With Cinco de Mayo fast approaching, food bloggers are posting Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes right and left, as well as promoting Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes buried in their archives. It’s an annual ritual. Until the fifth of May, there will be a higher concentration of photos, stories and recipes of enchiladas, tacos, tamales and tequila on the web than usual.
But while Cinco de Mayo, as a holiday and a festival, is bigger in the United States than it is in Mexico (thanks or no thanks to alcohol marketers), no one can deny how Mexico has forever changed the landscape of global cuisine. You might think that chili is the most important food contribution of Mexico to the world—and you might be right—but there is one other thing that we have to thank Mexico for. Chocolate.
As Alex was prepping her version of my chocolate chip cookie dough brownies last night, I was thinking how much less exciting food today would be without chocolate. The early people of Mexico did not exactly hand over cacao beans to the Europeans with smiles on their faces. How chocolate travelled from Mexico to Spain and, eventually, to the rest of the world is a story intertwined with tales of invasion and colonialism, piracy and slavery. Chocolate doesn’t sound like a gift if taken in that context, I guess. Still, it is Mexico we should thank for being able to enjoy chocolate. Here are some of the highlights of how chocolate travelled from Mexico to Europe and to the rest of the world.
1. In two archeological sites in Mexico, ceramic vessels containing residue of chocolate were discovered and the analyses show that the Mokaya people of the Pacific coast have been consuming chocolate as a beverage as early as 1900 BCE.
2. More information is available about how the Mayans (250-900 A.D.) consumed chocolate. All these point to one interesting fact—chocolate was consumed as a spicy rather than as a sweet drink (sugar was unknown in Mexico at the time) that had a special place in royal and religious ceremonies and events.
3. At the height of the Aztec civilization (1200—1521), cacao beans were used as currency and 100 cacao beans could buy a good turkey hen.
4. It was while cacao beans were used as currency that, in 1502, Christopher Columbus and his son, Ferdinand, seized a canoe (yes, piracy, pure and simple) with cacao beans among its cargo. The young Columbus later wrote about how the natives treated the beans (which he mistook for almonds) with much reverence. That was the Europeans’ first encounter with cacao. But while Columbus did bring back the cacao beans to Europe, chocolate did not become popular until much later when Europe started importing sugar as well.
5. As European colonization spread and the demand for cacao beans rose, the English, French and Dutch challenged Spain’s monopoly over the importation of cacao beans, and started planting cacao in their respective colonies. Poorly paid locals and African slaves did the hard work. And as citizens from these former colonial powers settled in the colonies, they brought their chocolate drinking practices with them.
6. The era of modern chocolate production began with Conrad J. van Houten who created a press during the first half of the 1800’s to separate cocoa butter from the cocoa liquor which made chocolate production cheaper. “Dutch cocoa”, it was called, in homage to Van Houten who was Dutch.
So, the next time you eat a piece of chocolate, remember how long and arduous its journey has been in history. Know too that the high demand for chocolate has led to unscrupulous business practices. In the Ivory Coast, the largest producer of cacao today, child labor is used in the production. And while slavery ended a while back (at least, on paper), there are concerns that these child workers may be victims of human trafficking, the modern-day version of slavery. Despite widespread information on such practices, chocolate manufacturers continue to buy from Ivory Coast growers.
Colonialism, piracy, slavery. That’s enough to give one an indigestion. As end consumers, we ought to be more conscious and curious about the origin of the cacao beans used in the next candy bar we eat. And it’s not too much to ask either that we stop patronizing chocolate from companies that do not provide information on the chocolate packaging that they only use ethically-produced cacao beans.
All stock photos used in this post are from Pixabay.com.