Monthly Archives: February 2014

Multimedia essay 1: Money did grow on trees

Today chocolate coins are a common holiday candy, especially during Hanukkah when they are given to children as gelt.  Chocolate coins are common gifts or prizes for school-aged children, too.  Chocolate coins are sold in grocery stores, toy stores, and convenience stores.  The chocolate coin is a common form of candy whose significance is frequently overlooked.  An analysis of chocolate coins provides a unique way of looking at the history of the clash between Europeans and Mesoamericans.  Chocolate coins have a deep history that has been disconnected from the candy, one that I wish to elucidate here.

Chocolate coins in typical packaging
Cacao beans

Chocolate is made from processed cacao seeds, or beans as they are known.  The cacao bean comes from the fruit of the cacao tree, a finicky tree that can only grow in certain warm but shady regions.  These fruits develop from flower cushions along the trunk of the tree.  Only 3 of every 1,000 flowers on the cacao tree will yield a fruit, and each fruit only contains 30 to 40 cacao beans (Chocolate: Food of the Gods) (Martin).  Cacao beans were valuable to the people of Mesoamerica and were used both as a demonstration of wealth and as a status symbol (Piedad).  We know exactly how valuable these cacao beans were from records that relate the value of cacao beans to commodities and services that are common today.  In Yucután, one cacao bean was worth about 4.5 hours of work (Piedadd).  A document from Tlaxxcala written in 1545 lists more exchange rates:

  • “One good turkey hen is worth 100 full cacao beans, or 120 shrunken cacao beans
  •  A turkey cock is worth 200 cacao beans
  • A hare [jackrabbit] or forest rabbit is worth 100 cacao beans each
  • A small rabbit is worth 30
  • One turkey egg is worth 3 cacao beans
  • An avaocado newly picked is worth 3 cacao beans; when an avocado is fully ripe it will be equivalent to one cacao bean
  • one large tomato will be equivalent to one cacao bean” (Coe 99-100).

In the list above, notice that some of the exchange rates are listed in terms of “full” and “shrunken” cacao beans.  It is interesting that cacao was used as money for several reasons.  First, the quality of cacao beans was controlled by nature, not by man, and variation between different fruits and plants must have resulted in cacao beans of different values.  Secondly, cacao is perishable.  Even when stored in the seed casing, the bean that is approximately 40% fat by weight could go rancid after a prolonged storage.

European coins c. 3rd century BCE

In Europe, archaeological records indicate that metal coins existed from at the latest 700 BCE (Head).  By the 13th century, governments regulated coin production, and emperors and rulers had complete control of the minting process (Hillgarth).  When a new person came into power, they would strike a new set of coins with their crest, face, or propaganda message on them.  Old coins were no longer accepted as payment, but the value of the metal they were casted from remained (Iroko). People could melt coins down to make the new issue coins.  Yet, archaeologists find coins from all eras, and especially in burials (Hall).  If it were the case that coins were used solely as currency, then we would not expect to find so many.  Clearly, coins had more than just pecuniary value.  There is significant evidence that coins were used as apotropaic devices in the forms of tokens, charms, pendants, as well as symbols of wealth and status (Hall).

Like coins were associated with keeping evil forces away, cacao too was associated with stories that would have been recognized by the whole community.  Cacao plays integral roles in the creation stories of the Aztec and the Maya (Martin 2/3/14).

How It’s Made: Chocolate Coins
Today chocolate is an ordinary food and perhaps a staple of the modern diet.  Yet this was not always the case.  Spanish explorers brought chocolate, then consumed as a drink, to the royalty of Europe.  Spaniards adopted the chocolate of the Mesoamericans and adapted its preparation to make it a sweet, solid food rather than a beverage.  In effect, the Spaniards stole the flavor of Mesoamerica and added flavors to make it agreeable for the European palette.  The preparation of chocolate in the form of coins is an interesting blending and extension of the pecuniary traditions of Europe and Mesoamerica that is now regarded as a child’s food and is given little respect.   

Works Cited:

  • Chocolate: Food of the Gods . Ithaca, NY: Albert R. Mann Library, Cornell University, 2007. <;.
  • Coe, Sophie, and Michael Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013. Print.
  • Hall, Mark A. “Money Isn’t Everything: The Cultural Life of Coins in the Medieval Burgh of Perth, Scotland.” Journal of Social Archaeology 12, no. 1 (February 1, 2012): 72–91.
  • Head, Barclay. “Aegina.” Historia NumorumL A Manual of Greek Numismatics. N.p.. Web. 21 Feb 2014. <;.
  • Hillgarth, J. N. “Coins and Chronicles: Propaganda in Sixth-Century Spain and the Byzantine Background.” Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte 15, no. 4 (November 1, 1966): 483–508.
  • Iroko, Félix. “Mollusc Money .” Unesco Courier. 01 Jan 1990: 21-25. Print.
  • Martin, Carla.  “[unknown].”  AAS 119x, Harvard University.  3 February 2014.
  • Martin, Carla.  “Sugar and Cacao.” AAS 119x, Harvard University.  18 February 2014.
  • Piedad, Peniche Rivero. “When Cocoa Was Used as Currency.” Unesco Courier. 01 Jan 1990: 16-20. Print.
  • Presilla, Maricel. The New Taste of Chocolate. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.

Chocolate Production Labor

Kyle Casey

Aframer 119x

TF: Kyrah Daniels

Prof. Carla Martin

Chocolate Production Labor

Chocolate is consumed worldwide in large amounts. Many people enjoy chocolate and savor this wonderful taste and flavor that come from this popular treat. It is also the foundation for many other treats that we consume especially in America and Europe.  However, the process in which chocolate is made is a tedious, thorough process. Consumers lack appreciate for the months and years that go into making the chocolate that is often devours in a matter of minutes. Outlining the process from the beginning to the end is important because the dedication and hard work that goes into this drives an industry that supplies so much to the world.

Chocolate comes from the cacao plant. The cacao tree’s origin is central and South American rainforest. Many tree plantations have since been started in other rainforests worldwide. Cultivating these trees requires a great deal of skill and expertise in which the consumer takes for granted.

The trees are dispersed amongst larger trees in the area, typically banana or coconut trees, in order to provide adequate shade from the sun and also protection from strong winds. After being planted and cared for, it takes about 3 years for a cacao pod to grow.  These trees are classified as cauliflory, referring to the fact that the fruits grow directly from the main trunk (Prof Martin. Lecture 7). There are three types of pods produced worldwide. Criollo , the first of three, is considered “the holy grail of pure cacao” and originated in Mesoamerica. The second is Forasteros, which originated in Latin America and is now grown worldwide. Lastly, is Trinitarios. This pod has its origins rooted in Trinidad and is a cross breed of Criollo and Trinitarios.


Each of these pods is unique in their own manner, however the growth and harvesting procedure for them are universal. Harvesting cacao plants is extremely demanding. One must use extreme care when doing so in order to protect the rest of the tree and pods. Workers must manually inspect the pod and using a machete carefully cut the pod from its root. This process is intense and grueling. The pods are about the size of a melon or football and are not light-weighted. Workers typically carry these around for quite some time while out working. To reach pods that are high a hooked blade connected to a long rod is used, helping to provide precision.  There are two harvest periods each year. Trees often provide about 20-30 pods in total per year. These pods, which are large and heavy, are carried in a basket atop workers heads and consolidated into one place for splitting, which is also manually executed.


Post-harvest there are 4 steps to making what we recognize as chocolate: fermentation, drying, roasting, cooling and winnowing. Fermentation is typically performed in one of two ways, with the desired result being the aging of the pulp on the beans to liquid, which is drained away. After fermentation the beans must be dried out. Usually this is a moderately simple process that is done by laying the beans on a mat in the sun and letting them naturally dry.  Next is the process of winnowing. The beans are cracked open and the cacao nibs are broken up. They are run through a number of processing machines that separate them by sized. After this they are ground and blended and the cacao liquor is then molded into the desired shape.


The process of making chocolate takes dedication and hard work. Many people, families, and communities dedicate a lot of time and effort into growing and producing this wonderful treat that is so widely consumed. The work that they put forth is the foundation of a massive industry that is a multi-million perhaps billion-dollar industry. These people are truly helping power the world.


“Cadbury.” The Cacao Tree. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.

“The Production of Chocolate.” The World Atlas of Chocolate. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.

Professor Martin, Lecture 7

The Appropriateness of Aztec Chocolate

David Peprah


First Multimedia Essay

The Appropriateness of Aztec Chocolate

Cultural appropriation is not modern phenomena. Oppressors will take from the oppressed. Through modern day misrepresentation it is not uncommon to imagine the Aztec as fierce warriors, brutally ready to conquer to provide prisoners as blood libation to the gods. As overrepresented and fallacious as this sentiment maybe, the Aztec were nonetheless an empire that conquered peoples and in the process appropriated cultures. Cacao being a coveted crop of neighboring Mesoamerican people eventually became a mainstay amongst the elite but its initial socialization and degree of acceptance is contentious. Understanding how cacao was appropriated through the Aztec elite and how it flourished as a currency and a multifarious food form, provides insight into modern day cultural appropriation to market similar foods and hypocritically deny the historical legacy of the Aztec descendants in America. Cacao was initially appropriated and excluded from the lower classes but as cacao became more ubiquitous the lower classes eventually experimented with the food contents to give rise to differing forms of Aztec chocolate, integrating it into the stiches of Aztec culture.

Cacao did not originate within the Aztec empire but cacao later took on a linchpin role as key currency and a marker of social status. Botanical history of chocolate contends that cacao is not native to the capital city of Tenochtitlan. As the Aztec conquered neighboring people so did they conquer the chocolate trade, discovering the uniqueness of the bitter crop.  Chocolate historian Marciel Presilla writes “Cacao itself was a spur to conquest” becoming so entwined in daily commerce that “as late as 1750, the Spanish victory, the Count of Revilladiego, enacted regulations for Mexico City pulperias requiring them to accept both small coin and cacao beans as change” (Presilla 17-18). To the Aztec, the commodity of cacao had great commercial value resulting from the foreign status endowed with a conquered good and the difficulty of access, often depending on trade with skilled merchants. Like most currency predating fiat money, cacao was originally valued within elite circles of social strata and with this elite association came contentious historical evaluations.

Aztecan chocolate is recounted in differing historical narratives, one pinning chocolate as a mere alternative to alcoholic beverage, while the other equating chocolate use as ubiquitous amongst the ruling class. Contrary in narration to Presilla, pioneer chocolate scholars Michael and Sophie Coe posit even amongst the elite chocolate was seen as “a somewhat exotic, luxurious product, foreign to the austere life to which they so often looked back nostalgically” (Coe & Coe 77). How could then a good taken to be as a sign of largess elicit such reactions that “If one of the common people drank it, if they drank it without sanction, it would cost their life?” (Presilla 19).

Chocolate was consumed in a multitude of recipes and styles in the Aztecan Empire. In its purest form the cacao content was mixed with the correct amount of maze and continuously frothed to satisfied the pallet of the most apt chocolatier. Over time it is very plausible that economies of scale grew to accommodate the lower classes and the addition of complementary and sometimes supplementary ingredients such as maze, flowers, vanilla and honey, made chocolate drinking into a versatile gastronomic endeavor  that can be recapitulated in the modern kitchen. This culinary experimentation in turn created a uniquely Aztecan drink.

Modern day cultural appropriation. Even an 8 year old can make it in good natured fun in a microwave!
Modern day cultural appropriation. Even an 8 year old with a microwave can make it in good natured fun!

Interestingly we live in a society where food is culturally revered, yet the descendants of those gastronomic innovators are treated as foreign blight. The onus of cultural respectability not only resides in the descendants of the Aztec but everyone benefiting from Aztecan culture. Appropriation without proper attribution impart allows for the modern phenomena of “illegal immigration” a loaded term birthed out a loss of legitimacy. Ultimately legitimacy firmly resides within the cultural legacy of a people. Aptly stated, Sidney W. Mintz on the sociality of food writes:

Social phenomena are by their nature historical, which is to say that the relationships among events in one ‘moment’ can never be abstracted from their past and future setting.  Arguments about immanent human nature, about being’s inbuilt capacity to endow the world with its characteristic structures, are not necessarily wrong; but when these arguments replace or obviate history, they are inadequate and misleading” (Mintz XXX).

We are thus precariously situated to draw the demarcations between appreciation and appropriation, through recognition of culture and ultimately a people.

Work cited

Coe, Sophie D and Michael D Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1996.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

Presilla, Marciel. he New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2009.

Counterfeit Chocolate: The Use of Cacao as “Money” in Ancient Mesoamerica

Imagining that chocolate was once the equivalent of gold or cash emphasizes its value in a way that translates easily to our modern mindset. “Chocolate as money” tends to be a quick, attention grabbing fact that many historians highlight, especially when marketing information about the Maya or Aztecs to children or for casual and quick understanding, as on this Field Museum website. At first, it seems that cacao was so tasty, and so important that it became money. A bean is like a dollar. The royal coffers under Aztec palaces are like a bank (Coe & Coe, 81-82). However, the truth of the matter is much more complicated, and the term “money” may not be the most accurate. Cacao’s use as currency demonstrates the complexity of Aztec society, but in ways not fully translatable to modern market economies.

In a “Horrible Histories” video, meant for humor as well as education, the writers of use the idea of “chocolate as money” as the basis of a short skit:

(Please watch the first 45 seconds)

Obviously, the skit has little realism and not much sensitivity towards the culture it portrays. However, it does demonstrate the oddness in our modern minds of the idea of “buying money.” How can something function as both currency and commodity? Through western eyes and the mouths of British men, this practice makes little sense. Coe compares the practice of drinking chocolate to that of lighting a cigar with a twenty-dollar bill (Coe & Coe, 101), and while this highlights the drink’s status as a luxury item, it doesn’t quite characterize how it functioned in Aztec society. Chocolate was an elite drink first, and then evolved to be an integral part of the Mesoamerican economy.

Chocolate did have undeniable value, and a 1545 Nahuatl document provides clear evidence of “set prices” in cacao beans for various commodities (Coe, 99-100). Furthermore, some Aztec merchants went to great lengths to counterfeit this form of “cash,” demonstrating its value. Ancient Mesoamerican Nahuatl language contains several words for “imitation” cacao (Millon, 159). Bernard Sahagun, a Spaniard who recorded information about Aztec culture, reports “bad cacao sellers” who would counterfeit cacao beans using an elaborate process to transform “amaranth dough, wax, avacado pits” into fake cacao beans. It could appear that chocolate’s value means that it was central to this society and its economy, the most sacred or important of commodities. Merchants were willing to risk loss of business and even life by creating fake beans, so the worth of the endeavor must have been quite high.

How can these intense efforts to make fake cacao fit in with evidence from other sources, such as archaeologist Rene Millon’s conclusion that cacao beans played a “subordinate role in terms of the Mesoamerican economy as a whole”? (Millon, 221) Furthermore, chocolate production was “overwhelmingly for consumption rather than exchange” indicating that even while it held purchasing power, it was thought of as a consumable drink first and foremost (Millon, 209). Cacao, then, was a sort of cash-barter hybrid, consumed by society’s elite and used as petty change by everyone.

The basket by the leopard skins is labeled as cacao, and the flags on top refer to the amount of beans inside

This image from the codex mendoza was drawn for a European by an Aztec artist recording items taken in as tribute. Cacao is one of these items. It’s listing here demonstrates that cacao is a commodity with value beyond that of other, an extreme luxury good with some of the function of cash, but it did not completely change the Aztec economy from a bartering system to a cash-based market economy such as 15th century Spain or modern America. The image also demonstrates the Aztec’s complex system of tribute, which requires a societal hierarchy, and also their advanced writing system, unique from that of the Spanish, who were beginning to influence Aztec culture.

Chocolate’s use in Aztec culture demonstrates the complexity of their cultural systems, especially since chocolate was not valued significantly more than other luxury goods. Chocolate played a key role in the lives of pochteca, the Aztec long distance merchants, who would travel to the market of Xicallanco, which Coe describes as a “Mesoamerican Constantinople.” (Coe & Coe, 79-80) Millon proposes that the viability of selling counterfeits may indicate that trade was extremely extensive, enough to limit “face-to-face” or personal interactions (Millon, 203). In the town of Tabasco, “semi-specialization” occurred in which the town produced solely cacao, opting to trade for other items, such as cotton (Millon, 218). Chocolate, a minor player in the economy, developed interesting and multifaceted practices, demonstrating how many complex systems Aztec culture evolved overall.

As scholar Maria Paz Moreno explains,  “The Aztecs could see no practical value in the silver with which the Spanish coins were made, while cocoa beans had a value derived from their use to produce the precious liquid” (Moreno, 51). Just as I, in modern America, struggle to understand the Aztec economic system, the Spanish invaders had a scheme that made no sense to the logic of the Aztecs.  Both systems are complex, but very different. For the Aztecs, Chocolate always retained its “practical” value as a consumable commodity, and never became “money” in the modern sense of the word. The practice of using chocolate as a sort of “currency” is a testament not to the amazing properties of chocolate or cacao itself, but to the amazing properties of the Mesoamerican societies which first cultivated the crop.

Works Cited:

“Chocolate – All About Chocolate – History of Chocolate.” Chocolate – All About Chocolate – History of Chocolate. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013. Print.

“Horrible Histories -Angry Aztec’s- Chocolate Currency.” Horrible Histories. N.d.YouTube. YouTube, 18 Feb. 2013. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.

Millon, René Francis. “When Money Grew on Trees a Study of Cacao in Ancient Mesoamerica.” Thesis. Columbia University, 1955. (n.d.): n. pag. Microfilm, Tozzer Library, Harvard University.

Moreno, Maria Paz. “A Bittersweet Love Affair: Spain and the History of Chocolate.” Connections: European Studies Annual Review 7 (2011): n. pag. Web.

“NEH Summer Institute for School Teachers, Oaxaca 2014.” NEH Summer Institute for School Teachers Oaxaca 2014. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.

The Treasure of Chocolate: Comparing the Cultural Value of Chocolate in the Aztec Empire and Baroque Europe

Chocolate was a well-established luxury in Aztec Mesoamerica decades before Europeans landed their ships on its eastern shores and planted their flags in its soil, claiming the land as their own. The Aztec love of chocolate began as their empire expanded from the arid highlands of its stronghold in Tenochtitlan into southern parts of Mexico where chocolate had been cultivated and consumed for centuries. (A link to a map of Aztec expansion south can be found here.) By the late fourteenth century, the Aztec had eagerly assimilated the culinary traditions and customs that surrounded chocolate in the southern reaches of its empire (Presilla 13). To the Aztec, chocolate was the ultimate foodstuff of the wealthy, an undeniable symbol of power and status, and the cacao beans that produced chocolate were valued as the coinage of the Empire.

By the early sixteenth century the Spanish, looking to expand their empire, began to land on the shores of the Aztec’s land. Through a mentality of conquest and greed, the Europeans were first introduced to the frothed, unsweetened, cold, spiced beverage that was Aztec chocolate. In the span of twenty years, the habit of drinking chocolate had crossed the Atlantic Ocean from the New World to Spain (Presilla 17). Chocolate was no longer the same drink; it had morphed into a drink that could satisfy the palates of the European elite: it was now a sweet drink, consumed hot and flavored with sugar and milk. No matter the flavoring of chocolate, bitter in Aztec Mesoamerica or sweet in Baroque Europe, the worth of chocolate was undeniably clear. In both the New World and the Old World, chocolate was appreciated for its material value; however, Europeans never treasured chocolate as highly as the Aztecs of Mesoamerica did before them.

In Aztec Mesoamerica, chocolate was cherished as a symbol of great wealth. Aztec society was deeply stratified between nobility and commoners (Norton One effective distinguisher between the two classes was a person’s ability to access and, subsequently, drink chocolate. In fact, chocolate was so exclusive to the noble class that it was considered to be a bad omen if a commoner was seen indulging in the luxury of drinking it (Norton In Aztec society, chocolate was more than just a symbol of wealth; chocolate was wealth itself. Cacao beans, the raw agricultural product that could be made into chocolate, were the currency of the Aztec Empire. This meant that drinking chocolate was the equivalent of drinking money. Therefore, chocolate was a symbol of raw power. This symbol of raw power was present even in the uppermost echelons of the Empire. The Emperor, himself, was described—by Spanish, conquistador, accounts—as having imbibed chocolate with great ceremony, marking it as an “exalted food” (Presilla 14).

In Baroque Europe, as in Aztec Mesoamerica, chocolate was a marker of affluence. Europeans had “internalized the association between chocolate and noble distinction” made by the Aztecs (Norton By the early seventeenth century the drinking of chocolate had been adopted into the culture of the Spanish nobility (Presilla 17). From Spain, this exotic luxury’s popularity grew and spread throughout Europe. The drinking of chocolate possessed an “aura of and exotic luxury” that was an undeniable draw for nobles throughout Europe (18). Chocolate rooms were added onto mansions, delicate porcelain cups were crafted—at great expense—to drink the lavish beverage, portraits (much like the one linked here) were commissioned featuring nobles holding cups of chocolate, and chocolate was featured in “great public displays and pageants” that were so typical of the period’s nobility (S. Coe and M. Coe 135). For example, in Baroque Spain, events such as bullfights and sentencing hearings for those deemed guilty by the Spanish Inquisition were graced by the presence of chocolate in the hands of the nobility (S. Coe and M. Coe 135). Chocolate was the official marker of wealth and status in Baroque Europe.

Chocolate was celebrated by the nobility of both Mesoamerica and Europe; however, chocolate was celebrated as more than a display of wealth in Aztec Mesoamerica. Cacao and the chocolate it produced were integral to the religion of the Aztecs. The Aztecs were polytheists, worshiping many gods. One such god was the maize god, the god of a crop that was vital to the diets, and therefore the survival, of the Aztecs. The maize god had several depictions. In one such depiction he is tonsured. In this state he also doubled as the god of cacao. The doubling of the maize god shows the significance of cacao in the religion of the Aztecs (Crown

The importance of cacao to the Aztec diet extends beyond the maize god. Cacao was also symbolically associated with the color red and, therefore, blood. Blood was a central part of the religion of the Aztecs. It was believed that without the shedding of blood every day, the sun would not be able to find the strength to defeat the pitched battle against darkness (Crown Without blood, the world would descend into darkness and all life would be lost. The spilled blood of human and animal sacrifices was the source of the sun’s strength (link to pictures of blood offerings linked here). Cacao’s association with the color red was an association blood and with life, itself. This once again underscores cacao’s, and chocolate’s, importance in the spirituality of the Aztec, an importance that simply did not exist in Baroque Europe.

In the cultures and societies of Baroque Europe and the Aztec Empire, cacao and chocolate were fantastic displays of wealth. However, to the Aztecs chocolate and cacao were more than simply status symbols. Cacao and chocolate were vital to their survival as a civilization. In Europe, where chocolate and cacao were no more than markers of standing, chocolate was able to move beyond the confines of the mansions of the elite and find a place among the masses as a commodity of pleasure. In the Aztec Empire, where chocolate was a synonym for life, chocolate remained a luxury until the very end.

Works Cited

“Aztec Religious Ritual/ Ceremonies.” Aztec Religious Ritual/ Ceremonies. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2014. <–Theme%203–Aztec_religious_rituals.htm&gt;.

Charpentier, Jean-Baptiste. The Cup of Chocolate. 1768. Chateau de Versailles, Versailles. Web. 21 February 2014.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013. Print.

Crown, Patricia L. “Pre-Hispanic Use of Cocoa.” Springer Link. Springer Science+Business Media, n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2014. <;.

“History of the Aztecs.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Feb. 2014. Web. 21 Feb. 2014. <;.

Norton, Marcey. “Conquests of Chocolate.” Orgranization of American Historians Magazine of History 18.3 (2013): 14-17. Oxford Journals. Oxford Journals. Web. 21 Feb. 2014. <;.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. Print.

Flavors of Aztec Chocolate

In the first scientific mission to the New World, Francisco Hernández was sent to study the properties of medicinal plants in the Americas. On his journey, he inevitably encountered the rich taste and culture of chocolate. A Spanish physician, he concocted his own chocolate recipe to please a European palate, as well as to purportedly “excite the venereal appetite” (Coe and Coe). Interestingly, many of the spices in his recipe were already popular chocolate flavorings to the Aztecs. By tracing the history of these additives, we can gain a further appreciation for how chocolate flavors have evolved to present day.

Hueinacaztli (Cymbopetalum penduliflorum)

Hueinacaztli is Nahuatl name for the flower of “flor de oreja”, a tree that grows in the tropical lowland forests of Veracruz, Oaxaca, and Chiapas. The flower has a thick, ear-shaped petal, which gave it its various names including “great ear,” “divine ear,” and “flowery ear” (Coe and Coe). At the time, its dried flowers were considered to be the most common element of the 16th century Aztec central market (Bye, Linares 164). Apart from having a “delicious flavor and pleasant aroma”, the flower was believed to “[reduce] flatulence, [thin] phlegm, and [warm] and [strengthen] colds, weak stomachs and hearts” (Bye, Linares 161). Considered the “premier chocolate flavor among the Aztecs,” its taste has been likened to that of black pepper, nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon. Today, the flowers have nearly disappeared from trade in central Mexico, yet can be found in Guatemala where they continue to be used as a medicinal infusion drink to aid digestion. It is still unclear why this once popular chocolate flavoring has been abandoned (Bye, Linares 164).

Dried “flor de oreja”

Tlilxochitl (Vanilla planifolia)

The Nahuatl word for “black flower,” we know this spice today as vanilla. Its name comes from the mature fruit which shrivels and turns black after it is picked, not its greenish-yellow flower. It was originally cultivated along the Gulf Coast, especially by the Totonacs of Veracruz (Coe and Coe). The first European contact with the plant is recorded by a Spanish officer with Hernando Cortes, who writes about Aztec leader Montezuma drinking chocolatl with ground vanilla beans. He also points out that the Aztecs used the “seeds” as a “tonic, for headaches, and as an antidote to bites of poisonous insects” (Springer 581-582). It quickly gained popularity in Europe due to its property as a superb chocolate complement. In fact, as early as the second half of the sixteenth century, the Spanish produced the commercially available chocolate flavored with vanilla (Springer 582). This popularity has extended into present day where vanilla is available worldwide and serves as an additive to nearly every type of chocolate. In fact, every variety of Hershey’s chocolate contains vanillin, a concentrated form of vanilla (The Hershey Company).

Vanilla being dried

Mecaxochitl (Piper auritum)

Literally meaning “string flower,” this aromatic herb was especially coveted for its medicinal properties. According to Francisco Hernández, not only did it have an “agreeable taste,” but it also “warms the stomach, perfumes the breathe … combats poison, [and] allieviates intestinal pains and colics” (Coe and Coe). Today, this plant is found in many popular Mexican dishes. It is an essential ingredient in mole verde (Miller, 70), as well as in some soups. In Veracruz, where it is called acuyo, it is used to wrap and flavor foods, especially fish, imparting an “aniselike taste to the food” (Coe and Coe). Unlike vanilla, this spice has gone remained relatively unknown to foreign palattes, however, it continues its role as a chocolate flavoring in Central Mexico (Katzer).

Piper auritum plant

Bye, Robert A., Jr., and Edelmira Linares. “Mexican Market Plants of 16th Cenutry.” Jardin Botfmico (1990): 151-64. Web. <;.

Charles, Denys J. Antioxidant Properties of Spices, Herbs and Other Sources. Berlin: Springer, 2013. Print.

Coe, Sophie Dobzhansky, and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.

“Hershey’s.” The Hershey Company. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.

Katzer, Gernot (2012). “Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages – Mexican Pepperleaf (Piper auritum Kunth)”.

Miller, Mark Charles (1993). Coyote’s Pantry: Southwest Seasonings and at Home Flavoring Techniques. Ten Speed Press. p. 70.ISBN0-89815-494-4.

The Mayans Role in the Advancement of Chocolate as a Global Delicacy

Chocolate originated in the Amazon Basin, yet, the Mayan Civilization was pivotal in instigating the evolution of chocolate from a local commodity to a global delicacy. The Maya recognized the capabilities of chocolate and ceiling for experimentation as early as 3,000 BCE (“A Concise History of Chocolate”, The Cspot RSS) and immediately deemed it liquid gold and food of the gods. The Maya even had a god of chocolate.

CacaoGod_small(Lecture by Dr. Carla Martin, Mon, 2/3/2014)

The high quality of the Mayan chocolate drinks most likely led to the expansion of chocolate as a good, yet, the high quality drinks were due to Mayan experimentation. “Much of the drinking chocolate consumed by the Maya was not served in pure form, and the types of added ingredients usually differed depending on the consumer. Chili, vanilla, annatto, honey, cinnamon, and nutmeg were all common additives.” (“Chocolate and Rituals among the Maya”, The Chocolate Book) The experimentation of the Maya certainly led to increased value of chocolate additives. And although sugar surpassed chocolate as a good, the sugar boom could be attributed to it first being used in chocolate. “Sugar as sweetener came to the fore in connection with three other exotic imports – tea, coffee, and chocolate.” (Mintz, page 108) I believe without the Mayan innovation of trying new recipes and its prevalence in Mayan culture foreigners would not have taken notice of chocolate’s deliciousness, versatility and potential; as the presence of chocolate was nearly omnipresent.

Chocolate was used by the Maya in ceremonies of religion, birth and death; as well as for medicinal purposes and as a currency. Chocolate was often used in Mayan culture for symptoms like digestive problems, anti-inflammatory, fatigue and as an anesthetic (Lecture by Dr. Carla Martin, Mon, 2/3/2014). As well as chocolate’s medicinal uses, it was also extensively used in cultural rituals, formal or informal. Informally, Mayans would meet up and drink chocolate together. Formally, their chocolate drink was used in many ceremonies like baptisms, weddings and funerals, many Mayans were also sent into the afterlife with chocolate in their caskets. “At some time during the last half of the 5th century AD, the corpse of a middle-aged ruler had been laid to rest in this tomb…Next to the litter the funeral specialists had placed 14 pottery vessels, including 6 cylindrical vases…There was a single example of an extremely rare form of a stirrup-handled pot with a screw on lid. This strange object had been surfaced with stucco and brilliantly painted with six large hieroglyphs, including 2 which read `cacao.’” (Coe & Coe, page 46) Cacao was also used as a currency in Mayan Civilization: “Cacao, most commonly consumed in the form of a frothy chocolate drink, served also as a main component of the Mayan economy, not only for consumption purposes but also as commodity money in its natural seed form.” (“Chocolate and Rituals among the Maya”, The Chocolate Book) The natural seed form of Cacao as currency only increased its prevalence, corresponding with chocolate’s weight in Maya popular culture; the currency of Cacao also had heavy significance. One large male turkey was valued at 200 cacao beans, one forest rabbit was valued at 100 cacao beans, one small rabbit was valued at 30 cacao beans and one large tomato equaled one cacao bean. (Lecture by Dr. Carla Martin, Wed, 2/5/2014)

I would attribute the booming chocolate industry of present day to the Mayan recognition of Cacao’s limitless potential. I’m sure chocolate and cacao would still have reached Europe at some point; yet I think the Maya experimentation with cacao expedited the process. The undeniable deliciousness inevitably led to such widespread use it would was been almost impossible for Columbus to not discover its benefits; and although Columbus is often over glorified in media productions, he did successfully commandeer one of the world’s most popular goods and instigate chocolate’s global migration. As a result, without the Maya innovation and prevalence of chocolate, Columbus may have never discovered it and there may not be the 100 billion dollar chocolate industry (Lecture by Dr. Carla Martin, Mon, 1/27/2014) there is in the world today.

Works Cited

  1. “A Concise History of Chocolate.” The Cspot RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.
  2. Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the “Food of the Gods”” 3 Feb. 2014. Lecture.
  3. Image –
  4. Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Page 110. Print.
  5. Blount, Laura. “Chocolate and Rituals among the Maya.” The Chocolate Book. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.
  6. Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, NY: Viking, 1985. Page 108. Print.
  7. Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Page 46. Print.
  8. Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the “Food of the Gods”” 5 Feb. 2014. Lecture.

Food of the Gods, Medicine of the People: Cacao as Medicine in Mesoamerica and Europe


The significance of cacao to the pre-Colombian peoples of Mesoamerica goes almost without saying—it is well known that cacao beverages were assigned great cultural importance in ritual and as status symbols in both Maya and Aztec society. What is much less well represented in the (often sensationalized) popular conceptions of these cultures is the high level of sophistication and complexity that their theorizations about their world attained. Both the Aztec and Maya had intricate and refined theories of health and medicine, and the cultural importance of cacao extended into this area in both cases (Dillinger, 2). Therefore, when Europeans encountered cacao consumption in Mesoamerica, the strange and entrancing new product confronted them as both food and medicine—and, perhaps surprisingly, European cultures appropriated chocolate as both, despite a vastly different paradigm of medical theory (Lippi).


Maya and Aztec Theories of Medicine


Medicine in Maya culture was practiced by priests, who passed down both their profession and the knowledge thereof through inheritance. This body of medical knowledge was based on both scientific and religious tenants, and was quite elaborate and sophisticated. In addition to advanced procedures for the setting of fractures, filling of teeth, suturing of wounds, and unnumbered surgeries (conducted with tremendously sharp obsidian knives), the Maya prescribed over 1500 different plants for various ailments. The underlying theory of internal medicine equated health with balance, and illness or disease with imbalance—although “balance” was hardly a universal constant, being peculiar to individuals according to their age, sex, disposition, and environmental conditions (especially temperature.) The maintenance of balance was very much tied to one’s diet, so among the 1500 or so plants with medicinal value, some were applied to the skin or otherwise introduced to the afflicted body, many were eaten in special preparations. One of the most important medicinal plants was, of course, cacao, which was used both as a medicine in itself and as a vehicle for the administration of other remedies. This use is documented as far back as the Preclassic era. Cacao was used to aid emaciated patients in gaining weight, stimulating the nervous system, improving digestion and bowel health, anemia, lack of appetite, underproduction of breast milk, tuberculosis, kidney disorders, sexual dysfunction, gout, and fever. In addition to its uses when orally administered, preparations of the bark, leaves, and flowers of the cacao plant were employed in treating irritations and injuries of the skin. The appealing taste of cacao paste was also often used to mask fouler-tasting medicines (“Maya”).


Aztec medicine was founded mainly on religion—sickness was regarded as a punishment by the gods for sins. Every major disease was strictly and specifically associated with one or another god, which helped dictate both the cause and the remedy. For example, the god of waters, Tlaloc, was responsible for ailments the Aztecs associated with water, such as rheumatism and gout, and patients of these ailments would seek to alleviate their disease by leaving offerings near a river (Guerra, 10). Such rituals did not exist to the exclusion of medical treatments more focused on the patient’s body, however. The Aztecs’ healing rituals were carried out in conjunction with a variety of medical practices, based in a body of knowledge that had absorbed much from the medicines of conquered peoples. Medicine was practiced by people of both genders, and despite the religious associations of the profession it held a social standing on par with that of carpenters, scribes, and cooks. Medical practitioners were knowledgeable both in the use of various plant remedies and in the effects of astrology on health (Guerra, 11). Diagnosis consisted of determining both the pathological and the supernatural effects at work in the patient’s disease, and therefore demanded both medical examination and a sort of horoscopy. There is little indication that the Aztecs subscribed to any all-encompassing theory or mechanism of disease analogous to the Maya theory of balances or (to be discussed below) the European theory of humors (Guerra, 14). In any case, it is certainly clear that cacao was considered a potent medicine. Surviving ancient texts refer to remedies made from mixing cacao with a variety of other ingredients to treat such diverse ailments as constipation, infection, and cough, as well as to make other medicines more palatable, as the Maya did (Dillinger, 4).


European Theory of Medicine: The Four Humors


When cacao was introduced to Europeans, its uses as both food and medicine in Mesoamerica had been described and reported by the explorers stationed there. However, the reigning paradigm of medical thought in Europe was vastly different from those which explained and justified the medical use of cacao in Mesoamerica, and before cacao could be adopted or rejected as medicine by the cultures of Europe, it had to be reconciled with and incorporated into this paradigm: that of the four “humors” of the body. Attributed variously to Hippocrates and Galen, the Humoral theory held that there were four substances whose balance within the body determined health and disposition: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. These corresponded in turn to the four combinations possible from the attributes of wet, dry, hot, and cold (Phisick). The below diagram shows the humors arranged in a chart along these axes:


Image Credit: “Humorism.” Wikipedia. Accessed 02/20/14. <;

Different foods and medicines were thought to contain elements correspondent to these attributes of humidity and temperature, and medical treatments most often consisted of determining which humor was in excess or lack and prescribing something with the proper attributes to correct this imbalance (Phisick). Cacao, as a newly “discovered” plant, did not have an extant place in this framework. Europeans seeking to determine its fitness for consumption had to first determine how to classify it: was it wet or dry? Hot or cold?


Francisco Hernandez, a physician/botanist under Philip II, argued that cacao was cold and dry, and therefore suitable to treat such “hot” diseases as fever. Santiago de Valverde Turices, who wrote on the subject in 1624, made a distinction between chocolate and cocoa: chocolate was hot, not cold like cacao, and was therefore beneficial for ailments of the chest in large quantities and of the stomach in small ones. Interestingly, he made sure to note that “cold” ingredients had to be added to chocolate to counterbalance its “hot” quality before it could be consumed safely by healthy people. Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma, a physician from Andalusia, wrote a book on chocolate in 1631 in which he extolls chocolate as beneficial to the health in innumerable ways, arguing that it fit in perfectly with Humoral theory and was, in fact, a near-miraculous medicinal drink (Lippi). His work attributes to chocolate the ability to aid digestion, cure cough, inflammation, and obstructions, clean one’s teeth, and induce conception and easier birth in women (Ledesma). (A transcript of the book, in a truly delightful English translation from 1651, is found below)

A page from Colmenero de Ledesma’s book:

Image Credit: “Health Food of Baroque Era.” Albert R. Mann Library, Cornell University. Accessed 02/20/14. <;

Transcript of “Chocolate: or, An Indian Drinke” by Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma:


We see, then, that as cacao crossed the cultural lines between Mesoamerica and Europe, it had to be reinterpreted in accordance with the vastly different schemes of medical thought. Although we see medicine in an entirely different way from any of those described above today, one notes that the debate over chocolate’s healthful qualities and the possible reasons therefore rages on.



Works Cited


Ledesma, Antonio Colmenero de. “Chocolate: or, An Indian Drinke.” Trans. James Wadsworth, 1651. Written 1631. Accessed via Project Gutenberg, 02/20/14. <;


Lippi, Donatella. “Chocolate in History: Food, Medicine, Medi-Food.” Published online 2013 May 14. Accessed via the National Center for Biotechnology Information, through the U.S. National Library of Medicine, 02/20/14. <;


“Maya Medicine.” Accessed 02/20/14. <;


“Humoral Theory.” Phisick. November 17, 2011. Accessed 02/20/14. <;


Dillinger, Teresa, “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity?” Journal of Nutrition, August 1, 2000 vol. 130 no. 8 2057S-2072S. The American Society for Nutritional Sciences. Accessed 02/20/14. Downloaded via <;


Guerra, Fransisco. “Aztec Medicine.” Med Hist. 1966 October; 10(4): 315–338. Accessed 02/20/14 via <;

An Ale of the Ancients: Chocolate Beer in Mesoamerica

Chocolate + Beer = Food of the Gods

From reading this blog, it’s no secret by now that the ancient people of Mesoamerica loved to drink their chocolate. However, rather than the chocolate milkshakes we have today, their beverage was bitter, frothy, and also apparently alcoholic.

An archaeological finding by scientists studying pottery vessels from the lower Ulúa Valley in northern Honduras suggests that cacao was likely originally prepared as an alcoholic beverage, in the form of a fermented beer made from cacao pulp rather than its seeds. This claim contrasts with the previous assumption detailed by Sophie and Michael D. Coe in which cacao was originally cultivated to produce a beverage in which cacao seeds were fermented, dried, ground, and mixed with water to form a thick mixture.

The scientists, Dr. Henderson and Dr. Joyce of Cornell and UC Berkeley, found many elegant pieces of pottery and concluded that they were used for ceremonial purposes to serve cacao beverages. By using pottery fragments, the researchers were able to detect evidence of cacao in the form of theobromine, a fingerprint compound that occurs in chocolate fruit and beans in Mesoamerica, from residues absorbed by the clay. In particular, vessels of the long-necked jar type tested positive for theobromine as early as 1100 B.C., which is some 500 years earlier than previously documented. Most of the vessels from this early period only had a narrow spout, which would be good for pouring but not for frothing up a beverage mainly comprised of seeds. Wide-mouthed vessels that would be proper for serving seed-based beverages did not appear at the site for several hundred years.

The long-necked vessels also had a shape and were marked with the ridges and indentations that resembled the cacao fruit. Based on this chemical and archaeological evidence, the scientists concluded the jar was once filled with a fermented chocolate beverage made from cacao fruit. These drinks could contain up to 5% alcohol by volume.

This Barraca Brown bottle from northern Honduras (ca. 1400–1100 B.C.) illustrates the long-necked vessels in which the earliest fermented beverages were served.

Additionally, inscriptions on Classic Maya vases include references to k’ab kakaw, or “honey-cacao,” which is described as a possibly fermented cacao juice using honey. Evidence for use of fermented cacao beverages by the Aztecs was recorded in the work of Bernardino de Sahagún, who detailed that “[Green cacao] makes one drunk, takes effect on one, makes one dizzy, confuses one, makes one sick, deranges one. When an ordinary amount is drunk, it gladdens one, refreshes one, consoles one, invigorates one…” This description clearly details the effect of drinking a fermented beverage and the intoxication that followed after it was served to a ruler.

The process of brewing cacao first requires that seeds and pulp are placed in a vessel, often a wooden box, and left to ferment for a period of several days. As the pulp is converted to alcohol, the bitterness of the seeds decreases and the seeds turn to a pale violet color. After, a second stage of fermentation starts in which alcohol is converted to acetic acid. In the final stage, the chocolate flavor of the seeds becomes fully developed and the seeds change to a brown color and shrink drastically. The fermented seeds are then dried and added to a water beverage. In the Aztec culture especially, the performance of this alcoholic cacao preparation was a means of formalized hosting and marked the occasion of drinking as a special event.

Dogfish Head Brewery currently carries Theobroma beer, which contains chocolate powder from the premier area of Aztec chocolate production

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., Coe, Michael D., 2013. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, London.

Henderson, John, Joyce, Rosemary, et al., 2007. “Chemical and archaeological evidence for the earliest cacao beverages.” PNAS 104 (48) 18937-18940.

McNeil, Cameron, 2009. Chocolate in Mesoamerica. University Press of Florida.

Historical Mesoamerican Chocolate Recipes: A Lens for Understanding Culture

Oftentimes, food is presented a frivolous aspect of culture. An element that is more a hobby than a topic of serious academic thought, especially in light of today’s food culture. However, when flipping through the pages of history, it becomes apparent that food has not only played a starring role in the evolution of cultures across the globe but is also a historical material that we should take into serious consideration. Like ancient texts and archaeological discoveries, recipes can be used to glean information about societies. They can be used like written records and observed as reflections of economic, medical, and everyday life of a certain people. This is precisely why the study of historical Mesoamerican chocolate recipes is crucial to our understanding of Mesoamerican cultures. These recipes provide insight on the rich cultures of Mesoamerica, explain the significance of chocolate, help us understand that cacao and chocolate has always been culturally significant.

A clip from the documentary “Serpent and the Sun” that briefly discusses the importance of chocolate to Aztec culture.

What can cacao recipes tell us? To start, it is important to note that the recipes vary from culture to culture. The Maya and the Aztecs had different recipes containing cacao but with different additional ingredients. These differences reflect the unique qualities of each culture. For example, by looking at Mayan and Aztec recipes, we could note differences in class. One common Mayan recipe was for a gruel called saca, which called for cooked maize, water, and cacao (Coe & Coe 61). As a gruel, one may assume that it was consumed not by royalty, but by people of the lower classes. This is a reflection of the fact that cacao was available to the masses. On the other hand, the Aztecs saw this gruel-like mixture to be of inferior quality, and reserved much of the cacao for royalty. The distribution of the consumption of chocolate can be seen through the recipes, and gives us a glimpse of social/economic classes in Mesoamerica. Recipes can also reflect other aspects of society. Based off of the ingredients, one can see what other kinds of products were consumed in the culture which could be used to understand trade, agriculture, and health habits. The Aztecs incorporated a highly prized flower of Cymbopetalum penduliflorum (Coe & Coe 87) and the Mayans started incorporating vanilla (Coe & Coe 62). The ingredients also show the health concerns of a society. In Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagun’s Florentine Codex, he noted that a combination of beans, maize, and an herb called tlacoxochitl would help to bring down a fever, shortness of breath, and faint of heart (Dillinger et al. 2060s). And finally, we can compare these Mesoamerican recipes to those of early European cacao recipes to observe the trajectory of colonialization. The colonialization of Mesoamerica is reflected in the colonialization of food. Europeans adapted cacao for their own tastes, and chocolate became something vastly different than the drinks seen in Mesoamerica. For example, the recipe the famous jasmine chocolate of the Grand Duke of Tuscany calls for the familiar cacao beans and vanilla, but also includes fresh jasmine flowers and ambergris (Coe & Coe 146). Here it becomes obvious that what was known as the food of the gods in Mesoamerica had to be prepared quite differently in order to accommodate the preferences of Europeans.

The Maya maize god is depicted here with images of cacao, representing the intertwining of the two natural products.

From a simple chocolate recipe, we gain a wealth of information on the way that Mesoamericans lived. From commonly consumed goods to health practices, many elements of life are quietly depicted in the recipes for the beloved food. Having all of this information in relation to chocolate helps to build an understanding and appreciation of the origin and evolution of chocolate, and also helps to explain many of the stereotypes we have today surrounding both Mesoamerican and European cultures. To conclude, I want to present two images to exhibit how chocolate and its various recipes have helped shape popular understanding of cultures, and the Eurocentric view that has characterized the food industry. The “Aztec” chocolate, is presented as an exotic snack, with ingredients that seem foreign and perhaps unappealing to us. The European chocolate is presented as a luxurious delicacy that exudes sophistication and promises the sweet, creamy taste we are used to. All of this stems from our understanding of how Mesoamericans made their chocolate.

Modern “Aztec” Chocolate
“European” Chocolate

Works Cited:

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013. Print.

Dillinger, Teresa L., Patricia Barriga, Sylvia Escarcega, Martha Jiminez, Diana Lowe, and Louis Grivetti. “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate.” The Journal of Nutrition (2000): 2057S-072S. Web. 16 Feb. 2014.

Serpent and the Sun: Tales of an Aztec Apprentice. Dir. Shaahin Cheyene. Perf. Miktlan Ehekateotl. Victory World Films, 2008.