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There really is no good substitute for chocolate—but you couldn’t tell that to the creative Aztec forgers who found a way to create a cacao alternative at a time when the beans were a form of money. Fake cacao beans might have been harder to keep in circulation than forged paper money, however.
Theobroma cacao (and who would disagree with the name—Theobroma means “drink of the gods”) was used by Aztecs in ways that would not seem familiar or even appealing to most of us today. While the pre-Columbian practice of grinding chocolate and chilies together is still reflected in Mexico’s mole sauce, and has re-emerged in a few daring, high-end confections, the chocolate preparations of the Aztecs were generally designed for impact rather than taste. The two forms for consumption were pastes and drinks. Cocoa pastes might include (in addition to chilies) corn, fruit, or hallucinogenic mushrooms. Beverages, which also incorporated hot chilies, were unsweetened and beaten until frothy. Only the ruling class could afford (or were permitted) chocolate, but they consumed it in large amounts. The emperor Moctezuma in particular was a fan. He drank his chocolate from golden goblets—some say as many as 40 servings a day—because it was reputed to be an aphrodisiac.
The seeds (for they are in fact seeds, not beans—though no one calls them cacao seeds) are so bitter that in some South American cultures, people just ate the white flesh between the beans, and left the beans. It took a kind of obsession with magic and medicine possessed by the Aztecs to make them popular even on their home turf.
The Spanish, who were the first Europeans to encounter cacao, initially thought that the best thing to do was throw it out. But as weird as the bitter, fiery drink seemed, the claim that it was an aphrodisiac was appealing. Then there was the attraction of anything that was used as money and reserved for royalty. It must have some value! So in 1519 Hernando Cortez gathered up cacao beans, along with Aztec ideas of preparing them, and off to Europe they were sent—and for close to 100 years, the Spanish, and to a lesser degree the Portuguese, held on to the secret of this strange discovery from the New World.
The spread of chocolate was fairly slow, but increased as improvements (such as the addition of sugar) were made. By 1615, it was appearing in France, still in the form of a drink. In 1657, a Frenchman opened a coffee shop in London that also offered chocolate. By this time, chocolate was being sold in bars, which could be melted to make a drink or used in cooking. While it was not reserved for royalty, it was hardly affordable—not quite worth its weight in gold, but close. (Part of the excessive cost was due to duties, and English and Dutch smugglers were soon turning a tidy profit conveying illegal chocolate to private clubs in England and Holland.) It was in England in 1700 that milk was first added to chocolate.
The first chocolate factory in North America was opened in 1765 in Dorchester, Massachusetts. It was financed by James Baker, and Baker’s chocolate can still be seen in the baking goods section of most grocery stores. Surprisingly, the Swiss were among the last to get on board with chocolate making, not really getting started until the mid-1800s. But when they got involved, they did so whole-heartedly, and in 1876, M. D. Peter sprang milk chocolate bars on a soon to be grateful world.
Our word for chocolate comes, through Spanish, from the Nahuatl word xocoatl, which may have meant “bitter drink” or possibly “foamy drink.” The Nahuatl word for the cacao tree was cuauhcacahuatl, so I’m glad they went with the shorter word. One of the commonest additions to chocolate is also owed to the tropical Americas: vanilla. It was the one Aztec addition to cacao that worked for Europeans.
There is a darker side to the rise of chocolate, though tea and coffee share this history. It was the rise in the consumption of this mighty trio of beverages that led to the demand in Europe for more and more sugar—a demand that eventually led to the extensive plantation system and its attendant slavery in the West Indies.
Today, we can enjoy chocolate that is grown by free people and priced well within the budget of almost everyone. And now there’s the bonus: recent research has shown that dark chocolate is incredibly high in antioxidants and is as good for you as green tea—and possibly better. (Further proof that God loves us, as far as I’m concerned.)