filled their backpacks with cacao and hauled it on foot to the Aztec captial city, which is today Mexico City.

Although it is possible that other early explorers encountered cacao in the Americas, it wasn’t until 1521 that anyone in Europe learned of the delicious drink known as chocolate. It became a spoil of war when Cortes and The Conquistadores conquered the empire of Montezuma and the Aztecs and transported it to Spanish royal mouths. According to one legend, in 1544 Spanish priests on a visit to King Phillip of Spain, introduced chocolate to the king and the royal court. Whether this happened or no, chocolate was an immediate hit, and within a hundred years the love of chocolate spread throughout Europe.

The Spanish adored chocolate and keeping up with the demand for its consumption required the labor of millions to tend, harvest and process both sugar and cacao. From the early 1600s, enslaved Meso-americans on plantations provided this labor. One new tool was introduced to the chocolate trade: the molinillo, which was a stirring stick that made the job of whippping chocolate into a smooth foam much easier.

Chocolate production was a Spanish monopoly for many years. (This did not include the get out of jail for free card and the passing of "go" without collecting two hundred dollars.) Like a jealous lover, the secret of how to make chocolate was heavily guarded, and only the wealthiest and most connected nobility could buy it. During the sixteenth century, The Spanish Catholic Church began drinking chocolate for energy, and it soon became known as a clerical fasting beverage. After much debate, the Church allowed people to drink chocolate as a nutritional substitute for food during fasting periods.

Who spread the word about chocolate to other European ears and mouths is not known. According to one legend, a group of English pirates who confiscated chocolate from a Spanish ship introduced the drink to England. Another tale says that Italian merchants purchased the secret of chocolate while on a business trip to Spain. Whichever may be the truth, it is a known fact that within a century’s passing all of the royal courts of Europe enjoyed chocolate. The trend lasted until the Industrial Revolution when production techniques made chocolate accessible to the public at large.

Between the years 1600 and 1750, the English, Dutch and French established plantations in Ceylon, Venezuela, Java and Sumatra where the cacao tree flourished. Soon these countries were importing cacao to keep Europe well stocked with the prized drink. Due to the deaths of many enslaved Meso-americans, a new labor force was needed to maintain the growing demand for the labor-intensive crops of sugar, tobacco, cotton and cacao. Colonial landowners turned to Africa whose people for more than two centuries were cruelly enslaved to create a huge work force.

In France, chocolate was a prized status symbol, reserved by royal decree for members of the French aristocracy only. According to legend, this hoarding of chocolate is ascribed to the self-confessed chocoholic queen, Anne of Austria, who married Louis XIII in 1615. The English were more democratic about their chocolate and anyone with money could buy it. In 1657, the first chocolate house opened in London. Like the coffee houses to follow them, they became the gathering places for those who wished to socialize, proselytize and gamble. Some denied entrance to women while others were open to anyone who could afford the entrance fee.

Europeans copied the ancient practice of creating their own chocolate artifacts, so to speak. They drank it using ornate, beautifully crafted vessels made out of precious materials. These elaborate containers, like their counterparts in the world of the Maya, symbolized status and wealth. The process of making chocolate remained unchanged until the mid 1700s when the burgeoning Industrial Revolution changed the course of history for this sweet, wonderful treat and its many adoring fans.

It changed form, the tricky little thing called chocolate. Now it was no longer a beverage; it was hard and was eaten and savored like fine pastry. New machinery could now create solid chocolate, and if that wasn’t bad enough, mass produce it as well. By producing it in such tremendous quantities, the candy could be bought quite cheaply, making it available to the general public (whose love of tooth decay far excelled their royal peers).

One of the most important innovations wrought by the Industrial Revolution was the invention of the cocoa press. (No, this was not a radical, elitist newspaper for chocolate lovers.) Invented in 1828 by the Dutch chemist, Conraad Van Houten, this machine squeezed out cocoa butter and thus made cocoa both more consistent and cheaper to produce. In 1875, Daniel Peter and Henri Nestle teamed up to introduce condensed milk to chocolate. This "milk chocolate" became immensely popular.

Slavery continued for more than two centuries and was not abolished in all countries until 1888. The need for labor to meet the enormous and ever growing demands of sugar and chocolate production continued unabated, and in many tropical countries, deplorable labor conditions prevailed even long after the yoke of slavery was technically removed. In America there were those who opposed these terrible conditions and in 1910, chocolate manufacturer, William Cadbury, invited several English and American chocolate companies to join him in a boycott against buying cacao from those plantations characterized by harsh working conditions. In that same year, a United States Congressional hearing resulted in a formal ban on any cacao produced by the slave labor from these plantations.

New technologies made chocolate available to everyone, and chocolate began to appear not only as a candy bar, but also as an ingredient in other confectionary concoctions, such as cakes, pastries and sorbets. Advertising advanced chocolate to something all people, but particularly women and children craved at every sweet subliminal turn in their every day lives. Breakfast chocolate became very popular and nibbling on chocolate bars was encouraged as a way to sustain energy (even though one cannot get enough energy to run faster than Old Mr. Tooth Decay).

It was the armed forces that helped spread the love of chocolate across the globe. The trend began in the late 19th century when Queen Victoria sent gifts of chocolate to her soldiers for Christmas. The popularity of candy bars literally skyrocketed after World War I when chocolate was included in the rations of every enlisted American soldier. By 1930, there were almost 40,000 different kinds of chocolate.

Chocolate has expanded into other unexpected fields as well. Cocoa butter is used in cosmetics and ointments and even as a coating for pills. Theobromine, a chemical found in chocolate, enlarges blood vessels and is utilized to treat high blood pressure. Chocolate also plays a part in celebrations that are associated with religious holidays, especially Easter, Hanukkah and Christmas.

Today there are still a few manufacturers who own their own cacao farms, but the European and American plantations are gone. Independent farmers or cooperative groups from Africa and Indonesia produce most of the world’s chocolate supply. While machines may speed up production, cacao is still grown by hand and manufacturers must still purchase cacao from the farmers who tend, harvest, ferment, dry and pack the seeds.

So on this Valentine’s Day marking all the world’s lovers, consider a box of this formidable treat as a gift worthy of the occasion. It’s hard to miss and even if the receivee is diabetic, some of the sugarless versions of chocolate on today’s market are just as fabulous. In short, chocolate always wins because how could it possibly lose? So make the object of your affection…confection.

Long live chocolate and lovers everywhere!

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2005