HiddeN CornerS of HISTORY The Scoop on Chocolate



Kimberly Smith

The Ashland Beacon


   This week celebrates two of my favorite holidays: National Chocolate Cake Day is tomorrow, January 27, and on January 31 we have National Hot Chocolate Day. Okay, these may not be your typical holidays, rather they are some of those silly ones that you can find on a daily holiday calendar, but nonetheless, they are still days that celebrate an all-time favorite - chocolate.

   Right now, you can walk into nearly any store in America and grab a sweet, smooth bar of creamy milk chocolate at the register, but the beginnings of this awesome sweet do not show the same types of items that you and I imagine it to be today. 

   In the beginning, sometime between 1500 and 450 B.C., chocolate was a drink that was bitter to the taste and served at gatherings and ceremonies. This tradition began in southern Mexico with the Olmecs before moving on to the Mayans. As it became more and more available from more cacao trees being grown, the cocoa bean became easier to get, and quickly became a very common household item for Mayans as well as the Pueblos. The item was found in everyday dishes and often combined with chili peppers in a suppertime meal.

   As the Aztecs came to know the beautiful little beans that lay in 20” “ears” from the tree, it became their currency. They could often be found bartering the beans for food and goods, that is, if they could get their hands on it. It was even a way to pay taxes; if you lived in a land that was ruled by the Aztecs, you would pay them in cocoa beans to cover what would now be a type of personal property tax. Chocolate was more of a luxury to the Aztecs, and was only commonly used by the wealthy, while commoners were lucky to indulge at a wedding or celebration on occasion.

   Then, of all people, Christopher Columbus spilled the beans on the beans. While en route to America, Columbus intercepted a trade ship full of, you guessed it, cocoa beans, and off to Spain he went with them. Or maybe not. Maybe friars brought it as a gift to King Phillip II in 1544. Another claim is that conquistador Hernan Cortes fell in love with the item while visiting the Aztecs of Montezuma’s court and took it back to Spain. Regardless of how it got there, Spain got their hands on the goods sometime in the 1500s, and they loved it. Soon, other countries began to enjoy it, and started importing it from Central America.

   By the end of the eighteenth century, chocolate was beginning the phase into what we are familiar with today. It was common by then to add honey and sugar to it. It just gets better from there. In 1815, a Dutch chemist by the name of Coenraad van Houten found that you could further reduce the bitterness of the beans by adding alkaline salts to them. Then, in 1828, he made a press that removed half of the cacao butter from the mix, and “Dutch Cocoa” was born.

   In 1847, a gentleman named Joseph Fry realized that if you add melted cacao butter back into the cocoa powder, you could create a solid piece of chocolate to be eaten, rather than making a drink of it. Then, in 1875, Daniel Peter was able to invent milk chocolate by using a powdered milk made by a name you’ll know well – Henri Nestle. Yep, that Nestle.

   The rest, as they say, is history. It just got better and better from there, with Lindt, Cadbury, and Hershey all taking off by the end of the 1800s to bring the confection to mass production and in the hands of children everywhere.

   These days, nearly two-thirds of the cocoa in the world is grown in Western Africa, where fair trade is a constant struggle. The market demand constantly exceeds the projected growth of the future, and you can imagine why. In 2019, the global chocolate market was valued at more than 130 billion dollars, and is only expected to grow throughout this decade.