History of Favorite American Food Chocolate Part 1

About the history of the favorite American food chocolate, information on its nutrition, roots and more.



While chocolate may have picked up some refinement in Europe in the last few hundred years, the food is easily twice as American as apple pie. Mayan, Aztec, and Toltec farmers were cultivating cacao (or cocoa) plantations thousands of years ago. Aztec legend has it that cacao seeds were first brought from paradise to earth by the god of air, Quetzalcoatl, who, much like Prometheus, was flayed alive by his fellow deities for giving so cherished a gift to mere mortals. In the early 18th century, Linnaeus institutionalized the cacao tree's legendary origin by giving the tropical evergreen the botanical name Theobroma cacao (theobroma is Greek for "food of the gods"). As a result of later European confusion between the cacao tree and another tropical marvel, the coconut palm, the nomenclature of chocolatedom is a bit muddled. The word cacao refers to the tree that is the source of the cacao bean. This bean, when processed, yields cocoa butter and cacao; chocolate is made by smoothly reblending these two together with sugar and usually vanilla and other flavorings.

When Cortes reached the realm of King Montezuma, he recorded that the Aztec court daily swallowed more than 2,000 gold chalicefuls of a frothy drink called "chocoatl," a very bitter mixture of ground cacao beans and spices whipped with water. The Spanish entourage judged the drink to be rank in taste but remarkable in effect. Calling it a "miracle beverage," Cortes wrote that "a cup of it gives you strength to march all day long." And the official physician noted that Montezuma himself consumed over 50 cupfuls a day, especially before going to visit some combination of his many wives and 700 mistresses.

It was this stimulating property of cacao that led to its acceptance and eventual staggering popularity in Europe. For the cacao bean is approximately 2% theobromine, a central nervous system stimulant very similar to caffeine which dilates vessels of the brain and heart, expands the bronchi of the lungs, and acts as a diuretic on the kidneys. Swilling the bitter beverage as a supposed aphrodisiac, the Spanish nobility had no trouble keeping cacao a secret from the rest of Europe for over a century. Whenever pirates looted a Spanish ship, they threw the sacks of cacao overboard, scornfully referring to it as cacuro de carnero ("sheep excrement").

Cacao's inflammatory reputation led to censure by the Church, but when a group of nuns in Chiapas mixed a new commodity called sugar into a batch of cacao, the combination proved unstoppable. The first London chocolate house opened in 1650, and the Cocoa Tree, which opened seven years later, went on to become the foremost social club in all England. Still prepared primarily as a beverage, chocolate caught on like wildfire, attracting praise, condemnation, and witty comment from the likes of Balzac, De Sade, Casanova, Addison, and Steele.

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