Revolutionary Chocolate: Chocolate's Role During 18th-Century America


Photo composite by Clay Gordon

Celebrating our nation's independence with chocolate? Now that's a revolutionary idea. And, no, I'm not talking about a totally new form of chocolate or a new chocolate flavor, or even about the possibilities that a complete map of the cacao genome might create—I'm talking about the American Revolution and chocolate in observation of tomorrow's 4th of July festivities.

Like Father's Day, Independence Day is not one of those holidays where people think a lot about chocolate. First off, it's the middle of summer and if people are thinking about chocolate, it's in a frozen form (milkshakes, ice creams, and the like) as regular chocolate melts and gets messy. Secondly, where's the connection between chocolate and securing our independence from the British?

Early American Colony Chocolate Consumption

Well, for one, Ben Franklin sold chocolate out of his print shop in Philadelphia. For two, George Washington made sure that chocolate was part of the rations for soldiers in his armies. And for three, what do you think our revolutionary forefathers (and mothers, brothers, and sisters) drank after they threw all that tea overboard into Boston Harbor? Coffee to be sure, but also hot chocolate. Why chocolate? Because cocoa beans were cheap—they weren't taxed the same way tea was due to being shipped directly from the Caribbean and South and Central America into ports in the South, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. At the start of the Revolutionary war there were more chocolate factories in the colonies than there were in England.

The 'Real' First American Chocolate Factory

The first "real" chocolate factory in the fledgling United States was founded in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1765. The brand (if not the factory) is still in existence today: Baker's. The Baker factory was not the first place where chocolate was made in the colonies, just the first factory where it was made and then sold and shipped beyond the immediate area. (Prior to Baker, most cocoa beans in the North were ground at mills that also ground corn and other grains, and in the South by slaves. This ground cocoa was mostly for personal consumption, but was also sold to families within a few miles of the mill.)

Today, if you are interested, you can watch demonstrations of chocolate making using tools and techniques common in the 1700s in the Southern Colonies at Colonial Williamsburg. Demonstration programs are offered throughout the year. The content for these programs is developed by the staff of the Foodways program of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation where there is a specialist on the history and use of chocolate in the colonies. Several years ago I was presented with a sample of the chocolate they made, as well as copies of pages from contemporary cookbooks with recipes for cakes and puddings that had chocolate as an ingredient.

Independence Day Chocolate Cake

Make your favorite recipe for Red Velvet Layer Cake as well as a white chocolate ganache. Divide the ganache into two parts. Color one part with blue food coloring and whip until light and fluffy; use it as the filling between the layers. Thin the other part to the consistency of a pourable glaze and glaze the outside of the cake, reserving a few tablespoons for decoration. Divide the reserved glaze into two parts and color one part blue and the other red. Decorate the top of the cake with drizzles or by feathering. Garnish with blueberries, sliced strawberries, and candles. Make sure to use the candles that sparkle and are difficult to blow out—sort of like liberty itself, you know.