Chocolate and Change: How the Molinillo Represents Cultural Transmission

Traditional process of frothing chocolate by Maya (Princeton Vase, c. 750 ce)
Traditional process of frothing chocolate by Maya (Princeton Vase, c. 750 ce)

Although both the Spaniards and Mesoamerican Natives thoroughly enjoyed and were even addicted to chocolate, artifacts from the period such as the molinillo, help to show both some of the similarities and differences in the two cultures. As the original cultivators and consumers of chocolate, the mesoamericans had a long history of customs and traditions centered around the chocolate beverage, and specifically the foam on top. This foam, which was thought by natives to nourish the soul, was usually achieved by pouring the drink continuously from one vessel to another repeatedly. The Spanish also came to hold chocolate as a delicacy and specifically the foam, however as they preferred their chocolate hot, they invented the molinillo – a wooden instrument which froths a chocolate drink while allowing the beverage to retain its heat. Far more than a small innovation to gain foam, the molinillo is part of, and represents, a mixing of cultures and genes on a grand scale between the Spanish and the natives of Mesoamerica.

Three simple modern molinillos.
Three simple modern molinillos.

Having been revered by natives for over a millennium, when Europeans first arrived in America the natives could not understand how the new world explorers did not covet chocolate as well. In fact, to many early explorers such as Girolamo Benzoni chocolate “seemed more a drink for pigs, than a drink for humanity” (qtd. in Coe&Coe 110). In time, the cacao plant would not only win over conquistadors, but the entire old world and eventually the entire planet. The way in which chocolate drinks were prepared at Benzoni’s day  were not palatable to the Europeans, but once the drink was hybridized to include tastes appealing to a European tongue, chocolate’s popularity quickly grew. Different ingredients were used, as well as different instruments such as the cup and saucer, which highlight differences in the two cultures. With the addition of sugar, chocolate became a sweet drink to be enjoyed by the elite of Europe, and then the entire world (Mintz 6). The molinillo was born out of necessity by the Spaniards, who greatly desired foam on top of their beverage, but preferred to drink it warm. It was held between both hands, placed through the top of a pot and spun repeatedly with the notched end in the drink, frothing the drink and creating a thick layer of foam while maintaining its temperature.

Although only one of many changes made by the Spaniards to mesoamerican chocolate and the process to make the beverage, the molinillo is a good representations of this hybridization as well as the hybridization of South America. This is because it shows a hallmark of European colonization – taking all of what is in their eyes good aspects of the native culture,

Woman using molinillo to froth chocolate beverage.
Woman using molinillo to froth chocolate beverage.

and using them to their own benefit, often in different ways from the original use. The molinillo is just one example of this, as the Spaniards adopted the positive aspects of the mesoamerican chocolate beverage and changed it to their liking. Although changing the frothing procedure, the metate remained in use, as well as many other indigenous customs which further illustrates the adoption of beneficial customs by the Spanish.  At the crossroads of two very different worlds, chocolate serves as a way by which we can learn about those two cultures, and the interactions that took place between them. It can also help us to see the roots of modern South America, and how the similarities and differences between the Spanish and Native peoples led us to the vibrant and hybrid culture we see today where the Maya, Aztec, and other indigenous people once lived.

Multimedia Sources:


Works Cited:

  • Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
  • Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, N.Y.: Viking, 1985. Print.

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