13 Things You Might Not Know About Hot Chocolate

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That sweet, chocolaty treat you enjoy on cold days has a lot of history behind it. It’s been on the frontline of wars, stirred up controversy with the Catholic Church, and seen empires rise and fall. Here are a few tasty morsels about hot chocolate.

1. IT DATES BACK THOUSANDS OF YEARS.

Long before people nibbled on bars and brownies, chocolate was consumed in liquid form. Historians credit the Olmec civilization of southern Mexico as being the first to roast the fruit from the cacao tree, then grind it down and mix it with water and other ingredients. Archaeologists have discovered Olmec pottery with trace amounts of chocolate dating back to around 1700 BCE.

2. IT WASN’T ALWAYS HOT—OR SWEET.

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The Mayans and Aztecs, who picked up the habit from the Olmecs, drank a bitter brew they called “xocoatl,” typically made with chilies, water and toasted corn, and served lukewarm and frothy. The Spanish, who were introduced to cacao drinks after conquistadors brought them home, sweetened things up by adding cinnamon, sugar and other spices to the mix. This, however, was still nothing like the sweet concoction that characterizes hot chocolate today.

3. IT WAS BELIEVED TO HAVE MEDICINAL PROPERTIES.

The pure cacao drink that early Mesoamericans crafted was high in calories and antioxidants, and delivered a jolt of caffeine. So naturally, they believed it had restorative properties. Aztec warriors would often drink cacao before going into battle, while Montezuma II was rumored to guzzle as many as 50 cups each day. The drink also gained a reputation as an aphrodisiac. After the recipe came to Spain in the 16th century, monks locked it away for a time to prevent widespread philandering.

4. IT WAS THE SOURCE OF RELIGIOUS CONTROVERSY.

As chocolate drinks became widely consumed during the 16th and 17th centuries, mainly amongst the moneyed class, a debate emerged: Was it a drink or was it food? The distinction would dictate whether Europe’s Roman Catholics could imbibe during religious fasting, which occurred numerous times throughout the year. The argument went all the way to Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1588), who decreed that drinkable chocolate was fine to consume while fasting. Future popes would agree. Yet the debate raged on, with many clerics banning chocolate drinks during fasting time.

5. IT WAS SERVED IN FANCY PITCHERS.

In 17th-century England, so-called “chocolate houses” became all the rage. Establishments like White’s, which is still in business today, served up hot chocolate to go along with the political banter, gambling and general debauchery. And they served the drink in pitchers made out of gold, silver and porcelain. Limoges porcelain, which was elegantly designed and often featured floral patterns, was a popular choice. Needless to say, these were very elite gatherings.

6. REVOLUTIONARY WAR SOLDIERS HAD IT IN THEIR RATIONS.

The belief in chocolate’s restorative qualities extended well past the reign of the Mayans and the Aztecs. During the Revolutionary War, medics would often dole out cups of hot chocolate to wounded and dying soldiers. Hot chocolate mixes were also given out monthly to soldiers, and sometimes offered in lieu of wages.

7. THOMAS JEFFERSON WAS A BIG FAN.

The diplomat and third U.S. president purchased his first batch of chocolate in 1775, and was immediately hooked. In 1785, Jefferson wrote to John Adams about the future he saw for hot chocolate in America. “The superiority of chocolate, both for health and nourishment, will soon give it the preference over tea and coffee.” Today, visitors to Monticello can sample hot chocolate made the way Jefferson liked: using stone-roasted cacao, sugar and spices.

8. THERE’S A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HOT CHOCOLATE AND HOT COCOA.

In America, “hot chocolate” refers to any hot drink made with chocolate ingredients. What most people are actually drinking, in fact, is hot cocoa. What’s the difference? Cocoa powder is ground up cacao that’s had the fat stripped away, either through a natural process or a “Dutched” process that subjects the powder to potassium carbonate. Dutch chemist Coenraad J. Van Houten invented cocoa powder in 1827, and helped make hot chocolate widely available. Hot chocolate (also called “drinking chocolate”), meanwhile, is made with shaved or ground cacao that still has its full-fat, slightly acidic profile intact.

9. IT FUELED POLAR EXPLORERS.

British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and his men subsisted off hot cocoa and stew during their yearlong trek to the South Pole. The expedition made it to the pole in January 1912, only to find that a Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen had gotten there a month prior. Tragically, Scott’s team ran out of provisions on the return journey and perished, while Amundsen, who had packed five times as much cocoa, returned a hero. Decades later, in 1989, the six members of a sled-dog expedition across Antarctica consumed nearly 2100 packets of Swiss Miss hot cocoa.

10. THE YMCA SERVED UP HOT COCOA TO WWI SOLDIERS.

To aid morale and keep soldiers energized during the war, the YMCA sent more than 25,000 volunteers to set up comfort stations all along the battlefront. The stations were always stocked with magazines, cigarettes and snacks, along with piping-hot pots of cocoa. They were called the “Red Triangle Men” in reference to the YMCA’s logo, and they could be found from Egypt to Russia, and often quite close to the fighting.

11. IT HAS SOME SURPRISING HEALTH BENEFITS.

Ad from 1929. Jamie via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

First, it must be said: Most packet mixes, which contain processed chocolate and a lot of filler ingredients, don’t offer much in the way of nutrition. But the closer you can get to real, unadulterated chocolate, the better. Studies have linked antioxidants, which chocolate contains in abundance, to everything from cancer prevention to lower blood pressure. Chocolate also contains theobromine, which is a known mood elevator. Adding milk can also boost the drink’s health benefits by adding calcium and vitamins added to the mix. The claim that chocolate is an aphrodisiac, meanwhile, is false.

12. RESTAURANTS HAVE GONE GOURMET (AND BOOZY) WITH IT.

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As sales of high-end chocolate have increased over the past few years, restaurants have gone back to hot chocolate’s roots with premium drinks infused with spices. New York City’s RedFarm serves hot cocoa made with honey blossom, Asian ginger, and a dose of ginger liqueur, while Ellie’s Bakery in Providence, Rhode Island serves a spicy hot chocolate made with chili-infused chocolate and steamed milk. DW Bistro in Las Vegas, meanwhile, offers a Caribbean Créme de Hot Chocolate that features spiced rum, coffee liqueur, dark chocolate and crème de menthe topped with frothed milk.

13. THE LARGEST CUP EVER MADE WAS 880 GALLONS.

And fittingly, children made it happen. In 2013 at Tampa Bay’s Museum of Science and Industry, 300 local students worked with teachers to produce the pool-sized brew, which included 1100 pounds of cocoa and 87 gallons of powdered milk. At the unveiling ceremony, kids shot marshmallows into the hot chocolate using homemade catapults.

There's an Easier Way to Use a Cheese Grater

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iStock.com/brazzo

Most kitchen gadgets don't come with manuals, but maybe they should. Time and time again, humans have demonstrated a knack for taking something simple—say, a can opener—and finding a way to use it in the most difficult and least-efficient way possible. (Hint: The rotating handle should be placed on top of the can, not off to the side.)

Well, the internet has once again stepped in to save us from ourselves. There's apparently an easier way to use a standard four-sided cheese grater (a.k.a. a box grater), according to a short video that was originally uploaded to Instagram by Menu World. Instead of holding it vertically in one hand, you lay it down horizontally on a table or counter and start grating your cheese from side to side instead of up and down. This prevents the grater from moving around while you hold it, and it's a little easier on your arms. (In a similar vein, you can also apply a coat of cooking spray to the outside of the grater to make it less of an upper body workout, and this is especially recommended if you're grating sticky cheese.)

The cheese grater hack has been going viral on social media, so don't feel bad if you never thought of doing it this way—lots of other people haven't, either.

This method is also helpful because the cheese collects inside the grater, providing a handy visual guide for figuring out how much cheese to shred. When it's grated directly into a large bowl with other ingredients, it can be a little harder to judge.

Here's one final tip for your next cheese-infused dinner: Try using an old toothbrush to clean out all of the grater's little holes. It will save you some time (and perhaps prevent minor grater-related injuries). For more tips like these, Mental Floss has a couple of guides for awesome cleaning hacks.

Want to Save the Environment? Eat Less Meat

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iStock.com/ac_bnphotos

It may be time to order a veggie burger instead of a rack of ribs. For years, climate scientists have suggested eating less meat to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, but the researchers behind a new study say dietary changes are essential to prevent global catastrophe.

The study—published in the journal Nature—is the most comprehensive analysis of how the global food system affects the environment, The Guardian reports. In addition to greenhouse gases being released by livestock, deforestation and water shortages are a couple of other ways that current food production methods hurt the planet. Researchers say there is no easy fix to slow climate change, but reducing our intake of meat is one way that everyone can help out.

“There is no magic bullet,” Marco Springmann, who led the study, tells The Guardian. “But dietary and technological change [on farms] are the two essential things, and hopefully they can be complemented by reduction in food loss and waste."

That doesn’t mean you have to become a vegetarian or vegan, though. Researchers recommend a “flexitarian” diet, which involves occasionally eating meat. For this to make a positive impact, the average global citizen would have to eat 90 percent less pork, 75 percent less beef, and half the number of eggs they normally consume. If you simply can't give up steak, the Climate, Land, Ambition & Rights Alliance (CLARA) recommends consuming just two 5-ounce servings of meat per week. Researchers in the Nature study say beans, nuts, and seeds are all recommended sources of protein.

By their estimates, a global shift towards a flexitarian diet would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 56 percent, and would reduce other environmental impacts by 6 to 22 percent. They say the global food system emitted around 5.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide in greenhouse gas emissions in 2010, in addition to using vast amounts of cropland, fresh water, and fertilizers containing nitrogen and phosphorus (which pollute waterways as agricultural runoff).

“If socioeconomic changes towards Western consumption patterns continue, the environmental pressures of the food system are likely to intensify, and humanity might soon approach the planetary boundaries for global freshwater use, change in land use, and ocean acidification,” researchers write in their paper. In other words, the current food system might not be able to sustain the projected population of 10 billion people in 2060.

The study follows the recent release of a UN report in which scientists warned that we have only 12 years to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Failing to do so would result in more extreme weather events, including drought, floods, and severe heat. If you're looking for other ways to reduce your carbon footprint, try flying less, biking more, and turning down your thermostat. Every bit helps.

[h/t The Guardian]

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