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FROM THE ANCIENT MAYANS

The history of chocolate begins over 2,600 years ago in Central America. The ancient Mayan Indians are the first known consumers of chocolate. Images of cocoa pods were carved into the walls of their temples, and ancient Mayan writings refer to cacao as "food of the gods." It was the Mayans who first created a beverage from crushed cacao beans which was enjoyed by royalty and shared at sacred ceremonies. The Mayans established the earliest known cacao plantations in the Yucatan. But many historians believe that chocolate may be even older, dating back to the Olmec civilization, which predates the Mayans.

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Aztecs were an advanced and powerful civilization located in what is now central Mexico. Chocolate's importance to the Aztec empire is also clearly recorded. The Aztecs called the prized drink they made from cocoa beans "chocolatl," which means "warm liquid." Like the earlier Mayans, the Aztecs drank the unsweetened beverage during special ceremonies. Montezuma II, a royal monarch of the Aztecs, maintained great storehouses filled with cocoa beans and reportedly consumed 50 or more portions of chocolatl daily from a golden goblet. The frothy beverage, which was sometimes made with water, and sometimes with wine, could be seasoned with vanilla, pimento, and chili pepper. It was thought to cure diarrhea and dysentery, and was believed to be an aphrodisiac. Cortez was said to have tried the beverage, but found it too bitter. He did, however, write to King Carlos I of Spain, calling "xocoatl" a "drink that builds up resistance and fights fatigue."

Cocoa beans, however, were not only consumed. They were also used as a form of currency. According to records of the time, a rabbit could be purchased for four cocoa beans. In Mexican picture scripts, a basket with 8,000 beans represents the figure 8,000.

Europe was first introduced to the primary ingredient in chocolate when Christopher Columbus brought a handful of dark, almond-shaped beans back to Spain from his 1502 voyage. Among the many strange objects that Columbus presented to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, these cocoa beans from Nicaragua seemed the least promising. Columbus, who was still searching for the sea route to India, was not interested in the cocoa. And the King and Queen never dreamed how important cocoa beans would become. It would be Hernando Cortez, the Spanish explorer, to grasp the commercial possibilities of cocoa beans.

Mistakenly believed to be the reincarnation of the former Aztec god-king, Hernando Cortez was able to infiltrate the Aztecs, overpower them and within three years, bring about the fall of the Aztec empire. It was during this time that Cortez realized the economic potential for cocoa beans. He experimented with chocolatl, adding cane sugar to make it more agreeable to Spanish tastes. He also established additional cacao plantings in the Caribbean region before returning to Spain with the first cocoa and the utensils necessary for preparation of the beans.

Back in Spain, Cortez' version of Chocolatl became a favorite of the wealthy and continued to undergo flavor refinements. Newly discovered spices such as cinnamon and vanilla were added to the drink. Finally, someone determined the drink would taste better hot, which quickly won followers among the Spanish aristocracy. Seeing the growing economic potential for cocoa beans, Spain planted more cacao trees overseas in Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru and Jamaica to insure an ample supply of cocoa beans. Remarkably, the Spanish were able to keep their cocoa cultivation and creation of cocoa drinks a secret from the rest of Europe for nearly one hundred years.

The first cocoa processing plant was established in Spain in 1580. In 1615, the Spanish princess Anna of Austria married Louis XIII and introduced, amongst other Spanish customs, the drinking of chocolate to the French court. It did not take long before chocolate was acclaimed throughout Europe as a delicious, health-giving drink. Chocolate drinking spread across the English Channel and to Great Britain, and in 1657 London the first chocolate shop was opened. As other countries challenged Spain's monopoly on cacao, chocolate became more widely available. Soon the French, English, and Dutch were cultivating cacao in their colonies in the Caribbean, and later, elsewhere in the world. With more production came lower prices, and soon the masses in Europe and the Americas were enjoying chocolate. For many people, however, the expanded production of cacao in the New World meant slavery. Cacao production relied heavily on the forced labor of Native Americans and imported African slaves.

As cacao became more commonly available, people began experimenting with new ways of using it. But it wasn't until 1828 that the "modern era" of chocolate making and production began. In 1828, Dutch chocolate maker Conrad J. van Houten patented an inexpensive method for pressing the fat from roasted cacao beans. This not only helped reduce prices even further, but more importantly improved the quality of the chocolate by squeezing out about half of the cocoa butter. This created a "cake" that could be pulverized into a fine powder known as "cocoa." From then on, chocolate drinks had more of the smooth consistency and the recognizable flavor of those enjoyed today.

The introduction of cocoa powder not only made creating chocolate drinks much easier, but also made it possible to combine chocolate with sugar and then remix it with cocoa butter to create a solid. The 19th Century saw two revolutionary developments in the history of chocolate. In 1849, English chocolate maker Joseph Storrs Fry combined melted cocoa butter, sugar and cocoa powder to produce what was arguably the world's first eating chocolate. The second development occurred in 1876 in Switzerland when Daniel Peter, a Swiss chocolate manufacturer, had the idea of using milk to make a new kind of chocolate, milk chocolate.

In the U.S., the production of chocolate proceeded more quickly than anywhere else in the world. In 1765, the first chocolate factory was established. During WWII, the U.S. government recognized chocolate's role as nourishment and morale for the Allied Forces. Today, the U.S. Army's Ready to Eat Meal contains chocolate bars and chocolate candies, and chocolate has been taken into space as part of the diet of U.S. astronauts.