Today hot chocolate might be thought of as a creamy treat for kids after a day of sledding and snowball fights, but it has been a source of strength and wellness for thousands of years. Between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago, cacao plants were first cultivated in Mesoamerica by the Olmec, living in southern Mexico. Rather than eating chocolate in solid form, however, the nibs from the cacao plant were ground into a paste and mixed with water to make a chocolate drink known as “xocolātl.” In order to achieve its frothy consistency, the mixture was poured back and forth between two bowls or jugs. It was found to be an energy booster and mood enhancer, as well as providing long-lasting sustenance; these positive nutritional effects led the Olmec to believe the drink possessed mystic qualities, so it was generally reserved for important figures at sacred ceremonies.
The Olmec passed the chocolate drink on to the Maya civilization, which passed it on to perhaps the beverage’s most famous historical forefathers, the Aztecs. Legendary Aztec leader Montezuma II was known to demand cacao beans from conquered peoples and supposedly drank goblet after goblet of hot chocolate every day in a display of power and opulence. Besides his own enjoyment of the beverage, he only allowed those who contributed military service to drink chocolate. When Hernan Cortes and his soldiers encountered the Aztecs, one of his men wrote about Montezuma’s consumption of the curious cacao-made drink and how the Spanish themselves were also served the beverage “all frothed up.” Ultimately, Cortes conquered the Aztecs, and brought the popular drink to Spain, from which it spread throughout Europe and, eventually, the world.
Montezuma was not the only one to put hot chocolate to use in the military. During the Revolutionary War, medics administered the beverage to wounded, sick or tired soldiers to expedite their recoveries, and soldiers themselves were allotted small portions of chocolate in their military rations to make the drink themselves. Thomas Jefferson was so impressed with the drink that he wrote to John Adams in 1785 saying, “The superiority of chocolate, both for health and nourishment, will soon give it the preference over tea and coffee in America…” As we know, Americans did not end up trading in their morning cups of Joe for hot cocoa, but the drink remained a valuable source of sustenance for Americans in future military conflicts. During World War I, volunteers from the YMCA set up recovery stations near the battlefields to assist and comfort fatigued troops; warm cups of hot chocolate were staples at these stations. Americans fighting in World War II were also treated to the hot drink when cocoa was added to some of the military’s field rations in 1944.
In addition to rejuvenating soldiers battling the enemy, hot chocolate was also used by explorers battling the elements. In early 20th-century expeditions to the North and South Poles, hot chocolate provided warmth, nutrients and energy boosts to weary explorers—though it wasn’t always enough. Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his crew of four other men reached the South Pole on January 17, 1912 after traveling for over a year on a diet that consisted largely of hot chocolate and stew; unfortunately these rations did not adequately sustain the physical exertion the journey required, and Scott and his men died of hunger and exhaustion on their return trip.