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Location: Santa Fe, New Mexico

Historical drinking chocolate from the days of Thomas Jefferson

Now I admit that Santa Fe, New Mexico, which I was privileged enough to visit last week for the first time, might seem pretty far off the Lewis & Clark trail, and even further from the reach of the long arm of Thomas Jefferson. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, you can sample a very tasty part of the world of the Sage of Monticello right here, not far from the New Mexico State Capitol.

In 1775, even before he penned the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson had fallen in love with chocolate, writing to fellow revolutionary John Adams that “the superiority of chocolate, both for health and nourishment, will soon give it the same preference over tea and coffee in America which it has in Spain.” And considering the events that were sweeping the colonies, a good alternative to tea  was not the least of concerns for Adams and his young friend from Virginia.

As the comments indicate, chocolate in those days was consumed in the form of a beverage; the candy form of chocolate would not be invented until the 1840s. Even since they began their conquest of Mexico in the early 1500s, the Spanish had been wild about chocolate (from the Mayan word xocoatl). Conquistador Hernan Cortez reported that he was offered a drink in a golden goblet by the Aztec ruler Montezuma,who “took no other beverage than the chocolatl, a potation of chocolate, flavored with vanilla and spices, and so prepared as to be reduced to a froth of the consistency of honey, which gradually dissolved in the mouth and was taken cold.” The Spanish exported the beverage back home and added their own innovations, such as heating it and adding milk and sugar to make it a palatable after-dinner delight.

This 18th century London chocolate house looks a bit more rowdy than your average Starbucks of today.

The Spanish soon noticed how good the chocolate made them feel and considered it both a health drink and an aphrodisiac. For almost a century the Spanish were able to keep a monopoly on cacao, guarding it as closely as the formula of Coca-Cola is today. Their chocolate drinks were so thick and rich that some of them were served with spoons to be eaten like pudding. Eventually, the secret leaked out and the drink caught on throughout Europe and eventually returned home across the pond to make it big in the colonies.

The idea of chocolate as health food might seem a little strange to us today, but not when compared with the American breakfast beverages of choice: ale, beer, and hard cider. And like a lot of health foods, it was difficult to prepare, with a long list of ingredients including expensive chocolate wafers that had to be hand-grated, milk, wine or rosewater, and sugar and spices (which also had to be grated). For ideal preparation, a special pot called a chocolate mill was needed.

Jefferson loved chocolate and served it both at Monticello and at his Philadelphia home when he was serving as the nation’s first secretary of state. In fact, exasperated by the lack of vanilla beans with which to flavor the chocolate, he once set away to Paris for the kind of pods he had enjoyed while serving as envoy to France. Jefferson was indulging in a characteristic extravagance, as vanilla was extraordinarily expensive at the time. Philadelphia taverns and chocolate houses probably flavored their chocolate instead with cinnamon.

Thomas Jefferson’s chocolate mill, nicknamed “the duck” in his family. Courtesy Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

Also during his tenure in Philadelphia, Jefferson commissioned a local silversmith to make an amazing chocolate mill with a design based on an antique Roman pot he had viewed in the south of France. While in Europe, Jefferson had ordered a mahogany replica of the pot, and his silver design was nicknamed “the duck” by his family. A characteristically impractical Jeffersonian design, the chocolate mill was visually impressive but allowed the chocolate to get cold, unlike conventional pots. It is fun to imagine Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis discussing the westward expedition while enjoying their delicious (lukewarm) treat.

By the time Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were coming of age, coffee was overtaking chocolate as the American beverage of choice.

The hot chocolate we enjoy today bears little resemblance in taste or texture to the thick, grainy beverages of Jefferson’s time. The Kakawa Chocolate Bar in Santa Fe serves authentic historical drinking chocolate, prepared with organically grown ingredients and using recipes based on historical and anthropological sources. You can order rich cups of chocolate prepared  Mesoamerican style, with no sweeteners but seasoned with flowers, chilis, agave, vanilla, and other spices. You can also try elixirs based on old Spanish, French, and Italian recipes, along with something called the “Jeffersonian,” a simple American recipe that includes chocolate, milk, sugar, nutmeg, and vanilla. This recipe, thinner and sweeter than the European chocolates, is considered the direct ancestor of modern hot chocolate, which is also available at Kakawa.

I only wish I lived in Santa Fe so I could try all the chocolates! I highly recommend a visit to Kakawa for anyone wishing to take a chocolate time machine back into America’s delicious past. Their chocolate mixes are also available by mail.

Kakawa Chocolate House

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