Monday, October 25, 2010

The Origins of Chocolate

What is Chocolate?

The difference between cacao—the bean and commodity—and chocolate—the processed product—is important to our understanding of this luxury drink turned popular food. In 1753, the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus gave the plant its binomial scientific name, Theobroma cacao. Theobroma from the Greek means "food of the gods," while cacao is a loan word from the Mixe-Zoquean family. Conventionally, the term "cacao" is used to refer to the plant, the almond-shaped beans encased in the multi-hued pod, and all its raw materials before processing. In the next stage, whether in liquid or solid form, the beans become "chocolate"—a word that went through a process of linguistic hybridization, similar to the creolization of the drink itself. While the derivation and etymology of the term chocolate from cacahuatl in the Nahuatl language may be in dispute, the word nonetheless refers to the cold, bitter, water-based beverage of the native Aztecs that the Spaniards learned to drink hot and sweetened with cane sugar. With some exceptions in American and British usage, the term "cocoa" refers to the defatted powder after separating cacao butter from the cacao solids. This process, invented by Dutch chemist Conrad Van Houten in 1828, thereafter revolutionized chocolate preparation.

Chocolate today is so much a part of our everyday lives that we soon forget the many transformations that this product has undergone to arrive at its present place on the table. In the United States, where hot chocolate has become a mass-market, marshmallow-laden drink for children, it is difficult to envision the beverage as a luxury or exotic delicacy limited to the top strata of European society in the 17th and 18th centuries. Yet in an even earlier time and place, chocolate was not only the drink of Aztec and Maya elite but also a form of currency and a means of exchange, in which large sacks of cacao beans were used for taxes or tribute. 

Discover more on the history of chocolate—from its expansion to the masses during the Industrial Revolution to its recent emergence as a new luxury commodity—by checking out the full story on the Latino American Experience. If you are not already a subscriber, click here for a free trial.

Schnepel, Ellen M. "Cacao Genome Project Results Revealed: Background." The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience. ABC-CLIO, 2010. Web. 22 Oct. 2010.


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