The cacao tree in all its quirky glory.

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Elixir of the Gods: Some Things Don't Change

Nobody knows when the first person looked at the cacao tree and decided to eat its seeds. The earliest record of chocolate comes from Mesoamerica, a region that stretches from central Mexico south through Costa Rica. The Mayans were drinking it by about 300 A.D., with the Aztecs taking on the tradition a few hundred years later (when they conquered the Mayan empire). Both cultures considered chocolate sacred and included it in ceremonies and offerings to their gods. The Aztecs believed that it actually came from a god; specifically Quetzalcoatl, who was apparently cast out of heaven for sharing chocolate with us lowly humans.

The Aztecs called chocolate xocoatl (thought to mean "bitter water") and often added spices like chili and vanilla for flavoring before mixing it with water into a frothy beverage. Royalty sucked it down because they believed chocolate could fill them with power and good health. Chocolate wasn't just a food, though; the beans were currency. An Aztec document from the 1500s states that you could buy a turkey for 100 cacao beans and a tamale for one. Definitely more valuable as currency than food!

Europeans got their first taste of chocolate when Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes showed up at the court of Aztec ruler Montezuma II in 1519. The great ruler supposedly downed 50 cups of chocolate a day. Adding sugar soon became the norm for Europeans when cacao started getting shipped back home in 1585. Guess what? They loved the drink once it was sweetened, and sadly for the Aztecs, that soon meant enslaving them to keep up with demand overseas. Wealthy Europeans had to pay dearly for the import all the way from Central America, but eventually, prices fell as more countries planted cacao trees in their own territories around the Equator.

Remember, this was still a drink -- and a gritty, unrefined one at that -- but a series of inventions during the Industrial Revolution changed chocolate forever. In 1828, a Dutch entrepreneur named Coenraad Johannes van Houten learned how to press the cacao beans to separate dry cocoa from the cocoa butter. He also treated the cocoa with alkali, making it smoother and less bitter. This Dutch cocoa was taken by Joseph Fry, an Englishman, and mixed with sugar and additional cocoa butter to make the first solid chocolate bar about twenty years later. Rodolphe Lindt invented conching in 1879. This process consistently created a smooth bar of chocolate and made chocolate even more affordable to mass-produce. By the early 1900s, people like Henri Nestle, Milton Hershey and other big names in chocolate were churning out tons of chocolate candy.

Our beloved confection starts out very humbly as a seed (which we call a "bean") growing in pods on a tree. Looking at it, you'd wonder how anybody would think of turning it into food, but the cacao bean is more complicated than it first appears. Let's start with learning the basics of the bean.