Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Praise of the World's First Chocolate Lovers

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Praise of the World's First Chocolate Lovers

Article excerpt

No matter where they live, practically everybody loves chocolate. Mexicans eat it with chicken; the French spread it on bread with hazelnuts; the Swiss drink it for breakfast.

Americans enjoy chocolates filled with gooey cherries at Christmas, chocolate hearts at Valentine's, and chocolate eggs at Easter. Hot chocolate, so thick that a spoon stands straight up in the cup, is a New Year's Eve tradition in Spain.

To whom do we owe this pleasure of the palate?

The Olmecs.

"Who?" you ask.

The Olmecs were the mother culture of Mesoamerica and the earliest complex society in the Americas. They preceded both the Mayans and Aztecs, and left them a calendar, along with a substantial legacy in art, architecture, astronomy, mathematics, politics, religion, and economics.

But Olmecs have received little credit for their contribution to our civilization, culture, and comfort - not to mention desserts - mainly because little was known about them until fairly recently.

During the past few decades, anthropologists have been busy unearthing various Olmec artifacts, including heads 6-1/2 feethigh (some weighing as much as 20 tons) - diaries in stone. (See article on page 12.)

The Olmecs lived on the sweeping alluvial plain in the present- day Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco, an area covering 11,200 square miles, bounded by the Gulf of Mexico to the north, Sierras to the south, the high plateau to the west, and the Yucutan to the east.

Their empire flourished from about 1200 BC to 300 BC, shortly after the fall of the Shang Dynasty in China. (One specialist speculates that ancient Chinese mariners may have made their way to this region two millenniums before Cortes landed in 1519.)

Mainly hunters, fishers, and farmers, the Olmecs cultivated such crops as maize, cotton, tobacco, chili peppers, squash, and cacao.

They were the first people known to cultivate cacao trees, which they called kakawa. They fermented, dried, and roasted its beans to make a chocolate drink. The fleshy white seeds became so important that the Aztecs used them as currency and drank cacao water at religious ceremonies.

Other local attractions

Descendants of the Olmec still live in and around Veracruz, although they have blended with other cultures over time. The Olmec sculptures in Xalapa (ha-LA-pa), the state capital (about 62 miles northwest of Veracruz) are breathtaking.

Xalapa (Jalapa) is wellknown for its jalapeno peppers - which were named after the city. It's also the home of an outstanding Anthropology Museum, housed in a simple, modernistic building located a two-hour drive up into the misty hills.

As lovely as the Xalapa museum is, it is outshone by the fascinating art it shelters. It displays - in open as well as secluded spaces, indoors and out - only about one-tenth of the 30,000 pieces in the collection. …

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