I am, and have always been, a symbol of indulgence, love, richness, and joy. Lucky kids wear me smeared across their mouths and on their fingertips as a sign of the ultimate childhood satisfaction. I’m the iconic Valentine’s Day gift for celebrating romance, yet also the go-to salve for the rejected or dejected any day of the year. But prepare for your chocolate-loving hearts to break just a bit, folks. My life story is not entirely sweet.
It is hot and epic, which is only fitting given that I am native to the equatorial regions of the Americas and have been around for many millennia. I come from a small evergreen tree in the genus Theobroma (“food of the gods” in Greek) that grows football-shaped pods—not on its branches, like most fruit trees, but on the trunk. The pods have leathery skins that cover a slimy, sweet-sour flesh and house roughly 40 seeds each.
I was likely first grown 5,000 years ago in current-day Ecuador—for booze. (Yes, my flesh can be fermented into an alcoholic beverage.) But soon enough, my seeds—aka cacao beans—became the forever focus. The Mayans, among others, dried, roasted, and cracked them into cacao nibs, which they then ground into cocoa flour and blended with water to make a drink. One early European colonizer who tasted the mix (which included spicy chile peppers, fragrant flowers, and sometimes cornmeal) said I was “more a drink for pigs than a drink for humanity.” In time, he grew to enjoy the beverage, eating his words as aristocrats across Europe took to drinking a similar blend made with rose water, egg yolks, or almonds—emulating the Mayans after all.
Beyond satisfying the early human sweet tooth, cacao beans have turned out to be full of fiber, antioxidants, monounsaturated fat, flavanols, and other compounds that studious 21st-century humans know are important to overall health. My flavanols in particular are good for lowering blood pressure, though if that were your main objective, you’d be best off eating entirely unsweetened dark chocolate, and who wants to do that? Even my bitterest compound, theobromine, is suspected of being good for the heart and brain. Yet beware: That’s what can poison your dog if she raids your chocolate stash.
I was almost exclusively available to the upper classes until the Industrial Revolution, when someone finally brought the hydraulic press to bear on cacao beans. Manufacturers could then force the vegetable fat out of my nibs and produce cocoa butter, which permitted cooks to more easily create indulgences such as chocolate bars, truffles, and cakes.
To be perfectly honest, however, I didn’t really become a treat for the masses as a result of technology. To this day, I am a product of labor and hardship. Since my pods ripen at irregular times and are attached to my tree by a delicate stem that would be damaged by a machine, all my harvesting and processing must be done by hand. It was Mayan and Aztec commoners, almost always women and children, who toiled so that royalty, priests, and celebrated warriors could indulge in me. Once Spanish and Portuguese colonizers realized that cacao was an agricultural gold mine, they relied on the transatlantic slave trade to populate their cacao plantations in places such as Brazil. Shamefully, the story continues today, as much of the mass-market chocolate you buy at the grocers is produced with the help of more than 2 million West African children who labor, often not paid at all, on family farms in Ivory Coast and Ghana, the biggest cocoa-growing countries in the world.
If you’ve lost your sweet tooth at the thought of this unsavory background, there are ways to consume me with a freer conscience. Look for labels on chocolate that indicate ethical labor standards: Fairtrade, Utz, and Rainforest Alliance (though the organizations admit that audits of supply chains for child workers are imperfect).
One brand, Tony’s Chocolonely, is explicitly devoted to the goal of eradicating slave labor in the chocolate industry. Founded by a Dutch journalist who once tried to get himself arrested for “supporting” child slavery—i.e., buying chocolate from the local store—it has become a leading brand in the Netherlands and is now available in the United States. You can purchase Tony’s Chocolonely products online and in select retail outlets. Sure, it will cost more than your average chocolate: $2.25 for a 1.8-ounce bar. But it may not leave as sour a taste in your mouth, ethically speaking.
Magical Mexican hot chocolate
To make the treat known as champurrado, add ½ cup masa harina (Mexican corn flour, available at well-stocked supermarkets and Latin grocers) to a medium saucepan. Set over medium heat and add 1-quart cold water a little at a time, whisking for a smooth mixture. Raise heat to bring to a simmer, then lower heat to maintain it. Add in 3 ounces dark chocolate; ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon; a pinch each ground allspice, cayenne pepper, and salt; and 3 tablespoons granulated sugar, brown sugar, or honey—all while whisking and scraping to prevent scorching. When chocolate is thick and creamy, after about 5 minutes, add more salt and/or sweetener to taste. As drink cools and thickens, thin with hot water as necessary.
Sources: Chocolate: A Global History by Sarah Moss and Alexander Badenoch