That sweet, chocolaty treat you enjoy on cold days has a lot of history behind it. It’s been on the frontline of wars, stirred up controversy with the Catholic Church, and seen empires rise and fall. Here are a few tasty morsels about hot chocolate.
1. IT DATES BACK THOUSANDS OF YEARS.
Long before people nibbled on bars and brownies, chocolate was consumed in liquid form. Historians credit the Olmec civilization of southern Mexico as being the first to roast the fruit from the cacao tree, then grind it down and mix it with water and other ingredients. Archaeologists have discovered Olmec pottery with trace amounts of chocolate dating back to around 1700 BCE.
2. IT WASN’T ALWAYS HOT—OR SWEET.
The Mayans and Aztecs, who picked up the habit from the Olmecs, drank a bitter brew they called “xocoatl,” typically made with chilies, water and toasted corn, and served lukewarm and frothy. The Spanish, who were introduced to cacao drinks after conquistadors brought them home, sweetened things up by adding cinnamon, sugar and other spices to the mix. This, however, was still nothing like the sweet concoction that characterizes hot chocolate today.
3. IT WAS THE SOURCE OF RELIGIOUS CONTROVERSY.
As chocolate drinks became widely consumed during the 16th and 17th centuries, mainly amongst the moneyed class, a debate emerged: Was it a drink or was it food? The distinction would dictate whether Europe’s Roman Catholics could imbibe during religious fasting, which occurred numerous times throughout the year. The argument went all the way to Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1588), who decreed that drinkable chocolate was fine to consume while fasting. Future popes would agree. Yet the debate raged on, with many clerics banning chocolate drinks during fasting time.
4. IT WAS SERVED IN FANCY PITCHERS.
In 17th-century England, so-called “chocolate houses” became all the rage. Establishments like White’s, which is still in business today, served up hot chocolate to go along with the political banter, gambling and general debauchery. And they served the drink in pitchers made out of gold, silver and porcelain. Limoges porcelain, which was elegantly designed and often featured floral patterns, was a popular choice. Needless to say, these were very elite gatherings.
5. REVOLUTIONARY WAR SOLDIERS HAD IT IN THEIR RATIONS.
The belief in chocolate’s restorative qualities extended well past the reign of the Mayans and the Aztecs. During the Revolutionary War, medics would often dole out cups of hot chocolate to wounded and dying soldiers. Hot chocolate mixes were also given out monthly to soldiers, and sometimes offered in lieu of wages.
6. IT FUELED POLAR EXPLORERS.
British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and his men subsisted off hot cocoa and stew during their yearlong trek to the South Pole. The expedition made it to the pole in January 1912, only to find that a Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen had gotten there a month prior. Tragically, Scott’s team ran out of provisions on the return journey and perished, while Amundsen, who had packed five times as much cocoa, returned a hero. Decades later, in 1989, the six members of a sled-dog expedition across Antarctica consumed nearly 2100 packets of Swiss Miss hot cocoa.