November 18, 2004
BY STEVE GAGNÉ
One of the most popular foods in the world, chocolate is also one of the most versatile. It can find its way into (and have its way with!) delicate cakes, creamy puddings, mousse, cookies, candies, beverages . . . when used for sauces or as a seasoning mixed with spices and herbs, it can even transform a savory meal into an exotic culinary experience.
Few foods on the planet have as much appeal as chocolate. It can dominate sweet desserts or entire meals while still maintaining its peculiar character and distinctly recognizable taste. Like fine wine, varieties of chocolate can be measured by flavor, taste and other more subtle qualities, all of which determine the distinctions between the chocolate used in those chocolate bars found in your local convenience store versus chocolates from fine chocolate makers, especially those who use ecologically grown, harvested and processed varieties.
Anatomy of a Pod
Theobroma Cacao is the name of the tree that produces the pod-like fruit from which cacao seeds are derived. The slender tree averages about 20 feet in height and thrives in humid, tropical forests beneath the shade and shelter of other taller trees that make up the forest canopy. Cacao trees take about seven years to mature and can live up to 50 years, bearing 50 to 60 football-sized pods per year. These pods, when mature, can become red, purple, yellow, orange or green.
Unlike most fruits that grow and ripen at the end of branches, cacao pods grow directly out of the main branches and from the trunk and bark of the tree. Each pod contains 20 to 40 almond-sized beans (seeds) embedded in a soft white pulp. The pulp has a sweet citrus flavor with a pear-like texture and has long been a traditional food for hunter-gatherers residing in the steamy forests of Mesoamerica. The creamy pulp is essential for the fermentation of cacao beans, an important stage of transformation on the way to actually becoming chocolate.
Cacao is the name given to the seeds before they are processed; once processed, they become chocolate. Here is a somewhat simplified version of the first stages of chocolate making:
First the ripened cacao pods are split open and the pulp and beans scooped out. The mixture is then spread on mats to ferment for four to six days in a shady area; the fermenting beans are turned occasionally by raking. The degree of fermentation is crucial to good chocolate and must be carefully observed and timed. The fermenting pulp eventually turns to liquid and drains away as the temperature rises, leaving the seeds with little residue of pulp.
During this time, the seeds begin to germinate, but high temperature and acidity levels prevent them from reaching full germination. The seeds are then sun dried for another five to seven days, then roasted for about 40 minutes at 100 to 200 degrees to enhance flavor. The paper-thin skin surrounding the beans is then removed, leaving what is called the “cocoa nib.” This is unprocessed, dark, unsweetened chocolate.
From here just about anything goes: milk, sugar, nuts, spices and numerous other ingredients can be added to make both familiar and not-so-familiar delicacies.
The origins of this unique and exacting processing method for chocolate are lost in time. Wherever it came from, we can be sure the people responsible for it knew a great deal about science and food processing.
A Little Chocolate Science
Chocolate contains over 400 known pharmacological chemicals. There is still much to learn about this food, but three important chemicals whose interesting effects we have studied are phenylethylamine, anadamide and theobromine.
Phenylethylamine is an amphetamine-like substance that selectively elevates those brain chemicals associated with pleasure. It is known to raise blood pressure and increase the activity of neurotransmitters.
Anadamide is a compound found naturally in the brain, seminal plasma and ovarian fluids. It is similar to THC in that it activates cannabinoid receptors (parts of a cellular system that regulate some reproductive fluids) and is responsible for creating enhanced feelings of well-being.
Theobromine is a mild stimulant with similar effects to caffeine but only about one-tenth its potency. Its diverse actions include: myocardial stimulant, diuretic, smooth muscle relaxant and dilator of coronary arteries. Cacao also contains a small amount of caffeine, along with strong alkaloids similar to those found in coffee and tea.
Cocoa butter, the fat contained in cacao, consists of approximately 35 percent oleic acid, 35 percent stearic acid, 25 percent palmitic acid and five percent other. It is the third-highest source of saturated fat, after coconut oil and palm oil. Overall, the cacao bean is about 30 percent fat, with an additional 14 percent carbohydrate and nine percent protein. Cocoa butter liquefies at just above body temperature; since it is mostly stearic and palmitic acid, it does not raise cholesterol. It is also a stable fat, meaning it doesn’t go rancid quickly. In fact, the fat content of cacao is one of its healthiest qualities. Cocoa butter is a valuable fat with multiple uses; the finest quality chocolate has high quantities of it in the finished product.
No one really knows how our fascination with cacao began, nor do we know the true origins of this remarkable food. However, some evidence does exist to reveal clues that could one day help to solve the mystery of the origin of chocolate.
Archeological evidence points to the Olmecs as the first people to use cacao. The word “cacao” itself was given to us by the Mayan peoples who once populated much of South and Central America. Historically, they are the people who came after the Olmecs in these regions. While Mesoamerican hunter-gatherer tribes may have harvested cacao pods to extract the creamy, custard-like flesh that surrounds the actual cacao seeds, the elaborate processing of cacao seeds began with the agrarian lifestyle of the Olmec civilization.
In many ways, the Olmecs are as much a mystery as is cacao. The word Olmec means “rubber people,” reflecting the fact that evidence for early Olmec civilization was found in areas where trees that produce the essence of rubber were found. These enigmatic people are known for their elaborate stonework, consisting of colossal multi-ton stone heads (some over six feet in height and almost as wide) carved from hard basalt that was somehow brought to the Yucatan and surrounding areas of Mesoamerica from great distances. Some of these heads have helmets and stern faces, resembling warriors of some lost civilization, while others have faces with serene expressions, as if in a state of meditation.
The Olmecs are also known for their building of megalithic temples, sophisticated irrigation and drainage technology, crystal lenses and much more. They are said to be the earliest civilization of the Americas. Their influence stretches throughout the Yucatan peninsula and into the remote jungles of Guatemala. Archeologists are continuously finding new Olmec sites and uncovering information that helps broaden our understanding of these intriguing people of the past who were responsible for introducing the world to chocolate.
A recent title of Proto-Mayans has been given to the Olmecs because it is believed that they preceded the Mayans and may have even intermixed with them to form future branches of the Mayan race. Conservative timelines for the Olmecs place them at around 1500 BC at the earliest; more realistic timelines place them in Mesoamerica by at least 3000 BC. Where they came from is anyone’s guess, but they appear to have arrived fully organized and structured with civilization and agriculture.
There is no indication of any evolutionary process, from primitive hunter-gatherer to technologically advanced civilization, among the Olmecs. In fact, much of the archeological evidence indicates a controversial mixture of racial types. Stone sculptures have been excavated that clearly reveal the various racial types of African, Mongoloid, Semitic and Caucasian peoples. This strange cultural mix strongly points to cross-cultural diffusion at some remote period in history, and to the likely possibility of early settlement in the Americas by several racial types having traveled together.
An argument against this point of view pertaining specifically to cacao has to do with the unique growing environment cacao needs to thrive. Since the plant needs the hot and humid conditions of a rainforest, the argument against the diffusionists’ point of view is that the product must be unique to the rainforest of the Americas. The fact that the plant is not found anywhere else is also cited. However, this argument does not take into consideration the possibility that similar environments may have existed in the distant past and long disappeared in a cataclysm, as indicated by numerous oral and written traditions—or that cacao could have been genetically designed by the Olmecs or some other advanced peoples. After all, it is a rather unique crop with strange attributes.
Sophisticated Food Science
Why this emphasis on the Olmecs? And what does it all have to do with chocolate? What is so interesting is the extraordinary and detailed processing of cacao seeds from the Theobroma cacao tree to the finished chocolate, beginning with the Olmecs who handed it down to the Mayans, Aztecs and everyone else who followed them. Such elaborate processing is not something one learns through trial and error. Transforming the bitter and essentially inedible seeds of the cacao pod into chocolate was a well thought-out process comprised of complex and detailed phases, and would have required a sophisticated understanding of each stage of the process. Furthermore, where would one get the idea to take such a bitter, inedible seed to make it into something edible, let alone something of such great importance? Some knowledge of biochemistry would have been necessary to undertake putting cacao seeds through such a process, and whoever first did so would have known beforehand what the outcome would be.
The chemical interactions that take place during the fermentation stage of cacao processing and the combination of shade and intense sunlight used to induce these and other chemical reactions reveals a comprehensive understanding of food science. It is a bit more complex than the hunter-gatherer, who observes an animal’s interaction with particular plants and from there begins to imitate that behavior. Nor does it sit comfortably with the idea that someone at sometime in the past witnessed a rotting cacao pod fermenting in the shade, by chance had a brainstorm, and spontaneously deduced the remaining details and steps needed to derive chocolate from the seeds.
For what purpose would one want to put so much energy into processing cacao seeds? It’s important to realize that to the Mayans and Aztecs, cacao seeds were worth more than gold. Moreover, they, like the Olmecs before them, knew all too well the physical and psychological effects of chocolate. Chocolate was also fermented to make alcoholic beverages and they most certainly combined it with various mind-altering plants and fungi.
Like other advanced civilizations of antiquity, the Olmecs had a sophisticated understanding of food science, including breeding, cultivation and processing. The sophisticated food science involved in turning cacao seeds into chocolate was something the Olmecs knew about when they arrived in the Americas. For that matter, they may have even brought the cacao plant with them from their original homeland—now lost to the sea from one of the cataclysmic events that took place sometime within the last 11,500 years.
Cacao is one of many food plants of the world with unknown origins. What appear to be wild cacao trees can be found throughout the jungles of Mesoamerica—yet whether these are wild or simply cultivated plants that have run wild is anyone’s guess.
Ritualistic Uses of Chocolate
Historically, cacao was handed down from the Olmecs to the Maya and from the Maya to the Aztecs. At some point in this lineage, the Olmecs seem either to have disappeared or to have been integrated into or evolved into the early Mayan cultures. Artifacts from some early Mayan archeological sites closely resemble Olmec art. It is from these early Mayan periods, as well as later ones, that traces of cacao have been found in excavated pottery, sometimes in tombs or areas where evidence suggests the practice of ritual human sacrifice. There is ample evidence to show that cacao was used as part of some of these rituals, especially those where enemy captives were sacrificed to appease the Gods.
How cacao was used in ritual sacrifice is more clearly ascertained through evidence left by the later Aztecs of Mexico. It is important to understand the context in which this occurred. In The True History of Chocolate, Sophie and Michael Coe explain that the Aztecs did not practice human sacrifice for reasons of blood lust, cruelty or an obsession with death. Rather, it was practiced because of an overshadowing fear that the world as they knew it might end, with everything in it perishing. This fear had its roots in myths and legends left by their ancestors.
In fact, this fear of a worldwide catastrophe where few humans survive to repopulate the earth appears in legends among hundreds of traditional cultures around the world; it appears to be based on actual experience passed on in the form of oral and written traditions by survivors among previous generations.
Though there is clearly a historical basis for the idea that human sacrifice was practiced by these cultures, much of the information we have pertaining to human sacrifice among the Aztecs is now recognized as embellished fact, in many instances highly exaggerated examples originally concocted by apologists who lived during the Spanish conquest.
The killing of most of Mexico’s indigenous peoples in 1521 by the Spanish conquistadors and their religious zealots, along with the beating into submission of those few who remained, is a sad story indeed. It is because of these barbarous acts that the conquerors were compelled to alter historical facts by destroying all but a few written records and proclaiming the Maya and Aztecs to be primitive, inhumane people—when in fact, both were highly civilized peoples with extremely organized, productive and thriving civilizations. In many ways, their polytheistic cultures were actually far more advanced than that of their conquerors, especially in their understanding and implementation of architecture, agriculture and medicine.
Sacrifice was but one context of the many for the ritualistic use of chocolate among traditional Mayan and Aztec peoples. It also played an important role in weddings, royal feasts and other special days throughout the year. Moreover, when it was served during these occasions, it was not consumed indulgently, without meaning or purpose.
Cacao seeds were also a source of monetary exchange for both the Maya and the Aztecs; it was their currency for purchase and trade among themselves and with other peoples. That it was a food specifically and exclusively for the ruling elite, including lords, long-distant merchants and warriors, is supported by numerous sources, but according to some researchers, this idea is still inconclusive. Some believe there is also evidence to support a long history of public consumption as well.
Cacao was available to commoners if they were assigned status as soldiers in the Aztec army. This may have been for practical purposes, as chocolate can act as an appetite suppressant and with large armies to feed, cacao would certainly help supply energy to the soldiers while also helping to curb their appetites.
Food of the Gods—and Goddesses
Cacao is mentioned several times in the Popol Vuh (Book of Counsel), a sacred book of the Quiche Maya of the Guatemalan highlands. One particularly interesting mention has to do with the Gods having created humans in their final form after several previous attempts that ended in failure. In order to do this, the Gods had to find the right foods with which to form human bodies. The foods were found in what was called the Mountain of Sustenance, and although several foods are mentioned in the legend, two very important ones were maize and cacao.
The Aztecs have a similar story that includes a mountain and the god Quetzalcoatl, who instructed ants to bring seeds to the surface that were hidden in a mountain. To both the Mayan and Aztec peoples, cacao was known as a “Food of the Gods” and was consumed primarily as a beverage, of which there were many variations.
Numerous ingredients were added to chocolate beverages, which were for the most part served unheated, although there is evidence that the Mayans consumed both heated and unheated versions. Some of the added ingredients included chili powder, vanilla, maize, honey and flowers. Each addition had a specific purpose and effect, but the ultimate and most widely cherished part of these beverages was the foam that would appear floating on the top of the drinking vessel. This bubbling foam was created by pouring from one vessel, in a standing position, into a receiving vessel at ground level.
Women served cacao to men of high rank or royal status. Whether or not it was forbidden to elite women of a thousand or more years ago is hard to say. If it was—women of that time doubtless being as resourceful as they have always been—one would suspect that traditional Mayan and Aztec women somehow managed to get their share of chocolate too.
There are three recognized varieties of cacao used to make chocolate today, although each of these varieties have adapted to various environments since first discovered, causing them to take on unique characteristics of the environment in which they are grown.
Criollo “native” cacao is considered the finest available and was the variety introduced to the Spanish when they first set foot in Mesoamerica. While it is the finest, it is also the most difficult to cultivate. Forestero is of lower quality but is hardier and more prolific than criollo. The third variety of cacao, trinitario, is a cross between the first two types.
Although Cortez brought cacao seeds to the Emperor of Spain in 1502, it wasn’t until 1585 that chocolate officially arrived from the “New World” (Vera Cruz) on the shores of Seville, Spain, where it continued in its status as a food for the elite upper classes. However, it wasn’t long before it became available to the public as well. Once available to the masses, this unique food quickly spread its influence throughout the world. No longer limited to the humid forests of Mesoamerica, and although stripped of its original spiritual and ritual history, chocolate has now become the focus of new exotic and erotic rituals in a unique position as a global food phenomena. Moreover, while still a Food of the Gods, with its overwhelming appeal to women, it could easily and deservedly be called Food of the Goddesses.
Chocolate and Sex
Is chocolate a healthy food—or is it perhaps one of those very special foods where it really doesn’t matter whether it’s healthy or not?
It certainly has some healthy ingredients, particularly cocoa butter. It contains stimulants and it contains sedatives. Much like coffee, it begins with a bitter flavor but can be altered to suit one’s taste. According to traditional Chinese medicine, its bitter nature makes it resonate in the heart and small intestine. It has a dry and cold effect on the body when consumed as dark chocolate, and a damp and cool effect when consumed as milk chocolate.
It has long been recognized as a substitute for sex—yet for the true chocolate lover, sex may serve as a substitute for chocolate! Given our brief discussion of some of chocolate’s ingredients, it is easy to see how it could influence sex on a biochemical level.
With specific components that can induce feelings of well-being while at the same time cooling the fire of sexual passion, it can induce a mental state of sexual delirium. Chocolate has less of an influence on the physical aspects of sex, as far as stimulating sexual fire goes, but it does have a strong influence on the more mental or psychological aspects of sex in the form of sexual fantasies, especially those where aggressive physical stimulation is used for sexual enhancement. While physical stimulation may be reduced under the influence of chocolate, chocolate may serve to enhance more subtle psychological aspects of sex having to do with emotional sensitivity.
Two Sides to Chocolate
The great and powerful Aztec ruler Montezuma believed it to be an aphrodisiac; an old Aztec legend speaks of it in a less positive light.
The legend speaks of Motecuhzoma, an earlier great Aztec emperor who, curious about the legends and origins of his people, decided to dispatch a group of sorcerers to seek out the legendary Aztec homeland called Aztlan. After a long journey, the party eventually arrived at Aztlan, which was situated on an island in the middle of a lake. Upon meeting the islanders, the sorcerers told them they had gifts for the goddess Coatlicue (Serpent Skirt). The goddess lived on top of a hill; the sorcerers were instructed to follow a guide up the hill to meet the goddess.
The old guide climbed the hill with ease but the sorcerers found they could barely walk up the steep incline. The spry old man asked the group of Aztecs what they ate in their land that would make them so heavy and fatigued. They told the elder guide they ate foods that grew there and that they drink chocolate. The elder then told them that this would make it difficult for them to reach the place of their ancestors.
When they finally reached the goddess, they presented her with their gifts. When she asked what chocolate was, they told her it was drunk and sometimes eaten. She told them that this was why they could not climb the hill: they had become old and weak, burdened by the chocolate. There are many more details to the story, but this will suffice for getting the point across!
Thus the ancient stories present two sides to this mysterious food. One side portrays chocolate as an important and essential gift of the gods; the other, as expressed by the goddess Coatlicue, portrays it as a weakening and debilitating food. Perhaps chocolate carries the potential for both extremes and, like other specialized foods, deserves to be understood for all that it truly is.
A Demanding and Sensitive Food
The cacao tree is subject to a multitude of diseases. Those known to attack it include fungus, pod rot and extraneous growths. It is extremely sensitive to exposure and low temperatures kill the seeds. Cacao is difficult to grow and requires both year-round moisture and regular irrigation to thrive. Overall, cacao is a very needy and demanding plant, and if it doesn’t get these needs fulfilled it will die. These properties are all entrained in the final product.
The sensual allure of chocolate is something few people can resist. It’s as if this mysterious food has the ability to influence the senses in ways that no other food can. It can create deep feelings of satisfaction that can lead to expressions of self-importance and confidence. It can impart feelings of relaxation, euphoria and sexual playfulness. It can even be a substitute for sex by sedating one’s inner fire and replacing it with a sultry yet superficial demeanor.
Chocolate can stimulate and energize the body and mind. It can influence our thoughts by leading us down well-trodden paths of psychological awareness, while at the same time challenging us to open doors of perception we never knew existed, sometimes revealing thoughts and expressions of blatant truths and confusing deceptions that somehow meld into each other with convincing acumen.
Chocolate seems to have it all when it comes to being a favorite treat. It is the food of choice many people lean on in times of stress. When life doesn’t seem to be going right, when anxiety has peaked, when the passion is gone, when there is no one who will listen, understand or believe, there is always chocolate to comfort us and ease the pain. While there are endless reasons—or excuses—for indulging in chocolate, for many the simple fact that it exists is reason enough.
America’s First Cuisines, Sophie D. Coe.
The True History of Chocolate, Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe.
The Olmec, Mother Culture of Mesoamerica, Roman Pina Chan.
The Cambridge World History of Food, Kiple and Ornelas.