In praise of the world's first chocolate lovers

No matter where they live, practically everybody loves chocolate. Mexicans eat it with chicken; the French spread it on bread with hazelnuts; the Swiss drink it for breakfast.

Americans enjoy chocolates filled with gooey cherries at Christmas, chocolate hearts at Valentine's, and chocolate eggs at Easter. Hot chocolate, so thick that a spoon stands straight up in the cup, is a New Year's Eve tradition in Spain.

To whom do we owe this pleasure of the palate?

The Olmecs.

"Who?" you ask.

The Olmecs were the mother culture of Mesoamerica and the earliest complex society in the Americas. They preceded both the Mayans and Aztecs, and left them a calendar, along with a substantial legacy in art, architecture, astronomy, mathematics, politics, religion, and economics.

But Olmecs have received little credit for their contribution to our civilization, culture, and comfort - not to mention desserts - mainly because little was known about them until fairly recently.

During the past few decades, anthropologists have been busy unearthing various Olmec artifacts, including heads 6-1/2 feethigh (some weighing as much as 20 tons) - diaries in stone. (See article on page 12.)

The Olmecs lived on the sweeping alluvial plain in the present-day Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco, an area covering 11,200 square miles, bounded by the Gulf of Mexico to the north, Sierras to the south, the high plateau to the west, and the Yucután to the east.

Their empire flourished from about 1200 BC to 300 BC, shortly after the fall of the Shang Dynasty in China. (One specialist speculates that ancient Chinese mariners may have made their way to this region two millenniums before Cortes landed in 1519.)

Mainly hunters, fishers, and farmers, the Olmecs cultivated such crops as maize, cotton, tobacco, chili peppers, squash, and cacao.

They were the first people known to cultivate cacao trees, which they called kakawa. They fermented, dried, and roasted its beans to make a chocolate drink. The fleshy white seeds became so important that the Aztecs used them as currency and drank cacao water at religious ceremonies.

Other local attractions

Descendants of the Olmec still live in and around Veracruz, although they have blended with other cultures over time. The Olmec sculptures in Xalapa (ha-LA-pa), the state capital (about 62 miles northwest of Veracruz) are breathtaking.

Xalapa (Jalapa) is wellknown for its jalapeño peppers - which were named after the city. It's also the home of an outstanding Anthropology Museum, housed in a simple, modernistic building located a two-hour drive up into the misty hills.

As lovely as the Xalapa museum is, it is outshone by the fascinating art it shelters. It displays - in open as well as secluded spaces, indoors and out - only about one-tenth of the 30,000 pieces in the collection. Apart from the colossal stone heads and small clay figurines with Asian- looking eyes, one intriguing item on display is a little terra-cotta deer on wheels with a cord in front - a pull toy for Mesoamerican children.

Olmecs knew about the wheel but considered the circle as sacred as the sun and moon, so they did not use it. Their children, however, were believed to be born innocent and so could play with the wheel with impunity. And they did.

What about the land of the Olmecs today?

Modern-day amusements

It's hot and humid year-round, but the best weather is January through March. Carnaval, which happens in February, the week before Ash Wednesday, is a fiesta of great joy and color. Veracruz (population 500,000), a potpourri of old and new, is Mexico's largest and liveliest seaport.

The Holiday Inn downtown is a remodeled Spanish colonial convent, but right next door you can get your film developed in an hour and/or write a quick note home for one US dollar at an Internet Cafe.

On Constitution Plaza, mothers sit on white wrought-iron benches and chat while watching their children play in the garden. The Veracruzanos are friendly people and expressa lot of joy in their daily lives. As tour guide par excellence, Manual Martinez Espinosa, said, "I have a big heart. It's like a second-class bus. There is always room for one more."

To get the most from your excursion, go to the historic Imperial Hotel early in the evening and snare an outdoor table.

Over dinner or dessert you can watch, entranced, as much of the city's population seems to pass before you. Youngsters and oldsters also amble around hawking a variety of goods - from pistachios and peanuts to jewelry and wooden models of ships sailed by Columbus to the New World.

Meanwhile, a tightrope walker may tie up his rope between a tree and a pole and entertain you with his balancing act. An orchestra may start to play and people dance under the stars in the balmy evening air.

When I was there, an elderly man named Manual, who said with serious certainty that he was an Olmec, swept me out onto the plaza and waltzed me in circles around the other dancers.

Outside the city, those who are seeking more active options will find white-water rafting, kayaking, spelunking, hang gliding, mountain biking, fishing, and scuba diving. The nearby "river of raptors" is popular with bird-watchers, especially during fall and spring migrations. There are also hot springs and beaches outside the city, but inside the city limits beaches are too polluted for swimming.

Where to eat? It won't be hard to find plenty of places, but as you dive into that chocolate ice cream for dessert, remember to murmur a thank you to the ancient Olmecs.

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