Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate

Chocolate (Image by Shizhao via Wikimedia Commons)
Chocolate (Image by Shizhao via Wikimedia Commons)

Today is International Chocolate Day.

Here are some things you may not have known about chocolate.

Chocolate is made from the cacao tree, which is native to Mexico and Central America.

Early on most chocolate was consumed as a beverage.

Samples of fermented cacao beans have been found at sites dating to 1900 BC on the Pacific coast of Chiapas, Mexico. It’s believed its earliest uses were religious or medicinal , but there’s little evidence pointing to how the beverage was used. It became part of the Mayan civilization as an everyday drink. Later it would become part of the Aztec culture, although the cacao tree didn’t grow in  Aztec-controlled areas, making the beans very expensive. Mayans drank their chocolate hot, while the Aztecs preferred it cold.

Europeans, who arrived in the Americas at the end of the 15th century, found chocolate to be an acquired taste, calling it “loathsome” and “unpleasant.” Despite this, Christopher Columbus brought cacao back to Spain in 1502, however it made little impact there. It wasn’t until Spanish friars introduced it to the royal court that it took off. By 1602, chocolate had reached Austria, and the rest of the continent.

European demand for chocolate led to an increase in the enslavement of the indigenous people of the Americas. However, large numbers of indigenous people were wiped out by disease, leading to the importation of African slaves. The harvesting and processing of cacao was labor intensive.

Cacao seeds grow in an oblong pod, that can be as much as a foot long. The pods usually contain between 20 and 60 beans embedded in a white pulp. The beans, which are naturally bitter, are partially fermented and dried before the bean’s shell is removed. What’s left is known as a nib. Nibs are then ground and liquified, resulting in chocolate liquor, containing cocoa solids and cocoa butter.

At this point in the process, a decision must be made as to a final product. Dark chocolate contains sugar, cocoa butter and cocoa liquor; Milk chocolate is the same except it also contains milk and usually vanilla, and has a lower percentage of cocoa liquor. White chocolate — which, let’s face it, doesn’t really deserve to be in the discussion, contains sugar, cocoa butter, milk and vanilla, but no cocoa solids.

The chocolate is then ground down to a fine texture in a process called conching, before being tempered to set the size of cocoa butter crystals.

Chocolate naturally contains chemical compounds including caffeine, phenethylamine and theobromine. All three of which are stimulants, and may be responsible for the resulting boost in mood some people feel after eating chocolate.

Theobromine is the substance which makes chocolate dangerous for dogs. Dogs process the chemical much slower than humans, which raises their susceptibility for theobromine poisoning. However, the same thing could happen to a human, however a person would have to eat a lot more of it to take a fatal dose. For a dog, a fatal dose can be as little as an ounce and a half of dark chocolate. For a human, the fatal dose is about 12 and a half pounds. Cats have little tolerance for chocolate as well, however their taste receptors don’t sense sweetness, so they are less likely to consume a lethal dose.

Despite its origins in the Americas, most of the chocolate harvested today is grown in west Africa.

Our question: What company is the world’s largest chocolate manufacturer?

Today is Independence Day in the Solomon Islands, the Star Festival in Japan, and Saba Saba Day in Tanzania.

It’s unofficially National Macaroni Day and National Strawberry Sundae Day.

It’s the birthday of painter Marc Chagall, who was born in 1887; musician Ringo Starr, who is 76; and figure skater Michelle Kwan, who turns 36.

Because our topic doesn’t have a year  associated with it, we’ll spin the wheel to pick a year at random.

This week in 1977, the top song in the U.S. was “Gonna Fly Now (The Theme from ‘Rocky’)” by Bill Conti.

The No. 1 movie was “The Rescuers,” while the novel “The Thorn Birds” by Colleen McCullough topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.

Take-home test

Who invented dynamite?


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