05/12/2013 08:17 am ET Updated Jul 12, 2013

Mothering With Chocolate

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In 2012 consumers in the United States spent an average of $152 dollars for Mother's Day gifts. A good portion of that was spent on slathering our mammas with chocolate treats. Earlier generations of women, some of the them childless due to their religious callings, have concocted and savored chocolate; they have contributed to the bountiful chocolate appetite evident in the current celebrations of our moms.

Aztec women received godly instructions to produce the first chocolate by beating cocoa bean paste with water in gourds. According to those earliest of chocolate sources in Aztec traditions, the beloved god, Quetzalcoatl, was said to have planted a cacao tree, collected its pods, roasted the cocoa beans, and then showed only the women how to process the beans into a spicy chocolate drink. Women guarded and transmitted those techniques.

Later, New World nuns explored creative chocolate delights. It may have been the prioress at the Dominican Convent of Santa Rosa in Pueblo de Los Angeles in Puebla, Mexico, who devised and served the first peppery mole in 1680. Oaxaca nuns were famous for their cinnamon-and anise-flavored chocolate drinks. The Concepcionista sisters of Regina Coeli of Mexico City so adored their chocolate that they were called monjas chocolateras, chocolate nuns.

Chocoholic women in 17th century Chiapas, Mexico, toted their chocolate making paraphernalia with them to Mass. When the local bishop condemned these chocolatey disruptions of the holy ceremonies and threatened to excommunicate violators, the women protested that they could not be in church without their chocolate and ignored the edicts. One day the priests rudely grabbed their chocolate cups out of their dainty hands. The husbands gallantly pulled their swords to protect their chocolate-besotted wives. The nuns and friars in neighborhood churches were more indulgent about chocolate.

When that bishop mysteriously fell very ill, his physicians concluded that he had been poisoned. One of his opponents argued against grieving for the bishop. She claimed that because the cleric strictly opposed cocoa in church, the chocolate that he had swallowed in his own home had disagreed with him. Thus, the proverb: "Beware of the chocolatte of Chiapa!"

The fluidity between church, women and chocolate melted into the 18th century as well. Since 1763 women have owned and run Caffè al Bicerin in Turin, Italy. Its location near the Santuario della Consolata brought women to the intimate, low-ceilinged, candlelit space to break their Lenten and Communion fasts with bicerin, a perfect beverage layered with hot chocolate, coffee and cream. Expertise about chocolate also infused Madame d'Arestrel, the Mother Superior of the Convent of the Visitation at Belley, France. She sensed God's part in this chocolate preparation when she advised: "When you want to have good chocolate, have it made the night before in a porcelain pot and leave it. The repose of the night concentrates it and gives it a velvet quality which improves it greatly. The good God cannot possibly take offence at this little refinement, since he himself is everything that is most perfect."

Today, the fifty nuns of Mount Saint Mary's Abbey in Massachusetts depend on their chocolate business, Trappistine Quality Candy, to fulfill their spiritual mandate to live by the work of their hands and to support themselves. This reasonably priced chocolate, available on line, furthers the chocolate works of earlier generations of women.

This mother's day we raise our chocolate treats, in all their glorious shapes and cacao content, in celebration of our mothers, real and symbolic.