Chocolate cures everything from headaches to heartbreaks...thanks to Maya women

If you've always wanted to indulge in rich chocolate, go right ahead. It's what the doctor ordered. No guilt necessary.

Chocolate is a wonderful mood booster, Prevention magazine reports, citing medical approbation. Foods like chocolate confer a special benefit. "They give your brain the nutrients it needs to feel happy. Deny yourself these essential nutrients, and you could well be bringing on the blues."

"Your Brain on Food" reports chocolate gives you "the bliss molecule, hormone help and antioxidant power." According to author Gary L. Wenk, feelings of euphoria, and estrogen-like compounds are ready to do their magic as soon as you bite down on a succulent piece of chocolate. Studies prove that men who eat chocolate tend to live longer than those who do not. (If you don't believe me, get the book.)

In rural Guatemala, women keep alive the ancient art of chocolate, a Mayan tradition. It comes from the cacao bean, which was discovered by Mayan Indians and resulted in mole (mo-lay) being added as a staple to their daily diet.

That was sugarless so mo-lay was bitter, but sweetening the cacao bean resulted in the world's most popular candy -- and all this time you thought the Swiss were chocolate's progenitors?

In a scene on a delicate Maya vase from Guatemala depicting the court of God L, the underworld deity of merchants, a woman pours a chocolate drink from one vessel to another, holding it high to create a head of foam, the most prized part of the beverage. Now in the Princeton Art Museum, it is the first painted representation of a Maya ritual passed down to the Aztecs and then to Spanish colonists, but the first to show the crucial role of Maya women in the making of chocolate.

It was probably the women of Mesoamerica who saw past cacao as a fruit, writes Maricel E. Presilla. They recognized it as the source of something much more complex -- chocolate. Maya women perfected thee process of making it -- drying, roasting and grinding cacao beans on a three-legged volcanic stone. They expanded its flavor and texture by combining it with ingredients like corn, pataxte (a cousin of cacao), vanilla, achiote seeds, ear flowers, allspice and chiles to make nourishing drinks endowed with ritual significance.

Today's modern Mayan women craft artisanal chocolate in ways that have not changed much since two centuries before Christ was born. Their reliance on time-tested techniques is all the more admirable because they work in an adverse environment in which cacao is threatened by easier crops like sugar cane, and the cumulative effect of centuries of neglect.

The Aztecs fought the Maya for access to the most coveted criollo cacao, and the Spaniards, who conquered them both, made fortunes with this singular cacao in the early colonial period.

Before they are milled, cacao beans, corn and spices are roasted at home on comales or earthenware pots over a wood fire. For large batches, this can take several hours. Once the women toast and peel the cacao, they bring it to the mill and grind it with plenty of sugar. Still other women haul home a 50 pound bag of milled cacao and pound an shape it into blocks to be cut into strips, their children helping in the process.

The essence of cacao in drinks or chocolate are a living link to a rich past that defines the national identity. Their survival in the hands of women "poses a moral imperative to Guatemala's government, private institutions and farmers." The livelihood of thousands of women and their families depends on cacao.

And the world needs its chocolate -- don't we?