History of chocolate

Cultural Insights — By on March 3, 2008 at 12:48 pm

If you like chocolate, you might want to check out this recent feature in Smithsonian Magazine called “A Brief History of Chocolate.” There are quite a few delectable facts about the history of this incredibly popular treat. A sample:

When most of us hear the word chocolate, we picture a bar, a box of bonbons, or a bunny. The verb that comes to mind is probably “eat,” not “drink,” and the most apt adjective would seem to be “sweet.” But for about 90 percent of chocolate’s long history, it was strictly a beverage, and sugar didn’t have anything to do with it…

Etymologists trace the origin of the word “chocolate” to the Aztec word “xocoatl,” which referred to a bitter drink brewed from cacao beans…In the book The True History of Chocolate, authors Sophie and Michael Coe make a case that the earliest linguistic evidence of chocolate consumption stretches back three or even four millennia, to pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica such as the Olmec…

Sweetened chocolate didn’t appear until Europeans discovered the Americas and sampled the native cuisine. Legend has it that the Aztec king Montezuma welcomed the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes with a banquet that included drinking chocolate, having tragically mistaken him for a reincarnated deity instead of a conquering invader. Chocolate didn’t suit the foreigners’ tastebuds at first –one described it in his writings as “a bitter drink for pigs” – but once mixed with honey or cane sugar, it quickly became popular throughout Spain.

By the 17th century, chocolate was a fashionable drink throughout Europe, believed to have nutritious, medicinal and even aphrodisiac properties (it’s rumored that Casanova was especially fond of the stuff).  But it remained largely a privilege of the rich until the invention of the steam engine made mass production possible in the late 1700s.

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