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.

Cheese Made from Celebrities' Microbes Is On View at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum

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iStock/bhofack2

London's Victoria & Albert Museum is home to such artifacts as ancient Chinese ceramics, notebooks belonging to Leonardo da Vinci, and Alexander McQueen's evening dresses—all objects you might expect to see in a world-famous museum. However, the cultural significance of the selection of cheeses now on display at the museum is less obvious. The edible items, part of a new exhibition called FOOD: Bigger than the Plate, were cultured from human bacteria swabbed from celebrities.

Though most diners may prefer not to think about it, bacteria is an essential ingredient in many popular foods. Beer, bread, chocolate, and cheese all depend on microbes for their signature flavors. Scientists took this ick factor one step further by sourcing bacteria from the human body to make cheese for the new exhibit.

Smell researcher Sissel Tolaas and biologist/artist Christina Agapakis first conceived their human bacteria cheese project, titled Selfmade, in 2013. When a chef and team of scientists recreated it for the Victoria & Albert Museum, they found famous figures to donate their germs. Blur bassist Alex James, chef Heston Blumenthal, rapper Professor Green, Madness frontman Suggs, and The Great British Baking Show contestant Ruby Tandoh all signed up for the project.

A display of the human-microbe cheese at Victoria & Albert museum
The Victoria & Albert Museum

Once the celebrities' noses, armpits, and belly buttons were swabbed, their microbiome samples were used to separate milk into curds and whey. The curds were then pressed into a variety of cheeses: James's swab was used to make Cheshire cheese; Blumenthal's, comté; Professor Green's, mozzarella; Suggs's, cheddar; Tandoh's, stilton.

The cheeses are being sequenced in the lab to determine if they're safe for human consumption. But even if they don't contain any harmful bacteria, they won't be served on anyone's cheese plates. Instead. they're being kept in a refrigerated display at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Museum-goers can catch the cheeses and the rest of the items spotlighted in FOOD: Bigger Than the Plate from now through October 20, 2019.

The Reason Why We Pour Milk Over Cereal

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iStock.com/tomasworks

Sometimes, if a movie or television show wants to communicate how unusual a character is, they’ll depict them pouring a box of cereal into a bowl and then adding some kind of disgusting liquid—orange juice, water, coffee, possibly alcohol. This is an easy way to illustrate someone's eccentricity because everyone knows only milk goes in cold cereal. With no exceptions. Even warm milk, which a small number of individuals enjoy, has to be more palatable than the alternatives.

But is milk the acceptable choice for cereal because it’s the best, or because of something else? Is there a reason we don’t simply drown Frosted Flakes in water and call it a day?

The state of our cereal bowls can be traced to the origins of cereal itself. Back in the mid-1800s, Americans were enjoying very hearty breakfasts of bacon, eggs, meat, and other foods that could easily show up on their dinner plates. Many complained of gastrointestinal upset, a condition that health experts (many of them self-appointed) began to refer to as dyspepsia. This ill-defined malady was thought to be the result of consuming massive meals in the morning. Advocates argued that breakfast should be lighter and healthier, comprised of what they considered simple and easily digestible foods.

One such proselytizer was James Caleb Jackson, a vegetarian who ran a sanitarium called Our Home on the Hillside in Dansville, New York. At the time, sanitariums for health were considered retreats and a way to adopt healthier eating and exercise habits. Jackson was a follower of Reverend Sylvester Graham, the inventor of graham crackers and a man who believed the crackers could help curb sexual appetites that flamed in the meat-eating population. In the 1870s, Jackson began to market a product he called granula—graham flour that was baked, crumbled, and baked a second time. The tiny pebbles of flour were hearty and filling.

There’s some debate over whether it was Jackson or his mother, Lucretia, who actually came up with granula. In her son’s newsletters dating back to 1867, Lucretia published recipes for what amounted to the same thing. But whichever Jackson came up with it, there was a problem: Eaten dry, the granula was like trying to swallow construction rubble. In the newsletter, Lucretia cautioned that the cereal had to be soaked in milk or warm water, presumably to make it palatable. Other accounts of granula have consumers soaking it in milk overnight in order to make it chewable. People sometimes referred to it as “wheat rocks.”

Granula developed a following, but it wasn’t until another sanitarium owner named John Harvey Kellogg mimicked the recipe that it truly caught on. Kellogg, who owned the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, offered granula for its purported health benefits but referred to it as granola to avoid any legal entanglements with Jackson. By 1889, Kellogg was selling two tons of granola a week. By 1903, more than 100 cereal companies were operating out of Battle Creek. Kellogg, of course, became famous for his far more appealing Corn Flakes (which he invented because he thought they would curb masturbation).

Even as cereal became more processed and softer, the tendency to soak it in milk never left the public consciousness. Milk was the perfect way to add moisture to the dry food without turning it into a completely soggy mess. Like cereal, milk was also synonymous with health, full of vitamins and calcium. In a 1922 newspaper ad for Corn Flakes, Kellogg’s exhorted the wonders of the combination, offering that:

“With cold milk and luscious fresh fruit, Kellogg’s are extra delightful—so crisp, and appetizing.”

One scientific study published in the Journal of Food Science in 2011 even found that the fat in milk attached itself to the surface of cereal, helping to ward off moisture and keep cereal crunchier for longer than if it were immersed in water.

Of course, milk is no longer required to soften the bricks Lucretia and John Jackson were peddling. Culturally, we’re still predisposed to keeping milk and cereal part of a two-hand breakfast option. Had Lucretia advocated for coffee, orange juice, or something else, things might have turned out differently. And much soggier.

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