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Junípero Serra, the Father of California Food, and the First Chocolate in California

Photo:Elsie Hui/Flickr/Creative Commons License


This year saw the 300th anniversary of the birth of Junípero Serra, who most Californians know as the father of the California Missions. A Franciscan priest, Father Serra left a comfortable academic posting in his native Mallorca to become a missionary in the New World, ultimately establishing the first nine of Alta California's eventual twenty-one missions, stretching from San Diego to San Francisco.

Fr. Serra's legacy, both good and bad, is indelibly a major part of California's history. No matter how you approach the complexity of Fr. Serra's work and the resulting devastation of Native American cultures and the environment, his calling laid the foundation for California as we know it today. Fr. Serra is not only the father of the California Missions, but one of the founding fathers of California. More specifically, Fr. Serra is also a founding father of California's food culture and agriculture.

One of the main goals for Fr. Serra in establishing the missions was not only to convert the indigenous population to Catholicism, but to convert them into becoming farmers as well. Before the Spanish came, the Native Americans of coastal California lived in hunter-gatherer societies. It was through the missions that California began to be developed into the great agricultural power that it is today, forever transforming a bountiful environment that had supported hundreds of thousands of Native Californians without farming.

And because the priests and Spanish administrators were good record keepers, we actually have reasonably decent documentation of some of the crops, livestock, and supplies that the missionaries brought with them as they began colonizing Alta California in 1769. For example, on display at the blockbuster Huntington Library exhibit, "Junípero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions," is a list of provisions and personnel sent to establish California missions and presidios written by Jose de Galvez (a colonial official of New Spain) on July 10, 1769.


One item that stands out on the list of kitchen supplies is "Dos Chocolateros de cobre con sus molinillos," or two copper chocolate pots with their chocolate whisks. Though the list of food provisions begins with such staples as beef jerky, salted fish, and communion wafers (they were missionaries after all), they also brought chocolate, sugar, cinnamon, and chile - the classic ingredients for Mexican chocolate. This is quite likely the earliest record of chocolate being brought into California.

The Spanish had been consuming chocolate for 250 years by the time the missionaries added it to their supply list. Sometime in the 1600s the Spanish began adding sugar to the traditionally bitter Aztec drink, as well as a variety of spices (vanilla, clove, anise, chile), of which cinnamon was the most common. For the Aztecs, the best part of chocolate was the foam, which was created by pouring chocolate between two pitchers, or chocolateros. However, around the same time that the Spanish began adding sugar to chocolate, the molinillo, or chocolate whisk, was developed as an alternative method to create that delicious foam.

It demonstrates the cultural importance of chocolate that it would be one of the supplies that the Fr. Serra and his missionaries would bring, but there were likely other reasons as well. For example, the missionaries would have been required to observe many more fasting days in the older liturgical calendar. However, chocolate, being a beverage, would have been permissible to consume on most fasting days. Chocolate certainly would have taken the edge off of the hunger pangs.

Unfortunately, though we know that the missionaries brought chocolate with them, we do not have an explicit recipe. Nevertheless, it is possible to make something that is similar to what the missionaries would have been drinking.

It is a bit rough around the edges, not very sweet (which is an advantage over modern hot chocolate), but strangely satisfying.

Hot Chocolate, 18th Century California Style
Makes 4 6oz Cups

3 Cups Water*
4 Sticks Cinnamon
1 Chile de Arbol (optional)
3oz Baking Chocolate, chopped**
1.5oz Piloncillo, chopped***

In a small (1.5-qt) nonreactive sauce pan combine the water, cinnamon and chile de arbol (if using). Over high heat bring the water to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and allow the cinnamon and chile to infuse for at least 15 minutes.

Over medium-high heat return the mixture to a simmer and add the baking chocolate and piloncillo. Using a molinillo, whisk the ingredients until dissolved. Continue whisking until foam is developed.

Serve immediately.

* It would be a few more decades before milk became common in hot chocolate.

** 100% Pure Cocoa, unsweetened. Baker's Chocolate is a good option. The chocolate the missionaries would have had access to would have been a coarsely ground disk or block of chocolate. Coincidentally, the Baker's Chocolate company was established in 1780.

*** The sugar of the missionaries would have been much less refined than modern granulated sugar. Piloncillo, which is readily available in Southern California grocery stores, would be more similar to what was available in 1769.