It's Valentine's Day and maybe you're hoping to spark a little romance in your sweetie with a gift of some stimulating chocolate. Not to thwart your plans, but scientific research shows it's not really an aphrodisiac.
However, one candy historian was eager to take us back to a time when Americans consumed copious amounts of warm, decadent chocolate that she posits had some hidden sensual powers.
Susan Benjamin, owner of True Treats Historic Candy in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, said early New Englanders were gaga for chocolate, but they weren't eating it.
“So you have people like the colonists, and the big names out there — Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and New England's own John Adams — busily drinking these wonderful, frothy chocolate drinks,” she said, “with things like cinnamon, nutmeg and clove, all these wonderful spices that were themselves aphrodisiacs — only the colonists didn't know it.”
Or maybe they did, Benjamin added with a laugh.
Hot chocolate was an exotic and trendy import beginning in the 1600s. People would devour it — like a health food — for nourishment and vitality. While chocolate itself isn't a proven aphrodisiac, Benjamin pointed to a UCLA Medical Library list of spices including nutmeg, ginger and vanilla that have erotic potential. She said for centuries those, and many others, have been deployed around the world for seduction, but the colonists added them to their fortifying drinks for flavor.
Back then, chocolate was basically inedible and came in hard, gritty bricks or tablets. “It was unbelievably bitter,” Benjamin explained, “and it required a great deal of work in what was then known as a chocolate pot.”
Making period-accurate hot chocolate is no small feat. But Paula Marcoux, a culinary historian and archaelogist in Plymouth, was game to experiment with some old-school hot chocolate recipes.
“Chocolate is a wonderful thing,” she said, then joked, “being forced to drink chocolate every day for a week while we've been messing around with this was really hard labor — but we got through it.”
For the project, Marcoux assembled local dark chocolate, sugar, milk and seasonings including cinnamon sticks and allspice.
“18th-century New England sources mentioned nutmeg the most,” she said.
Making the concoction involved a few steps. As a kettle of hot water began to boil Marcoux scraped the hard chocolate into a pile of flakes and bits.
“You'd melt it in hot water, add hot milk to that, and then use a tool that they called a chocolate mill,” she said, “it's really just an elaborate sort of stick.”
Marcoux's husband fashioned a replica molinet, as it's called, that she rubbed vigorously between her hands inside her copper pot.
“So as I've been mixing it, the texture seems to be lightening up, it's getting nice and frothy on top,” she reported, adding, “The texture of chocolate was naturally very grainy and oily if you didn't do it properly. Beating it together made it really palatable, delicious and luxurious.”
The Colonial elite were infatuated with this drink, but Marcoux said they weren't making it themselves. Servants fixed this high-calorie, high-fat libation for folks like the Washingtons, often in the morning.
“They were choosing to have chocolate for breakfast instead of the normal beverage, which was beer or hard cider,” she said, “so it was a very different feeling to the start of your day.”
As for whether or not drinking chocolate inspired romantic sensations, Marcoux suspects the rich, caffeinated drink — spiced or not — gave early New Englanders an energetic kick.
“I think colonists were more liable to think about chocolate as for the bedroom than the spices, honestly,” she mused. “Puritans even were not as leery of sex as we like to think of them. They thought sex was great, and that people should do everything they could to have sex as much as they possibly could — but with their spouses.”
But some people riding the coattails of Puritanism condemned drinking chocolate for being too pleasurable, even sinful, according to Benjamin. She shared what she called an improbable tale that fueled a widespread sexualization of chocolate.
As the story goes, when the Spanish first encountered (then violently conquered) Montezuma in the 1500s, the Mexican emperor would drink 50 gold chalices of chocolate each day for stamina to sate his wives and mistresses. Along with cocoa beans, that titillating yarn spread through Europe and eventually to New England where, for a time, chocolate was blamed for the degeneration of a once moral society.
But views shifted, Benjamin said, and chocolate houses, like those in England and Europe, opened in Boston. “And the very first application was actually from two women — Dorothy Jones and Jane Barnard in 1670. They wanted to have a chocolate house that would be for public entertainment where they could sell coffee and also chocolate.”
Chocolate went on to be all the rage. In 1700s Boston, revolutionists turned to it as a form of protest because it wasn't taxed by the British like the other ubiquitous hot beverage. “And so chocolate started to become a replacement for tea,” Benjamin said.
Jump to now when people always ask this candy historian how chocolate eventually transformed into a fetishized, delectable treat.
“Especially that we love and get during Valentine's Day,” Benjamin said, “and the answer is — in a word — industry.”
Machines began producing glossy, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate like we find today and marketing made it romantic. But Benjamin says if you really want to woo your lover this Valentine's Day you could skip the heart-shaped box.
“Go ahead, make some hot chocolate,” she advised, “mix in some of that good old cinnamon — and how about some clove — now wait and see what happens.”
Boston's history with chocolate is much more complicated, involving forced labor from enslaved people. The Old North Church is delving into this fraught past, offering virtual lessons called “Cacao & Colonial Chocolate.”
This segment aired on February 14, 2022.