Whether you’re picking up a box of chocolate-covered strawberries for your partner or crying into a bowl of pink and white M&Ms while watching The Notebook alone in your sweatpants, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll be eating chocolate this week. In fact, Feb. 13 is the biggest day of the year for chocolate sales (you’re not the only one who waited until the last minute). Americans annually purchase nearly 60 million pounds of the stuff this week alone.
Today, chocolate is sweetly synonymous with love, but it has a bitter history – literally. For thousands of years, indigenous cultures in Mexico and Central America consumed chocolate as a bitter drink. Mayans and Aztecs would grind cacao beans and mix them with water, chilies and corn meal to form a thick, frothy beverage.
According to Libby O’Connell, food historian and author of The American Plate, chocolate’s rise to global significance began when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in modern-day Mexico City.
“The Spanish invade in 1519, and they see [the Aztec king] Montezuma drinking this beverage,”O’Connell says. “They’re told he drinks 50 cups a day, and they’re also told he has a harem of 50 young women. They make this assumption that he must be drinking it to increase his stamina.”
The Spanish returned to Europe with cacao – and the recipe for “drinking chocolate” – where it immediately caught on as both an aphrodisiac and a very exclusive luxury.
“It was tightly controlled,” O’Connell says. “They didn’t want the country filled with lustful peasants, so it was reserved for the aristocracy. Marie Antoinette wouldn’t start her day without a cup of chocolate.”
Throughout the years, it retained its reputation for inciting passion. Rumors spread of spurned ladies killing their lovers by poisoning their cocoa, and the poisoned Pope Clement XIV was also a victim of “death by chocolate.”
The drink’s popularity spread to the American colonies, though by then the chili in the recipe had been replaced with sugar for sweet-toothed Europeans and Americans who couldn’t quite handle the spice level indigenous Americans were accustomed to. By the mid-19th century, chocolatiers had perfected a process for making the solid candy we know today, but it was still prohibitively expensive. In 1900, Milton Hershey announced he’d created “an enjoyment anyone could afford” in the now-ubiquitous Hershey bar (which only actually has about 11% cacao, so calling it ‘chocolate’ is arguably a bit of a misnomer).
O’Connell attributes chocolate’s staying power as the gift of romantics everywhere not to Montezuma and his harem, but to the very nature of the confection.
“High end chocolates have an intense flavor and a luscious mouthfeel,” she says. “The whole taste of chocolate in your mouth is a voluptuous experience, so even if you didn’t know about the supposed aphrodisiac qualities of chocolate, it’s no surprise that good chocolate makes people feel romantic.”
A gift of chocolate has also long been a way to show a loved one you value them. O’Connell points out that many ancient civilizations used cacao beans as currency. “So when you drank chocolate, you were literally drinking money,” she says.
And with American consumers projected to spend a record $19.6 billion on Valentine’s Day this year, it seems some things never change.