Chocolate: A Tasty, Well-Traveled, Spiritual Food

What would chocolate be without Jews?
In summer 2011, I attended a lecture on the history of chocolate. I learned that Jewish growers, manufacturers, traders and chefs have played an integral role in bringing this delicious treat to the world.
Chocolate's history starts in Southern Mexico, with the Olmec culture, in 1500 to 400 BC. They harvested pods from cocoa trees, crushed the beans, added water and spices, and drank the beverage during ceremonial rituals. It was a bitter tasting brew then.
The Mayans (600 BC) and Aztecs (400 AD) also discovered cocoa beans and developed their own recipes for the beverage. In 1528, Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez shared a chocolate beverage with Aztec leader Montezuma.  Cortez brought the recipe and the cocoa beans back to Spain where it was kept in secret for royalty and priests to enjoy. Throughout Spain many monasteries contained chocolate rooms for the purpose to create chocolate for the Catholic ceremonies.
Meanwhile, the Spanish Inquisition, which began in 1492, was in full swing. Under orders from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, Jews and other non-Catholics in Spain were tortured, killed and deported. Some Jews remained in the country and converted to Christianity (they are called Conversos) and some secretly continued practicing Judaism (they are called Marranos).
Other Jews left Spain for safer lands, and brought recipe for chocolate making with them. Some of these Sephardic Jews of Spain ended up in the Dutch-controlled Caribbean island of Curacao, where they started plantations and grew cocoa trees. In the 1600s cocoa beans were a very profitable commodity, traded in Amsterdam to places such as France, England, Mexico and South America.
Industrialization later came to the chocolate industry as faster methods were invented to clean and separate the beans and refine the chocolate making process. In Massachusetts, when the Puritans saw an early form of chocolate cake they decided it was ungodly and called it “Devil’s Food.” The name stuck. In 1759, a Quaker named Joseph Fry owned an apothecary shop in Bristol, England. He began to hide bitter-tasting medicines in chocolate. In 1824, Fry's recipes were purchased by another Quaker, John Cadbury, who owned a coffee and tea shop. By 1919 Cadbury’s sold chocolate on a large scale all over England.
In 1832 in Vienna, the pastry chef for Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich fell ill. The chef's clever young Jewish assistant was called upon to develop a new dessert. This young man, Franz Sacher, created a rich, dark, dense chocolate cake and added apricot jam. The Sacher Torte was a great hit back then and still is today.
This Valentine's Day—a day when we celebrate romance, love and, maybe most importantly, chocolate—take a moment to think how that heart-shaped box of treats ended up in your hands.

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Robin Rood
Robin Rood, RD, LD, MEd, MA, writes about nutrition as a local expert for in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, and blogs at