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Chocolate: The Food of the Gods

By Bill Dodds
Your favorite treat is a footnote in Catholic history.

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Most of us wouldn’t like the idea of a world without chocolate. How would we survive? Would we want to survive? Yet we might not have this crucial ingredient of the good life if it weren’t for the important culinary work of a whole assortment of people in history—everyone from pagan Aztecs to Spanish nuns!

The Aztecs believed the gods invented chocolate and gave it to them. Historians say some nuns improved it.

So the next time you’re biting into that little bit of heaven—dark, milk, or bittersweet—offer a silent “thank you” to some sisters in Mexico.

Around 1550 they made chocolate taste better by adding sugar and vanilla. Mmmm-mmm.

Up until then it was, well, still chocolate but not as we know it today. Not as we love it today.

Drink up, wise up

When the Spanish began to colonize and convert the residents of what is now Mexico, they came upon a drink used in religious rituals. Chocolatl was made from ground cocoa beans, water, and fermented corn or wine.

It was the beverage Montezuma offered to the explorer Hernando Cortez and his men. The taste was bitter, but, the Aztecs explained, with every swallow the guests would become smarter.

Of course, it’s safe to assume, the use of the Theobroma cacao plant began long before that. But, until then, its history is sketchy. (Theobroma cacao, botany’s name for it, means “food of the gods.”) Historians believe the first chocolate trees probably sprang up in South America some four millennia ago. (No, there isn’t really a “chocolate tree.” Sorry. No gumdrop bush, either.)

The Mayans cultivated the plant and took its seeds with them when they headed north around the seventh century. Which brings us back to the Aztecs. Montezuma. Cortez. And the nuns.

What’s the buzz?

Legend says chocolatl gave the drinker a solid buzz. That’s not too surprising, what with the stimulants in the chocolate and the zip from the fermented corn mash or wine. Then, too, it wasn’t sipped from espresso cups. Some say Montezuma had 50 hits a day, and he figured each was a blessing from the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl.

No doubt the Spanish liked the drink, too, but they weren’t too pleased with this native god business. When they brought it back to Spain, high society women quickly became its fans. (Columbus had brought some back, but the king of Spain missed the boat and ignored it.) The ladies lapped it up—even in church, claiming it was medicinal and helped them avoid passing out or experiencing general weakness.

Simply put, they were drinking cocoa throughout Mass.

One bishop forbade it. Not only were they breaking their fast before Holy Communion, he said, but this concoction’s pagan roots were pretty suspect, too.

The women went to Mass somewhere else.

Pope Alexander VII ended the controversy in 1662. He said liquid, and this one as a medicine, didn’t break the fast.

Good for amor

The drink soon seeped into France. There, popular from the royalty on down, it was considered an aphrodisiac. Although “on down” wasn’t far. It was only high society who could … It was only the very wealthy who could afford it.

Spanish friars helped popularize it throughout Europe. At that time, it was still only a beverage, any one of a combination of chocolate, water, coffee, wine, and other fermented drinks, pepper, and spices.

It was the English and Dutch who added milk. And opened chocolate houses in the early 18th century. No, not houses made of chocolate. Establishments in which chocolate was served. (“I’ll have a dark chocolate, splash of milk, double wine, with a dusting of pepper. To go.”)

The British pushed it as a medicine. Good for kids and for fighting tuberculosis.

It was only 150 years ago that chocolate confections—candy bars—came on the scene. This kind of an “eating chocolate”—as opposed to a “drinking chocolate”—was the brainstorm of an English company.

And a godsend for 21st-century Catholic schools trying to raise money.

Copyright © 2000 Bill Dodds

Wonder what a “chocolate plant” looks like? Go to:

Did you know too much chocolate could poison—or even kill—your dog? Find out about that at:

Now that you’re really hungry, here’s information on why chocolate is good for you: 1178.html.

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