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Provided by Deborah Prinz
Drinking chocolate, which is different from hot chocolate, hearkens back to chocolate in its original form.

Chocolate has a rich history, involving centuries-old Mayan and Aztec rituals, Spanish colonizers and, surprisingly, Catholic priests.

Before it was handed out in heart-shaped Valentine's gifts or served with marshmallows in a favorite winter drink, chocolate had to shed its association with unholy indulgence and weather the critiques of religious clerics.

Experts on the ancient confection said its confrontations with faith make chocolate's history even sweeter, recalling that complaints about its consumption once made it all the way to the pope.

"Somebody wrote to the pope (in 1577) from the Americas … asking if Catholics were allowed to drink chocolate when they were supposed to be fasting. He didn't respond! It's rumored that he thought it was a hilarious request not even worthy of a response," said Carla Martin, a lecturer at Harvard University, with a snicker.

Luckily for sweet tooths, attitudes like the pope's eventually won out, paving the way for chocolate to become the beloved dessert it is today.

Caught in the crossfire of colonization

Historians are unsure when the pods of the cacao tree were first transformed into a decadent snack, but by the time Christopher Columbus arrived in present-day Central America in 1502, cacao beans were used widely by both the Mayan and Aztec people for ritual ceremonies and in chocolate drinks enjoyed by elites.

They were also a form of currency. However, Rabbi Deborah Prinz noted that Columbus' Spanish patrons were much more interested in silver and gold.

"The Europeans had no clue (these beans) could be made into a chocolate beverage or that they were valuable in terms of money," said Rabbi Prinz, who wrote "On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao."

Early explorers in the New World did notice that the indigenous people attached spiritual significance to the bitter beans.

"For the Mayans and Aztecs, chocolate was very much a life force. They saw it as we saw blood, contributing to and being essential to life," Rabbi Prinz said.

As Europeans arrived in the New World, they gradually grew accustomed to chocolate, which was prepared as a beverage and flavored with native spices. Martin noted that indigenous people spread their traditional recipes, as they were often hired as cooks for European settlers.

Marcy Norton, an associate professor of history at George Washington University, said that chocolate became an important part of the story of early settlement, illustrating the process of transculturation, or the blending of the native with the new.

Her book, "Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures," traces the tobacco and chocolate trades from their earliest days and explores how the products were stripped of their ritual significance over time. The process involved political, medical and religious officials who took part in repurposing chocolate for the European world.

The ecclesiastical fasting controversy

Although chocolate was sometimes seen as an aphrodisiac and known to be a chemical stimulant, Norton said there wasn't, at least at first, any notable disdain for the treat among members of the clergy.

Religious leaders might have warned against overindulgence, but they approved of most things in moderation, she said, adding, "We have to remember this was a wine-drinking culture."

By the later part of the 16th century, however, and into the 17th, the global Catholic Church had embarked on a "shoring up" of its borders and there was infighting over what behaviors were appropriate for priests and everyday believers, Martin said.

Priests bickered over whether the popular chocolate drink should be allowed on ecclesiastical fasting days, when Catholics were limited to drinking water and wine. The debates caused forgotten concerns about the confection to resurface, with the anti-chocolate contingent highlighting its pagan past.

One additional aspect of the argument, which lasted for more than two centuries, was that some felt it was inappropriate for priests to defend something so indulgent.

Martin related this reaction to tobacco, which also spurred debates about appropriate behavior. "People were asking, 'If you're using this stimulant, how does it affect your faith?,’ ” she said.

This fasting controversy led to several comical works of literature, Norton said. People wrote hundreds of words about whether chocolate was a liquid or a solid, a source of nourishment or not.

In the end, the debate fizzled out, as Catholic leaders focused on more pressing issues. And chocolate lovers actually got the last laugh, because priests and nuns were integral to spreading the tasty treat throughout Europe, she said.

Today's ethical dilemma

When giving speeches about chocolate's little-known ties to religious communities, Rabbi Prinz said she's regularly encouraged to name her favorite kind of candy.

"People will ask, 'What is the best chocolate?' when they hear about my research," she said. "I like to reframe my response in terms of religious values. I encourage people to think about if a company is fair trade, has a direct relationship with farmers and is open about where the cacao comes from."

Her answer hints at another rarely addressed aspect of the relationship between religion and chocolate: the ethics of production.

In studying chocolate's history, both Rabbi Prinz and Martin were horrified to learn about some of the darker moments, such as when slave labor became essential to its mass production.

"When appetites for chocolate increased, demand required more and more slave labor," said Martin, who taught a class called "Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food" in spring 2013. The modern industry involves ongoing child labor violations and poorly paid farmers.

By leading conversations about these uncomfortable aspects of the popular treat, Martin said she hopes to add depth to people's appetite for chocolate.

"We need to be aware of this history and ongoing problems when we choose what chocolate to eat," she said.

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com; Twitter: @kelsey_dallas