“Breaking down” the historical ingestion of chocolate

Many have discussed the path that chocolate took throughout its history in the Aztec Empire of the 15th and 16th centuries, however, this essay will address the ways in which chocolate was ingested and utilized as a method of human consumption as a food and healing property.

It was in his work Historia general de las cosas de Nueva Espana where Bernardino de Sahagun began what we know as one of the first accounts of how chocolate was being consumed among the Aztec elite in the 16th century and prior.

Bernardino de Sahagun

In Historia,  Sahagun had interviewed many Aztec individuals, detailing how they put forth their use of cacao: it was an elite food with a rich taste that was to be drunk by the most powerful and royal. It was also called the “heart and blood” because it was so regarded as a necessity for life, and was only reserved for the gods themselves, godly beings, or supreme royal persons.

Sahagun also noted that the Aztecs had various beliefs about cacao and its influence on one’s health, which led to further applications of the plant (and its variations) in medicinal healing practices.

For example, as depicted in the illustrations below, the medicinal properties of cacao in its liquid and solid forms (as drink and food) bettered different components of the Aztecs well-being in more ways than one:

Cacao Botanical Remedies Cacao Healing Rites Photo

The photo above at-right, for instance, intended to demonstrate the healing rites with cacao for various afflictions that members of the Aztec community may have been affected by. Because cacao had various stimulating properties, it could be used in “incantations” of curing and healing to sooth afflictions such as skin abrasions, fevers, and other troubles that the Aztecs believed were a result of the gods punishing their people.

Consequently, when royal members of the Aztec community became afflicted, cacao was used as an aphrodisiac prepared to emit drug-like qualities, which led to illustrious feelings of grandeur reserved for royal persons or people who could afford large amounts of cacao. Because of this potency, it was seen as a royal food that was used as tribute to the Aztec gods, as well.

The nature of cacao and its texture in comparison with other foods in the Aztec community set it apart as rich and godly/ For example, it is rumored and perhaps exaggeratedly documented) that Moctezuma drank 50 gold cups of liquefied chocolate per day. He also retained his store of cacao not just to eat it, but as a symbol of his wealth compared to everyone else, meaning that the nature of chocolate also extended far beyond just its ingestion and medicinal qualities.

Finally, the ways in which cacao could be formed differing appearances of the “Food of the gods”:

Cacao Aztec Woman pouring chocolate froth

As depicted above, there is a woman frothing chocolate into a rich and creamy drink as opposed to its usual more rigid “beany” form. This made cacao even more alluring because of its flexibility to be prepared and ingested in different forms allowed the Aztecs to never get bored of having it, essentially.

All sources taken from 02/04/15 in-class lecture and notes by Prof. Martin

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