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The Food of the Gods

With each holiday season comes an epidemic. I am not speaking of another alien flu bug, but rather the epidemic of chocolatitis. It is an addictive disease that becomes more prevalent during the holiday season when chocolate candy becomes that ever-present seasonal gift in homes and offices.

Chocolate, derived from the seeds of the cocoa tree, was first discovered by the Aztecs, who believed it was a gift from the god Quetzalcoatl. Montezuma was reported to have consumed up to fifty cups of chocolate daily. And when the conquistador, Cortes, brought this New World discovery back to Spain, it soon became the rage of 17th-century Europe. It was believed to have aphrodisiac qualities.

There were many great scientists and scientific advances of the 19th-century. But one of the greatest discoveries of that era, one that has developed into a multi-billion dollar industry and has brought great pleasure to millions, was made by an obscure Swiss chemist, Henri Nestle. He combined chocolate with sweetened condensed milk, creating "milk chocolate." And hence came the Hershey Bar, the Baby Ruth, Milk Duds, Tootsie Rolls, M & M's, and my wife, Margaret's, favorite, Junior Mints.

Chocolate has evolved over the centuries, from Montezuma's aphrodisiac to a 17th-century delicacy, from an energy booster in the ration kits of servicemen since World War I to today's common gift between friends and lovers.

There have been several theories about the allure of chocolate. One study has suggested that the craving for it comes from a chemical in chocolate called phenylethylamine which is known to cause euphoric states that some say resemble the feeling of falling in love. That theory has been dismissed since cheddar cheese and smoked salami have been discovered to have more phenylethylamine in them than chocolate and nobody thinks of salami and cheese as being romantic.

Americans consume about 11.2 pounds of chocolate per person each year. That's nearly three billion pounds of chocolate. And though chemists have long tried to mix up an assortment of complex chemicals and artificial flavorings to produce an effective fake chocolate, they have all failed. Only real chocolate has that mouth watering bouquet, that romantic overtone, that greedy appeal.

My mother-in-law suffers from a particular strain of that chocolate lover's disease - "See's chocolatitis." She's been known to horde her "nuts and chews", selfishly keeping them from the rest of her family, particularly her son-in-law. I'm still working on her cure.

"It warms you; ... then kindles a mortal fever in you," wrote a 17th century French writer, the Marquise de Sevigne. She was not describing a life-threatening disease. She was talking of romance and of the passion of chocolate.