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From a Frothy Bitter Drink to the Sweet Modern Candy Bar: The Brief Journey of the Cocoa Bean

An 1886 advertisement for chocolate. Credit: Library of Congress
An 1886 advertisement for chocolate. Credit: Library of Congress

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Author: Abigail Blythe Batton

Ever since those clever Aztecs discovered the cocoa bean back in 900 AD the world became a better place. Granted, the Mayan use of the bean pod, which they pounded into a powder and mixed with water, tasted very different from the chocolate concoctions we consume today. For one thing, the drink was spicy, not sweet and this is accounted for by two reasons. One, they added chili peppers to the mixture and, two, there was no sugar in South America at the time of the cocoa bean discovery.

Their technique was to pour the chocolatey drink from one cup to another until a froth appeared on the top. They would stand on a high platform or rock and pour the liquid from one cup into a lower cup on the ground. The distance it traveled would add air to the mixture helping to create the froth.

The drink would taste quite unpleasant to a modern tongue. In fact, the word chocolate comes from the Mayan word xocolatl which translates to “bitter drink.” But the Mayans loved it and considered it a special drink. The drink was highly esteemed and used in religious and civil ceremonies. They referred to it as “the food of the gods” and many of the recovered murals from the time show the cocoa drink being prepared for noteworthy occasions.

One of the great things about xocoltl is that, despite its high regard within the Aztecs, and soon, the Mayan communities, it was a socio-economic equalizer. Everyone had access to the drink, despite their wealth or poverty level. In fact, along with copper, jade and oyster shell beads, the Mayans used cacao beans as currency. This tradition would be repeated during the American revolutionary war when the soldiers were sometimes paid in chocolate.

But it would take a long time for the cocoa bean to make its way to America. Spain seems to be the first European country to be introduced to chocolate. Some say Christopher Columbus brought it back to them from one of his adventures in the early 1500s. Other argue it was Hernan Cortez, another Spanish explorer who was introduced to the drink at Montezuma’s Aztec court. Those following the Cortez story allege that he kept the chocolate a secret but for a select few social aristocrats.

But however it arrived, it was an instant hit and highly sought after. We have the Europeans to thank for the sweet chocolate we all love. While they enjoyed the flavor of the bean, their taste sensibilities didn’t appreciate the bitterness the Aztecs enjoyed. So, in home kitchens across Europe, people began to experiment with the drink, adding sugar, cinnamon, and other secret recipe spices. The drink was very thick and frothy. By the early 1600s, chocolate houses began opening to the elite.

Florida was the first state in America to acquire chocolate. By this time, in 1641, the drink was served sweet and, like in Europe, it became very popular among Floridians. Chocolate slowly migrated from Florida up to Boston with the traders where the first official chocolate house was opened. Chocolate wasn’t consumed as a solid until the late 1700s. Americans tried to manufacture “eating chocolates” but they were gritty and unpleasant to eat. It wasn’t until Swiss chocolatier Francois-Louis Cailler, in 1819, played around with chocolate trying to find a way to make it smoother, that he hit upon the idea of adding cocoa butter to the chocolate. He used a blending machine he called “the conche” to blend the gritty chocolate in with the butter. This revolutionized the industry and was the forebearer of the modern chocolate bar.

Today, the chocolate industry is worth 127.9 billion dollars with Europe leading the production at 45 billion dollars. And, despite its wild popularity in the States, the Swiss are the largest consumers of chocolate at an average of 22 pounds a year per person. Americans eat half that amount at 11 pounds a person per year. Is the country eating the smallest amount of chocolate? China, at only 3.5 grams a person per year. Americans show a slight preference for which type of chocolate is superior with 42% preferring milk chocolate to 58% adoring dark. Despite all the varieties of candy bars available, the highest-selling bar in America is still the gold standard of bars: Hershey’s.

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