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Is Chocolate More American than Apple Pie?

(The following is a guest post by Suzanne Schadl, Chief, Hispanic Division.)

Cacao Illustration in Cacaos and chocolates in the United States of America. New York, Huyler’s chocolate works [1885]

This is a recipe sprinkled with a little history. To start from scratch, you need at least a week to prepare xocolatl (pronounced sho-KWA-til). The Spanish transcribed this word phonetically in the 16th century to sound like what they heard as cho – co – la – te. Yes, you heard that correctly: It is chocolate, written the same way in Spanish and English. This means that Nahuatl-speaking peoples in Mexico introduced the Spanish to xocolatl in the 16th century and today we continue to use a variation of their word.

Gathering cacao for chocolate manufacturing, Nicaragua, C. A. Credit: in the Stereograph Cards Collection, Foreign Geography: Nicaragua, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.

The essence of this recipe is cacao, or more precisely its seeds, which we call beans. People extract them from large oval pods taken from the trunks of small tropical evergreen trees that originated in the Americas and traveled through processes of colonization and enslavement to West Africa.

Cacao pod cut open, showing “beans” that produce chocolate and cocoa, plantation in Ecuador. Credit: in the Stereograph Cards Collection, Foreign Geography: Ecuador, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.

To start with pods: Since travel is ill-advised at present, and cacao currently grows in Latin American and Africa, look for pods in a nearby grocery store or market. If you are lucky enough to find them, open the pods and remove the beans. To produce a deep, rich chocolate flavor, you will need to ferment the beans. This process also helps kill any residual germs from the pod. To ferment the beans, place them in a colander, and if possible, cover them with banana leaves or reeds. Leave them for at least three days, but you can wait a week to bring out the full flavor of the beans. Once fermentation is complete, dry the fermented beans in the sun for a few days. Perhaps you could use a lamp in the absence of the sun. Take your dry beans and place them on a cookie sheet to bake for about 25 minutes at low heat. 250 will do. After they have cooled, use your fingers to separate the nibs for the shells. They are now ready to grind. You can use a pestle, a coffee grinder or a food processor. Finally, you have cocoa powder! 

Now that you have invested precious time and energy in this aromatic powder you can appreciate the connection between workers, cacao beans and chocolate. If you were unable to find pods at a local grocery, you may also appreciate the distance this commodity travels. Archaeologists offer evidence of Xocolatl in Mesoamerica as early as 900 AD. Recent analyses of trace materials in cylindrical objects from Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Culture National Historical Park, confirm that the Ancestral Puebloan peoples in New Mexico traded for Xocolatl before 1100 AD. Researchers have also found cacao in residue on Indigenous pottery collected in Utah and Arizona. Four hundred years later, cacao made its way to Europe, where people paired it with sugar.

Pueblo Bonito, South terminus of NM56 & North terminus of NM164, Nageezi, San Juan County, NM. Historic American Buildings Survey Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.

From powder: If you made the cacao powder from scratch, and you want more sweet than bitter, you can add three parts confectioner’s sugar, but this xocolatl recipe does not call for sugar. It is bitter as it was in Mexico. Pre-prepared cocoa powder will work for an even sweeter version. After all when John Seys Huyler started manufacturing small batch of Mexican chocolates in New York City in the 19th century, sugar was an important ingredient.

Infused with Chili: For one serving of xocolatl, cut a green chili in half and boil it in 1.5 cups of water for about 5 minutes. Be careful to include the seeds, they make the water flavorful! Once boiled, strain the chili pepper and seeds from the water and put the water back into the pot with 2 additional cups of water. On medium low heat, bring the water to a slow boil, and stir in your powder. It might take 5-7 minutes for everything to dissolve fully.  You can add a teaspoon of vanilla, stirred in with a stick of cinnamon.

Wait before you imbibe and take this opportunity to imagine yourself in Central America, Mexico, or if you prefer, the continental United States, think of New Mexico, Arizona or Utah in October 1785 just before Thomas Jefferson wrote this to John Adams about chocolate:

Chocolate. This article when ready made, and also the Cacao becomes so soon rancid, and the difficulties of getting it fresh have been so great in America that its use has spread but little. The way to increase its consumption would be to permit it to be brought to us immediately from the country of its growth. By getting it good in quality, and cheap in price, the superiority of the article both for health and nourishment will soon give it the same preference over tea & coffee in America which it has in Spain where they can get it by a single voyage, … (quoted from Family letters of Thomas Jefferson, extracted by and retrieved at Monticello.org.)

Yes, you read that correctly: you could have enjoyed this cup of xocolatl from the Americas in what we know as the American Southwest even before Thomas Jefferson and John Adams strategized on how to get this treat to America cheaply. This begs the question, is chocolate actually more American than apple pie?

Further Reading on the history presented here:

Coe, S. D., & Coe, M. D. (2013). The true history of chocolate. Thames & Hudson.

Crown, P. L. (Ed.). (2020). The House of the Cylinder Jars: Room 28 in Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon. University of New Mexico Press.

Dreiss, M. L., & Greenhill, S. (2008). Chocolate: pathway to the gods. University of Arizona Press.

Hernández Triviño, A. (2013). Chocolate: historia de un nahuatlismoEstudios de cultura náhuatl46, 37-87.

Jefferson, Thomas to John Adamas, November 1785, Paris, retrieved from  Monticello.org, printed in Cappon, L. J. (Ed.). (1959)The Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams. UNC Press

Kaplan, J. H. (2018). Water, cacao, and the early Maya of Chocola╠ü. Foreword by Arlen F. Chase and Diane Z. Chase. University Press of Florida.

Norton, M. (2006). Tasting empire: chocolate and the European internalization of Mesoamerican aestheticsThe American Historical Review111(3), 660-691.

Norton, M. (2008). Sacred gifts, profane, pleasures. Cornell University Press.

McNeil, C. L. (Ed.). (2006). Chocolate in Mesoamerica: a cultural history of cacao. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

See also the following LC online resources:

Chocolate: A Resource Guide

Stolen: An Indigenous Messenger’s Own Account of the Aztec Conquest

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