Skip to main content

Xocolatl: The Evolution of Chocolate

Image result for chocolate



Modern associations with chocolate are usually with joy, with celebrations (or with bad break-ups).  Chocolate has been known to Westerners for only 500 years, but it’s hard to imagine a world without it.  It’s also hard to imagine the stuff being prepared in any other way.

Chocolate’s origins were quite different from the stuff we know today.  Starting with the cacao bean, the other base ingredient the Aztecs used was ground-up maize.  The word chocolate comes from the Aztec word xocolatl (/ʃo ko ˌlat əl/, or /sho-ko-LOT-ul/), meaning “bitter water”, since it was usually served in a liquefied form.  And bitter it was: the Aztecs seldom sweetened it.  Sometimes it was prepared with honey, but that was only one of the many recipes.  Others included vanilla, or chilis, or any number of spices.  

Xocolatl was a luxury in ancient Mesoamerica.  Cacao beans were very valuable, and said to be a gift from the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl.  You could trade about 80 of them for a canoe, and you had to watch out for counterfeiters, who would sometimes pass off empty cacao shells filled with mud as the real thing.  Xocolatl was considered a powerful intoxicant, and was consumed in serious ceremonies.

Christopher Columbus was the first European to encounter cacao beans, which he described in his fourth trip to the Americas in 1502 as “almonds”.  Spanish soldiers and colonists were aware of the beans and how the Aztecs (and Incas) felt about them, but chocolate itself didn’t make its way to Europe until after the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, late in the 16th century.  When it started to appear in the Spanish courts, the custom was to sometimes add honey, as the Aztecs sometimes did, or more commonly to add sugar.  The bitter version of chocolate was never very popular in Europe.

Since most of the Mesoamerican population had been decimated by disease, African slaves were brought in to work the cacao plantations of Central America.  Cacao beans were also planted in Africa and Asia, which also had favorable climates for the beans’ cultivation.  The work of cultivating and processing the beans was tedious, but it sped up with processes invented by the Dutch during the Industrial Revolution.  A new form of chocolate, lower in fat and less bitter, was released to the world in the early 19th century.  This opened up a new era of chocolate.  Recipes were developed over the next century by people who would become household names: Lindt, Nestlé, Cadbury, and Hershey, among others.

Today, most of the world’s cacao beans are grown in Africa, with the vast majority of them grown in Ivory Coast.  Cacao beans are subject to price fluctuations on the world market.  While commodity traders can buy and sell the beans when the price changes rapidly, cacao farmers don’t have that option, and often turn to slave labor in order to remain in business.  80 beans won’t get you as far today as they used to.

The god Quetzalcoatl

Comments

Foster Dean said…
New emergent of private label candy manufacturers who evolves the story of origination of chocolate. Nice to read about chocolate and its emergence but the taste it has in ancient days are bitter even today.

Popular posts from this blog

Betty Crocker: A Brief Biography

Long have our supermarket shelves borne products with the name Betty Crocker.  This name has long since lodged in our heads an essential part of americana.  It seems to evoke the past.  It seems to always have evoked the past, a past when life was simpler and Mother and Grandmother cooked at home, using time tested recipes and only the purest ingredients.  We can’t go back to that simpler, wholesome past, but we can give ourselves a Proustian shot of nostalgia by tasting the past we remember, or the past we only wish we could remember, but know must be so good.  That is the Betty Crocker brand.  You might have seen drawings of her, but have you ever actually seen the legend herself?  Here’s an image of Miss Crocker from a 1953 television ad:


The full "Betty Crocker" TV commercial.

Okay, that’s actually actress Adelaide Hawley, who played Betty Crocker in a number of commercials for the brand from 1949 to 1964.  Betty Crocker was born in 1921, so this representation looks to be…

The Star-Spangled Banner: The Original Lyrics

If you’re an American (and quite possibly even if you’re not), you’ve certainly heard the tune called “To Anacreon in Heaven” numerous times.  It’s a stirring melody, and can often sound very proud, and if someone asked you to hum a few bars, you probably could do a creditable job of it, even if you have no musical ability at all.  The tune is that familiar.  Of course, it has another name that you probably know better: “The Star-Spangled Banner”.

But the song’s first name was “To Anacreon in Heaven”.  The song asserts that Anacreon is in heaven, right from the first line.  Whether Anacreon actually is in heaven, I’ll take no position on, but he most certainly is dead.  Anacreon was a Greek poet who lived from circa 582 BCE to 485 BCE, which is a remarkably advanced age for the times.  Anacreon was celebrated for his songs about drinking and love and having a good time.  Maybe not the weightiest of literature, but even the most serious poets and thinkers need to take a break now and …

At, Hashtag, And Per Se

Since the invention of the typewriter in the 1860s, there has been little change to the keyboard used in English.  The position of the letters has remained the same, and the numbers and punctuation have as well. The advent of the personal computer has required additional keys, most of which have found their own standard spots on the keyboard, but for the most part, there haven’t been many changes to the original design.

If you look at the above keyboard, you can see there have been some changes. Keys for fractions don’t really exist anymore; nor does a key to write the ¢ symbol. But the ¢ key on this 1900 model typewriter also includes the @ symbol, which has been common on keyboards since the dawn of typewriters. It’s older than that, even. But of course it is: how else would anyone write an email address? Except… who are you going to email in 1900? No one was emailing anyone before 1972. That’s when programmer Ray Tomlinson invented email. He figured that if you’re going to …