Chocolate: Food of the Gods

// Written by Francisca Gomez //

Chocolate. It’s “the food of the gods”, the ubiquitous sweet product of cocoa beans, a foolproof gift on Valentine’s Day, and a versatile ingredient that is used around the world. In spite of chocolate’s near-universal popularity, the average chocolate-lover knows little about this heavenly food’s origins.

Photo credit: National Geographic – Andrew Evans

Chocolate begins as a large fruit on the cacao tree. Inside of the fruit are the cocoa beans. The scientific name of the cacao tree is Theobroma Cocoa which literally means “food of the Gods.” When the cocoa beans ripen, they are harvested, fermented, roasted and ground to create a chocolate paste, that is then processed and refined into chocolate.

In Mesoamerica, the native lands of the cacao tree, the ancient civilizations as far back as the Olmec and the Maya consumed chocolate and worshipped the cacao tree. Chocolate was prepared as a beverage, and it was used in rituals, while the beans could be offered to the gods, and even used as currency.

Photo credit: The Story of Chocolate

The Aztecs demanded cocoa beans as tribute, and the chocolate beverage became a product exclusively for the Aztec elites, a symbol of status and of luxury. According to Aztec legend, chocolate was the heavenly gift of the god Quetzalcoatl. The modern word “chocolate” is said to come from the Nahuatl “xocolatl” which was the bitter beverage consumed by the civilizations of Mesoamerica: cacao paste mixed with water, chile peppers and other ingredients.

Moctezuma II, the Aztec emperor when the Spanish conquistadores arrived, supposedly drank 50 cups of xocolatl a day. Hernán Cortés, however, did not appreciate the bitter taste of the xocolatl. Instead, the Spanish preferred a revolutionary new flavor, which they achieved by combining two ingredients from the New World: cocoa beans and sugar.

Adding flavor to the story of chocolate, the Spanish kept their discovery secret from the rest of Europe for over a hundred years. However, the secret leaked in the early 1600s, though how this happened is open to speculation. Two theories are that it happened when the chocoholic Spanish princess María Teresa became betrothed to Louis XIV of France, or when English pirates seized a Spanish merchant vessel containing the treasured chocolate. After the cocoa beans were spilled, drinking chocolate became incredibly fashionable, and chocolate houses appeared all over Europe, where elites met to drink the tasty beverage and talk about politics. Meanwhile, in the Americas, slave plantations dedicated to cultivating the cacao tree thrived.

To some extent, the consumption of chocolate thrived because the Catholic Church did not seem to consider chocolate as decadent as it tastes. In the mid-17th century, Pope Alexander VII declared that chocolate, as it was a liquid, did not break a fast, meaning that all of Catholic Europe could now safely drink chocolate during Lent. According to legend, the Bishop of Chiapas in Mexico attempted to ban women from drinking chocolate during mass, and he died by poisoning only a few weeks later. The chocoholic women had poisoned his chocolate in revenge.

Photo credit: Chocosuisse

It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that chocolate became more accessible to the masses. The new techniques invented also led to the very first solid chocolate bar. The assembly line in the late 19th and early 20th centuries resulted in Hershey’s famous chocolates. The rising popularity of chocolate in the 20th century has found new homes for the tree: from the rainforests of the Americas to equatorial countries in Asia and Africa. The harvesting of the cacao tree remains a largely manual business, often involving the controversial use of child labor.

Today, chocolate is very popular in the West, where it is largely consumed as a sweet delicacy. In Mexico, the more spicy and bitter flavor of antiquity is preserved in the traditional recipes, like hot chocolate and mole. Although in Asia chocolate is not quite as popular (for every 1,000 bars of chocolate eaten by the British, only one is eaten in China), and in Africa chocolate is more valuable for export than for consumption (70% of the world’s supply of chocolate comes from West Africa), the food of the gods, the heavenly gift, is gradually reaching all of the world’s palates.

Photo credit: National Geographic – Michael Melford

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