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How Hot Chocolate Became More American Than Apple Pie

As the temperature starts to drop, it may be comforting to know that hot chocolate could be more American than apple pie.

George Washington, for one, could attest to that. When he dug into his favorite breakfast of cornmeal hoe cakes with honey and butter, he often washed them down with warm chocolate cream, according to Dining with the Washingtons, a new cookbook by the staff at George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate. The cookbook offers updated versions of typical recipes from the period and a glimpse into the first president's favorite foods.

Rodney Snyder, a chocolate historian at Mars, Inc., who spoke at a chocolate-making demonstration at the National Archives this month, has also found ample evidence of hot chocolate's place in early American history.

Archaeological evidence suggests that people in present-day Mexico were cultivating and drinking chocolate some 4,000 years ago. (Apples, meanwhile, originated in Asia.)

For most of its history, chocolate was a drink. Candies and solid bars didn't catch on until the late 1800's, Snyder says. (Now, of course, we're back to drinking a lot of chocolate milk — a hot-button issue for some parents.)

The 18th-century, Washingtonian version of hot chocolate consisted of grated chocolate solids and sugar mixed into a cup of warm water, milk, or even brandy for a real kick. It was often seasoned with new-world flavors like chili powder, vanilla, and allspice, creating a complex concoction — richer and less sweet than its modern day counterpart. (As NPR's Allison Aubrey has reported, Mount Vernon historians are also reviving Washington's whiskey recipes.)

According to Mary Thompson, a research historian at Mount Vernon, many of the ingredients the colonial settlers encountered when they arrived in the Americas were unfamiliar. At first, they were most likely to embrace foods that reminded them of Europe. But chocolate was an exception: It was novel and immediately appealing, says Thompson.

In 18th-century Europe, chocolate was a status symbol — a treat for the rich and the royals. But Snyder says in North America it was enjoyed by president and commoner alike. That difference stems from the cacao's point of origin, in the Americas, and the relative cheapness of Caribbean sugar.

In colonial America, chocolate wasn't relegated to the breakfast nook, either. It was instead valued as a high energy food that didn't spoil. "Chocolate is very transportable, so it was very good for the army," Snyder says. So when Washington filled his canteen with cherry bounce (his favorite mixture of juice, spices, and brandy), and headed out for the frontier, he may have packed some chocolate then, as well.

If hot chocolate for breakfast sounds like an overly sweet way to revisit colonial times, try the cake featured in the cookbook, which Washington and pals were said to dunk into their hot chocolate on occasion, too.

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