Homewood Museum event discusses the history of chocolate

By KATERINA FRYE | February 14, 2019

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, the Homewood Museum invited food historian Joyce White to present an event titled “Chocolate Through Time” on Wednesday, Feb. 13. White presented different ways of making chocolate throughout history and discussed the evolution of chocolate recipes. She invited attendees to taste samples of chocolate, giving each audience member a box of chocolates at different stages of production.

First was the raw cacao. Cacao beans grow inside football-sized fruits on trees found in tropical regions. The beans are too hard and fibrous to be eaten raw and are instead scraped from the fruit and left to ferment under banana leaves for up to a week. Once dried, the beans are shipped to chocolatiers. White noted that flavor depends on factors like the pH level of soil, where the cacao is grown, and what other plants are grown nearby. 

The cacao is then roasted and stripped of its husk shell and ground into a coarse powder. White explained that prior to the industrial revolution, this powder was molded into cakes or blocks and sold. Yet customers didn’t eat the chocolate in this form. They instead grated it further and mixed it with water to create a frothy beverage. 

White stated that Mesoamerican peoples — and later Europeans — consumed chocolate as a drink.

“The Mayans used [it] as a thick frothy gruel or a just drink. It is very likely it was not served hot,” White said. 

Centuries later, the Aztecs added flavorings like vanilla, black pepper and honey to the beverage, she added. 

The froth also served a practical purpose. Fat-rich cacao butter naturally wants to separate from water, but continually mixing or frothing the drink keeps it blended. Froth therefore became a desirable component of the drink, according to White.

Europeans preferred to drink chocolate hot, White said, so they invented elaborate chocolate pots to help with the grinding process, but the pots could also be heated. She noted that the Cadbury brothers marketed chocolate as a Valentine’s treat as early as 1861 but that chocolate was mostly advertised for its medicinal and nutritional qualities. The English even added eggs, consuming chocolate as a breakfast food. 

The earliest chocolate confections appeared in the late 18th century as a result of improving cacao grinding technology in Europe. These desserts were called biscuits or puffs, according to White. 

“They were made by combining unsweetened chocolate with egg whites and sugar and sometimes almond flower. A lighter more meringue-y consistency gives a puff, and they have a nice mild chocolate flavor,” White said. 

Chocolate tea, made from the husks encasing the cacao nibs; chocolate wine; and pie-like chocolate filled tarts also emerged on the market. According to White, brownies debuted in the early 1900s but were initially made with molasses instead of chocolate. She also described how early chocolate cakes were very different from today.

“The early cakes in recipe books called chocolate cakes weren’t chocolate at all, they were just meant to be eaten with chocolate. The earliest chocolate cake with chocolate is an American recipe in 1847, but it’s rather dry and there’s cinnamon and nutmeg in it. Chocolate jelly cakes were more pound cakes, kind of dry cakes, that were layered with a chocolate filling,” White said.

Well-known chocolate brands like Baker’s, Ghirardelli, Nestle and Lindt originated in the mid-1800s, and they were responsible for many chocolate-processing innovations, White added. 

“It’s the Swiss who make milk chocolate bars. Nestle discovers milk powder and has this eureka moment to put the powder in the chocolate bar,” White said. 

She corrected a misconception that Hershey’s produced the first chocolate bar, saying Lowney’s debuted bars at the World’s Fair in 1893. She did, however, elaborate upon contemporary Hershey’s chocolate. 

“If you wonder why Hershey’s doesn’t have that same taste or texture as it used to, since 2006 they’ve pretty much taken all the cacao butter out and replaced it with PGPR, which gives it that waxy taste,” White said. 

Barry Richmond, who attended the event, also noted increasing concentrations of cacao being used in modern chocolate products. 

“Previously everybody ate milk chocolate or chocolate that wasn’t that high in cacao. But now, because of health reasons, people are eating 65 to 95 percent chocolate,” Richmond said. 

Though many enjoy chocolate, White noted that most fail to grasp the harsh reality of its production. 

“Most disturbing is the slavery involved. A lot of chocolate is sourced in West Africa, and most people making it don’t even know what they are making. They’re just fermenting and drying the cacao,” White said. 

Graduate student Danny Duckworth described how White’s presentation affected her attitude toward chocolate. She was especially struck by her comments on the modern slavery that is involved in the chocolate-making process. 

“I still love chocolate, but...the grim truth of how slaves are involved in the process, will make me think more about which companies I get chocolate from,” Duckworth said. 

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