Chocolate Elitism: Cultural Adaptation and Prestige

Cacao has been a staple in Mesoamerican culture well before the colonial era. In Aztec society, cacao was highly revered and primarily consumed by elites. Cacao was considered a form of payment, even wages, and used in various quantities to purchase things like live animals and fresh produce. Using a Nahuatl price chart from 1545, one cacao bean could be roughly equivalent to the price of a tomato or a ripe avocado. Columbus noticed how valued these coins were when he saw how “when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen“ (Coe 107). It was because of this high value that cacao and its products remained a product for the elite. Reserved for the nobility and warriors, this drink was often served in “cups of fine gold.” (Coe, 94) After the Spanish landed in the New World, they brought cacao back to Europe where it took off in a similar elite role. For European societies, hybridization of cacao in flavor and presentation created a dissonance from Mesoamerican culture and offered a rebranding that allowed chocolate to be more easily integrated into the lives of the elite.

The invention of cutlery and silverware tailored to chocolate consumption and production allowed the product to be marketed as a luxury product and easily incorporated into elite culture. These products were engineered to require the most ease and less labor which was most likely not appropriate for the elites. To produce the frothiness that is characteristic of New World chocolate, chocolate was poured from high levels into pots. Coe describes a new preparation method introduced by the Spaniards: the molinillo.mexican-molinillo

According to Coe, “the froth was now obtained by beating the hot chocolate with a large, wooden sizzle-stick called a molinillo”, a much less labor-intensive method. This video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1upA1AiLMAY) shows how molinillo are used which is much less labor intensive then continuously pouring bowls from high heights. It’s so simple anyone can do it (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U73IU9vk74Q).

Another silverware introduction was that of the mancerina. The traditional jícara bowls allowed the opportunity for spillage and were not suitable for court life. Marques de Mancera thus manufactured the mancerina, a plate and saucer collection that was more accustomed to the “delicacy required by court etiquette.”mancerina

These inventions increased the cultural capital of chocolate which were expected and revered worldwide. French chocolatiers are another hybrid invention created to ease the consumption of chocolate. They were often created in silver for the nobility. Even those who had little contact with the actual chocolate drink knew of its prestige. A Siamese mission arrived in the French court of Louis XIV presenting numerous chocolatiéres in gold and silver. Despite their infamiliarity with the product that would be going into the gifts, they knew it required elegant casing and holding material and used this knowledge to elevate their cultural standing and status with the French.

Deviation from Aztec norms in flavor were essential because Spaniards, working from a colonial conquistador perspective, needed to maintain a level of moral superiority. A published account by an Italian who had traveled to visit the New World considered the drink more suitable for pigs, rather than humanity, and much less than a “food of the gods”. (Coe, 109). His judgmental language before having tasted the food product revealed a prejudice towards native customs. Within the descriptions of chocolate from the European perspective, we find prejudices expose themselves in the language. Redi, a prominent physician in Italy, heralded the “exquisite” nature of chocolate as “owing to the novelty of divers European ingredients”. Similarly, the Spanish hybridization of chocolate is often spoken of as bringing the drink to perfection, from what would be assumed to be a lesser previous status.

The hybridization of chocolate and its adoption into Spain and later Europe demonstrate cultural values that value European ingredients and likeliness. Cultural prestige from Mesoamerican culture was transferred to European culture through an adaptation that reinforced a cultural hierarchy.

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