Food of the Gods

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By John Pawlak

Back in high school, history was far from my favorite subject. I was a terrible student — never reading the lessons, never doing my homework, never listening in class.
I suppose you can see why I became a teacher, right?
I now regret not having paid more attention.
History is a wonderful subject and over the years I’ve found myself fascinated by the history of almost everything. For instance, did you know that babies used to wear dresses, girls and boys alike?
There’s a great picture of President Franklin Roosevelt at the age of two, posed nicely wearing the cutest baby dress you’ve ever seen.
Anyway, I happen to enjoy cooking and over the holidays it’s become rather a tradition for me to make homemade chocolates.
It’s a form of stress management for me.
With chocolate drenched air filling the house, it prompted me to read up on the history of chocolate.
The botanical name for the cacao tree is “Theobroma”, from ancient Greek and Latin meaning “Food of the Gods.”
Today, it is often spelled “cocoa”, which many cacao enthusiasts argue is somehow a bad thing.
Ah, but I’ve tried both and they’re equally delicious!
H. G. Wells published a fantasy book titled “Food of the Gods” in which a mysterious substance allowed chickens to grow to heights of six feet tall. Well, that probably wasn’t chocolate.
In its early incarnation, only the rich or powerful were privileged to share this food with the gods.
But it wasn’t really that much of a privilege. Chocolate was a drink, devoid of sugar and extremely bitter.
The history of cacao precedes most modern foods. It was consumed by the Olmecs more than 3,000 years ago. Then the Aztecs joined the cacao afficionados, using it both as a drink and a currency.
One could purchase a turkey egg for three cacao beans, or buy the turkey for one hundred beans.
The cocoa pods, which look like something out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, jut out directly from the trunk of the cocoa tree.
When ripe, pods are harvested by hand and the pulp coated seeds are heated to ferment and separate the pulp from the seed.
The seeds are laid out to sun dry, and then roasted.
The hulls are removed, leaving behind the food of the gods — cacao nibs.
Christopher Columbus saw cacao beans in 1502, but did not appreciate their value. But in 1528, Hernando Cortez brought them back to Spain and Europe’s love affair with chocolate took root.
Oaxacan nuns added sugar to offset the bitter taste and cacao became delectable chocolate, but still only in liquid form.
The lure of improving chocolate was the mother of creativity, and in 1847, Fry and Sons of Bristol, England produced the first solid chocolate.
The world has never been the same since.
The world market for chocolate is near $90 Billion a year.
In the USA, we eat 12 pounds of chocolate per year per person. That’s a lot of chocolate for one country (nearly two million tons a year), but we’re not even in the top 10 nations.
The Swiss, Brits and Germans each consume chocolate at twice our rate.
And why not? In addition to dining with the gods, chocolate has been associated with more and more benefits recently.
Researchers claim that chocolate reduces the risk of strokes in women, lowers one’s cholesterol, provides flavonoids to protect skin from UV damage, contains anti-clotting properties which improves circulation, improves vision by increasing blood flow to the retina, and helps fight diabetes.
One study even found a strong correlation between national chocolate consumption rates and number of winning Nobel Laureates.
Yeah, right. I eat at least as much chocolate as the Swiss and I’ve never won a Nobel prize! So much for correlation.
Nobel prizes aside, I personally think the taste is benefit enough. Chocolate brownies. Chocolate mousse. Chocolate ice cream. Chocolate cake. Even Mexican cuisine includes chocolate (mole poblano). If it contains chocolate, it’s got to be good.
I happen to be partial to chocolate covered chocolate fudge with chocolate bits. It’s even better with chocolate syrup drizzled on it!