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How Chocolate Won Us The Wars

By "wars" we don't mean the devastating battles in the past, but triumphs in the field of sports and in exploration too. The devilishly exhilarating side of Ebony Gold.  

By Madhulika Dash


A few weeks ago, when Chef Vikas Seth, Culinary Director, Embassy Leisure, decided to rework his chocolate treat board his focus was to make something that was visually simple and yet brought into its velvety fold, the delicious history of chocolate. Little did he know that his want to find something lesser known of Theobroma would set him on an unusual path of "rummaging through a soldier runsack."  

Strange isn't it, he says with a glint, "of all the stories we have heard about this luxuriant ingredient's history and the royal fascination, little was known of how much of the value of this Aztec traded commodity was prized for its natural benefits. And how that factor had single handedly made chocolate a part of history making -be it the earlier conquest in pre-Columbian era, the world war, especially the second and even those in the recent past. In fact, aside from the traders and royalty, warriors were said to be the benefactors of the cocoa bean, and how."  

Mexican too brought it!

History, continues the Mexican specialist, in fact, "is replete with incidents where merchants called pochteca and warriors, the two responsible segments of Mayan and then Aztec power and prosperity - under Montezuma II, the empire ruled over 15 Million people and Tenochtitlan was home to more than 200,000 people - were given the privy of drinking the sacred drink from a tall pitcher. The thick, bitter, foamy, cold dram then was made by mixing the cocoa paste with water and chilies along with flowers, vanilla and honey using a spoon called molinillo. The drink that was also offered to god and shared with soldiers before setting afoot for battle was known for its medicinal, energising and aphrodisiac properties."  

Such was Aztecs' belief in the chocolate drink, which many say was adopted from the Mayans and they did from Olmecs, who discovered cocoa beans, that often, says Chef Seth, "wars were fought to bring in cocoa growing regions as the beans were worth more than gold, and showed one's higher status in society and was visibly taxed.  

The famous chocolate aficionado King Montezuma in fact believed that his chocolate drink was part of his and his kingdom's strength until he was defeated and killed in the war that often is called The Night of Tears.  


Then they owned it

Fascinatingly, much of the initial journey of Chocolate or Cocoa was spent as the ruse for war rather than reason for win. Not just Montezuma who waged one to get a few cocoa growing regions under his command, but his predecessor too, Ahuitzotl, who ruled from 1486-1502, won the province of Xoconochco, which according to  The True History of Chocolate   was "famed for the high production and top quality of its cacao".  

Clearly, Hernan Cortes, who found the bitter drink absolutely unpalatable at first, had little choice but to take the dark cocoa beans as one of the highlights of riches extracted from the Aztecs. In fact, Cortes, says Chef Seth, "became one of the biggest advocates of chocolate in its debut voyage. He started cacao plantations in the new colonies which produced beans for trade and brought prosperity to Spain, he shared the wellness science with doctors and that of making desserts with the chefs. It was under his aegis that the grainy, bitter drink became sweeter with the addition of vanilla, sugar, and fewer spices. And that became the version that the world came to know, love and adopt, albeit with changes.  

Back to the Barrack  

Little did Cortes know while popularising the Olmec and Aztec sacred drink that chocolate in its odyssey as this royal privy would soon find its way in the soldiers' sachet. And it did, but first as cake or chocolate shells. A more pragmatic resolution to the paste, the origin of chocolate cake or cocoa cake made it easy for sailors and marching armies to keep it in their bag and use a  "balmy hot drink" that could transform the hard tack, edible.  

In fact, high ranking officers often had theirs with either cream, milk, brandy, sherry and even port that transformed the sweet drink into a heady treat that would soothe the soul and warm the heart.


The Provebial Carrot That Works

By 1755 (chocolate had reached Britain and through it to all the colonies), much of Europe had come to accept the Aztec advocated virtues of chocolate, especially of it being high energy and mood lifting. Such was the effectiveness of chocolate that leaders like Napoleon Bonaparte, who famously said, "a soldier marches on his stomach", used bars of chocolate to boost the morale of their troops.  

In fact, much through the French and Indian War, Benjamin Franklin, a quartermaster, would rally heavily to get his procurement of six pounds of bar per person to deliver it to the British troops as a motivator.  

Years later, chocolate became the power sustenance for soldiers in the American Revolutionary War with surgeon Dr James Man using it as a pain reliever when he operated on wounded men at the war base. A pound per person, he is said to have recommended.  

Even Queen Victoria used the charm of chocolates to praise those fighting the Second Boer War by sending them commemorative tins of theobroma especially designed by Cadbury, and paid in entirety by the Queen's private purse.  

By the onset of the 20th century, chocolate's prowess at satiating and rejuvenating became an uncontested acknowledgement by the Colonial powers – and just like that chocolate was back in the barrack, albeit this time in a better than before version of the Mayan version.  

The Tipping Point

Despite the popularity of chocolate as both a rich person's treat and a healthy survival snack, the earlier iterations of the high energy bar that was made for the soldiers followed the same suit as the cardboard biscuit called Hard Tack. Although filling, these bars were heavy and many times couldn't withstand the heat of the battlefield. Naturally, the end of World War 1 changed that thought process with US Army Quartermaster, Colonel Paul Logan, who approached Hersheys to make a bar that was nourishing yet light that could be a part of the D Ration. The year was 1937.  

Funnily, the first iteration checked all the boxes but tasted bitter and like stale potatoes. Then came the Tropical Bar, which tasted better than boiled potatoes but could take a furnace jump. Tropical finally made it into the rucksack and became the survival food of allied forces between 1940 to 1945. Almost 3 billion  bars were produced and distributed to all the soldiers. And by the end of World War 2, Hersheys was producing close to 24 million  bars a week from one lakh a day.  

It was this bar along with chocolate smarties that became a  nourishment mode for not only the fighting armies – which included those recruited from colonies as well – but for prisoners of war who were given the same bars as a way to live another day. So popular were these bars that it formed a part of not just the naval soldiers but Indians joining the airforce too.  


Incidentally Hersheys wasn't the only company producing chocolate during the second world war, Nestle, Cadburys and many others too had joined the bandwagon – with publicity done for the chocolate at war footing.  So while Nestle advertisement will read, "Chocolate is a fighting food!"; Mars Company would advocate M&Ms with a tagline "Now 100% at war!" Such was the competition to get the survival food onto the front that advertorials on it were released as a write up stating. "Sustains against fatigue, increases muscular strength, gives physical endurance and staying power"  

Curiously, Mars signature  M&M's were first made in 1941 in Newark, New Jersey, as a military ration during World War II and it became a favorite treat. But bars were not the only way rations were made nourishing. Aside from the specially formulated soup, cream, sugar and coffee and the unmissable bars, there was also cocoa powder that would make for an instant pick me up. George Washington and the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War is said to have consumed a good amount of chocolate as a hot beverage.

Nowhere else was Chocolate's ability to win wars displayed better than on June 6, 1944, when more than 160,000 troops who stormed the beaches of Normandy during the D Day invasion were high on one snack: Hershey's chocolate bars.

Made with a blend of chocolate, sugar, cocoa butter, skim milk powder and oat flour, that 4 ounce bar had set in stone  the relationship of chocolate, military and victory. Hershey's much like Nestle and Cadbury over the years improved their offering, but with a non-negotiable deal of them being high energy. The world had accepted Montezuma's wisdom.

Chocolate's debut into the Indian army was a delayed one  given that we had our own formats of high energy bars from chikkis to parched gram and sattu and the like. Given that chocolate remained an expensive buy during the initial years of Freedom, they were used only for certain regional requirements like Siachen and around, where making food reach while matching the need of a 4000 calorie a day diet was a mission impossible.  

Chocolates came as an easy solution. But that was till 1961 when The Defence Food Research Laboratory short for DFLR was established. And with that began the search for high energy food bars and special chocolates that did more than just fill the stomach – they were mini theobromine bombs.  

Since then chocolates, both commercial and especially designed ones, became an integral part of the soldiers' ration. These still weigh less, were calorific high and temperature resistant, what changed was flavour profile and the make, and are part of all formats of rations including emergency. The only exception was the 1962 war where many battalions walking the mountain region didn't have access to it.    

What made these bars a part of the emergency kit was the way it utilised the different nutritive elements of chocolate -  namely the alkaloids caffeine and theobromine. While caffeine stimulates the nervous system, increasing alertness and decreasing fatigue, theobromine was the stimulant of the mood among others. And the flavonoid called quercetin made it a double antidote that was an  antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory as well. In short, a sweet delicious quick spa.  

For Athletes and Explorers Too

The military wasn't the only ones to have studied chocolate and used it to their benefit. Chocolate virtues made it an equally important part of the athlete's life too – while runners were given the bar soon after, footballers took it half time and team sports people built their agility on the bar.  

In fact, the daily ration for Robert Falcon Scott's trek to the South Pole comprised of 450g biscuit, 340g pemmican, 85g sugar, 57g butter, 24g tea, 16g cocoa. It, said Scott years later, it was the diet and the hot cocoa five days a week is what kept men from killing each other. So popular was chocolate that often precious metals were traded for a pound of it. One of the many reasons that chocolate has been a alloted by rank commodity in military – including in India. With of course the exceptions is when you are in unlivable conditions or at the enemy lines, and of course doctors, who back in the day, would use the bar to treat quite a few ailments and the pain of an in-the-barrack surgery.  

Chef Seth's mini chocolate bars are an ode to chocolate's this very journey of chocolate – a bar that helps you win.