As I write today’s entry, the early 70’s song “For the Love of Money” by the O’Jays rings loudly in my head. “Some people got to have it, Some people really need it” but where did it all begin?
Chocolate history starts in Latin America, where cacao trees grow wild. The first people to use chocolate were probably the Olmec of what is today southeast Mexico. They lived in the area around 1000 BC, and their word, “kakawa,” gave us our word “cacao.” Unfortunately, that’s all we know. We don’t know how (or even if) the Olmec actually used chocolate.
We do know, however, that the Maya, who inhabited the same general area a thousand years later (from about 250-900 AD), did use chocolate. A lot. And not just internally. It is with the Maya that chocolate history really begins.
The cacao beans were used as currency. 10 beans would buy you a rabbit or a prostitute. 100 beans would buy you a slave. Some clever person even came up with a way to counterfeit beans – by carving them out of clay. The beans were still used as currency in parts of Latin America until the 19th century!
The Maya also used chocolate in religious rituals; it sometimes took the place of blood. Chocolate was used in marriage ceremonies, where it was exchanged by the bride and groom, (I think I will have to revive this tradition), and in baptisms. They even had a cacao god.
But the Maya prepared chocolate strictly for drinking. Chocolate history doesn’t include solid chocolate until the 1850s. Except for that, the way the Maya prepared chocolate wasn’t too much different from the way it’s prepared today. First, the beans were harvested, fermented, and dried. The beans were then roasted and the shells removed, and the rest was ground into a paste. The paste was mixed with hot water and spices, such as chili, vanilla, annatto, allspice, honey, and flowers. Then the mixture was frothed by pouring it back and forth between two containers. The Maya thought the froth was one of the best parts. Chocolate was also mixed with corn and water to make a sort of gruel. It was probably similar to the chocolate and corn drink pinole, still enjoyed in Latin America today.
If dollar bills were edible, would you eat them? Probably not, unless you had some to spare. The same was true of the Maya – usually only the rich drank much chocolate, although working folks probably enjoyed chocolate every now and then too. The rich enjoyed drinking their chocolate from elaborately painted chocolate vessels. Emperors were buried with jars of chocolate at their side. Clearly, they wanted to make chocolate history themselves.
So it’s no surprise that when the Aztecs conquered the Maya, they kept the chocolate tradition alive. From about 1200-1500, the Aztecs dominated the region and continued using cacao as currency. Because cacao could not grow in the capital city, Tenochitlan (where Mexico City is today), it had to be imported through trading and, what else? Taxes!
The Aztec drank their chocolate much like the Maya, although they sometimes liked it cold. One chocolate history legend has it that the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl brought cacao to earth and was cast out of paradise for giving it to man. Only the gods were fit to drink chocolate!
In 1502, Columbus and his son, Ferdinand, were in the area, doing the usual conquering and such, when they came across a dugout canoe laden with supplies. They promptly captured it and ordered the natives to carry the loot on board their ship. In the process, somebody spilled some cacao, and the natives ran for the beans “as if an eye had fallen from their heads,” according to Ferdinand. Columbus could have been known as the first white guy to “discover” chocolate, but he blew his chance to make chocolate history by forgetting all about the incident.
In 1519, Cortez and his cronies arrived in the Aztec capital, where cacao trading was in full force, and Montezuma, the Aztec ruler, was rumored to have a billion beans in storage. They tried chocolate, hated it, and one writer eloquently called it “more a drink for pigs than a drink for humanity.” Without sugar, cacao was fairly bitter.
After Cortez and pals conquered the Aztecs, they kept right on using cacao as currency. By this time a rabbit cost 30 cacao beans. Must have been inflation. But chocolate history would soon change forever, because Cortez also kept right on conquering other people. Conveniently, the Spanish had taken over lots of Caribbean islands. And on those islands was sugar. Next thing you know, somebody put sugar in chocolate and everybody was clamoring for the stuff.
Aztec Hot Chocolate
4 cups milk
2 cups half-and-half
1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate pieces
1 teaspoon instant espresso coffee powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
Sweetened whipped cream (optional)
Ground cinnamon (optional)
In a 3 1/2- to 4-quart slow cooker, combine milk, half-and-half, chocolate pieces, coffee powder, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and ground cayenne. Cover; cook on low-heat setting for 4 hours or on high-heat setting for 2 hours, whisking vigorously once halfway through cooking time. Whisk well before serving. If desired, garnish each serving with whipped cream and sprinkle with cinnamon.