Valentine’s Day: Hot Chocolate, Sex and Sin in Colonial New England


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Silver tableware made in Boston circa 1760.  (Courtesy of Historic Deerfield)

Valentine’s Day: Hot Chocolate, Sex and Sin in Colonial New England

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It’s Valentine’s Day, and maybe you’re hoping to spark a little romance in your sweetheart with some exciting chocolate as a gift. Don’t frustrate your plans, but scientific research shows it’s not really an aphrodisiac.

However, one candy historian is eager to transport us back to a time when Americans consumed vast quantities of warm, decadent chocolate, which she believes has some hidden sensory powers.

Silver tableware made in Boston circa 1760.  (Courtesy of Historic Deerfield)Silver tableware made in Boston circa 1760. (Courtesy of Historic Deerfield)

Early New Englanders were very fond of chocolate, but they didn’t eat it, says Susan Benjamin, owner of True Treats Historic Candy in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

“So you have people like the colonists, and the big guys — Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and New England’s own John Adams — busy drinking these wonderful, frothy chocolate drinks,” she said, “and also There were things like cinnamon and nutmeg and cloves, all these wonderful spices that were aphrodisiacs in their own right – only the colonists didn’t know it.”

Maybe they did, Benjamin added with a smile.

Hot chocolate is an exotic fashion import from the 1600s. People devour it – like a healthy food – for nourishment and vitality. While chocolate itself isn’t a full-fledged aphrodisiac, Benjamin points out that the UCLA Library of Medicine’s list of spices includes nutmeg, ginger, and vanilla with erotic potential. These and many others have been tempted around the world for centuries, but colonists added them to their fortified drinks for added flavor, she said.

Back then, chocolate was largely inedible and came in hard bricks or tablets. “It was unbelievably bitter,” explains Benjamin, “and required a lot of work on what was then called a chocolate jar.”

Making cycle-accurate hot chocolate is no mean feat. But Plymouth-based culinary historian and archaeologist Paula Marcoux is keen to try some old-fashioned hot chocolate recipes.

Food historian Paula Marcoux scrapes chocolate onto a plate in preparation for hot chocolate.  (Jesse Costa/WBUR)Food historian Paula Marcoux scrapes chocolate onto a plate in preparation for hot chocolate. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“Chocolate is a wonderful thing,” she said, before joking. “It was really hard to be forced to drink chocolate every day for a week while we’ve been screwing up — but we got through it.”

For this project, Marcoux assembled local dark chocolate, sugar, milk and seasonings, including cinnamon sticks and allspice.

“New England sources in the 18th century mentioned nutmeg the most,” she said.

There are several steps involved in making the mixture. When a pot of hot water begins to boil, Marcus scrapes the hard chocolate into a heap of shards and shards.

Common ingredients used in hot chocolate dating back to colonial times include cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice berries.  (Jesse Costa/WBUR)Common ingredients used in hot chocolate dating back to colonial times include cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice berries. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

“You can melt it in hot water, add hot milk, and use a tool they call a chocolate grinder,” she says. “It’s really just an elaborate stick.”

Marcoux’s husband made a knockoff molinet, as it was called, which she rubbed hard with her hands in a copper pan.

“So when I’ve been mixing it, the texture seems to lighten up, it gets nice and lathers on top,” she reports, adding, “If you don’t, the texture of the chocolate is natural Will get very grainy and greasy properly. Mixing it all together makes it very tasty and delicious and luxurious.”

Food historian Paula Marcoux prepares to place a wooden mixing tool into a copper jar containing a chocolate mixture. The tool is based on handmade reproductions of colonial paintings and sketches.  (Jesse Costa/WBUR)Food historian Paula Marcoux prepares to place a wooden mixing tool into a copper jar containing a chocolate mixture. The tool is based on handmade reproductions of colonial paintings and sketches. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Colonial elites were fascinated by the drink, but Marcoux said they didn’t make it themselves. Servants often fix this high-calorie, high-fat drink in the morning for people like Washington.

“They’re choosing to eat chocolate for breakfast instead of regular drinks like beer or cider,” she said, “so it’s a completely different feeling than starting the day.”

As for whether drinking chocolate evokes romantic feelings, Marcoux suspects the caffeinated drink—spiced or not—invigorated early New Englanders.

“Honestly, I think the colonists were more inclined to think of chocolate as a bedroom than a spice,” she muses. “The Puritans weren’t even as vigilant about sex as we thought. They believed that sex was good and that people should do everything they could to have as much sex as possible — but with their spouses.”

But, according to Benjamin, some followers of Puritanism condemn drinking chocolate as too pleasant, even sinful. She shared what she called an impossible story that pushed chocolate to become widespread.

Food historian Paula Marcoux made hot chocolate by placing shavings of chocolate in copper jars filled with hot water.  (Jesse Costa/WBUR)Food historian Paula Marcoux made hot chocolate by placing shavings of chocolate in copper jars filled with hot water. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

As the story goes, when the Spanish first encountered (and then violently conquered) Montezuma in the 1500s, the Emperor of Mexico would drink 50 gold cups of chocolate a day to satisfy his wife and mistress’ physical strength. Along with the cocoa bean, this exciting yarn spread across Europe and eventually to New England, where chocolate was once blamed for the fall of what was once a moral society.

But Benjamin said the outlook has changed, as chocolate shops in the UK and Europe are opening in Boston. “The first application was actually from two women in 1670 – Dorothy Jones and Jane Barnard. They wanted a chocolate house for public entertainment where they could sell coffee and chocolate.”

Chocolate continues to be all the rage. In 1700s Boston, revolutionaries used it as a form of protest because it wasn’t taxed by the British like other ubiquitous hot drinks. “So chocolate started to become an alternative to tea,” says Benjamin.

Food historian Paula Marcoux pours the finished hot chocolate into a mug and eats it.  (Jesse Costa/WBUR)Food historian Paula Marcoux pours the finished hot chocolate into a mug and eats it. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Jumping to the present, people always ask this confectionary historian how chocolate ended up becoming such an obsessive delicacy.

“Especially what we love and get on Valentine’s Day,” Benjamin said, “and the answer is — in a word — industry.”

Machines started producing the glossy, melt-in-your-mouth chocolate we find today, and marketing made it romantic. But Benjamin says you can skip the heart box if you really want to woo your sweetheart this Valentine’s Day.

“Come on, make some hot chocolate,” she suggested, “add some good old cinnamon—and how about some cloves—now wait and see what happens.”


Boston’s chocolate history is much more complex, involving forced labor from slaves. Old North Church is delving into this worrying past with a virtual class called “Cocoa and Colonial Chocolate.”

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