Ahhh Chocolate! No, it is not the time of year when a cup of hot chocolate might be a comfort food. But it has been on my mind.
My grandmother Lulu had a recipe for the best chocolate meringue pie. It was truly finger-licking good. Mother learned to make it as well, but I never could get the consistency right. My version would run off the plate and take the meringue with it.
It was in June that Daddy always took his vacation, and we spent a week in Kentucky with Lulu. Since it was a twelve-hour trip then, we always arrived in time for supper. Because she knew how much my dad loved chocolate, and her pie especially, she always had the made for our dessert.
I can see it now in its place of honor on the sideboard. And I honestly believe I can taste it, too! Just call me pitiful this morning.
Bill Watterson had a good idea about chocolate, “Blustery, cold days should be spent propped up in bed with a mug of hot chocolate and a pile of comic books.”
Chocolate is one of the most universally loved foods, the average American consumes roughly 11 pounds of the stuff a year! It is hard to imagine a world without chocolate and this love of the heavenly substance stretches all the way back to our country’s colonial roots. Before the mid-1800s, if you had a craving for the world’s favorite sweet, you drank it!
Chocolate has its origins in South America where archaeological evidence indicates it was being cultivated and consumed over 3,000 years ago. The Spanish were the first Europeans to try the spicy chili and chocolate beverage of the Aztecs. Cortez was the explorer that brought chocolate back to Spain, rather than gold or silver. They introduced it to Europe in the 1600s where, with the addition of sugar, it became the height of fashion.
Drinking chocolate of the 18th century was different from our modern day cup of cocoa. It was made with either cacao nibs or blocks of compressed chocolate that were then grated or ground to a paste and dissolved in a warm liquid inside a dedicated chocolate pot.
The chocolate was added to any combination of water, milk, cream, wine, or even brandy for an extra kick. This mixture was combined with sugar, though less than we use because it was an expensive import in colonial America. Other common ingredients included chili pepper, vanilla, nutmeg, or allspice. This resulted in a rich, sweet, spicy, and bitter drink that the colonists couldn’t get enough of.
We know that many early Americans were fans of chocolate, but it wasn’t available to everyone. In the 1700s, chocolate was still a fairly expensive drink, similar to tea or coffee, making it a beverage of the upper and middle classes. It was seen as a nutritious and filling health food, commonly had with breakfast.
Thomas Jefferson commented, “The superiority of chocolate (hot chocolate), both for health and nourishment, will soon give it the same preference over tea and coffee in America which it has in Spain.”
In 1757, George Washington ordered 20 pounds of chocolate from British merchant Thomas Knox. While living at Kenmore Plantation, George’s sister Betty Washington Lewis ordered a gallon of chocolate. (I believe the Washingtons enjoyed chocolate!)
Actress Katherine Hepburn favored chocolate. “What you see before you, my friend, is the result of a lifetime of chocolate.”
It may seem strange to us that there were special cups just for drinking chocolate. However, since it was a luxury good enjoyed by the upper classes, it had a specific set of objects associated with its preparation and consumption. A teapot or teacup could have easily functioned for drinking chocolate, but the purpose of this specialized material culture was to show off wealth and sophistication. For this reason, a well-to-do colonial household would have separate sets of vessels for the making and consumption of tea, coffee, and chocolate. Using the right one in the right way let your peers know you were a well-educated gentry woman or man.
Chocolate cups and pots were often made of fancy material like silver or porcelain to show off the wealth of the owner and reflect the nature of the luxury ingredient. Chocolate cups can be identified by their straight sides, unlike the gently sloping sides of a teacup.
Similarly, 18th century chocolate pots generally are taller and have straighter sides compared to contemporary teapots. They also have a shorter spout with no strainer and often have a straight handle that juts out from the body.
The most recognizable feature of a chocolate pot however is a hole in the lid where the chocolate mill, or molinillo, would be inserted and rubbed between the hands to briskly stir the chocolate, creating a delicious froth on the top.
I bet you know what I have talked myself into doing. There is no cold weather here in June, but there are no rules on when to drink hot chocolate. And this is certainly for my health this morning!
As Charles M. Schulz once said, “All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”