To be fair, there are foods in several cultures that had a holy place in the hearts of that culture's people. There are other foods that were treated as currency, but I don't know that any of those became so synonymous with love.

With every food, there is a time when it was first cultivated or used as food. For chocolate, that was 900 AD. It was the Olmecs at first who began cultivating and harvesting large, football size pods from the trees of Mesoamerica. These pods have around 40 cacao beans surrounded by sweet pulp. They grow from the trunks of trees that can grow taller than 60 feet. Their knowledge was preserved by the Mayans.

How the Mayans treated chocolate differed from how the Aztecs would years later. Mayans considered it a blessed gift from the gods, and as such it needed to be shared with all classes, though they also used it as currency to trade with neighboring cultures. (The website chocolate.com says you could buy a turkey for 100 beans or a tamale for one).

While the white pulp around the beans was indeed eaten, the beans themselves were the truly important part. Push away everything you know about the sweetness of chocolate today, because back then it had more in common with strong, bitter coffee.

The name "chocolate" is adapted from the Aztec word "xocoatl," which meant "bitter water" because, as witnessed and recorded by Spanish conquistadors, traditional drinking chocolate of the Aztecs and likely the Mayans before them was very bitter. They didn't cultivate sugar cane or other sweeteners, so the simple dried and ground beans made for a very bitter flavor.

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They added the grounds to a mixture of chili peppers, corn flour and maybe vanilla before pouring it back and forth between large cups to form a frothy head. All of the Mayans were welcome to this beverage, but that changed with the Aztecs, for whom it became a treat for the rich. Unlike the Mayans, the Aztecs didn't cultivate it themselves, they merely traded for it.

It was used in royal and religious ceremonies or in meals involving high honors. Most notable of these was perhaps the meeting between Hernando Cortes and King Moctezuma II.

Ancient Aztek old fresco style illustration.
Ancient Aztek old fresco style illustration.Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Moctezuma had met the famous conquistador in 1519 with a ceremony of the highest honor, and served there was the most important and blessed drink, xocoatl, which was so bitter that some claim his reaction to it nearly started the war that would eventually change the continent forever.

After Cortez, cocoa beans began to be shipped across the sea where they were first introduced to European countries. At the time it was still a bitter product, likely only because they thought it was an aphrodisiac. It was treated mostly as a medicinal herb though the Spaniards soon tried to make it more palatable by adding sugar or honey, taking a large step toward the confection we know today.

To get where we are now, the cocoa press needed to be invented in 1828. Shortly after, Daniel Peter combined the cocoa butter and powder created by such a press to invent milk chocolate.

Sadly, to keep up with what was suddenly a posh treat for the rich, the Spanish founded plantations in the Caribbean and Africa and used slave labor to cultivate the valuable product. While we would prefer to assume this practice died out long ago, today a form of slavery and child labor remain a part of cacao production.

Spicy Aztec or Mexican hot chocolate in two cups with peppers, spices, and other ingredients.
Spicy Aztec or Mexican hot chocolate in two cups with peppers, spices, and other ingredients.Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Bitter Aztec Drinking Chocolate

Adapted from allrecipes.com with information from AnachronistsCookbook at Instructables.com

  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1 green chili pepper, sliced
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon corn flour
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Boil 1 1/2 cups of water before adding the chili pepper (with seeds) to boil for 5 to 10 minutes. Strain the water and return it to the pot along with 4 cups of water and the corn flour. Bring it to a boil, then add the cocoa and vanilla extract. Continue to cook 5 to 10 minutes.

The Aztecs reportedly drank this cold, so allow it to cool. Then you may attempt to form a foamy head (though it may not work) by pouring it from one cup into another several times from a height of several feet.

Chocolate cookie milkshake in a tall mug with chocolate whipped cream.
Chocolate cookie milkshake in a tall mug with chocolate whipped cream.Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Chocolate Whipped Cream

From the 2000 Hershey recipe book

  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar
  • 1/3 cup powdered cocoa
  • 1 cup chilled whipping cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Beat all ingredients until stiff.

Refreshing chilled raspberry cheesecake topped with fresh berries and chocolate gratings, served on a ceramic plate.
Refreshing chilled raspberry cheesecake topped with fresh berries and chocolate gratings, served on a ceramic plate.Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Chilled Raspberry Cheesecake

Adapted from the 2000 Hershey recipe book

  • 1 1/2 cups vanilla wafer crumbles (or better yet, chocolate Teddy Grams or similar chocolate wafer crackers or cookies)
  • 1/3 cup cocoa powder
  • 1/3 cup powdered sugar
  • 1/3 cup butter or margarine, melted
  • 1 package frozen raspberries (thawed)
  • 1 envelope unflavored gelatin
  • 1/2 cup cold water
  • 1/2 cup boiling water
  • 16 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3 tablespoons seedless raspberry preserves
  • 1 bar semi-sweet chocolate

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Combine the crumbs, cocoa and powdered sugar in a medium bowl, then add the melted butter. Press the mixture into the bottom and 1 1/2 inches up the side of a 9-inch springform pan. Bake 10 minutes and allow to cool.

Puree and strain the raspberries, then set them aside. Sprinkle gelatin over cold water in a small bowl and allow it to soften. Add boiling water and stir it until the gelatin dissolves completely and the mixture is clear. In a large bowl beat the cream cheese, granulated sugar and vanilla until smooth. Gradually fold in the raspberry puree and gelatin before mixing thoroughly and pouring it into the prepared springform pan.

Refrigerate overnight, then loosen the sides of the cake with a knife before opening the springform pan and extracting. Spread raspberry preserves over the top of the cake and garnish with chocolate whipped cream and chocolate shavings made by grating the bar of chocolate over the top, to taste.

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.