Montezuma thought chocolate gave him wisdom.
When 17th century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus named the chocolate tree, he pulled out all the stops. The word Theobroma, its genus, translates to "food of the gods." Its species name, cacao, describes the product derived from its beans. And now, chocolate lovers, the rest of the story.
It seems that Hernando Cortes and his soldiers witnessed a strange ceremony while among the Aztecs of Mexico in the early 1500s. Emperor Montezuma, considered a living god by his subjects, sat sipping from a golden chalice. Each time it touched his lips, the crowd hushed. The dark brown, bitter chocolate, the Spaniards were told, brought him wisdom because it came from beans originating in paradise.
Actually, the beans came from large pods produced by a short hardwood that grew throughout the region. The Indians occasionally used the tree's reddish brown wood for rough construction, but its beans were so valuable that the natives turned them into currency -- four bought a wild turkey, 100 a slave.
Soon, the explorers had collected a supply of beans to take back to Spain. They also took a special recipe discovered in a sanctuary. The recipe sweetened the bitter bean brew with sugar and vanilla. By the mid-1500s, the new cocoa was the European rage. The English and Dutch added milk and established chocolate houses to serve devotees. In adopting the stimulant, the French proclaimed it an aphrodisiac.
Today, the beans of the cacao tree still yield the basic ingredient for chocolate, as well as cocoa butter for soaps and toiletries. And that is the rest of the story.