Dipping into Colonial New York’s Chocolate
One writer’s travels on the trail of an old-time treat
Each time I pick up a piece of chocolate I partake in an aspect of New York’s history. Surprisingly this New World product blazed a trail of commerce, appetite, and opportunity for New Yorkers of the Colonial period. As I researched my book, On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao, I learned that New York and chocolate have enhanced one another.
Hunting for Chocolate up the Hudson
It was a stormy New York June day, and our plan included an outing to the Gomez Mill House, the oldest extant Jewish homestead in North America, which was built in 1714 as a trading post by prominent New Yorkers. In a perfect mix of history, chocolate, and family frolicking, we explored the Gomez family’s chocolate roots in Newburgh, about 60 miles north of New York City. The Gomezes were among the several Colonial- and Revolutionary-era New Yorkers who engaged in the manufacture, retail, and consumption of cacao and chocolate. Their river plot at the intersection of several Native American trails led to a “holy” site near a spring. The mill there could have been used for grinding chocolate, although there is no direct evidence of such use. Millstones would have been used for grinding mustard, snuff, and chocolate in the Colonial period.
The Gomez Chocolate Dynasty
At least five members of the Gomez family within two generations traded in chocolate in New York City: Mordecai (1688–1750); his wife Rebecca (1713–1801); his brother Daniel (1695–1780); Mordecai and Rebecca’s son Moses (1744–1826); and their nephew Isaac (1768–1831).1 I was delighted to learn of the role of women in the chocolate business then. Rebecca Gomez sold chocolate, as did a few other women of the day. However, Rebecca was the only woman known to manufacture it. She plied her wholesale and retail chocolate made at the “Chocolate Manufactory” at Anne and Nassau streets.2 Indeed, many of these pioneering chocolate endeavors in New York preceded those of the Massachusetts-based Baker’s Chocolate Company, which has billed itself as “America’s Oldest” and “the first branded ‘Baker’s Chocolate’ product in 1780.”3
To further understand this early New York chocolate, I traveled what I call the chocolate trail to Colonial Williamsburg on a Rockefeller Fellowship. There, I was fortunate to spend time with food specialist James Gay, who helped me understand the unique aspects of chocolate in Colonial America. The Gomez family’s chocolate business was built on a granular chocolate, which was plentiful and commonly imbibed as a beverage.4 There were no chocolate ice creams, chocolate candy bars, chocolate truffles, chocolate cakes, or chocolate chip cookies.
Colonial Chocolate Habits
New York’s significant trade in cocoa beans supported a daily chocolate habit throughout the colonies. Hot chocolate made from “cocoa nuts” or “chocolate nutts” (cocoa beans) sometimes comprised the full meal.5 Our Colonial chocoholics did not simply toss a packet of chemicals, sugar, and processed cocoa into boiling water. Painstaking preparation of this early American chocolate began with the import of the beans, which still had to be roasted over a fire and shelled individually. The chocolate nibs were then ground with sugar (sometimes along with cinnamon and/or other spices) while being warmed over a chocolate stone with a roller, and were then cooled into hard tablets. This process resulted in a drinking chocolate similar to that found elsewhere at that time, and today in Mexico and Guatemala.6 The solidified chocolate, wrapped in used newspapers or in rags of questionable sources, was often stored haphazardly, likely absorbing the smells of fetid foodstuffs or rancid products. Before indulging, the hardened chocolate required further mixing with water and sugar, and was heated in a chocolate pot fabricated with an opening in the top for a stirrer (molinollo or mill). This hot chocolate might have then been served in unique cups designated for drinking chocolate. Colonial chocolate was very slow food.
Colonial New Yorkers relished their chocolate. Today’s elegant and diverse New York chocolate purveyors build on these pioneering enterprises and recipes. My own chocolate appetite may have evolved past Colonial period pleasures, yet remains firmly rooted in these historical traditions.
Chocolate, 1796 style
Here is a recipe for the kind of chocolate beverage enjoyed in Colonial times. It appears in Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, published in 1796.
To Make Chocolate:
Take six Pounds of cocoa-nuts, one of anise-seeds, four ounces of long pepper, one of cinnamon, a quarter of a pound of almonds, one ounce of pistachios, as much achiote as will make it the colour of brick, three grains of musk, and as much ambergris, six pounds of loaf-sugar, one ounce of nutmegs, dry and beat them, and searce [sift] them through a fine sieve; your almonds must be beat to a paste and mixed with the other ingredients; then dip your sugar in orange-flower or rose water, and put it in a skillet on a very gentle charcoal fire; then put in the spice and stew it well together, then the musk and ambergris, then put the cocoa-nuts last of all, then achiote, wetting it with the water the sugar was dipt in; stew all these very well together over a hotter fire than before; then take it up and put it into boxes, or what form you like, and set it to dry in a warm place: the pistachios and almonds must be a little beat in a mortar and then ground on a stone.
- Malcolm Stern, First American Jewish Families: 600 Genealogies, 1654–1977 (Cincinnati, Ohio: American Jewish Archives; Waltham, Massachsetts: American Jewish Historical Society, 1978), 185. ↩
- Rebecca Gomez used promotions such as these to further her endeavors: (1779) Rebecca Gomez at the Chocolate Manufactory Corner of Ann and Nassau-Street HAS FOR SALE … Own manufactured Chocolate, warranted free from any sediments and pure. Great allowance made to those who buy to sell again. New York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, January 25, 1779, 2. ↩
- Anthony M. Sammarco, The Baker Chocolate Factory: A Sweet History (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2009). ↩
- An example of a recipe for the chocolate beverage enjoyed in Colonial times can be found in Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, 1796 Edition (New York: United States Historical Research Service, 1994), 341. The recipe appears at the end of this article. ↩
- Virginia Barnett and Jan K. Gilliam, Food in the Eighteenth Century Chesapeake (Williamsburg, Virginia: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library, 1991), 71, 74. ↩
- To learn more about chocolate preparation in the Colonial period, see www.onthechocolatetrail.org. ↩
Rabbi Deborah Prinz lectures about chocolate and religion around the world. She is the author of On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2013). She has published in numerous scholarly, professional, and popular journals and blogs, including her own OntheChocolateTrail.org, as well as The Huffington Post and The Jew & the Carrot blog.
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Dipping into Colonial New York’s Chocolate