Monday, February 9, 2009

Chocolate (chô'kə-lĭt)

I have recently developed an addiction to chocolate. 

While I have long shared an affinity for the treat, in recent weeks it has turned into a craving, a necessity. All I have to do is walk through the door to my room and I am headed straight for the cupboard. Essay writing involves regular breaks as I paw the paper wrapping off my sugary infatuation. Even when I'm not looking for it, street vendors nuzzle up to me at the sidewalk cafe, offering three round tablets for 50 pesos. It is like a drug.

Of course, I am not the first European mesmerized by the confection...

The Spanish, arriving in Latin America in the early 1500s, were captivated by chocolate, which back then took the form of a drink. While its name comes from the nahua word xocoatl (with the x pronounced somewhere in between ch and sh), the plant itself is native to the tropical regions of South America. In Mexico, the cocoa bean was around as early as the Olmec in 1000 BC, and later on preserved by the Maya in hieroglyphs, documenting both its ceremonial and every day uses. By the time the Aztecs ruled the Valley of Mexico and were calling the drink by its present name (which was probably borrowed from the Maya), they cultivated it among the city's chinampas. Cocoa beans were so valued that they were even used as a type of currency: 100 beans could buy you a slave, or a high quality blanket. 

From the Spanish conquistadors the chocolate was quickly shipped back to the crown, where it rapidly circulated through Europe. With it, too, spread the name, and some fellow foreign exchange students helped supply the modern-day translations--French: chocolat. German: die Schokolade. Korean: 초콜렛 (chokkolet). Persian: شوكولات‌، شوكولاتي‌، كاكائو (shukulât). All similar to the original nahua word.

In Europe, chocolate became so popular that people would drink it in church, refusing to put down their mugs even for the Sunday mass. In another case, cloistered nuns used the warm drink to quench their earthly desires--until it was banned by a curious inspector who questioned the sanctity of the beverage. To this day chocolate is still prized for its powers, as a replacement for sex (as in the movie Down with Love) or as simply a pleasant snack (believed to trigger the release of endorphins in the brain). "Watch someone take a bite of chocolate," said our guide. "He will automatically smile."

Whatever the fix I am getting, I just can't get enough.

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