At some point today as families and friends gather to celebrate this season of rebirth, the focus turns to a topic with roots in ancient times as well: chocolate.
The reverence and celebration of life anew that are part of modern day Easter Sunday traditions invariably turn in the direction of chocolate, as early in the day as grown ups will allow.
You may as well face facts now: on this busy Easter Sunday, it is quite likely you will spend a good portion of your day focused on a product able to evoke an impassioned response from most people simply by being brought up in casual conversation. Chocolate - in any form - is a timeless treasure that plays a pivotal role in the development of modern day society.
Plus, people enjoy it as much today as they did hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Its appeal is said to be virtually universal, timeless and nearly impossible to resist.
To be clear though, there are those few who walk this earth empowered with the rare ability to completely resist the charms of chocolate most others find nearly impossible to resist.
What's all the fuss been about? As modern men (and women) made their way from one civilization to the next, all the while they maintained a fixed gaze on satisfying a timeless craving for the fruits of a single plant - the cocoa plant.
Candidly, at first glance, a cocoa bean seems non-descript in outward appearance to the point some might even call it nothing short of ugly. (Now might be a good time to revisit a small piece of wisdom for the ages: "Don't judge a book by its cover," or even the age old standard, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.")
The cocoa bean is the humble beginning of a product seen as so consistently valuable it was even used as a means of paying tribute payments to ensure the continuing safety of a certain community or kingdom. The source of a potential threat against the community or kingdom's overall safety has often been literally paid off in cocoa beans.
It seems the ownership of chocolate and the freedom to indulge in consuming products made from it have been ready items for use in negotiations routinely culminating in buying, selling, trading one item for another, and even out and out bribery proposals and agreements - long before it became the stuff of reward for good behavior with terms re-negotiated periodically with your daughter or son.
Chocolate's origins date back more than 4,000 years to the culture of the Mayas in Central and South America. Historians now also believe that somewhere before 1000 A.D., there came a point in the development of civilization when a value or "unit of calculation" was needed and was quickly identified and based on the use of a certain number of cocoa beans. According to experts with Ghirardelli Chocolates, "One Zontli equaled 400 cocoa beans, while 8,000 beans equaled one Xiquipilli."
In ancient Mexican picture scripts, a basket with 8,000 beans represents the figure 8,000, early hints at the high values that were attached to varieties of chocolate in its early forms.
Chocolate was introduced to Europe in the 1500s and reinvented there as a sweet, creamy confection. What did cocoa beans, chocolate and Christopher Columbus have in common? Plenty.
It was in 1502, on his fourth and what many believe was his most important and successful discovery venture, the man credited with discovering America in fact found his most popular treasure - chocolate!
As a result of this trek across the seas, Europe was introduced to chocolate and would essentially have a monopoly on it for nearly 100 years.
The discovery of the cocoa plant even has influence on the outcome of the age old stance that money does not grow on trees. In fact, it seems that in some cases, money does grow on trees, at least on cocoa plants.
According to accounts of details concerning Hernando Cortez's return to Spain in 1528, it was at this point he brought to the country cocoa bean plants and news of the practice seen among the ancient Aztec civilizations of using cocoa beans as currency.
His decision to seed plantations on Trinidad, Haiti and the West African island of Bioko to grow "money" - cocoa - to trade with Aztecs for gold paved the way in cocoa beans for Spain to have and to easily maintain a virtual monopoly of the cocoa market for nearly 100 years.
In 1765, the commercial production of chocolate was seen for the first time in North America. The industry's birth in this country was realized in a region not known for permitting or encouraging lavish indulgences for its citizens - the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Anyone who has ever doubted the value of being required to take courses in chemistry, or who really enjoys slathering on the tanning butter products when at the beach, might want to look a little more closely at the history of cocoa butter and cocoa powder to see who they have to thank for being able to enjoy the wide variety of products now derived from chemical management of the seemingly simple cocoa bean.
History credits Dutch chemist Conrad Van Houten with developing the process of separating cocoa butter from the product known as chocolate liquor. Without this step in the developmental rung, there may never have been the discovery by him in 1828 of the now common "baking chocolate" ingredient, cocoa powder.
Food industry records show it was some 20 years later that same Dutch chemist added cocoa butter and sugar to chocolate liquor creating what came to be called "eating chocolate."
This man's contribution to the scientific world provided a solid foundation on which the knowledge of how to craft a chocolate cocoa puff breakfast cereal, chocolate ice cream, and just about anything chocolate suitable for human consumption was eventually built.
Certainly, without the development of either cocoa powder or baking chocolate, and the related "eating chocolate," comedic icon Bill Cosby may never have known the many joys of eating chocolate Jello pudding cups, and we, as a nation, would never have been able to experience the fun of those timeless, endearing and endlessly entertaining commercials.
So on this Easter Sunday, who wants chocolate? Almost everyone wants chocolate!
Just a thought: consider sharing your many tasty blessings with others in the surrounding community who may not have the cash in their pocket to buy an Easter treat for the youngsters in their family or circle of friends.
Consider how good you will feel sharing your Easter basket bounty with children who are also anxiously awaiting the arrival of the Easter Bunny and a basket just for their individual enjoyment, but whose family simply does not have the money to spend on treats of chocolate candy.
What a wonderful and generous act that would be at any time of the year.
But sharing such a simple measure of kindness for the benefit of another at Easter is a particularly special act of love that makes our world a better place for all.
Now, go get the chocolate!
Some fun facts:
- Cocoa butter is often used in toiletries and soap making because it does not become rancid as quickly as other fats;
- The difference between cocoa and chocolate is simply in the amount of sugar and flavorings added;
- By 1990, the average American was expected to consume almost 12 pounds of chocolate annually;
- Components in chocolate may aid in decreasing hypertension;
- Flavanoids in chocolate appear to decrease the tendency for blood to clot, which reduces the risk of forming blood clots;
- Cravings for chocolate foods by premenstrual women are now often considered attempts to self medicate;
- And research has even shown eating chocolate may provide minerals needed by the body to metabolize food into energy more efficiently.
So. . . is chocolate now considered a sort of health food? Simple answer: nope!
But you never know what new treat the Easter Bunny will bring next year.
Loccisano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.