Weird Wednesdays: A sweet history of chocolate

The “Weird Wednesday” column is brought to you by a staff writer who is obsessed with factoids, history bits and freaky information to get you over the weekday hump.

The chocolate industry is worth $98.3 billion worldwide, with the US alone chomping their way through 2.8 billion pounds of the stuff a year. Switzerland, however, takes the prize as the most chocoholic country, with a yearly consumption of 20 pounds of chocolate per person. (LongitudeLatitude/Flickr Creative Commons)

Now that Valentine’s Day is over, the stores are filled with discount cards, half-price stuffed animals and, of course, boxes of chocolate. This magical foodstuff has captured the hearts and minds of people around the world for centuries. It’s associated with love, affection, sex and even sin.

The chocolate industry is worth $98.3 billion worldwide, with the US alone chomping their way through 2.8 billion pounds of the stuff a year (that’s about 11 pounds per person.) Switzerland, however, takes the prize as the most chocoholic country, with a yearly consumption of 20 pounds of chocolate per person.

How did it all start?

Let’s set the clock back by, say, about 4000 years ago. Cacao trees (note the difference from the word ‘cocoa’, which is the processed product) are the source for chocolate, and grow in temperate, moist climates that are friendly to midges, which pollinate the trees so that they produce cacao bean pods. The bean pods are the source of cocoa solids and nibs, which are liquefied to produce pure chocolate liquor.  

The Olmec tribes of Mesoamerica (which includes Central Mexico and the northern part of South America) used the beans steeped in hot liquid as a medicinal or religious drink. The Mayans also harvested and used cacao, and would add chili pepper and cornmeal to their drinks, pouring the liquid from one vessel to another from a height in order to create a thick foam.

In BCE 1400, when the Aztecs took over, cacao became a form of currency, with conquered regions paying a ‘tax’ in the form of beans to the empire (for the record, four beans could buy a pumpkin, and 10 beans would either buy you a rabbit or a night with a prostitute). Cacao was used in religious rituals-- in fact, it was often given to victims of sacrifice shortly before the ritual.  

The word ‘chocolate’ stems from the Aztec word ‘chicolatl’, which means ’beaten drink.’. Special whisks were used to froth the drink before consumption; however, it’s a far cry from the foamy hot chocolate you’d drink today. When Montezuma (who supposedly drank 50 goblets of the stuff a day) served it to the Spanish Conquistadors in the 1500s, they described it as “A bitter drink for pigs.”

However, after people started adding sweeteners to the drink, its popularity exploded. Chocolate exported to Spain, and the rest of Europe, became a fast favorite among the upper classes by the 1600s. Touted as a cure-all, a comforter and an aphrodisiac (our friend Casanova supposedly consumed it quite often) people went nuts over the stuff. ‘Chocolate houses’ (basically cafe`s for chocolate) began to spring up, where people would sip hot drinks and discuss politics.

Of course, popularity doesn’t come without controversy. Several clergymen banned their parishes from drinking chocolate, believing it to be ‘sinful’. In 1644, chocolate houses were banned in Spain for fear of revolutionary talk, and chocolate could only be sold in tablet forms and drunk in private-- not in public spaces.

This didn’t stop innovation.

When steam power made mass production possible in the late 1700s, chocolate become a commodity that wasn’t only for the rich. People began to experiment with the fabulous substance, and in 1828 a Dutch chemist discovered that removing much of the cocoa fat and adding alkaline salts to the bitter chocolate liquor produced a far more palatable ‘Dutch Powder’.

Another Dutch guy, Stephen Fry (no relation to the British comedian), took this further and used a mold to create the first ‘eating’ chocolate bar in 1847. The popularity of it really boomed in 1874, however, when further experimentation proved that the addition of condensed milk made for a sweeter, silkier chocolate solid.

In wake of these revelations, chocolate companies began to spring up, first with Cadbury in 1868, followed closely by Nestle`. Hershey's was founded in 1894 and Mars in 1911, each company competing against each other and vying for America’s attention with new chocolate inventions.

Nowadays the largest supplier of chocolate in the world is the Ivory Coast in Western Africa, accounting for 33 percent of the world’s cocoa. Much controversy is involved in this, as child labor is used to harvest and process the beans. Though chocolate companies have pledged to fight against this practice, it’s still prominent.

As well, chocolate may become scarcer in the future. Fewer and fewer farmers are taking up cacao farming, and widespread epidemics of cacao tree diseases are decimating the population. The future of chocolate is unknown.   

So with that in mind, enjoy your discounted candy this February 15th. Remember, nothing lasts forever, and nothing adds some sweetness to your day like a little chocolate ganache.


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.