Chocolate has held an allure as an aphrodisiac for about as long as modern conceptions of chocolate have existed; The True History of Chocolate states that people have believed chocolate is an aphrodisiac since at least the European conquest of Mexico (Coe and Coe 29). Chocolate has a reputation as a sensual, even sinful, food, and not only is it supposed to actually increase sexual potency and desire when consumed, but its reputation has preceded it so that simply the idea of eating chocolate has become erotic. Over time, chocolate’s reputation as an aphrodisiac and its conflation with romance has resulted in the necessity of the chocolate actually being consumed for this effect to be negated; now, one only needs to give or receive chocolate in order to inspire romantic and sensual feelings. Thus is the case in our celebrations and gift-giving traditions of Valentine’s Day. But Valentine’s Day and chocolate were not always synonymous. How did this relatively new holiday and this revered food become so impossibly intertwined?
Chocolate, of course, has its roots in Mesoamerica, where it was it was considered to be a valuable food both in terms of its value as a currency and its cultural value; it was an important part of social gatherings, religious practices and was considered ‘the food of the gods’ (Martin) (“Chocolate and Holidays- a Long History”). Chocolate had an almost mystical reputation, and was believed to have many properties, including curing ailments and having an effect as an aphrodisiac. A recipe for chocolate that was supposedly known for its aphrodisiacal properties survives to us from Francisco Hernández; it contains several other ingredients that were popular flavorings for chocolate amongst the Aztecs, including vanilla (Coe and Coe 87-88, 93). Together, these ingredients made for an aphrodisiacal chocolate, according to Hernández; however, there is “not a hint that the Aztecs considered it to be an erotic stimulant” (Coe and Coe 93). The idea that chocolate was an aphrodisiac would capture the European mind. As Coe & Coe write, “the probably baseless claim that chocolate has aphrodisiac properties was one that was to arise again and again in Europe, and obviously also appeals to modern authors” (Coe and Coe 87).
In Europe, by the 1600s, chocolate had become an increasingly popular food: “By the early 1600s, the vogue for chocolate had swept across Europe. In London, chocolate houses began to rival coffee houses as social gathering spots. One shop opened on Gracechurch Street in 1657 advertising chocolate as “a West Indian drink (which) cures and preserves the body of many diseases.” In France, Madame de Sevigne wrote about enormous chocolate consumption throughout the court at Versailles in 1671; Louis IV drank it daily and Madame du Barry was said to use chocolate mixed with amber to stimulate her lovers” (Henderson). The use of chocolate to stimulate sexual appetite had seized ahold of the European imagination, and it was only a matter of time before aphrodisiacal chocolate would find its perfect mate in the romantic holiday, Valentine’s Day.
Valentine’s Day was not always a popular holiday, but following Chaucer’s mention of the romantic holiday in his poem Parlement of Foules, the holiday’s popularity began to rise as a way and day to celebrate romantic love and that special someone in your life (Henderson).The tradition of gift-giving and romantic gestures on Valentine’s Day was quickly cemented, but the tradition of giving candy (and later chocolate) was slower on the uptake, as “sugar was still a precious commodity in Europe” (Henderson). However, eventually it was “no longer considered a sign of elevated rank to stuff one’s guests with sugar” and writing in and molding sugar was a special treat reserved for occasions such as weddings, birthdays, Christmas, and, yes, Valentine’s Day (Mintz 94).
It wasn’t until sugar and chocolate had been more economized and popularized that
the ultimate marriage would happen on Valentine’s Day. Richard Cadbury, attempting to expand the reaches of chocolate into the hands of more people and on more occasions, came up with the brilliant idea of ‘eating chocolates’, which he packaged in beautiful boxes that he had designed himself (Henderson). In 1861, he used his marketing genius to marry chocolate and Valentine’s Day forever: “Cadbury began putting the Cupids and rosebuds on heart-shaped boxes in 1861: even when the chocolates had been eaten, people could use the beautiful boxes to save such mementos as love letters” (Henderson). The association between chocolate and Valentine’s Day has been everlasting since Cadbury’s special Valentine’s boxes emerged.
Fascination with chocolate and the romantic and erotic has persisted into the modern era.
Valentine’s Day officially became commercialized in the early 1900’s when chocolate itself became commercialized and mass-produced; Hershey began mass-producing chocolate in 1907, and Russell Stover quickly followed them by selling their Valentine’s chocolates in department stores (Henderson). According to Smithsonian, one of Russell Stover’s biggest sellers is “the ‘Secret Lace Heart,’ a chocolate box covered in satin and black lace. The so-called ‘lingerie box’ is affordable and easily-accessible stocked on store shelves for easy grab-and-go sales” (Henderson).
Modern science has also perpetuated the idea that chocolate is an aphrodisiac. According to Coe and Coe, the most extensive medical study of chocolate is by a French doctor, Hervé Robert, who published a book in 1990 called Les vertus therapeutiques du chocolat. He finds that the caffeine, theobromine, serotonin, and phenylethylamine that chocolate contains make it a tonic, and an antidepressive and antistress agent, enhancing pleasurable activities, including making love” (Coe and Coe 29). The people of the modern age take this science as a confirmation that chocolate is an aphrodisiac, even going so far, in my personal observations, as to use these scientific findings as an excuse to eat chocolate.
Lastly, the association between chocolate and romantic or erotic love has dominated culture in advertisements and television/film. A gift of chocolate from a man to a woman on screen is at once suggestive and also romantic. Advertisements make strategic use of women seductively eaten chocolate to both excite the men and tantalize women with the feeling of sexual bliss that eating chocolate will supposedly make them feel. These advertisements are even more blatant on Valentine’s Day—when the association between chocolate and romantic and erotic love is at its strongest.