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The history of one of the world's most favorite foods is filled with intrigue, political maneuvering, and innovation. The path from a fermented alcoholic drink to a candy bar at the corner store has been marked by numerous twists and turns, and even today, the world of chocolate is filled with secrets, ethical controversy, and constant new developments. Chocolate is a multibillion dollar industry, and it should come as no surprise to learn that the history of chocolate is closely intertwined with the history of colonial expansion, the Industrial Revolution, and even wars.
Most people are aware that the history of chocolate begins in South and Central America, where Native Americans have been using the beans of the Theobroma cacao, or cacao plant, for centuries. The first evidence of the use of chocolate for culinary purposes dates to around 1400 BCE, when the Mayans apparently fermented the pulp which surrounds cacao beans to create an alcoholic beverage. By the first century CE, the Mayans were using the beans, fermenting them and then grinding them with ingredients such as cornmeal, vanilla beans, and chilies on a metate to create a spicy, bitter paste which could be whisked with water to create a drink known as xocolatl.
Mayan xocolatl would not be to the taste of most modern consumers. The Mayans exclusively drank their chocolate, blending their ground cacao beans with water and then pouring the drink back and forth between two cups to develop a densely foamy drink. Chocolate was so revered in Mayan culture that it was used in religious ceremonies. Most Mayans had a cacao tree growing in their back yards, making chocolate accessible to all members of Mayan society. The wealthy, of course, had special drinking dishes for chocolate, complete with elaborate decorations which included depictions of growing, harvesting, and preparing cacao beans.
The Mayans established a vibrant trade in chocolate, exchanging the beans with other Native American peoples who lived in regions where cacao trees could not be cultivated. When Aztec culture began to rise in the 12th century, the Aztecs picked up the habit of drinking chocolate, and it became a drink for the Aztec elite, the only ones who could afford the treasured beans. In fact, cacao beans were even used as currency by the Aztecs, who would trade the beans for everything from fruit to slaves.
After Columbus traveled to the New World in 1492, he returned with a ship laden with a variety of trade goods, including some cacao beans, describing chocolate as a “divine drink which builds up resistance and fights fatigue.” The Spanish Court, however, failed to realize the value of chocolate until another conquistador, Herman Cortez, conquered the Aztec empire and established cacao plantations, shipping the beans back to Spain. In Spain, chocolate became a drink of the elite and high-ranking church officials, and Spain held a monopoly on chocolate for over 100 years.
The Spanish were dissatisfied with chocolate as it was prepared in South America. They found the drink too bitter, and they disliked the foamy texture. As a result, the Spanish came up with the brilliant idea of adding sugar and cinnamon to their chocolate. They also developed a special utensil, the molinillo, for stirring chocolate. Spanish explorers expanded their holdings in South America specifically for the purpose of maintaining the chocolate monopoly, establishing large plantations for cacao cultivation and using slave labor to produce the crop.
Chocolate remained Spain's little secret for quite some time. Other Europeans were so unaware of the value of chocolate that when Spanish ships were attacked by English pirates, the pirates routinely destroyed cargoes of cacao beans, thinking that they were worthless. While Europeans certainly realized that Spain had stumbled across a number of treasures in the New World, it wasn't until the 1600s that the craze for chocolate hit the rest of Europe.
With an increased desire for chocolate in places like France, England, and the Netherlands came an increased demand for chocolate production. Numerous countries colonized regions which would be suitable for cacao production, and established large plantations of cacao, sugar, and other South American crops which could be cultivated by slaves and sold at an immense profit. Even with increased production, chocolate was still extremely expensive, and its consumption was restricted primarily to the elite, who consumed it in trendy chocolate houses.
As chocolate spread across Europe, various countries created their own formulations, adding ingredients like milk to make the drink more palatable. However, chocolate remained firmly in liquid form, served in exotic and elaborate chocolate pots which paired with beautiful china customized for the service of chocolate.
The history of chocolate took a dramatic turn in the Industrial Revolution, when the development of mass production techniques made the once-elite beverage accessible to a much larger segment of society. In 1828, inventors developed a technique for pressing cacao beans to separate the cocoa solids and cocoa butter, using a hydraulic press, and this changed the nature of chocolate production quite radically. Prior to the development of the hydraulic press, chocolate was sold in the form of a crumbly, very high-fat mixture which was hard to use and digest. With the development of the press, consumers could purchase cocoa powder, an inexpensive, easily handled alternative.
However, chocolate was consumed primarily in liquid form until the 1800s, because no one had succeeded in making an edible form of solid chocolate, and chocolate cookies were not yet wildly popular. Eating chocolate was introduced in the 1830s, and it would have been a grainy, bitter affair until the 1870s, when chocolate manufacturers finally came up with conching.
When chocolate is conched, it is ground for hours or days to create a smooth product with a very uniform, creamy texture. Conching allowed the market for eating chocolate to explode, as consumers — for the first time — could eat quality chocolate bars. It also allowed chocolate companies to create a variety of chocolate coatings and dips, enabling the production of candy bars coated in chocolate, a perennial favorite.
Industrialization of the chocolate industry also brought attention to its dark side, however. Many chocolate companies were accused of using child and slave labor in their plantations and factories, and the growing labor movement began to agitate for reform both at home and abroad. In response to public concerns, chocolatiers also began to speak out about the working conditions involved in chocolate production, with some companies like Cadbury's pledging to eliminate ethically unsound labor from the production of chocolate as early as 1910.
In the late 1800s, numerous manufacturers marketed their eating chocolate as a healthy addition to the diet, targeting mothers and children especially. All sorts of claims were made about chocolate and human health, with chocolate packaging including detailed descriptions of all the benefits chocolate conferred. The idea of chocolate as a health food was so firmly entrenched that manufacturers sold “breakfast chocolate,” eating chocolate designed to be consumed at breakfast, and chocolate was considered a vital part of rations for soldiers during the Civil War in the United States.
The history of chocolate and the military continues to this day. Many major military conflicts have spurred unique developments in the world of chocolate, in an attempt to produce chocolate which could be integrated into wartime rations. In the Second World War, for example, Mars Incorporated introduced M&Ms to American GIs, and in the First Gulf War, confectioners vied to produce a chocolate which wouldn't melt in the heat of the Middle East.
In addition to World Wars, the 20th century also saw an explosion of confectionery wars. Mars and Hershey in particular have battled for chocolate supremacy since the 1940s in the United States, with counterparts like Rowantree and Cadbury's duking it out overseas. Industrial espionage was such a huge problem in the chocolate industry in the 1960s that it was parodied in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In the 1980s, with the breakdown of the Soviet Union, major chocolate producers saw further possibilities for expansion, engaging in extravagant advertising campaigns targeted at chocolate-starved residents of Asia and Eastern Europe.
Today, two thirds of the world's chocolate comes from West Africa. The chocolate industry continues to struggle with ethical issues like child labor, fair working conditions, and the environment. Several chocolate companies have even been accused of manipulating national governments in the quest for a stable supply of chocolate, much like United Fruit did in South America with bananas. In response, products like Certified Fair Trade chocolate have arisen, and a number of chocolate companies have corporate responsibility programs which are designed to allay consumer fears about the source of their chocolates.
Consumers have also been struck with fear by a number of cacao disease scares, which have periodically threatened the world's supply of chocolate. Diseases which affect cacao plants tend to spread rapidly, decimating chocolate crops across an entire region. In addition to potentially affecting overall supplies of chocolate, such diseases could have a serious impact on the flavors which consumers have grown to know and love. Chocolate companies each produce their own unique blends for the products they make, and small deviations in these blends are often very noticeable. For this reason, several producers have large experimental plantations where they work on breeding disease-resistant plants and developing new strains of cacao beans.
Candy producers continue to be extremely careful about revealing their production secrets. Many chocolate factories are closed to the public, and access to the factory floor is tightly controlled, with even executives admitting that they don't know precisely how their products are made. Innovation in the field of chocolate continues as well, with candy producers big and small putting out a plethora of new chocolate products every year, ranging from gourmet truffles to new candy bars. Competition between major manufacturers is fierce, with companies vying to produce the next big chocolate sensation, much to the delight of many consumers.
The opening of the 21st century has also revealed new horizons in the history of chocolate, with gourmet chocolatiers creating unique and distinctive chocolate blends. Chocolate aficionados have also been able to choose from a wide assortment of regionally sourced chocolates focusing on rare and unusual beans. A number of smaller chocolate companies also specialize in regional delicacies which have become cult favorites.
I have honestly always thought that there is no invention that has changed the world quite so much as that of chocolate.
I mean, even if you look at the history of dark chocolate alone, or even random offshoots like the history of chocolate chip cookies or sugar free chocolate, you still get such an interesting story.
It's such a shame that so many people really don't have a good understanding of this product that shapes the lives of so many people.
I really applaud you for being willing to take a look at some of the more unsavory sides of the history of chocolate while not getting sucked into the whirlpool of just criticizing chocolate companies.
Really nicely done. Now I'm going to buy some chocolate truffles; after reading that I'm craving them!
Thank you so much for this article. My daughter is doing a unit on chocolate for school, and she had to write a paper called the "True History of Chocolate."
Now, you would think that that would be fairly easy to research, but it's actually hard to get past all the...well, I guess propaganda, that chocolate companies tend to put out there.
It's just so much about advertising -- get this gourmet chocolate, buy a chocolate gift, etc -- that it's hard to find real facts and history.
So thanks for providing a voice of clarity in the midst of all the chocolate insanity. Your article was interesting, focused, and very informative. My daughter and I both thank you for all your help.
Wow. This was certainly an informative article. I had no idea that the history of chocolate was so involved!
You always hear things about how the true history of chocolate would shock you -- usually by someone trying to convince you to only buy fairtrade chocolate candy, at least in my town -- but I really had no idea how right they were.
I really did like the tone of this article though. I felt that you struck a nice balance between the darker side of chocolate's history and the random fun bits that history nerds like myself like to know.
Now, if I could only find an article on the history of chocolate covered strawberries I would feel complete -- those are my favorite!
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