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Aztec Chocolate In Our Easter Baskets

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At 11:59 PM on Easter Eve the countdown toward the lifting of Lent will focus dedicated Catholics on pantries, refrigerators and kitchen cabinets with an eye on forbidden food of 40 days and 40 nights. Many Catholics will seek out soda, alcohol, meat, beer, chips, and piles of sugar and chocolate at Easter midnight.

As the Easter sun rises Latino children will wake to baskets tied with pastel ribbons, lined with plastic green grass, filled with chocolate Easter bunnies and crackled eggs, yellow and pink marshmellow peeps and rainbow colored jelly beans. Shrieks and happy screams will poke the sound barrier as hidden treats are sought during an Easter egg hunt. Nephew, nieces, little brothers and sisters will "dodge and duck" from exploding confetti filled cascarones targeting the top of their heads. Tias and tios, abuelas and abuelos will stalk behind kitchen doors waiting for the arrival of innocent heads posing as confetti landing strips.

Families will flock to church, kneel and pray, sing and hug, then continue the celebration of Jesus Christ's resurrection at Sunday brunch. Restaurant and family tables will display hams, turkeys, roasts, and if the sun is smiling a backyard BBQ will smoke ribs, burgers, and briskets. As attention shifts to desserts and dark smudges are wiped from little faces and hands remember that Aztecs and Mayans brought you the culinary Rock Star of Easter - chocolate.

Our Latino connection to chocolate goes back 4,000 years when cocoa seeds originated in the Amazon. By the 6th century Mayans had discovered ways to turn the cocoa bean into chocolate, albeit a bitter unsweetened version of what we know today. Priests used the cacao seeds as offerings to the Gods and served chocolate drinks during sacred ceremonies. Both the Mayans and Aztecs drank their cocoa thick from corn meal, cold, unsweetened, but seasoned with hot chili peppers. Cocoa was a health elixir, religious offering, aphrodisiac, that offered wisdom and power to those who drank its seed. It was God's food - intended for royals.

Legend has it that Aztec emperor, Montezuma, drank thick chocolate dyed red in golden goblets tossed after only one use. The first famous chocoholic was reported to drink 50 goblets every day as a way to energize or relax after a day of fighting with the Spaniards and overseeing human sacrifices. When Aztecs conquered tribes, they demanded a tax or "tribute" in cocoa. They needed to stock up on cocoa beans to support Montezuma's goblet tossing.

In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue, "encountered" the Americas, and proudly took cocoa pods back to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. After a royal sip at their thrones they declared the drink unworthy of aristocrats due to its bitter taste. However, by the early 1500s Conquistador Hernan Cortez experimented in his New World plantation laboratory by mixing beans with sugar, vanilla, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, and cinnamon and the rest is shall we say - sweet chocolate history. His delicacy was reserved for Spanish aristocracy and kept a secret for almost 100 years. As the secret unfolded chocolate flowed to the rest of royal Europe and found itself incorporated into sweets, pastries, cakes and decadent desserts. The infamous royal party girl, Marie Antoinette, declared "Let them eat cake" and was probably referring to chocolate cake.

In addition to tasting great, chocolate was reported to have erotic powers and its use became "creative." Casanova added chocolate to champagne to seduce innocent females while the Marquis de Sade used chocolate to disguise poisons. Brave men drank chocolate, the 18th century Red Bull, to keep up with the energetic courtesan, Madame du Barry, nemesis of Marie Antoinette.

Meanwhile back in the New World a slave could be bought for 100 cocoa beans, a rabbit for 4 beans, and a prostitute for 10 beans. If you had one bean you couldn't pay someone to warm your bed but you could buy a tamale to warm your stomach.

In 1662, on the flip side of sin or in the den of sin depending on your point of view, the Vatican decreed that a chocolate drink did not break the fast. But, the Pope declared, eating chocolate confections were not permitted until Easter. Cue Mr. Lindt and Mr. Cadbury to the rescue generations later with bunny and egg chocolate molds. If you have to wait until Easter let's have fun with the shapes.

It took centuries for chocolate to make its way from Royal Europe to the most unroyal of them all - colonial rebels of the New World. Twenty-years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence chocolate landed in the soon-to-be United States of America and conquered the palettes and passion of "We the People." The Industrial Revolution would take it to the masses and eyes, noses and tongues were forever seduced. Captains of industry and entrepreneurs found ways to perfect chocolate and their 21st century success is evidenced by rows and rows of chocolate candy bars at drugstores, grocery markets, movie theatres and vending machines. Today Americans annually consume over 3 billion pounds of chocolate, totaling over $14 billion in sales, of which 22% is consumed between 8:00 PM and midnight.

On Sunday April 8, 2012 as chocolate bunnies are undressed from their gold foil outfits and the hunt for chocolate eggs scramble kids into frenzies, take a moment to give thanks to the Aztecs and Mayans. And, thank Montezuma for his second revenge - our insatiable craving for chocolate.

Toss the chocolate goblet!