Cacao: An Acquired Taste

The cultivation and ultimate globalization of Theobroma Cacao gave rise to one of the world’s most desired foods—chocolate. Among pre-Columbian peoples such as the Maya and Aztec civilizations, the domestication of cacao represents a significant sophistication of agroforestry systems that paved the way for long term agricultural success[1]. Furthermore, the development of cacao interest amongst early European merchants was an essential, yet painstaking part of popularizing cacao worldwide. Despite common belief, however, cacao was not immediately sought out and adopted by the Europeans.

Columbus journey
Figure 1: Columbus’s fourth journey brought him in contact with cacao for the first time.

On the fourth voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1502, he and his crew intercepted a canoe “whose cargo included a quantity of cacao beans which the aborigines obviously prized”[2]. Upon further examination, Columbus discovered that cacao was not only a consumable luxury good, but it also served as a medium of exchange. Yet, Columbus did not promote cacao among the Europeans. Perhaps it was the primitive nature of the natives that harbored skepticism toward cacao, but Columbus was not smitten by the beans.

Figure 2: Hernan Cortes meets with Moctezuma in Tenochtitlan in 1519.

In fact, according to an account by Girolamo Benzoni—a Milanese historian—cacao began as an unpopular commodity among most European travelers[3]. Benzoni exclaimed that “[chocolate] seemed more a drink for pigs, than a drink for humanity…for more than a year, [I] never wanted to taste it”[4]. Due to the bitter nature of cacao, as well as the appearance and texture of the cacao-based beverages in Mesoamerican civilizations, chocolate appeared incompatible with European taste buds

It wasn’t until Hernan Cortes and his Spanish conquistadors had conquered the Aztec Empire that cacao became of any interest[5]. After the occupation of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, cacao appeared in abundancy within the royal stores. This piqued the interest of Cortes, as cacao was stored in the same area as gold—a universally recognized symbol of wealth and power. This realization appeared to be the catalyst for propagating cacao. Under the Spanish rule, the production of cacao increased exponentially[6]. With the addition of sugar cane or honey to the cacao, it was only a matter of time before chocolate dominated the world stage.

Rather than trusting the natives in their worship of chocolate, the first set of foreigners to come into contact with chocolate were opposed to consuming it due to their discriminating demeanor. Either the product was of little importance to them, the taste was unbearable, or a combination of the two, cacao did not create a positive sentiment among the first explorers. Until Cortes came into a large fortune in cacao after ravaging Aztec lands, there was little interest in producing and trading chocolate in any form. Now cacao is one of the most sought for foods on the market, many of the beans still coming from foresteros species in Central America. Maybe if Cortes had not discovered the stores of cacao among mountains of gold, chocolate would remain hidden in the deep forests of Central America.

Figure 3: What would the world be without chocolate…

Multimedia Sources

Figure 1 .

Figure 2 .

Figure 3 .

Scholarly Sources

[1] Gómez-Pompa, Arturo, José Salvador Flores, and Mario Aliphat Fernández. “The sacred cacao groves of the Maya.” Latin american antiquity (1990): 247-257.

[2] Alden, Dauril. “The significance of cacao production in the Amazon region during the late colonial period: an essay in comparative economic history.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (1976): 103-135.

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

[4] Ibid.

[5] Alden, Dauril. 103-104.

[6] Alden, Dauril. 104-105.


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