Monthly Archives: February 2015

Chocolate: Candy or Medicine?

choco medicine

To many, chocolate is seen simply as a sweet indulgence we get to enjoy during special occasions. Cultivation of cacao began with the Olmec, Mayan and Aztec cultures. Seeds of the fruit of the theobroma cacao plant were an integral part of daily life: it was a source of nutrition, currency, religion and medicine. Chocolate has a long history spanning thousands of years.  Even today, it is impossible to go through a day without constantly being bombarded with images of chocolate; there are ads on TV, public transportation, and of course there is always the tempting display at the pharmacy. Despite the daily images of chocolate, there is still conflicting information in regards to the health benefits of chocolate. Although modern preparation of chocolate, which includes added sugars and other unnatural ingredients, perhaps we should take a cue from the Mesoamericans and learn more about the health benefits of chocolate.

Next to maize, it was the most important plant food in Mesoamerica. Cacao connected mankind to their gods; it was used as a milestone for important life events, a healing beverage, and a luxury (Coe and Coe, 2013).   According to the beliefs of the Maya and Aztec, cacao was part of the creation myth. In the Maya Popol Vuh and the Aztec texts, the gods created man from maize, cacao and other good plant foods. These foods were brought to mankind from the Mountain of Sustenance (Coe and Coe, 2013, p.39; Dillinger et al. 2000, p. 2058S). There was a connection between the divine and human kind, and cacao played an important role.

Before European contact in the 16th century, cacao was prepared only as a beverage. The earliest evidence for the consumption of chocolate can be found in the writings and artifacts of Mesoamerican civilizations. Cacao was traditionally prepared as a beverage. The males of the community, specifically the highest officials, priests and warriors, consumed this treasured substance; the beverage was unsuitable for women and children due to its intoxication (Dillinger et al., 2000, p.2058).

Chocolate’s history as food and medicine began in the 16th century with the arrival of the Spanish explorers. According to the Florentine Codex, compiled by the Spanish priest Bernardino de Sahugún, chocolate was drunk by the Aztecs to treat stomach and intestinal complaints. It was also used to treat infections childhood diarrhea and fever (Dillinger et al., 2000, p. 2060). Both indigenous and modern texts show evidence that chocolate was used as a vehicle to administer medicinal products or to improve the flavor of medicinals.

Throughout history, there are a few consistent medicine-related uses for cacao/chocolate. Many sources have found that chocolate was regularly recommended or prescribed to help those needing to gain weight (Dillinger et al., 2000). Today, that idea doesn’t seem far-fetched since much of the chocolate we consume has added sugars and fat. There is also evidence that chocolate was used to treat both patients who lacked energy and those who were hyperactive. Bernardino de Sahugún “maintained that drinking large quantities of green cocoa made imbibers confused and deranged, but if taken in moderation, the beverage was invigorating and refreshing” (p.1576). The regular drinking of chocolate was also found to improve digestion and elimination, and was often prescribed because it stimulated the kidneys and improved bowel function (Dillinger et al., 2000).

There is evidence that shows the Mesoamerican civilizations knew and appreciated the health benefits of chocolate. Natural substances found in cacao offered a degree of protection from many ailments. The manner in which the cacao drink was prepared by the Mesoamericans showed a degree of appreciation for the substance, and contained ingredients good for the body. Instead of sitting back and enjoying a delicious candy bar, perhaps we should sit back with a frothed cacao beverage.


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

Dillinger, T.D., Barriga, P., Escárcega, S., Jimenez., Salazar Lowe, D., & Grivettiet, L.E. (2000). Food of the gods: cure for humanity? A cultural history of the medicinal and ritual use of chocolate. Journal of Nutrition, volume 130 (8), pages 2057S-2072S.

Lippi, D. (2013). Chocolate in history: food, medicine, medi-food. Nutrients, volume 5, pages 1573-1584.

The Entwined History of Chocolate and Poison

Technically speaking, you can say, at the risk of inciting a raised eyebrow, that chocolate is poisonous. Its headlining ingredient, theobromine, has its own entry in TOXNET, the US National Library of Medicine’s comprehensive toxicology database (TOXNET). Theobromine is the chemical compound behind what chocolate lovers observe as a mood-enhancing effect from consuming the food, but more explicitly, it’s a stimulant, vasodilator, and diuretic. And it’s the piece of the puzzle that makes chocolate poisonous (often fatally so) to dogs, cats, and other animals (Coe, Coe 31). And humans aren’t completely off the hook. Even though our bodies do a remarkable job of processing theobromine, the daily consumption of 50 to 100 grams of cocoa (roughly one sizable chocolate bar all to yourself) has been linked to sweating, trembling, and severe headache. Theobromine “in large doses” may cause nausea and anorexia.

The chemical structure of theobromine

Yet, all things considered, there’s no reason for alarm. Most of us can consume anything less than a boatload of chocolate without fear for our lives (though perhaps, with fear for our life decisions). Chocolate, with the small matter of poison aside, has found a decorated and trusted foothold in our global food culture. We give boxes of chocolate to confess romantic feelings. We indulge in its decadence in times of celebration. We escape to its simplicity in times of vulnerability.

Jicaras made in Tabasco, Mexico from which hot chocolate may be served

Chocolate may be the closest thing our species has to a friend in a food, which is perhaps one motivation behind chocolate’s second, more sinister relationship with poison. Historians have preserved several accounts of chocolate used as a vehicle for poison. One particularly telling narrative comes from 17th Century clergyman Thomas Gage, his account of his stay in a town called Chiapa Real, now San Cristobal de las Casas (Coe, Coe 180-182). According to Gage, the upper-class ladies of Chiapa Real took to drinking hot chocolate during High Mass and had it carried into the town cathedral by Indian maids, often in the middle of sermons. Aggravated, the bishop started a dispute with the townspeople, ordering excommunication first on those that ate or drank in the cathedral, and ultimately, when people left, cups of chocolate in hand, on those that did not attend mass at the cathedral. The intriguing (and ironic) part is how he died: he was poisoned via a jicara of hot chocolate by a female page, and died 8 days later.

The cathedral in San Cristobal de las Casas today

From across the Atlantic in Spain comes another story – not an entirely heartwarming one, I admit, but (bear with me) perhaps one that offers redeeming perspective. A Spanish “lady of quality,” heartbroken by the desertion of a lover, arrives again in his life with a choice – a dagger or a cup of chocolate laced with poison (Coe, Coe 137). Her lover accepts his fate and decides to drink every drop of the chocolate. He complains that the chocolate is not sugary enough to mask the bitterness of the poison. Our lady of quality stays with him until he dies an hour later.

The most likely and least glamorous motivation behind the historical link between chocolate and poison is that chocolate hides the bitterness of most poisons, just as, to put this chemical process in perspective, sweet drinks like teas and sodas hide the bitterness of alcohol (which is pretty much a mild poison). But a competing theory looks to chocolate’s decorated place in society. We eat chocolate in extreme times – when we’re unstoppably happy and when we’re irreparably sad. We confide in chocolate, in some ways as we would a friend. We eat chocolate when our guards are down. This trust gives chocolate an edge as a vessel for poison. In 2011, MI5 disclosed files that documented Nazi plans to poison Allied troops via chocolate, coffee, and cigarettes – a lion’s share of our guilty irrational pleasures (Gardham). In 2007, a former Cuban intelligence chief claimed that the closest the CIA had ever come to assassinating Fidel Castro involved a poison pill to be dissolved in a chocolate milkshake in 1963 (Boadle).

Regardless of what motivates the use of poison via chocolate, I believe that these stories have endured so well because we’re infatuated by this phenomenon of irrational, irreversible craving for chocolate. We saw in Gage’s tale how Chiapa Real’s cultural addiction to chocolate could motivate both a townspeople to kill and a bishop to (unwittingly) indulge in poisoned chocolate. But we also saw in our bittersweet Spanish romance, the role of chocolate in helping us through pain and in helping us find peace. We’re infatuated by this contradiction in our crave for chocolate – by how it can both offer comfort in the struggle of perseverance, and motivate the more vindictive faces of our species’ nature.

Works Cited

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

Gardham, Duncan. “MI5 Files: Nazis Plotted to Kill Allied Troops with Coffee.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 4 Apr. 2011. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.

Boadle, Anthony. “Closest CIA Bid to Kill Castro Was Poisoned Drink.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 05 July 2007. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.

“U.S. National Library of Medicine.” TOXNET. N.p., 27 Feb. 2006. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.

“U.S. National Library of Medicine.” TOXNET. N.p., 27 Feb. 2006. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.
“Jícara.” – Wiktionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.
Visit Mexico. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.

The Wild Days of Chocolate and the Exclusive Club That Started It All

Far from the tradition of Easter bunnies and heart-shaped boxes, chocolate enjoyed a rough and tumble history as the bad boy of the culinary world. Chocolate was the five hour energy drink of the restless European elite, fueling their gambling excesses and treasonous plots. Its consumption was exclusive, highly gendered, and very status-oriented, and nowhere is this heady mix more apparent than in the chocolate houses of London.

The two most famous  chocolate houses were the Cocoa Tree and White’s. White’s chocolate house soon grew to be a notorious hotbed of sedition, complete with a tunnel leading directly to the royal palace. While politics was often the conversation topic of choice, members also enjoyed placing outrageous bets. One member placed a bet of 180,000 pounds on a single roll of the die, while a certain Lord Alvanley bet 200,000 pounds on whether one raindrop would beat another to the bottom of a window. White’s betting book records many more outrageous escapades. While these bets may seem pointless today, they have a very specific purpose: to showcase status. In the social media free world of 17th century London, socialization was very much embedded in place and time—thus, chocolate houses were the loci of gossip. Bets did not center so much on money as on status, because gambling was a surefire way of projecting one’s privilege. Thus, chocolate houses were associated with a new elite.

A painting of White’s Chocolate House–it’s easy to see why the inner gambling room was called “Hell.”

To consider chocolate a mere beverage is to amputate it from its social and historical context. Chocolate was a status symbol, a badge that the in-group used to identify themselves. Food as a status symbol is not nearly as peculiar a concept as it seems. Drinking Moet-Henessy, eating caviar, even embracing the enigmatic vegetable that is kale—all these are practices which carry with them a connotation of status and lifestyle. Chocolate played the same role for the European elite. Chocolate was expensive to obtain and required multiple exposures to acquire the taste. Furthermore, chocolate was not the convenience food it often is today, so consuming chocolate took time, subtly implying that not only did the gentlemen of White’s have ample money to place on bets, but that they also had endless leisure time as well.


Queen Elizabeth visiting White’s. 

It is also important to note that White’s was strictly a men’s club. This is partly due to the fact that chocolate was, even then, considered an aphrodisiac–with energizing properties to boot. Because of this, chocolate consumption was limited to men. It is interesting to note that the ancient Aztec association of chocolate with warriors (and therefore with hyper masculinity) was revived by White’s, although for entirely different reasons. However, not even the democratization of cacao consumption changed these attitudes. To this day, only one woman has ever visited White’s, and that is Queen Elizabeth of Windsor. In this way, the social frameworks created by chocolate consumption have outlasted the beverage itself, evincing the perplexing and complicated nature of our relationship with this food.

Further Exploration

This article explores the cultural and social connotations of food around the world, specifically as they relate to American culture.

An article detailing the history of White’s, as well as famous members and how to join.

Bibliography “The History of White’s, with the Betting Book from 1743 to 1878 and a List of Members from 1736 to 1892].” Web. 22 Feb. 2015.

Choi, Amy S. “What Americans Can Learn from Other Food Cultures.” Ideastedcom. TED, 18 Dec. 2014. Web. 20 Feb. 2015

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

Green, Mathew. “The Surprising History of London’s Lost Chocolate Houses.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 13 Dec. 2013. Web. 22 Feb. 2015.

Hart, Hugh. “July 7, 1550: Europeans Discover Chocolate | WIRED.” Conde Nast Digital, 7 July 2010. Web. 22 Feb. 2015.

Mount, Harry. “Disowned by Cameron, the Raffish Men-only Club That His Father Once Ran.” Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 18 July 2013. Web. 22 Feb. 2015.

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

The Story of Chocolate. “The Story of Chocolate.” The Story of Chocolate. Web. 21 Feb. 2015.

Warber, Adrienne. “History of White’s.” Suite. Suite. Web. 22 Feb. 2015.

Chocolate Gods

Chocolate is an important part of today’s culture. From holiday gifts, to travel souvenirs, this sweet aphrodisiac seems to be a uniting entity amongst individuals of all places. While many people could not imagine a life without chocolate, its history depicts an even richer connection between the cacao and the civilizations of those times.

The Maize God depicted in a Mayan drawing

For the Mayans, the cacao tree was seen as the bearer of all life, and the reason their civilization came into existence (Coe and Coe, 2013). Taken from the Popol Vuh, the story depicts two twins, the sons of the creators of the universe, who are beheaded in the Mayan underworld. The head of one twin, who would become the Maize God, is hung up on a cacao tree, and later impregnates a princess who gives birth to a second set of twins. These two twins fight to bring honor back to their land, and by resurrecting their father (the Maize God), they start the Mayan civilization. The planting of the cacao seed is depicted as a symbol of the start of a new life. This story is an example of how interconnected the Mayans felt with the cacao; not only did they think that chocolate drinks were sacred (Martin, 2015), but that they themselves came from this godly tree. The cacao tree was the source of all life.

The Aztec Quetzalcoatl God

The Mayans were not the only ones who thought cacao was holy. The Aztecs shared a similar feeling: “the cacao pod was a symbolic term, used in ritual, for the human heart torn out in sacrifice” (Coe and Coe, 2013). Every year a well-built slave would be chosen by the Aztecs to be sacrificed in the honor of the Quetzalcoatl God. For 40 days he would be treated as the God himself, at the end of which he would give up his life. If the slave got scared of the final step, the members gave him a chocolate drink that would make him “almost unconscious […] and would return to his usual cheerfulness and dance…” (Coe and Coe, 2013). Again, we see this emphasis on chocolate being an integral part of a cultural belief. The Aztecs relied on it to bring joy and cheerfulness to the one who drinks it, kind of like an alcoholic beverage. If you drink this chocolate mix then all your worries will disappear.

The symbolism of cacao being associated with gods has been a progressive theme throughout chocolate’s history. From the Dresden Codex illustrating various gods holding cacao pods and dishes with cacao beans, as well as the Madrid Codex which places more emphasis on ritualistic sacrifices– gods are usually depicted spilling their blood over the pods–, to the more modern interactions with chocolate (Carl Linnaeus naming it Theobroma cacao, which translates into food of the gods) (Martin, 2015), is it no wonder that chocolate is seen as something more than just a sweet delight. Even some chocolate commercials nowadays depict their products as being consumed by the Gods, that the recipes fell from Heaven, in order to make people associate their chocolate product with divinity and holiness. 

Works Cited

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

Martin, Carla. AAAS 119x Lecture 3: Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods”.  Conducted February 2, 2015.

Mass Commoditization of one of the World’s Most Difficult to Grow Crops

It sometimes seems like the world just can’t get enough chocolate.  We eat it plain, add all sorts of interesting things like raisins, chilies, and caramel to it, and even form it into the shape of a rabbit around Easter time.  From the omnipresent Hershey’s to small boutique chocolatiers, this global food phenomenon relies on the tiny seeds of the cacao tree. Yet the cultivation of this crop does not mirror the ease with which people can consume the finished product.  Growing cacao is incredibly difficult work that’s done almost completely by hand, and international demand has had a significant impact on the types of cacao that are grown.  As a result, cacao has become a commoditized monocrop, endangering both its heritage and its future.

In order to grow cacao, you first need a region of the world where temperatures will sit between 60-95 degrees.  You then need to find some land where this picky plant will be shaded from the sun, preferably underneath a banana tree.  Next, you must make sure that the cacao tree has enough moisture, but that monsoons don’t flood it.   When you add in the manual labor, subjective and objective knowledge necessary to grow this crop, and possible 50% losses due to disease, you may finally end up with a viable product that is ready to be processed (Martin, February 18th).  Once the cacao pods are harvested from the tree they must be cracked open, where the insides are scooped out and left to ferment for several days in order to remove the pulp from the seeds (Martin, February 18th).  Next, they are left out in the sun to dry.

Séchage du cacao - Coopérative Konafcoop, Cameroun (2011)

As seen in the picture, these seeds are sometimes placed right next to roads or other less than sanitary locations, meaning that consuming cacao beans raw isn’t quite the best idea.  Finally, the beans must be roasted and winnowed to remove the shells (Martin, February 18th).  Once this last step is complete, the leftover nibs can then be further processed into several different final forms.

Even though this process is incredibly labor intensive, demand for cacao hasn’t decreased.  Major chocolate producers simply looked for a way to get the greatest amount of product for the lowest cost.  As a result, there is a clear split between two different types of cacao.  The first is fine cacao.  This classification is mostly made from Criollo and Trinitario varieties of the plant, which produce a lower yield and are more susceptible to disease.  In return however, they have a much higher quality of flavor and as a result sell for higher prices.  Today fine cacao accounts for only 5-7% of product grown, whereas it used to be up to 50% of worldwide production up until the 1900s (Martin, February 18th).  The second classification is bulk cacao, which dominates current production with 93-95% market share.  These are usually Forastero varieties, are more disease resistant, have higher yields, and sell at a much lower rate.  However, the lack of fine flavor and sometimes even the presence of bad taste accompany the bottom-basement pricing associated with this classification (Martin, February 18th).

The need for massive amounts of product at commodity pricing creates some interesting labor implications.  In the first video linked below, a cacao farmer is asked what the cacao beans are used for.  He doesn’t know, and after being told that it’s turned into chocolate, he tries a piece for the first time in his entire life.  He is absolutely thrilled with it, and runs off to share it with the people he works with.  Due to the desire for cheap chocolate, this cacao producer doesn’t have the spare money to try the final version of the product that he labors over.  In contrast, the second video showcases a Fair Trade farmer.  He is able to skip selling to a broker, and can actually thrive on growing cacao instead of just surviving.  The difference is night and day, and perfectly illustrates how labor practices directly influence the quality of life for these growers.

The demand for chocolate will never go away.  However, the way we think about and source cacao beans will have to change if we wish to continue consuming this heavenly treat.  While there are about nine primary strains of cacao, the push towards low pricing means that one particular style is used for its commercial qualities (Martin, February 18th).  This allows knowledge about how to grow the other strains to slowly fade away into history, erasing the cultural ties of the strains along with it.  All that is left is a legacy of profit seeking.  Furthermore, a monocrop culture becomes unsustainable in the long run, relying more and more on pesticides and fertilizers, putting the entire production at risk of a single vulnerability (Wikipedia). In order to protect its past as well as its future, it is important to maintain cacao diversity and to fully support the farmers growing it all over the world.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., Michael D. Coe, and Ryan J. Huxtable. The True History of Chocolate. London, Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Martin, Carla. AAAS 119x Lecture 7: Sugar and Cacao.  Conducted February 18, 2015.

“Monocropping.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Jan. 2015. Web. 22 Feb. 2015. <>.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Random House LLC, 2009.

From Sacred to Commonplace- The Transformation of Chocolate Consumption

When one hears the word chocolate, images of sweet delicious candies and pastries come to mind, as well as household chocolate company names such as Hershey’s, Nestle, and Cadbury. Chocolate is a ubiquitously loved and enjoyed treat in the modern world; in 2001, 3 billions pounds of chocolate were consumed in the US alone, totaling over $13 billion in sales. Per capita, an American will eat 5.5 kilograms of chocolate annually; this is equivalent to about 150 chocolate bars (The World Atlas of Chocolate, “Chocolate Consumption”). While today people immediately recognize and acknowledge the commonplace consumption of chocolate, in the long human history of chocolate appreciation, spanning over 2000 years, the mass consumption of chocolate as a sweet is a modern phenomenon, occurring only in the last 200 years (“A Brief History of Chocolate”). What spurred the mass production of consumption of chocolate, and how has cacao and chocolate consumption developed from a rare good to a commonplace treat?

The Sacred and Elite Cacao of Mesoamerica

Historically, the beginnings of the role of cacao as a food and commodity has been significantly tied to Mesoamerica, in particular the Mayan and Aztec civilizations. In both societies, cacao was recognized as a delicacy reserved for elite individuals. To the Mayans, cacao was consumed as a ceremonial, ritualistic and “social” food; while commoners were not restricted from consuming cacao, for the most part only the elite could partake in these feasts and ceremonies of indulgence. For the Aztecs, cacao was made into beverages appreciated solely by royalty and elite; it was not thought of as a common beverage to accompany food, but one that would be taken at the end of feasts as a delicacy (Coe and Coe, 95). Aztec scholars called cacao “the heart, the blood”, representing the importance of cacao, and also believed that “the common folk, the needy did not drink it… ‘the heart, the blood are to be feared’” (Coe and Coe, 101). Furthermore, both Mayan and Aztec societies considered cacao to be an important economic good. Cacao was often used as a trading commodity; anything from meat to slaves to prostitutes could be bought with cacao beans. Royalty often demanded cacao beans as tribute and kept them in storehouses as their wealth (Coe and Coe, 59).

The European Introduction to Cacao

When the first European explorers arrived in the Americas, they were introduced to cacao from the Mayans and Aztecs, who revered the product as an elite and important good. Brought back by these explorers of the New World, cacao held the same elite status (albeit without the ritualistic and sacred properties) to European societies. During the Baroque Age (the 17th century), cacao consumption was popular in mansion courts and palaces by the wealthy and royal. Versailles, a palace of over 10,000 officials and noble, regularly served chocolate during its feasts and banquets (Coe and Coe, 156). In England and Spain, these chocolate-serving traditions were similar, and cacao was considered an important economic good, along with coffee and tea, that could bring wealth and riches to those who traded it to the elite and royal.


Elite in the court of Versailles enjoying a chocolate beverage.

The Industrial Revolution and New Innovations in Cacao Processing

Through the 1700s, Europeans manufactured chocolate in traditional methods that did not differ much from the traditional American methods of production of hundreds of years prior. Workers worked by hand to roast, winnow, and grind cacao to make the cacao liquor, which was at the time thick and grainy and used mainly to produce beverages (Presilla, 39). The work was tedious and could not produce high quality liquor in large batches.

The archaic methods of cacao production severely limited the amount and quality of cacao that was available. However, three innovations during the 1800s completely changed and revolutionized both the quality and quantity of cacao production, leading to the mass consumption of chocolate in the modern world. Firstly, the Industrial Revolution of the late 1700s and early 1800s radically changed production and manufacturing across all industries, including the food industry. With the introduction of machines and steam engines, steps in cacao production could be expedited and mechanized. This greatly increased the volume at which cacao could be processed, allowed larger quantities of cacao to be produced and distributed (Presilla, 39).

The next two developments towards the production of modern chocolate improved on the qualities of processed cacao. In 1838, a Dutchman named Conrad Van Houten, along with his father, developed a machine that was able to extract the fatty butter from the cacao bean (Presilla, 39). Previously, this process was done by hand, and could not produce high levels of fat from each bean. However, with Van Houten’s methods, cacao fat butter extraction was increased, and with his machine invention, resulted in a cake-like product of cacao product, or cacao butter (“Conrad Van Houten”). This butter could be used not only to make beverages, but could be combined with other ingredients, including sugar, to make solid foods to be eaten (Presilla, 40). In 1866, the nascent company Cadbury purchased the Van Houten machine, and began to make cacao products to be enjoyed by the masses.

While mechanized production of chocolate and the Van Houten machine improved the capabilities of chocolate production and expanded the horizons for methods of chocolate consumption, the resulting chocolate was still problematic in that it was lumpy and grainy. In 1879, Swiss chocolatier Rodophe Lindt created a machine that allowed for a process called “conching”, which processed the beans for hours to create silky smooth chocolate (Prescilla, 40). This allowed for processed cacao to lose its grainy properties; thus, it could be easily and smoothly incorporated into cake and cookie batters to make sweet treats.

Erste Conche conch


Left: The original conching machine, invented by Lindt. Right: Today, conching machines are able to process enormous amounts of chocolate at a time.

With these innovations in the late 1800s, the production and manufacturing of chocolate increased in both quantity and quality. However, most importantly, it resulted in the decreased costs of manufacturing chocolate in bulk. This resulted in a boom of chocolate supply and demand across the globe, leading to the commonplace status of chocolate in our lives today.



“A Brief History of Chocolate.” History, Travel, Arts, Science, People, Places | Smithsonian. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. <;.

“Chocolate Consumption.” Chocolate Consumption. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. <;.

Coe, S. & Coe, M. The true history of chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 1996

“Conrad Van Houten: Start of a Chocolate Revolution.” Searching in History. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. <;.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2009.



Chocolate as a Luxury for the Elite Throughout Time

Chocolate has been a defining food for several cultures throughout its history. From early Mesoamerica to modern Europe, it has been celebrates as, not just a rich and delicious dessert, but a significant cultural symbol. With the exception of Christopher Columbus and his compatriots, chocolate has almost always held a place among the elites of almost every society it has been a part of. This post will attempt to compare the treatment of chocolate by the elites of societies across time and space, from the Maya to renaissance Europe to present-day America.

While consumption of the cacao plant began with the Olmecs, centuries before the Maya civilization came to be, very little written record exists from that time, and those that do exist are somewhat indecipherable (Coe & Coe 39). Therefore, in the study of chocolate, historians often begin their discussion with the Maya. An understanding of the importance of the Cacao plant to Mayan society can be seen in its inclusion in their creation myth, the Popol Vuh. There remains some contention as to what level of significance cacao actually played in this story, but the fact remains that it must have been a relevant crop to be included at all (Coe & Coe 40). In Mayan civilization, cacao was accessible to many, but it was considered a food of the gods. One example of this is the Dresden Codex which says of the Rain God, “cacao is his food” (Coe & Coe 41). Many of the elites of Mayan society would be buried with cacao, a symbol of their wealth.

Among the Aztec elites, chocolate held an even more significant place than it did with the Maya. When the Aztecs discovered chocolate in Mayan civilization, it quickly became a favorite drink, replacing the traditional octli, which was mildly alcoholic (Coe & Coe 75). Additionally, the cacao bean became regarded as legal currency, signifying the stronghold the food had in Aztec society (Presilla 17). Cacao’s significance among the Aztec elite can be seen in its prevelance in Aztec art. The following is an Aztec sculpture of a man holding a large cacao pod.

Aztec sculpture of a man holding a cacao bean

Since the cacao tree was not native to the area of modern-day Mexico inhabited by the Aztec, it was imported from further south, restraining the product to the most elite members of society. Thus, in Aztec society, chocolate came to be revered more heavily than among the Maya, and drinking the beverage was a sign of great power and wealth.

Almost as soon as chocolate arrived in Europe, it became a drink of the elites. Maricel E. Presilla writes, “Chocolate arrived in Europe with the aura of an exotic luxury for the cognoscenti” (25). While chocolate eventually made its way to the lower tiers of European society, it was very much considered an extravagance for centuries. As shown in the following painting, English gentlemen would gather in coffee and chocolate houses during the 17th century to discuss politics. Chocolate did not truly become of food of the people until the introduction of “big chocolate” sometime later.

Painting depicting an English coffee and chocolate house

Throughout history, chocolate has been seen as a food of the gods, or at minimum, a food of the elite. The wealthy of every society with access to chocolate have taken it in as a standard part of their lives. Even today, chocolate preferences among leaders are interesting subjects of discussion. When asked what his favorite chocolate was, President Obama was prepared and immediately replied with the Seattle-based Fran’s Chocolate (Guzman). In the modern era, chocolate is highly accessible to many, but it has historically been a treat meant for the elites of society.

Works Cited

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

Greer, Rita. The Coffee House. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.

Guzman, Monica. “How the Obamas Fell for Seattle’s Fran’s Chocolates.” Seattle Pi. Hurst Seattle Media, 18 July 2008. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.

“Holding a Cacao Bean.” Web. 19 Feb. 2015.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.

European Appropriation of Chocolate

Every American child can recite the year Christopher Columbus, the founder of chocolate, discovered America, maybe even his three ships. Americans even go so far as to celebrate Columbus Day, despite the fact that Columbus neither discovered North America nor invented chocolate, two facts that have been falsely attributed to him. The truth is the chocolate this generation knows differs greatly from the original product. Chocolate went through a great change to become the product we think of today. As is so often the case, it those with power who get to write history, and so, only upon delving into the past can we figure out the truth behind this ever-present food. From its origins to its consumption, the European culture took from the Mayan, changed it, and called it their own, a process called hybridization (Martin, “AAS 119x Lecture 5: Chocolate Expansion”).

The idea that Christopher Columbus invented chocolate is the first of the misconceptions. Columbus did not even know what chocolate was, let alone its potential, believing instead that the native population “had many of those almonds which in New Spain are used for money. They seemed to hold these almonds at a great price; for when they were brought on board ship together with goods […] when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen.” (Coe & Code, 109). After chocolate was brought back the Europe, they Europeans adapted similar methods of consumption, one being frothing as we see in the images below.

A woman frothing chocolate from Martin’s “Lecture 4: Mesoamerica and the Food of the Gods”
A woman frothing chocolate from Martin’s “Lecture 4: Mesoamerica and the Food of the Gods”
La Chocolatada by of Llorenc Passo from Norton’s "Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics"
La Chocolatada by of Llorenc Passo from Norton’s “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics”

The first image depicts a native woman pouring the chocolate from up high in order for it to froth, the way it is typically consumed in Mesoamerica. The next image depicts a group of elite Europeans adopting this custom, the man on the right frothing the drink. Of course it makes sense that the Europeans when adopting a food would mirror the consumption of said food, but when comparing the two images side by side, what one might call hybridization looks more like cultural appropriation. the distinction being that chocolate was more than just a food to the Mayans and Aztecs. It was used in important religious rituals and had its own, important social rules for consumption (Martin, “Lecture 3: Mesoamerica and the Food of the Gods”). In the end, the customs and beliefs around chocolate are not Mayan or Aztec; they are European.

Chocolate from "Lecture 3: Mesoamerica and the Food of the Gods"
Chocolate from “Lecture 3: Mesoamerica and the Food of the Gods”

Down to the taste, chocolate is just different. Why is it that when we think of chocolate, what we see in our head looks like the image above? The chocolate we know of today is sweet (not to mention solid), but it wasn’t always that way. From 1000 AD when few Europeans were even aware of the existence of sugar to 1900 AD when it became a substantial portion of their calories, sugar has fundamentally changed how we consume chocolate and perpetuated its global popularity, demand, and relevance (Mintz, 5-6). Perhaps it is taking the original form of chocolate and making something that a global culture could enjoy justifies the European appropriation of chocolate, but when every child in America believes a history dominated by European thought, it seems wrong to ignore the origins and intentions of the actual inventors of chocolate.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 26-27. Print.

Marcy Norton. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics”

Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and power : the place of sugar in modern history. 274 p: (1985)

Professor Martin’s “Lectures 3 and 4: Mesoamerica and the Food of the Gods” and “Lecture 5: Chocolate Expansion”

The Social Value of Chocolate

Chocolate was once very expensive. Almost every store today will offer chocolate right at the counter, at very low costs. But there is a high cost associated with the entire process of making chocolate, which is oftentimes unrealized because it is figured in a social cost. In the course of chocolate’s (un)celebrated history, there have been few periods where chocolate was as inexpensive as it is now, whether the costs are figured in terms of capital, labour, or social currency. As chocolate has become integrated in cultures worldwide, the advance of technology has propelled this shift from a monetary cost towards one that is far more socially punishing. Chocolate’s social value has grown from once being a food for the elite, to being a widely accessible part of the human diet.

To begin at the start of the chocolate-making process, growing cacao is extremely labour intensive. The cacao tree is hard to grow, and requires particular weather conditions that aren’t too sunny, too shady, too cold, or too hot. Cacao is a finicky tree to grow. In the Aztec society, the Aztecs could only obtain cacao beans through the efforts of Pochteca merchants. These merchants carried cacao from the Mayan lowlands to the Aztec highlands, but at great costs because upon arrival they were celebrated with elaborate feasts. (Martin, Feb 4). Simply put, merely obtaining cacao in early Mesoamerican culture was a considerable cost in terms of labour and money.

Once available in the Mesoamerican markets, cacao was valued very highly, to the point where it was a viable form of currency. But chocolate was also appreciated in a social sense – the Mayans had the word “chokola’j”, meaning “to drink chocolate together” (Coe & Coe, 61). The Mayans valued not only chocolate, but the act of drinking with another person. Interestingly enough, in Aztec culture the chocolate drink was also favoured as a social alternative to octli, a “mildly alcoholic” beverage (Coe & Coe, 75). However, chocolate was still “an ambrosia from the rich and exotic lands of Anahuac, not something to wash down one’s food” (Coe & Coe, 95). Thus, chocolate clearly did have a social value early on in its history.

White’s Chocolate House, London, c.1708

That social value grew more prominent once chocolate spread to Europe and was hybridized. Food is inherently a social activity, and chocolate even more so. Chocolate even had social value after it was popularized in Europe. At first, there was still “the association of drinking chocolate with high social standing” (Presilla, 25), but soon the taste for chocolate had spread to the masses. In the 1600s and 1700s, chocolate houses were fashionable places where people could meet their friends to enjoy various rich chocolate drinks, as seen in the image below.

Upcoming Easter themed chocolate from Russell Stover

In today’s society, chocolate is still very much a social activity. We go out for hot chocolate, socialize over the fires making s’mores, and delight in fondue with friends. Chocolate has become so very cheap to buy. Every holiday seems to be accompanied by massive sales of themed chocolate. If you enter a store today, you will undoubtedly find an aisle overflowing with Easter candy.

But even chocolate that is sold at relatively low prices can have high social value, especially in today’s society. We gift chocolate like no other – according to Nielsen research from 2009, consumers were expected to purchase more than $345 million in chocolate candy for Valentine’s Day. That figure shows how much value we place in giving and receiving chocolate, which is not even considered expensive today. We think that chocolate is inherently valuable as a social good, and so we continue to give and get, fueling the industry and our sweet addiction to chocolate.

Works Cited
– Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
– Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. Print.
– Professor Carla Martin. Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. 4 February 2015.
– “U.S. CONSUMERS SHOW THEIR LOVE FOR CHOCOLATE ON VALENTINE’S DAY.” Nielsen. N.p., 02 Apr. 2009. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.

– Easter Sweets. Digital image. Russell Stover. Web.
– White’s Chocolate House, London. Digital image. The Story of Chocolate. National Confectioners Association, n.d. Web.

Drinking Money: How Did Chocolate Become so Popular?

Chocolate is almost a necessary food in our diets today. However, this was not how it was first received by the Europeans in the 15th and 16th centuries. Although the Maya and the Aztecs worshiped the cacao bean religiously, the initial impressions of cacao by the Europeans was disgust. Chocolate only truly became popular in Europe after they added their own flavorings such as sugar and vanilla, compared to the popular chili peppers added by the mesoamericans. Just how did this seemingly repelling food product become incorporated into the daily European diet?

Not many people know this today, but chocolate is made from the beans contained within this cacao fruit.

The entire concept of chocolate has changed since its first form consumed by the mesoamericans. The food we now call chocolate used to be a drink, instead of a candy bar. And instead of a sweet treat, it was often a bitter drink used as a meal replacement. The first encounter of Europeans with cacao beans occurred when Columbus traveled to Guanaja, an island off of Honduras. He witnessed the value of the cacao bean when he observed that, “they seemed to hold these almonds [cacao beans] at a great price; for when they were brought on board ship together with their goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stopped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen” (Coe & Coe 108). As the Spanish conquistadors stayed longer in the New World, they realized that the Maya and Aztec actually used the cacao beans as a form of currency.

Social anthropologists agree that the island of Guanaja was the site of the first encounter of Europeans with cacao beans.

Surely, the amount of value the Aztecs placed on the beans piqued the interests of the Spaniards. Some researchers speculate that the cacao bean naturally became the unit of currency in the mesoamerican region because of its similarity to coins. They are light and therefore relatively easy to transport. Additionally, it is simple to establish units with these beans (Schoko Museum). The Nahuatl document of the Aztecs details some of the trades that could be made with the cacao bean. For example, one male turkey would cost 200 cacao beans (Martin, February 9). The taste, however was less enticing. The famous historian, Girolamo Benzoni once asserted that chocolate seemed more like a drink for pigs than for humanity (Martin, February 11). It was the fact that Europeans believed these peoples to be savages that kept them from trying chocolate at first, even though only the elite in Aztec society could drink the beverage. Chocolate was a noble, precious drink. Additionally, if a commoner tasted the drink, this violation was possibly punishable by death (Presilla 15). When Benzoni finally deigned to taste the drink, he found that it was very practical—it provided energy and was very filling. Others, however, did not enjoy the taste, as practical as the chocolate drink seemed.

Chocolate, for Aztecs, was a drink fit for gods and kings. This glyph shows the serving of a frothy chocolate drink to a king.

The Europeans did not enjoy the taste of cacao until they added their own flavors. But how could this bean, from what these people would have called a savage region, become so popular in Europe? In Aztec society, as mentioned before, the chocolate beverage was associated with the elite. It is said that the Aztec king Motecuhzoma stored more than 960 million cacao beans in his warehouse and drank thousands of cups of the beverage throughout his lifetime (Coe & Coe 96). Then so too did it become the drink of the elite in Europe. With the exception of Great Britain, only the nobles could afford to drink chocolate in the 16th and 17th centuries—they were literally drinking money. Beginning with Great Britain, the drink was slowly democratized. Men from all strata of society would congregate in the English chocolate houses, drink chocolate together, and criticize the king and his court (Martin, February 11). Chocolate would later become a food accessible to all.

Why is this important? Chocolate arrived in Europe before coffee or even tea, and the way they treated chocolate would determine how people would enjoy stimulant beverages (Martin, February 11). Though this characteristic of cacao beans may not be the entire story of how chocolate became a staple in our diets, it may lead to more insight into the history of chocolate and perhaps even the role of chocolate in our lives. The Spanish conquistadors may have looked upon the Aztecs as savages, but today we still maintain many of the chocolate traditions that were practiced back then.


Works Cited

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

Presilla, Marical. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Pres, 2009. Print.

Professor Carla Martin. Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. 9 February 2015.

Professor Carla Martin. Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.11 February 2015.

Schoko Museum. “History.” The Schoko Museum: The Fascinating World of Chocolate. 2015. Web. 20 February 2015. <>.