While the weather gets colder, and winter looms nearer, we decided to feature a warm beverage for December. This beverage is one that we here at the Colorado Railroad Museum serve every day in December during THE POLAR EXPRESS™ Train Ride, and is particularly fitting for children. We’re talking, of course, about hot chocolate!

Let’s start with the rich history of this hot drink. The Mayan civilization was one of the first known consumers of a chocolate beverage around 500 B.C.E. Their version was very different from the one consumed today as it was not served hot, was bitter, and had additional ingredients such as chili peppers. This early version was poured back and forth between cups to create a frothy consistency.

Figure 1 Mayan painting depicting the cacao drink.

When the Spanish colonized Mexico, beginning in 1521, they brought the recipe back to Spain, where the drink was modified to become warm and sweeter. As chocolate became more widespread through Europe, the drink was modified even more with the addition of milk. Hot chocolate went from an exclusive drink reserved for nobility to a widespread drink enjoyed by everyone. This sweeter version traveled from Europe to America where it was enjoyed by colonists including Thomas Jefferson.

In the late 1950s, Charles Sanna developed a powdered version of cocoa which included ingredients like powdered creamer, sugar, cocoa, vanilla, and was intended to be mixed with hot water, which then became Swiss Miss. Later modifications made it longer lasting, and as it could be used with hot water, it became a popular option for American consumers, a trend that continues to this day.

Figure 2 Charles Sanna, inventor of Swiss Miss.

Though the terms hot chocolate and hot cocoa are used interchangeably, there is a difference. Hot cocoa refers to the use of cocoa powder, especially the packets, while hot chocolate is made with melted chocolate. Dining car menus in the Museum’s collection from the 1940s through the 1970s feature both powdered and non-powdered versions, though the terms do appear to be used interchangeably even then. An early dining car menu featuring “cocoa or chocolate” is from the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe in 1941 (see figure 3).

Figure 3 AT&SF menu featuring “cocoa or chocolate,” 1941.

While the beverage was frequently offered during breakfast or brunch for all passengers, it seemed to be considered more of an option for children, as it was included on children’s menus for breakfast and dinner (see figures 4 and 5). This fits particularly well with our own use of the drink at the Museum, as THE POLAR EXPRESS™ was adapted from a children’s story and hot chocolate was served to the children onboard.

Figure 4 Union Pacific children’s menu featuring cocoa for a breakfast beverage, 1961.


Figure 5 Union Pacific children’s menu featuring cocoa as a dinner beverage, 1964.

Different railroads had their own recipes for the beverage which we will share below. These recipes included using hot cocoa packets and following the instructions on the back (common to how most store-bought hot cocoa is made today), or using cocoa, condensed milk, and a stovetop to create the concoction. Whichever way you drink it, we hope you enjoy! As always, if you try any of these recipes, please let us know about your experience by posting on our social medias, or in the comments below!

Union Pacific Dining Car Cook Book and Service Instructions

All hot cocoa to be prepared in kitchen. Use two teaspoons of bulk cocoa, or 1 pkg. of individual prepared cocoa or hot chocolate, mixed in ½ cup of boiling water in sauce pan, which should be dissolved thoroughly. Add 1 ½ cups of boiling hot milk and mix thoroughly with whip. Do not boil. Strain into cocoa pot, which has previously been heated. Coffee cup and saucer to accompany.

When glass of cream is requested, serve 8 oz. of cream in an ale glass. When whipped cream is required for cocoa, short cakes or other desserts, same to be whipped by pantryman and served from the pantry.

Commissary Instructions: The Pullman Company

Cars are supplied with individual one-ounce packages of chocolate or cocoa, which is used in making one pot of chocolate or cocoa. Recipe printed on the back of this individual envelope should be followed out. An individual order of sweet wafers or crackers should accompany each order of chocolate.

St. Louis Southwestern Railway Lines Hot Cocoa
Adapted from Dining by Rail by James D. Porterfield


1 ½ Tbsp. cocoa
2 ½ Tbsp. sugar
Condensed Milk
2 Cups Cold Milk

In a small bowl, stir cocoa and sugar together until well mixed. Add only enough condensed milk to make a smooth paste. Add 2 cup of cold milk, stirring thoroughly. Add the second cup of cold milk and stir again. Pour into a saucepan and place over medium-high heat. Bring just to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat and simmer for 2-3 minutes. Pour into a mug with 2 large marshmallows floating on top and serve hot.


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Past Dining on the Rails Posts:
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