In October of 1671, French aristocrat Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné, penned a note to her daughter: “I have reconciled myself to chocolate,” she wrote. “I took it the day before yesterday to digest my dinner … and I took it yesterday to nourish me so that I could fast until evening: it gave me all the effects I wanted. That’s what I like about it: it acts according to my intention.”
Most of us can relate with Madame de Sévigné’s assessment that chocolate sates many hungers. Cocoa and chocolate come from a fruit categorized by Carolus Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who founded taxonomy, as Theobroma cacao: food of the gods. Colorful and typically oblong, this precursor to chocolate starts off as a bitter seed surrounded by juicy pulp within the pod. That pulp, known as baba, or “slime,” in Spanish, dissipates during fermentation. The seeds are dried and become what we refer to as cocoa beans. From there, they are roasted, cracked and shelled. The smaller pieces of beans, or nibs, are then processed into cocoa and chocolate.
But long before cacao seeds were transformed into chocolate bars, they were consumed in liquid form and used as currency and in indigenous rituals. In Mayan culture, cacao was a sign of power and considered critical sustenance for the journey to the afterworld. In the pre-Colombian period, explains anthropologist Cameron McNeil in her book Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, “cacao was associated with blood and sacrifice.” Chocolate could even serve as ersatz blood: Achiote, a natural red colorant from the tree Bixa orellana, was added to some cacao beverages, giving them a blood-like appearance.
Cacao, revered around the globe, has played an important role in spiritual traditions, global trade, medicine, culinary traditions and many a broken heart. Before you indulge in Halloween treats, join us as we explore how this bitter seed—and the chocolate it becomes—came to captivate our hearts.
The ultimate reward belongs to us
Smell and taste are experiences we identify with our nose and mouth, but they manifest in the brain. Our first taste buds develop in utero and our mother’s taste preferences help shape our own. These buds hold clusters of receptor cells that recognize five primary tastes—sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami—plus the presence of fat. Microscopic hairs extend up through the taste receptors to connect with food molecules. These cells communicate with each other and transmit electrical impulses that are carried to the part of the brain where they become taste.
Every flavor outside of primary tastes and the detection of fat is actually a smell. These aromas are triggered by airborne molecules that waft into our nose and the retronasal passage in the back of our mouth. They stimulate smell receptors in the upper nasal cavity that work together in what’s called a “binding pocket” to catch odor molecules and carry messages into the olfactory cortex in the front of the brain. This is where they become what we know as smell.
The olfactory cortex is the same region of the brain associated with memory, which is why smells so often trigger associations that other senses don’t seem to conjure. Familiar smells—those chocolate chip cookies grandma used to bake or a particular brand of chocolate bar that reminds you of your childhood—often take us back to moments that feel safe and happy. Dark chocolate in particular has been shown to decrease stress levels in the human brain, further contributing to psychological health.
“Flavor,” Harold McGee reminds us in his essay "Perception vs. Reality," “is a perception, an experience that’s constructed in the brain.” It is an experience that is uniquely our own, shaped by personal memory and experience. Which is why you might want to keep your next chocolate indulgence all to yourself—to savor slowly, on account of science.