Now may you think I should just go on and stop there, because chocolate. The only thing more amazing than this culinary wonder is its history. There is a lot of fascinating lore behind chocolate, and there’s a reason I have it as our Big Idea. No April Fool’s prank here—chocolate’s first appearance dates back over 4,000 years ago in the Amazon where cocoa originated. While the Europeans made it popular, cocoa and chocolate finds its earliest origins in the Americas.
Chocolate has been documented by the Mayan culture as early as 6th century A.D. The Mayans called the cocoa tree the cacahuaquchtl tree which is where the word chocolate comes from. Now before you think “Those Mayans had it good!” you should know cacahuaquchtl translates roughly as “bitter water.” What we know as chocolate and what really is chocolate are two different things. If you grind up the cocoa bean and add no sugar to it, the taste is extremely bitter. To Mayans cocoa pods symbolized life and fertility, and therefore pods are featured prominently in their art. In another part of the Americas, the Aztecs were even more obsessed with cocoa, believing that wisdom and power came from eating the fruit of the cocoa tree. Their mythology depicts their gods, before descending to earth, plucked a branch of a coco tree, brought it down to Earth, and planted it as a gift.
Now that is some serious devotion to chocolate right there.
Chocolate didn’t really go worldwide until the Europeans arrived in America. In the 15th century, the court of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain got the first look at the principle ingredients for chocolate when Christopher Columbus first returned. However, it was Cortez during his conquest of Mexico when he found the Aztecs using cocoa beans in a preparation of a royal drink. Chocolatl translated to warm liquid, and this warm liquid Emperor Montezuma reportedly drank fifty or more portions daily. As this was a drink of the gods, Montezuma drank chocolate from golden goblets. The Spanish, with all their technological advancements of 1519, were served chocolate in great golden goblets as they were believed to be gods too. Montezuma treated chocolate like it was food for true royalty, but Montezuma’s Chocolatl was very bitter, perhaps too bitter for daily consumption. In order to make the concoction more agreeable, Cortez added sugar and then offered it to Europe as health food on account of the zip and vigor it bestowed. It was served sweetened and at room temperature, but somewhere in the 17th century, the idea of heating it up—thereby inventing hot chocolate—took hold, and by 1657 chocolate houses opened. See, even back in Shakespeare’s and Queen Elizabeth’s day, chocolate was a thing.
Because of its exotic background, chocolate was more of a privilege for the rich, but by 1730 chocolate had dropped in price. England and Europe started cultivating cocoa. With the planting of chocolate trees, chocolate became easier to produce; and chocolate eventually fell within the financial reach of all. Then in 1830, one hundred years after chocolate reached the common man, the English chocolatiers J.S. Fry & Sons company introduced something really innovative: the idea of eating chocolate. It was solid, developed through a kind of fondue process, and it was smooth and velvety. Very popular and all the rage until 1876 when, in Switzerland, Daniel Peter devised a way of adding milk to chocolate thus creating milk chocolate.
Chocolate in America had been a trend for a time, especially in pre-revolutionary New England to be exact, where the first chocolate factory was established. The sweet made its way back to America eventually where it took hold and, in 1894, led to the biggest chocolate factory in the country to be built, situated up in Hersey, Pennsylvania. Now you can find chocolate in a number of things—soap, beer, and even in art and architecture. It’s the sweets of sweets, and something I certainly don’t mind having on occasion.
So what’s coming up next for The Big Idea? Probably a column on the evolution of the elliptical machine.
A research physicist who has become an entrepreneur and educational leader, and an expert on competency-based education, critical thinking in the classroom, curriculum development, and education management, Dr. Richard Shurtz is the president and chief executive officer of Stratfdord University. He has published over 30 technical publications, holds 15 patents, and is host of the weekly radio show, Tech Talk. A noted expert on competency-based education, Dr. Shurtz has conducted numerous workshops and seminars for educators in Jamaica, Egypt, India, and China, and has established academic partnerships in China, India, Sri Lanka, Kurdistan, Malaysia, and Canada.