Chocolate’s history as rich as its taste

Chocolate — that marvelously mouth-watering morsel, that divinely delectable delicacy. Who isn’t blissfully in love with chocolate? Who wouldn’t care to indulge in its luscious creaminess? And to add chocolate icing to your German chocolate cake, scientists now say chocolate might be beneficial for your health! Will wonders never cease?
Last Saturday, researchers found that chocolate might contain flavonoids, the same micronutrients found in red wine and temporarily stimulate blood levels of antioxidants and clot-inhibiting factors. This ultimately translates into healthier arteries and less chance of heart disease. Not that these findings concern many young people. More importantly, your inner child’s dream has been answered: Something that tastes good is actually good for you!
Riding the chocolate wave between two of the biggest chocolate-selling holidays — Valentine’s Day and Easter — you probably don’t require any scientific justification before satisfying your chocolatey urges. But at least you don’t have to feel so guilty now after licking your gooey fingers, destroying the lingering evidence left over from your devoured Cadbury candy bar.
Yet when you savor that melty, liquidy chocolate truffle, do you ever stop to wonder about its story? What heritage lies beneath its sinfully sweet and scrumptious taste? The true story of chocolate is as rich and enchanting as any Godiva chocolatier.
While the exact origins of chocolate are unknown, it is speculated that the cacao plant (genus Theobroma, species cacao and forerunner to modern-day chocolate) originated in the Amazon or Orinoco basin, deep in the moist and warm South American rain forests. But cacao wasn’t known to grace humanity’s taste buds until 400 B.C. when the Mayans, and later the Aztecs, domesticated the tree and harvested its football-shaped, purplish-yellow pods to make a bitter drink called chocoatl. Cacao beans were also considered a valuable commodity and used as currency and as a tribute tax.
The Aztecs also attached deep religious significance to the plant, believing the cacao tree to be a bridge between earth and heaven. The Aztec god of learning and the wind, Quetzalcoatl, traveled to earth on a beam of the Morning Star with a cacao tree from paradise. He taught humans how to roast and grind the seeds to make a nourishing paste that could be dissolved in water. Drinking this frothy chocolate drink bestowed mortals with Quetzalcoatl’s universal wisdom and knowledge.
Termed “food of the gods,” cacao beans were given to priest’s assistants at children’s coming-of-age ceremonies, and human sacrifices to appease the God or the sun were first sanctified by feeding the victim cacao at his last meal. During marriage ceremonies, the couple drank a symbolic cup of chocolate and exchanged cocoa beans — certainly much cheaper than a two-carat engagement ring!
Christopher Columbus was the first outsider to taste primal chocolate, but it was the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes who returned to Europe in 1528 with the Aztec recipe for chocoatl. Cortes described it as “the divine drink, which builds up resistance and fights fatigue. A cup of this precious drink permits a man to walk for a whole day without food.” Mixed into a drink with sugar, vanilla and cinnamon, the chocolate confection became the first non-alcoholic stimulant drink on the European continent.
Stories about Montezuma’s habit of downing 50 goblets of chocoatl before entering his harem led to the widespread belief that the cacao bean was also an aphrodisiac. People condemned chocolate as an inflamer of passions, and monks were warned not to drink it. In 1706, a doctor stated that, “Satan makes us believe that … chocolate will do us no hurt … (but it actually) weakens the spirit, causes disorders of breath … and (it is) rare for women of Spain, Portugal and Italy to have more than two children.” God save them from the evils of chocolate!
But according to another doctor in 1662, “Chocolate encouraged all sorts of physical prowess. The mighty lover, Casanova, found the drink as useful a lubrication to seduction as champagne.” During the next century, cocoa was considered to possess medicinal properties. In 1724, Dr. Richard Brookes claimed that chocolate prolonged life and cured ringworm and ulcers. Hot chocolate was promoted as a daily nutritional supplement for both children and adults. In Europe, the cocoa pod passed as money among all nations: A rabbit in Nicaragua sold for 10 cocoa nibs, and 100 cocoa pods could even purchase a slave.
Until late 18th century, this sweet delicacy was popular only among the richest nobles and aristocracy. In fact, the high status of chocolate has been cited by well-known authors such as Charles Dickens, who, in “A Tale of Two Cities,” portrayed chocolate drinking as a luxury of the idle upper class and not for the poor masses.
Improvements in technology eventually helped lower prices of the dark drink. In 1765, the first chocolate factory was opened, and in 1828, the invention of the cocoa press cut the prices for the middle class. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, chocolate became a reality for millions.
The first chocolate factory in the United States was built even before we became a nation — in 1765. After more than one hundred years of tweaks and improvements, chocolate has finally reached our high standards.
Today, we eat about 11.5 pounds per person each year. In 1996, total US consumption of chocolate in weight was more than three billion pounds and equaled more than $11 billion in retail value.
Chocolate uses today, while mostly limited to flavorful enjoyment, sometimes extend to the psychological realm because of its euphoric effects on mood. Recent research has suggested that both serotonin and endorphins, two brain chemicals that induce happiness and relaxation, are influenced by eating chocolate.
But hard scientific proof isn’t really needed by the millions who seek comfort and solace in chocolate. The heart-broken, jilted lover who pigs out on a pound of chocolates, the repressed, dieting woman who savors her oft-denied chocolate bar, the teenage puppy-love victim who affectionately offers a heart-shaped box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day to his beloved — all of these people are fully aware of chocolate’s magical powers over the human psyche.
The next time you’re captivated by the aroma of hot cocoa, freshly baked chocolate cake or hot fudge, take a moment to reflect on the birth of humankind’s millennia-old love affair with chocolate. Your craving for chocolate might be driven by more than mere personal preference; perhaps the love for chocolate has entered our collective subconscious, neither to be denied nor ignored. As was once written, “Chocolate is history. To taste chocolate is to share a common connection” with our ancestors.
Samantha Pace’s column appears on alternate Tuesdays. She welcomes comments at [email protected]