Chocolate, as we know it today, is a simple, inexpensive indulgence that people consume every day in the form of candy bars, drinks, and desserts. But before Devil’s Food cake, fudge ripple, and Sacher torte existed, chocolate played a pivotal role in culture and society and its interconnection with nature, culture, spanning 2,000 years. Its name, Theobroma cacao, is Greek for “the food of the gods,” and throughout its history, the cacao beans of the chocolate tree have been used around the world as gifts to gods, currency, and a status symbol. And, chocolate trees have spawned imperialistic wars over lands rich with their bounty. Whether bitter or sweetened, chocolate has been loved and coveted by people throughout the world for centuries.

THE ORIGINAL CHOCOLATE DRINK

The original chocolate drink, created by the people of Central and South America, was a bitter concoction made with fermented and roasted ground cacao beans flavored with chiles, cornmeal, vanilla beans, and other ingredients. As sugar was not readily available at the time, the drink was typically consumed in its bitter form and only occasionally sweetened with honey or flower nectar. Water was added to this paste and the drink was then poured back and forth between vessels to make it frothy. The froth was considered the most prized part of the drink. The ancient people of Central and South America, including the Maya and Aztec, consumed this drink for religious ceremonies, rituals, and special occasions such as weddings.

WHEN MONEY REALLY GREW ON TREES

The Maya and Aztec not only consumed the cacao in drinks and dishes but also used the beans as currency to purchase goods and services. As exploration and trade expanded, the rich and rare commodity of cacao moved across continents to Europe. When Hernán Cortés and his men conquered Mexico in 1521, one of the spoils of war was cacao. The Spaniards soon adopted the Aztec customs and a taste for chocolate, which they blended with cinnamon, sugar, and other spices to produce delicious results. Incredibly, they were able to keep their sweet discovery a secret in Spain for almost a hundred years before other European countries discovered it.

THE SWEET LIFE

Once Europeans discovered this exotic drink, it became an instant sensation not only for its taste but also for the social status its consumption implied. Chocolate was very expensive and only a small number of people—the wealthy and the aristocratic—could afford to drink such luxury. The sugar \was expensive as well. At that time, one teaspoon of sugar was equivalent to a slave’s wages for a full day’s work.

The prohibitive cost of chocolate wasn’t enough to stem its popularity among those who could afford to indulge, and chocolate houses popped up all over Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was not unusual for a person of considerable wealth to wake up to a hot cup of sweet chocolate. Black coffee, on the other hand, was considered a workingman’s beverage.

THE CHOCOLATE INDUSTRY IS BORN

It wasn’t until the 19th century that mass production made chocolate affordable to those outside the upper class. The Industrial Revolution was the turning point for the production of chocolate. Until then, chocolate was an artisan product and much of the roasting, shelling, and flavoring of chocolate was performed by hand. According to Charles S. Spencer, chairman and curator of the anthropology division at The American Museum of Natural History, “The steam engine made it easy to grind cacao seeds and produce large amounts of chocolate. Before the steam engine, cacao seeds were ground in mills driven by horses or wind, and before that they were ground by hand. The power supplied by the steam engine enabled chocolate makers to produce chocolates faster and in larger quantities. As a result, chocolate became more affordable to everyone.”

CHOCOLATE TODAY

Chocolate is big business. According to EuroMonitor in 2002, chocolate was a $53.3 billion industry worldwide with a majority of the world’s cacao being produced in West Africa, Ghana, and Nigeria. U.S. Census data indicates that the United States alone has over a thousand manufacturers producing chocolate or cacao products around the world. On average, Americans consume 10.9 pounds of chocolate per person and spend $13 billion on chocolate products a year, according to Susan Smith of The National Confectioners Association. Not to be outdone, the same EuroMonitor report states that the Swiss consume more than twice as much chocolate, an average of 25.5 pounds a year, more than any other country in the world. Now, that’s a lot to chew on. —Bonnie Lee Lin