Chocolate's history includes ties to New Mexico
LAS CRUCES — Christopher Columbus would have made a lousy Valentine’s Day date. He didn’t bring home the chocolate.
“He was out sailing and came across a trading canoe, boarded it and took a look,” said Stuart Munson-McGee, a professor of food science and technology at New Mexico State University. “He took a look and didn’t recognize cocoa beans, kind of like if you had never seen coffee beans.”
By missing the opportunity to investigate cocoa and returning it along with other goodies from the Americas, Columbus slowed the European adoption of the delicious bean that is now a mainstay for sweets, drinks and deserts and is an almost required indulgence on Sunday’s holiday to woo your loved one.
“In the short term, it was a real loss for Spain,” Munson-McGee said. “But they did end up with chocolate and we do have chocolate.”
Thank goodness. Americans, on average consume five pounds of chocolate per year. No big surprise, the Swiss gobble the most, putting away 11 pounds per year per person. While the amounts vary by country, chocolate has been around, and enjoyed, in one form or another by humans for millennia. Chemical tests on vessels from Mesoamerica have shown traces of chemical compounds that point directly to cocoa use. It was consumed as a drink and flavored with honey, cinnamon, chile or savory spices.
Montezuma, the great Aztec leader, was reported to consume three gallons of chocolate per day.
“It starts with the Olmecs around 1,000 B.C. that we know of,” Munson-McGee said. “The Olmecs didn’t have a written language or documentation. We have pots. You can extract theobromine and pick that up as a marker for three plants, chocolate being one and the other two are not grown in that area.”
The cocoa tree evolved in Amazon jungles of Brazil and researchers are not sure exactly how or when it got to Mesoamerica. When the Olmec civilization declined and the Aztecs and Mayans rose, chocolate drink and the beans to make it were held in high regard.
“Its stature was good,” Munson-McGee said. “It was prized by royalty, well-to-do businessmen and the military. Also, cocoa beans were used as currency. You could buy a hen for 100 cocoa beans. There are lists of 40 to 50 (trade items), small avacados, large avocados, small hens, toms, even a lady of the evening.”
Because of its value as currency, some less-than-honest people would paint rocks to look like cocoa beans and pass the forgeries for trade, he added.
It was through trade that early residents of what is now New Mexico acquired the commodity, largely to use for celebrations and ceremonies. Pots dated to roughly 1,000 years ago from Chaco Canyon and Pueblo Bonito in the Four Corners region of the state show the same chemical traces as those from farther south. Also found with the pots were Scarlet Macaw feathers which indicates Mesoamericans were the only source for both.
From brew to bar and bonbon
Technology has altered how we consume our cocoa. Instead of brewing beans, we now process the bean into a variety of delectable munchables and sippables.
“Technology changed tremendously during the Industrial Revolution,” Munson-McGee said. “Prior to the mid-1800s, chocolate was consumed as a drink. It wasn’t until mid-1800s to early 1900s we learned to make chocolate bars, milk chocolate and white chocolate. The fundamental processing steps haven’t changed but the the technology, the industry, the machinery have changed and gotten continuously better and better.”
In New Mexico, chocolate has been added to our many state culinary trails, along with others like the Breakfast Burrito Byway and the Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail. Rebecca Latham, New Mexico secretary of tourism, said 13 of the state’s most unique chocolatiers from across the state have been placed on the trail because each infuses New Mexico flavor in chocolate — piñon, red chile, green chile and chile coco beer, among other New Mexico twists.
“Cuisine is such a motivator for travel,” Latham said. “All over the country more than half of consumers make destination decisions around food, to try new food or plan a vacation around specific foods. Culinary trails are roadmaps to the best and most unique foods in New Mexico.
“We are hopeless romantics and suckers for chocolates,” she added. “This is a unique way to promote New Mexico’s “maker” culture and highlight a New Mexico twist on chocolate.”
The trail’s southernmost point begins on the historic Mesilla Plaza at The Chocolate Lady, a Mesilla and Las Cruces go-to for all things cocoa. Locations in Albuquerque and Santa Fe are also listed among the 13 stops.
Linda Jackson, owner of The Chocolate Lady, said being highlighted on the trail was an honor and will hopefully increase business, not just for her sweet shop, but also for surrounding businesses that stand to benefit from increased tourism.
“It’s awesome,” she said of being included in the inaugural Chocolate Trail listing which was released on the tourism department’s website just this year.
And, echoing most people’s feelings about chocolate in all its gastronomic glory, Jackson had two words.