Cocoa pods grow right from the trunk of the
cocoa tree! (Thanks World Cocoa Foundation)
Chocolate comes from cocoa beans, which grew on trees in Central America starting probably about 100 million years ago; cocoa trees may have gotten their start on the lower slopes of the Andes Mountains. Cocoa trees can only live in hot, rainy places near the Equator.
Cocoa beans (Tom Neuhaus, Project Hope and Fairness)
The trees bear large orange fruit, about the size of small pumpkins. You pick the fruit, and many small beans are inside, like peas inside a peapod. The raw beans are really good for you, full of vitamin C and magnesium, but they're bitter. They also have a fair amount of caffeine in them, like coffee or tea, and can help you work harder than you could without cocoa. People probably ate cocoa beans as soon as they got to Central America, maybe about 15,000 BC.
Maya god of cocoa, with cocoa pods
By around 2000 BC, pre-Olmec people in Central America (modern Mexico) were grinding up the beans and making them into a hot or cold spicy chocolate drink with vanilla or chili peppers in it or a sort of spicy porridge with corn and chilis in it. Sometimes people sweetened chocolate with honey. All the people of Central America - the Olmec, the Zapotec, the Moche, the Maya, and the Aztecs - liked chocolate. Our word chocolate probably comes from the Aztec phrase "cacaua atl" which means "cacao drink".
Aztec man serving a cup of cocoa
By the 600s AD, Maya farmers were growing cocoa trees instead of picking wild cocoa. People said that the god Quetzalcoatl had brought cocoa trees down from heaven and given them to people to farm. During the 1400s AD, the Aztec Empire controlled most of Central America. The Aztec government made people pay a lot of their taxes in cocoa beans, because they were expensive and you could store them for a long time. By this time, Aztec merchants also sold cocoa beans to the Pueblo people to their north, who lived too far north to grow their own cocoa. But once the government made people use cocoa beans as money, most people couldn't afford to actually eat them anymore, and only rich people drank the chocolate drinks.
For more information about chocolate, check out these books from Amazon or from your library:
Chocolate Mousse Recipe
Chocolate Strawberries Recipe
Chocolate Cake Recipe
North American food page
Kidipede - History for Kids