As you indulge in the world’s favorite candy—chocolate—to celebrate the 75th anniversary of M&Ms, keep in mind that for most of chocolate’s 3,500-year culinary history, it was a beverage, not a candy. Past scholars have credited the Mayans and Aztecs for discovering the cacao plant from which cocoa and chocolate are produced. However, current thinking favors the Mesoamerican Olmec culture (1500-400 BC). In 2007, anthropologists discovered cacao residue on a pot in Honduras dating as far back as 1400 BC.
The Mayans inherited much from the Olmecs, including cocoa beans, which the Mayan elite ground and drank as a bitter beverage. Both the Mayans and subsequent Aztecs valued the beans so highly they were used as currency. An avocado could be bought for three cocoa beans.
How the word chocolate came about is also controversial. It may derive from the Aztec word for chocolate, xocoatl, or the Spanish might have coined it from the native words chocol (meaning “hot”) and atl (“water”).
Christopher Columbus introduced many foods from the New World to Europe, but he can’t claim credit for chocolate. He thought the cocoa beans he encountered on his fourth voyage in 1502 were almonds. His son Ferdinand noted how the natives valued the beans: “I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen.” But if Columbus brought any beans back to Spain, nobody noticed.
Instead, credit for introducing chocolate to Spain goes to Dominican priests who worked among the Kekchi Mayans in Guatemala. They and a group of native nobles traveled to Spain in 1544 and presented Prince Philip with cocoa ready to drink. The prince approved, beginning almost a century in which the Spanish kept chocolate a sweet secret from the rest of the world. When an English pirate ship captured a priceless shipload of cocoa beans in 1579, they burned the parcel, thinking it was sheep droppings.
In 1590, Spanish monks introduced cocoa sweetened with honey and flavored with vanilla. This sweetened chocolate spread through Europe in the 17th century—but still strictly as a beverage. The Germans favored a cup of hot chocolate before bedtime. The English complemented their coffeehouses with “chocolate houses,” where the wealthy sipped spiced cocoa together.
The French claimed chocolate was an aphrodisiac, and the great Italian lover Casanova “found the drink as useful a lubrication to seduction as champagne,” Dr. Henry Stubbe wrote during England’s chocolate craze.
Before chocolate could become M&Ms, Coenraad Van Houten had to invent cocoa pressing. The Dutch chemist’s 1828 invention squeezed almost half the cocoa butter out of the beans, leaving a hard cake that could be powdered. He then treated the powder with alkaline salts, making it darker and less bitter—a process still called “Dutching.”
Francis Fry, head of the British chocolate company J.S. Fry & Sons, made the first modern chocolate bar in 1847. He married the “Dutched” cocoa powder with cocoa butter to make a paste that could be pressed into a mold.
Within the same few decades, John Cadbury began selling a range of cocoa and chocolate drinks at his grocery store in Birmingham, England. Cadbury’s unique chocolate was sold in blocks and quickly gained popularity. In 1854, Cadbury was granted a royal warrant to be the sole purveyor of chocolate to Queen Victoria. The company marketed the first elaborately decorated box of chocolate candies in 1868. Today’s chocoholics would hardly recognize the candy sold in that box, as even the finest chocolate was still grainy in texture.
But the pace of chocolate innovation soon quickened. In 1875, after eight years of experimentation, Swiss inventor Daniel Peter found a way to make solid milk chocolate. His breakthrough used sweetened condensed milk, invented in 1867 by a neighbor, Henri Nestlé. Soon they were partners in a firm on its way to becoming the biggest food company in the world.
It wasn’t until another Swiss by the name of Rudolphe Lindt figured out how to “conch” chocolate that the candy acquired its trademark smooth texture. In 1879, Lindt used rollers on a shell-shaped granite trough to produce chocolate that was smooth and creamy. The original conching process could take up to 78 hours.
The path was then set for Milton Snavely Hershey, a Mennonite from Pennsylvania Dutch country, and his Lancaster Caramel Co. At the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Hershey marveled at the latest chocolate-processing technology. He was so inspired that he sold his successful caramel company to start Hershey Chocolate. Hershey sold his first Hershey Bar in 1900.
Adopting the techniques of mass production, Hershey was able to make this “palatable confection and a most nourishing food” (as one advertising slogan put it) affordable for ordinary consumers. In 1905, he opened a new factory in his native Derry Township, Pa. Today that township is called Hershey, with streetlights that resemble the iconic foil-wrapped Hershey’s Kiss.
The rival Mars Co. followed a few years later. Founder Franklin Clarence Mars was born in 1883 in Hancock, Minn. An early childhood case of polio left Franklin housebound. His mother taught him school lessons in the family kitchen, where she also entertained him with lessons on hand-dipping chocolate. He started Mar-O-Bar Co. in 1920.
Mars’ early exposure to chocolate making paid off. Mars introduced the Milky Way candy bar in 1923. The bar was named after a popular malted milk shake its flavor emulated. This began a series of chocolatey successes that would include Snickers (1930), 3 Musketeers (1932) and finally M&Ms (1941).
In 1981, M&Ms became the first candy in space, taking chocolate a long way from its origins as a bitter beverage enjoyed by Mesoamerican natives.
1765 | A forerunner of Baker Co. is America’s first chocolate manufacturer
1828 | Coenraad Van Houten develops the “Dutching” process
1847 | Francis Fry makes the first chocolate bar
1852 | Domingo Ghirardelli begins selling candy to gold miners
1875 | Daniel Peter invents milk chocolate
1879 | Rudolph Lindt develops “conching”
1890 | Robert Strohecker displays a 5-foot chocolate bunny in his drugstore as an Easter promotion
1908 | First Toblerone bar is produced
1926 | Belgian Joseph Draps founds Godiva
1941 | Mars introduces M&Ms