A Taste of Chocolate's History

23 January 2020

Cultural Studies | History

This is a special guest blog by Dr Beth Forrest, a Professor of Liberal Arts at the Culinary Institute of America, the Board President of the Association for the Study of Food and Society, and is on the editorial board for Food and Drink in History.


With the late December holidays behind us, the stores are already encouraging consumers to purchase treats for the next celebration: Valentine’s Day. Years ago, during the course of researching for a project on chocolate about this time of year I began looking at Valentine’s Day menus offered by restaurants; the one constant that each menu included was a chocolate-based dessert. The association between Valentine’s Day and chocolate gifting is a 19th-century invention, but the association of chocolate and passion goes back much further. The reason piqued my initial interest in chocolate, and serves as inspiration at considering a brief cultural history of chocolate through the Food and Drink in History archives.

I was reading an account from Thomas Gage, a Dominican missionary who spent time in Chiapas, Mexico between 1620-1637. In it, the local bishop threatened excommunication to the female peninsulares who had their servants serve them cups of chocolate while attending mass. The women refused to kowtow instead choosing to move to another, more lenient church. (Said bishop was said to have died shortly after issuing the proclamation, after drinking chocolate….) The Catholic church had had a complicated relationship with cacao for two reasons: first, Montezuma was said to drink cups of it before visiting his wives, suggesting that it stirred the passions (and thus a gift for Valentine’s Day); and second, whether it should be considered a food or a drink. The latter was essential for it determined whether chocolate could be consumed during times of fasting, which included midnight and taking communion.[1] Common practices of adding ground nuts or maize (or breadcrumbs by the Europeans) complicated the issue of categorization. This question of chocolate was debated by the echelon of the Catholic church and the ambiguity of chocolate’s position can be seen in the 1631 Libro de Cocina “Ofuelas para tomar. Chocolate” (Crafting to Take [Drink] Chocolate). By using tomar as opposed to beber specifically, the meaning is less precise and can include the taking of both food and medicine.

Libro de Cocina, 1631 Â© Material sourced from the University of California, San Diego. Further reproduction without permission is prohibited.

When cacao first entered Europe via Sevilla in the late 16th century, it was very much a luxury good, and became both a source of tax revenue for the crown and the church. Competing crowns, including the English, Dutch, and French engaged in the cacao market under mercantilism, as is seen in the 1702 An Act for preventing frauds in the duties upon salt, and for the better payment of debentures at the custom house, and was often categorized with coffee, tea, and spices. And indeed, it would make sense to cluster these together because during this time, chocolate was only consumed as a beverage and incorporated flavor profiles that had been popular since the medieval period. Looking at the 1778 The Art of Cookery by Hannah Glasse, she added equally expensive and exclusive spices of the east—anise, long pepper, nutmeg, with Middle Eastern orange and rose water, and the funky aromas of musk (secretion of a male musk deer) and ambergris (secreted by the sperm whale) but with a new addition:  annatto seed, from the Americas.

The Art of Cookery made plain and easy, Hannah Glasse, 1778  Â© Material sourced from the University of Michigan. Further reproduction without permission is prohibited.

It was expensive and exclusive, which is reflected by the relative infrequency at which chocolate appears in the sources, until the 19th century.

Van Houten’s press, invented in 1828, separated the cacao butter (fat) from the cacao solids, which formed the base of cocoa (later to be alkinized, allowing the cacao solids to more easily mix with water—and later milk). This spurred later inventions, including the chocolate bar, which appears in 1847 in the chocolate factory of J. S. Fry & Sons (whose archive will be featured in Food & Drink in History, Module II). As such, chocolate rarely emerges in much of the 19th century in recipes that today’s diner might recognize. For example, one of the first “chocolate cakes” found in the archives turns up in 1825 The Virginia Housewife. Yet, reading the short recipe, one quickly realizes that the entitled “Chocolate Cakes” is, in fact, a sugar and butter griddled cake to serve with chocolate! Interestingly, chocolate does appear again in the same cookbook, but as a cream/custard, just before an oyster cream recipe.

Virginia House-wife, 1825 © Material sourced from the University of Michigan. Further reproduction without permission is prohibited.

The paucity of our contemporary chocolate recipes in the first half of the 19th century is clearly seen in two additional sources: first, the 1829 Seventy-five Receipts, for Pastry, Cakes and Sweetmeats, contains not one reference to chocolate. Even the 1853 The Good Cook, which includes an astounding 751 recipes, includes but 3 reference to chocolate: a recipes for chocolate cream, one for a whipped chocolate cream, and one recipe for making hot chocolate. And, this is despite have an entire chapter entitled “Coffee, Tea, Chocolate, and Cocoa.”

The Good Cook, 1853 © Material sourced from the University of Michigan. Further reproduction without permission is prohibited.

By the end of the 19th century however, while chocolate recipes abound with those that we are familiar with, including biscuits, ice cream and cakes, the relationship between Valentine’s Day and chocolate was still in its infancy. Chocolate, along with most sweets, was both gendered and tied to children (for women were seen as the intellectual equals of children).[2] Furthermore, chocolate was seen as a moral and healthy choice to stave off the evils of alcohol. Cadbury, a Quaker, in his paternalistic quest to better society, opened his “factory in the country” and began adorning his chocolate boxes with hearts and roses, to be kept as a memento long after its contents were enjoyed; by 1861, he was selling chocolate in heart-shaped boxes. A marketing genius, the relationship between chocolate and love had been solidified and today, more than 50 million pounds of chocolate are purchased for Valentine’s Day, much of which appears in 36 million heart-shaped boxes.[3]


[1] Forrest, B. and A. Najjaj. “Is Sipping Sin Breaking Fast: The Chocolate Catholic Controversy” Food and Foodways, Vol. 15, 2007, pp. 31-52.

[2] Freedman, P. “Women and Restaurants in the Nineteenth-Century United States” Journal of Social History, Vol. 38, Fall 2014, pp. 1-19.

[3] “Valentine’s Day Spending Statistics 2015” https://www.sheerid.com/valentines-day-spending-statistics-2015/ Accessed January 11, 2020.

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About the Author

Dr Beth Forrest

Dr Beth Forrest

Dr Beth Forrest is a Professor of Liberal Arts at the Culinary Institute of America, the Board President of the Association for the Study of Food and Society, and has published extensively on gastronomy, confectionery and food and the senses.