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A Word About Chocolate

By Larry Rettig (LarryRFebruary 10, 2009
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What's in a word? As far as the word "chocolate" is concerned, actually quite a bit. Join me on a brief linguistic journey that includes not only food for the mind but for the body as well. Along the way, you'll encounter three original, never-before-published chocolate recipes.

Gardening picture

 

"Chocolate" came into the English language via the Spanish word, chocolate (chuck-o-LAH-tay). (Click on the colored words in this paragraph to hear the native pronunciations.)  The Spanish pronunciation of the word differs quite a bit from English, even though the two share the same spelling.

As we travel back further into the history of the word, we discover that the Spanish in Spain got both the word and the actual product from the early Spanish explorers who visited what is now modern Mexico.  The Spanish explorers, in turn, got the word from the indigenous Aztecs, who called it xocolatl  (shuck-O-lahtl) in their native tongue, Nahuatl (NAH-wahtl), still spoken by several million Mexicans today.  Xocolatl is a compound word composed of xocolli, meaning "bitter", and atl, meaning "water".

            The Cacao Tree

Chocolate is made from the bean of the Cacao Tree.  It's a small tree that needs rich, well-drained soil. Its natural habitat is located within 20 degrees either side of the equator. Lots of rain and warm weather are necessary for it to thrive.  Cacao trees cannot tolerate a temperature lower than 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius).

Image
              Cacao Tree with beans

*

While this Aztec derivation of our modern word "chocolate" certainly sounds plausible, some linguists beg to differ.  They
 
believe that the first part of the compound word above, xoco-, came from chocol-, a special wooden stick used to prepare an unsweetened chocolate drink.  To muddy the waters further, others believe that xoco- is actually a loanword from the Mayan language, where it means "hot," thus giving the compound word the meaning "hot water," rather than "bitter water."  Both meanings make sense, since the drink was both hot and stirred with a wooden stick.  And unsweetened chocolate, as you well know if you've ever tried to eat it, is very bitter.

Finally, in their book, The True History of Chocolate, Sophie and Michael Coe (Thames and Hudson, 1996)  propose yet another etymology.  Their derivation is based on one of the Mayan languages (of which there are several), rather than on the Nahuatl of the Aztec.  In Yucatec Mayan, the word for "chocolate drink" is chacau haa.  The authors  propose that the Spanish explorers borrowed chocol, a variation of chacau, from a Mayan dialect and added atl from the Aztec word we encountered above.  Convoluted?  Certainly.  They base their theory on certain historical assumptions that are too involved to discuss here.  If you're interested, you can glean the details from their book, which is now available in paperback.

So who's right?  As you may already have surmised, we'll never know.  Then again, perhaps someday the time travel of science fiction will become science fact, and we'll be able ask the 15th century Aztecs and Mayans in person.  But I'm not holding my breath!

At the beginning of our brief journey, I promised you some chocolate sustenance.  Here are three of my own unpublished recipes that I enjoy making for family and friends:
xocolatl xocolatl xocolatl
Larry's Chocolate Tea Larry's Chocolate Cookies Larry's Chocolate Turtles

1 Bigelow Earl Grey tea bag
1 cup boiling water (preferably
   non-chlorinated)
1 tablespoon clover honey
1/4 cup Nestle's semi-sweet
   chocolate chips

Brew tea for 5 minutes.  Add honey, stirring well.  Add chocolate chips and stir until chips are melted and fully blended (about 1 minute).  Some chocolate dregs will accumulate at the bottom of your mug/cup as you drink.  This will make for a wonderful, chocolaty conclusion to your chocolate tea experience.
Note 1:  It is important to use the brands mentioned in the recipe.  Using substitutes will change the flavor considerably.
Note 2:  The distinctive aroma and flavor of Earl Grey is imparted by the rind of a little known citrus fruit (Citrus aurantium ssp. bergamia).  Since it's not widely available, a good substitute, if you want to try flavoring your tea with bergamot, is dried  Monarda (Bergamot) leaves.  Click on photos below for more information.


Image
Wild Bergamot


Image
Monarda 'Petite Wonder'

1 cup butter (no substitutes)
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
8 oz. cream cheese (not low
   fat)
2 eggs
3 3/4 cups flour, sifted
4 cups Nestle chocolate
   chips, melted
1 12 oz. tub of Cool Whip
   (not low fat)

Melt chocolate chips and set aside to cool.  Cream butter, sugars, and cream cheese.  Add eggs and beat  until well blended.  Add melted chocolate chips and flour and mix well.  Fold in Cool Whip and mix until just blended.  Drop teaspoonfuls of dough on greased cookie sheets.  Top with chocolate chips.  Bake at 350o for 5-7 minutes.  Cool thoroughly before removing from sheet with spatula.  Cookies should be thin, delicate, and light, with a crispy bottom.  Do not stack cookies.  Letting the cookies age several days makes them even tastier.  Makes 4-5 dozen.
Note 1:  The absence of baking soda/powder in this recipe is deliberate.  I've been disappointed so many times because the flavor of the soda in the cookie overpowers the chocolate.
Note 2:  The dough is so tasty, I occasionally reserve some and serve it as a chocolate mousse.  (Use discretion, as this dish contains raw eggs.)

1 cup butter (no substitutes)
1 box light brown sugar (scant
    2 cups)
1 cup light Karo syrup
1 14-oz. can sweetened 
   condensedmilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
Dash of salt
2 12-oz. packages Nestles
    Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips
1/2 slab paraffin
4 cups pecans

Melt butter in heavy 3-quart saucepan.  Add brown sugar and salt, stirring until well-combined.  Add corn syrup, mixing well.  Gradually add milk, stirring constantly.  Cook and stir over medium heat to firm ball stage (220o).  Remove from heat and stir in vanilla.  Add pecans and mix well.  Place tablespoons of the mixture on well-greased cookie sheet (takes about 4 cookie sheets).  Put in freezer until hard (about 30 min.).  Melt chips and paraffin in double boiler, stirring to blend.  Using tongs, dip frozen caramel-nut lumps into chocolate mixture until well-coated and return to cookie sheets.  Allow to cool thoroughly before serving.



Image
Luscious turtle

 


To View a photo of Citrus aurantium ssp. bergamia, click here

Credits
Thumbnail photo:  Chocolate Fountain Hire, Perth, Australia
Wild Bergamot photo:  ladyanne
Monarda photo:  henryr10
Cacao Tree with beans:  Wikipedia

Links to related DG articles
Chocolate and Cocoa
Hot Chocolate? Hot Cocoa?
Marshmallows!
Yet to come:
Inspiration in the Chocolate Garden
The Chocolate Mimosa
Searching for Chocolate Daisy
Chocolate Lily Is a Wildflower Treat
A Chocolate Garden

*A further complication is the word 'Xocoatl,' which some sources use in place of 'Xocolatl.'  Other sources ascribe to 'Xocoatl' the meaning "a beverage made from maize.'

© Larry Rettig 2009

 


  About Larry Rettig  
Larry RettigAn enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and itís still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Although our garden is private, it's listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens and is on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s. For more info: http://davesgarden.com/community/blogs/m/LarryR/. Photos that appear in my articles without credit are my own.

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Discussion about this article:
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YUM onewish1 9 43 Feb 18, 2009 5:26 AM
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