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When most of us hear the word chocolate, we picture a bar, a box of bonbons, or a bunny. The verb that comes to mind is probably "eat," not "drink," and the most apt adjective would seem to be "sweet." But for about 90 percent of chocolate's long history, it was strictly a beverage, and sugar didn't have anything to do with it.

"I often call chocolate the best-known food that nobody knows anything about," said Alexandra Leaf, a self-described "chocolate educator" who runs a business called Chocolate Tours of New York City.

The terminology can be a little confusing, but most experts these days use the term "cacao" to refer to the plant or its beans before processing, while the term "chocolate" refers to anything made from the beans, she explained. "Cocoa" generally refers to chocolate in a powdered form, although it can also be a British form of "cacao."

Etymologists trace the origin of the word "chocolate" to the Aztec word "xocoatl," which referred to a bitter drink brewed from cacao beans. The Latin name for the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, means "food of the gods."

Many modern historians have estimated that chocolate has been around for about 2000 years, but recent research suggests that it may be even older.

In the book The True History of Chocolate, authors Sophie and Michael Coe make a case that the earliest linguistic evidence of chocolate consumption stretches back three or even four millennia, to pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica such as the Olmec.

Last November, anthropologists from the University of Pennsylvania announced the discovery of cacao residue on pottery excavated in Honduras that could date back as far as 1400 B.C.E. It appears that the sweet pulp of the cacao fruit, which surrounds the beans, was fermented into an alcoholic beverage of the time.

"Who would have thought, looking at this, that you can eat it?" said Richard Hetzler, executive chef of the café at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, as he displayed a fresh cacao pod during a recent chocolate-making demonstration. "You would have to be pretty hungry, and pretty creative!"

It's hard to pin down exactly when chocolate was born, but it's clear that it was cherished from the start. For several centuries in pre-modern Latin America, cacao beans were considered valuable enough to use as currency. One bean could be traded for a tamale, while 100 beans could purchase a good turkey hen, according to a 16th-century Aztec document.

Both the Mayans and Aztecs believed the cacao bean had magical, or even divine, properties, suitable for use in the most sacred rituals of birth, marriage and death. According to Chloe Doutre-Roussel's book The Chocolate Connoisseur, Aztec sacrifice victims who felt too melancholy to join in ritual dancing before their death were often given a gourd of chocolate (tinged with the blood of previous victims) to cheer them up.

Sweetened chocolate didn't appear until Europeans discovered the Americas and sampled the native cuisine. Legend has it that the Aztec king Montezuma welcomed the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes with a banquet that included drinking chocolate, having tragically mistaken him for a reincarnated deity instead of a conquering invader. Chocolate didn't suit the foreigners' tastebuds at first –one described it in his writings as "a bitter drink for pigs" – but once mixed with honey or cane sugar, it quickly became popular throughout Spain.

By the 17th century, chocolate was a fashionable drink throughout Europe, believed to have nutritious, medicinal and even aphrodisiac properties (it's rumored that Casanova was especially fond of the stuff).  But it remained largely a privilege of the rich until the invention of the steam engine made mass production possible in the late 1700s.

In 1828, a Dutch chemist found a way to make powdered chocolate by removing about half the natural fat (cacao butter) from chocolate liquor, pulverizing what remained and treating the mixture with alkaline salts to cut the bitter taste. His product became known as "Dutch cocoa," and it soon led to the creation of solid chocolate.

The creation of the first modern chocolate bar is credited to Joseph Fry, who in 1847 discovered that he could make a moldable chocolate paste by adding melted cacao butter back into Dutch cocoa.

By 1868, a little company called Cadbury was marketing boxes of chocolate candies in England. Milk chocolate hit the market a few years later, pioneered by another name that may ring a bell – Nestle.

In America, chocolate was so valued during the Revolutionary War that it was included in soldiers' rations and used in lieu of wages. While most of us probably wouldn't settle for a chocolate paycheck these days, statistics show that the humble cacao bean is still a powerful economic force. Chocolate manufacturing is a more than 4-billion-dollar industry in the United States, and the average American eats at least half a pound of the stuff per month.

In the 20th century, the word "chocolate" expanded to include a range of affordable treats with more sugar and additives than actual cacao in them, often made from the hardiest but least flavorful of the bean varieties (forastero). 

But more recently, there's been a "chocolate revolution," Leaf said, marked by an increasing interest in high-quality, handmade chocolates and sustainable, effective cacao farming and harvesting methods. Major corporations like Hershey's have expanded their artisanal chocolate lines by purchasing smaller producers known for premium chocolates, such as Scharffen Berger and Dagoba, while independent chocolatiers continue to flourish as well.

"I see more and more American artisans doing incredible things with chocolate," Leaf said. "Although, I admit that I tend to look at the world through cocoa-tinted glasses."

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About Amanda Fiegl

Amanda Fiegl is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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This page is about the food. For the color, see Chocolate (color).

Chocolate is a food made from the seeds of a cacao bean. It is used in many desserts like pudding, cakes, candy, ice cream. and Easter eggs. It can be a solid form like a candy bar or it can be in a liquid form like hot chocolate. The taste of chocolate is often described as sweet because chocolate makers usually add a lot of sugar and milk for taste. This means that chocolate can be bad for your teeth and health. It is best to eat chocolate in moderation.

Types of chocolate[change | change source]

There are three main types of chocolate: white chocolate, milk chocolate, and dark chocolate. White chocolate tastes much sweeter than the other two types, because it has more of the sweeter ingredients in it. White chocolate does not have any cocoa in it. It is mostly made of cocoa butter. Milk chocolate is sweet, but not as sweet as white chocolate. Milk chocolate has some cocoa. Dark chocolate is the least sweet and has the strongest chocolate flavor. Dark chocolate has up to 60-85 percent cocoa.

Safety[change | change source]

Chocolate is safe to eat unless it is eaten in large amounts. Some animals, like dogs, become sick if they eat chocolate. People with diabetes can also get sick from eating chocolate. Dark chocolate contains ingredients that lower blood pressure and fight disease. Small amounts of dark chocolate have been found to lower the risk of heart disease because of polyphenol in chocolate. It is necessary to eat moderate amount of chocolate.[1]

Making chocolate[change | change source]

Making chocolate is a process that has many steps. First, the cocoa beans are collected and put in piles or containers to make them ferment. Fermentation makes the sugar in the beans turn into alcohol. Then the beans are dried and cleaned. Chocolate makers must cook the beans, and then crush them to make the cocoa butter and the chocolate liquor come out of them. Then the chocolate maker mixes different ingredients together to make the different kinds of chocolate. Dark or bittersweet chocolate is made from sugar, cocoa butter, and chocolate liquor. Milk chocolate uses all of those ingredients plus milk and vanilla. White chocolate does not contain chocolate liquor, but only cocoa butter, along with sugar, milk and vanilla. After these ingredients are put together, the chocolate maker is still not finished. One of the last things to be done is something called conching. Before chocolate is conched, it feels very rough in the mouth, instead of smooth. Conching means crushing the chocolate very finely and keeping it warm so that it is liquid. Conching for several hours makes good chocolate. The last step in making chocolate is called tempering. The chocolate is heated, and then shaken, and then cooled a few times.

Ingredients[change | change source]

There are a number of ingredients in chocolate. The most notable of these are caffeine and theobromine. These two chemicals are closely related and are found in all cocoa beans. In any bean, the amount of each chemical varies depending on the genetics of the tree and the stresses placed on the tree during the growing season. It takes two hours to make chocolate.

History of chocolate[change | change source]

The cacao tree was first found to be useful for its seeds about two thousand years ago. Early Central Americans and Mexicans used the seeds from the cacao tree to make a drink that tasted bitter, not sweet. Only the important people could drink it. The word for "chocolate" in almost every language comes from its name in the Nahuatl language of Mexico, chocolatl.

Later on, this drink was made sweeter and made into what is known today as hot chocolate. It was made popular by Spanishexplorers who brought it from North America to Spain.[2] When chocolate was sweetened and made into candy, it became a very popular treat for many Europeans. At first, only the rich could afford chocolate. Now, many people enjoy it. Most cocoa today is made in Africa.

References[change | change source]

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Chocolate.
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Other websites[change | change source]

White, milk, and dark chocolate candies.
  1. Sangam, Radhika (6 January 2010). "2010 calendar: A year of healthy living". India Today. India Today group. Retrieved 2 February 2010.  
  2. "History of Chocolate". ThinkQuest. Retrieved 2011-04-16. [dead link]

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