If you thought that chocolate grew on trees, you’d be right. But not in the form of candy bars or foil-wrapped bon bons. Earlier this fall I visited a traveling exhibition about chocolate from the Field Museum in Chicago, and one of the first things that I learned is that chocolate has a beginning that is anything but glamorous. In fact, the large yellow seed pods of the kahkow trees in the Central American rainforests, where chocolate was born, contain dark brown seeds that are actually so bitter that the monkeys and other animals that live in the forest won’t eat them. The ancient Maya of Central America discovered that if you roasted these seeds and mixed them with water, you would get a bitter drink that was, well . . . interesting.
They liked it so much that by 600 A.D., they were cultivating the kahkow trees in their household gardens and grinding the roasted seeds to make this chocolaty drink, which they started exporting to their neighbors. The Aztecs called the drink cacahuatl (“ka-ka-oo-attal”) or “bitter water.” The Spanish conquistadors tried the drink, too, and eventually sent it back to Europe where someone in the 1600s had the brilliant idea of adding sugar to it. With that culinary stroke, one of the great fads of Europe began. It was akin to the recent boom of high end coffee shops that have seemingly sprung up on every street corner in this country. In 1657, the first chocolate house opened its doors in London, and by the end of the century, there were over 2,000 places in the city where you could find this pricey drink. Since chocolate was so expensive (especially if you added sugar), it was often served in the best china cups, and to keep spots of the liquid off the finery of the customers, saucers were invented to catch the extra drops.
Over the centuries, the Europeans learned how to mill and refine chocolate until, by 1847, you got something really special: the first chocolate bar. And in 1875, Henri Nestlé and Daniel Peter added milk and created, voila, milk chocolate. The rest, as they say, is history. By the 1930s in America, there were over 40,000 different kinds of candy bars, being produced all over the country. And today the annual retail sales of the various kinds of chocolate in this country, where we consume twelve pounds of chocolate a year per person, add up to a whopping 13 billion dollars. To its credit, the exhibition doesn’t conceal the fact that for much of its history chocolate has been, with sugar, a slave-labor intensive product. In some parts of Africa where chocolate is produced today, it is still the work of exploited laborers who are often, sadly children. It’s a bitter after-taste to this sweet treat, that researchers believe contains the same chemical that we naturally produce when we experience love.
The website for the exhibition is:http://www.fieldmuseum.org/chocolate/
Copyright 2005© John Cech
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Tuesday, 01-Feb-2005 10:58:12 EST