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


Unknown 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

Kick the Football, Charlie Brown

What's the lesson here? For nearly the entire run of Charles Schulz's Peanuts  comic strip, one running gag has been the football gag.  The gag is simple: Lucy Van Pelt kneels down on the grass, holding a football in place, and tells Charlie Brown to kick it.  Charlie Brown gets a good running start, ready to give it a good, solid kick, but at the last minute, Lucy pulls it away.  The final panel usually has a miserable Charlie Brown laying on the ground while Lucy looks over him, holding the football, telling him in one way or another that he obviously shouldn't have trusted her. The gag first appeared on November 14, 1951, when the strip was just over a year old.  In the first occurrence, the football was not held by Lucy but by Violet Gray, another little girl in Charlie Brown’s neighborhood.  (Violet would later become a minor character in the strip, and Lucy would become a major one.   Lucy wouldn’t appear in the strip until the following year.)  The f

43-Man Squamish: An Innovation in Athletics

For some people, one of the most tantalizing challenges is being told, explicitly or implicitly, that you can’t do something.  In 1965, MAD magazine writer Tom Koch laid down one such challenge.  He wrote an article laying out the rules of a sport he invented called 43-man squamish.  The article was illustrated by artist George Woodbridge, and judging by the mail MAD received from its readers, it was a huge hit.  Of course, Koch didn’t really intend the article to b e a challenge.  His idea was to invent a sport that was complex, convoluted, absurd, and ultimately unplayable.  It featured the kind of text readers of MAD, not athletes, would expect.  It’s an uncommon sport that has instructions like, “The offensive team, upon receiving the Pritz, receives five Snivels in which to advance to the enemy goal.  If they do it on the ground, it’s a Woomik and counts as 17 points.  If they hit it across with their Frullips it’s a Dermish which only counts points.  Only the offensive Nibling

Synanon: Self-Help Through Shame and Berating

In 1958, a recovering alcoholic named Chuck Dietrich discovered he had a talent for public speaking.  He was always a big hit at his Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, so he figured he’d take his talents and his $33 monthly unemployment check and try to give back to society.  Dietrich found he’d benefited greatly from A.A., but he was concerned about drug addicts, who weren’t admitted to the organization, because, as A.A. says, drug addiction is fundamentally different from alcohol addiction, and thus would require wholly different kinds of treatment.  Dietrich set out to help drug addicts and anyone else who needed support and organization in their lives.  That’s why he founded a two-year program called Synanon. The idea behind Synanon was to hold nothing back, because your chemical dependency was probably a symptom of your repressed emotions.  Synanon’s main activity was something Dietrich called The Game, which was designed to release these emotions.  To play The Game, all you did