Coffee and chocolate are extremely popular foods and have been for decades. But we know both coffee and cocoa beans don’t taste good raw. They require significant processing to give out their sweet taste we all love.
So how did coffee and cocoa beans come to be cultivated in the beginning?
Yemeni goat-herders noticed their goats eating coffee beans and acting up, so they tried them, too.
Like a lot of veggies, man figured out roasting can help the flavor, or that it tastes good with a broth. When they felt its effects it was then used to stay awake for night prayers. Check out the great travel-ethnobotany book The Devil’s Cup for a really cool history of coffee.
There’s been some speculation that the origin was Ethiopia, a theory which has its sources, too, and is close enough to the Arabian peninsula connection most historians pin the origin to. Also, shout-out to Kaldi, the herder who legend says was the one who noticed it; I believe those sorts of legends.
The history of many foods that are…errr…challenging is largely lost to history. But the easiest explanation is that happy accidents happen. The story of the goat eating coffee beans is apocryphal, but it’s probably not far off from the truth. Either the goat or some other animal ate it and a human noticed, or a human was really desperate and tried eating the beans with interesting results. Over time, experimentation led to better ways of processing to get desired results. Drying (as in the case of coffee beans) is a natural because that’s one easy, primitive way to store something past its growing season. It’s possible that someone tried drying the beans by roasting them over fire, which would have brought out more flavor in the beans than just sun-drying. And coffee is born.
Chocolate needs to be fermented to make it palatable. Again, this is a natural progression. Most organic matter will ferment unprovoked in the right conditions. Chocolate likely began as an accident, and someone liked the results of the accident (or thought the chocolate had potential as food) and started experimenting as well as introducing the foodstuff to other members of the community who also experimented. Those who first consumed chocolate (in Mesoamerica) drank it in unsweetened, fermented form, so it would have been bitter and strong, but Europeans started adding sugar to it and brought chocolate back to Europe.
There are lots of other fun examples — in Mexico corn was nixtamalized to free up nutrients and make it more digestible (also consider that before corn even became corn as we know it, it went through thousands of years of breeding–initially, it was a wild grass that was extremely labor-intensive to harvest and prepare, so part of the history of any of these foods is intensive breeding and selecting for traits that we–humans–find palatable).
I always think of artichokes too. A spiny thistle that many of us now find extremely enjoyable. How many thousands of years of breeding did it take to get the artichoke into its current, delicious, but still labor-intensive, form? Fascinating stuff to contemplate. My takeaway is that humans are hungry and clever. If it can be eaten, omnivores will find a way.
The real question is how soybeans came to be cultivated? Coffee and cocoa may not taste great when raw, but eating soybeans raw can make you sick, and even kill you.