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Tracing Chocolate and Peanut Butter from B.C. to February

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Each year, the universal commercial time for expressing love comes in mid-February—a “holiday” many people treat as an excuse to indulge in a time-honored Native American food, chocolate.

The cacao plant is thought to have originated in the Amazon about 300 B.C. Mayan culture called it “xocoatl,” or “god’s food,” for it symbolized life and fertility, and many of their carvings depicted cocoa pods.

Similarly, the Aztecs believed their god, Quetzalcoatl, brought the cacao plant to them. They used spices, chili peppers and corn meal as sweeteners.

In the fourteenth century, ‘chocolatl’ was taken to Spain where it was mixed with sugar, vanilla, cloves, allspice and cinnamon. During the fifteenth century, Europeans indulged in a chocolate craze, and cocoa plantations sprout worldwide.

Another truly Native American food is often combined with chocolate to create a complimentary taste duo: peanut butter. The peanut was known to exist in South America as early as 950 B.C., most likely in Brazil, though the legume was also widely used by the Inca in Peru. They grew peanut crops and ground the nuts to a paste. Some peanuts were even found in tombs.

Discovered by European invaders in Mexico, peanuts, along with many other treasures, were taken back east, and later spread to Asia and Africa.

The first commercially grown peanuts in this country came from North Carolina and then Virginia. In 1903, George Washington Carver, then at the Alabama Tuskegee Institute, earned his unofficial title as father of the peanut industry by finding about 300 uses for the legume.

In the early 1900s, many methods of making peanut butter emerged from various sources. Today, the United States is not only the largest supplier of peanut butter in the world, but it is also the largest consumer of it. Peanuts are high in vitamin E, and both mono- and polyunsaturated fats, which actually help lower cholesterol.

Homemade Peanut Butter

Get vacuum-sealed peanuts from either a can or jar. Use a blender or food processor and add 1 to 2 tablespoons of corn or other light flavored oil per 1 cup of peanuts. Puree until you get the spread you want, chunky or creamy. Put into a jar and keep in the refrigerator up to 3 or 4 months. The oils will separate; this is natural, so stir before using.

*Suggestion: Spread it on a piece of chocolate bar, or dip the chocolate into the peanut butter.

Dale Carson (Abenaki) is the author of three books: New Native American Cooking, Native New England Cooking, and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for over 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with them and her husband in Madison, Connecticut.