John had never before enjoyed his breakfast so much.
from The Chocolate Touch
by Patrick Skene Catling
newly illustrated by Margot Apple
(originally published William Morrow Publishers, 1957)
Today, July 12, 2022, would have been my dad’s 105th birthday. We always celebrated with chocolate cake covered in chocolate frosting, and topped off with a scoop (or two) of chocolate ice cream. Dad loved chocolate.
His favorite was milk chocolate. Mine, too. But I also like those little semi-sweet chips that give chocolate chip cookies their name. I like hot cocoa, cold chocolate milk, and a crisp chocolate bar. I like creamy chocolate and gooey chocolate-covered caramel. Chocolate-dipped strawberries, marshmallows, cashews…mmm. I got sick once after I ate the chocolate-covered graham crackers my mom sent with my lunch at camp. I think I was coming down with the flu, but, ever since then I avoid those.
Last Thursday, July 7, was World Chocolate Day. It occurs every year on the same date. It’s been suggested that July 7, 1550, was the date that chocolate was introduced to Europe. I couldn't verify that, though. The Aztecs and Mayans were the first to use the cacao bean in food products. Evidence of cocoa-based food dates back many thousand of years.
Shortly after Columbus’s adventures in the 1490s, stories about lands that flourished with flora, fauna, and golden riches tempted Spanish Conquistadors to cross the ocean to see for themselves. They plundered the land and the people in their quest to conquer, and by the way, discovered the cacao tree and its bean.
Cacao beans were cultivated and used by Mesoamerican civilizations who predated the Mayans. The beans were removed from their pods, fermented in containers and laid out to dry. Then they were ground, mixed with water and various other ingredients like chile peppers, flowers, vanilla, and honey and stirred into a thick, bitter, and foamy drink.
Although the Aztecs enjoyed a cold version of a similar drink, they mostly used the cacao beans as currency.
In 1519, when the explorer and Conquistador, Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico, he captured the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan, and defeated Montezuma. Fighting continued for several years until the Aztecs who were much diminished by the Spanish, finally succumbed to smallpox.
But their chocolate lived on.
Cortés returned to Spain with cacao and the formula to turn it into the rich beverage. He built cacao plantations in the new colonies of the conquered Mexican lands and produced beans for trade that brought prosperity to Spain.
The Spaniards liked a sweeter drink with fewer spices. It was enjoyed in secret by the aristocracy for several decades before they shared it with the rest of Europe. The French and Italians changed the recipe again.
It took the onset of the Industrial Revolution, with its development of steam-powered machines, to make the production of cocoa powder affordable. In 1850, Joseph Fry added cacao butter to cocoa power and formed a solid mass. Solid chocolate became wildly popular.
The US is the world’s largest producer of chocolate and Hershey’s is our country’s largest producer of chocolate candy. The Hershey Chocolate Company was established in 1894. Six years later, they sold their first candy bar. On a visit to Hershey, Pennsylvania, you can enjoy the main street with its Hershey Kiss-shaped street lights, peruse the gift shop, and tour the factory, which is not at all like Willy Wonka's!
By 2019, about two-thirds of the world’s cocoa supply came from West Africa where child labor is the norm. Kids as young as ten-years-old are prohibited from going to school and forced to harvest cacao.
Chocolate industry leaders worldwide pledged in 2001, under pressure from the U.S. Congress, to eradicate “the worst forms of child labor” from their West African cocoa suppliers. It was a goal companies agreed to reach in four years.
Twenty-one years later, the practice continues. Nestle, Mars, and Hershey are working to encourage farmers to improve their working conditions and eliminate child labor, but the only way to make sure your chocolate is sourced ethically is to look for the fair trade certification label.
Chocolate, especially dark chocolate, is touted as a health food. It very well may be. For me, though, the best chocolate experience is laced with butter, plenty of sugar, and a few nuts, caramel, or a creamy center.
Life really is like a box of chocolates. Enjoy your inevitable surprises.
-—Be curious! (and lick up every luscious drop!)