Among the ancients, it was revered as "the elixir of the gods."
Today, it is the one sweet temptation that most of us find impossible to resist. Yet, for most of its 3,500-year history, it was not eaten but rather consumed as a beverage -and a cold one at that. Although its form and flavor have taken many twists and turns through the millennia, its appeal, once discovered, has been universal. So, why not treat yourself to a tour through the rich history of chocolate.
THE OLD GRIND
1500 B.C.: The Olmec civilization of Guatemala, the Chiapas and the Yucatan regions of Central America cultivate the cacao tree and make use of its products by grinding the beans and then mixing with water.
MONEY GROWS ON TREES
A.D. 200: The Olmecs have been overthrown by the Mayan civilization. The vast cacao plantations are used as a source of currency, with the little black beans being traded for goods or services. The bean is only consumed by the ruling classes. By now the process of mixing the drink has become more sophisticated -the beans are roasted and then ground with water before spices such as chili are added. The resulting mixture is shaken until it develops a frothy top, at which point it is ready to be enjoyed.
A HEAVENLY DRINK
A.D. 1200: The Mayans have been supplanted by the Aztecs who heartily embrace the product of the cacao tree, even incorporating it into their mythology. Their god Quetzalcoatl is said to have pilfered a cacao tree from the heavenly realms and deposited it on the Central American plains ready to be converted into a health elixir and power aphrodisiac. Famed Emperor Montezuma enjoys the drink so much that he reputedly downs 50 goblets full every day (the amount of time he spends on the royal lavatory as a result of such liquid overload is not recorded).
1502: Christopher Columbus, on his fourth voyage to the New World, takes possession of a Mayan trading vessel containing what he takes to be almonds and which functions as a means of monetary exchange for the Native Americans. He thereby become the first European to encounter the cacao bean, though he scarcely gives it any attention and certainly never tastes it.
JUST A SPOONFUL OF SUGAR
1519-1544: Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes leads an expedition into the heart of Mexico in search of gold and silver. He is welcomed by the Aztecs and served their greatest delicacy -a cold, bitter drink they call "cacahuatl." Cortes introduces this strange new brew to the Spanish court. It becomes an instant hit, even more so when sweetened with sugar. The Spanish would keep the secret of chocolate to themselves for the next 75 years.
1579: The English let the chocolate opportunity slip through their fingers when they seize a Spanish cargo ship on the high seas. The British Buccaneers are surprised to find the ship holds a cargo of what they take to be sheep droppings and set it on fire. Eight years later they got a second chance when another Spanish ship carrying cacao beans is seized. Again, however, they destroy the cargo, declaring it to be useless.
GOES A COURTING
1609-1643: The secret is out. Chocolate makes it way across Europe, causing a sensation among the royal courts who are first introduced to it. France's Sun King, Louis XIV is so taken with the delicacy that he appoints a representative to manufacture and sell it. The first book entirely devoted to chocolate is printed in Mexico. Throughout the French nobility, the aphrodisiac properties of the drink are highly regarded. Both Casanova and the Marquis de Sade are said to be prolific consumers.
1662: The Church of Rome declares that the consumption of chocolate, although highly nutritious and filling, is not considered to be food and can therefore be safely taken in its liquid form during periods of religious fasting.
JUST WHAT THE DOCTOR ORDERED
1765: Chocolate, by now highly regarded as a liquid delicacy and a medicinal remedy in Europe, makes its way to the United States where Dr. James Baker of Massachusetts begins a chocolate manufacturing plant. Cacao beans are ground into chocolate liquid and pressed into cakes that can be dissolved in water or milk to make drinking chocolate. At the same time, James Watt invents the steam engine in Europe, which will soon be applied to the mechanized manufacture of chocolate.
WARRANT FOR HIS ASCENT
1824: James Cadbury opens a grocery in Birmingham, England, selling roasted cacao beans on the side. Very soon he is concentrating solely on the cacao beans and, in 1854, receives a Royal Warrant to be the sole provider of chocolate to Queen Victoria. A century later Cadbury is the largest food company in the world.
1847: The modern chocolate bar is born when British manufacturer Joseph Fry mixes melted cacao butter into a paste that is them pressed into a mold and sold as a solid bar. Soon the public has been educated to eat, rather than drink their chocolate.
1893: Milton Snavely Hershey enters the chocolate business. The world is introduced to the milk chocolate Hershey bar, followed by Hershey's kisses. His operations grow at such a rate that he takes over the entire town of Derry Church, Pennsylvania, renames it Hershey, and turns it into the chocolate capital of the world.
1900 to present: The creation of chocolate delicacies becomes an art form. In 1908, the Swiss Toblerone bar is offered, in 1922 the European Chocolate Kiss, chocolate-covered cherries in 1929, and that old favorite -the chunky bar filled with nuts and raisins in the mid 1930s. During World War II, chocolate bars become standard issue for the U.S. military. When man conquers Mt. Everest in 1953 and heads into space in the 1960s, the chocolate bar goes along. By the end of the 20th century, science acknowledges what the Aztecs knew all along -that chocolate is a powerful fighter against fatigue, giving the eater added strength and energy. But, the scientists found, that energy comes at a price- a one-and-a-half ounce chocolate bar contains 220 calories!
___________________The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into History.
Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.
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