Are some foods more than just a way to find sustenance? Even before the Classic Maya era, cacao was viewed as one of the most important goods a person could obtain, due to its deeply held social, religious, and economic value in society. It became a staple in the Mesoamerican world, and eventually, after European explorers began to realize its strong significance to the people of the “New World”, they began to bring it back to Europe with them on their return voyages, where it gained popularity mostly among the upper class, except in England, where it was easily accessible to all people. While both the Mesoamerican and Baroque European societies enjoyed cacao, they did have a number of differences in its use and significance to the society as a whole.
The earliest traces of cacao use date back to almost 1400 BC in present-day Honduras, according to Hillary Christopher’s Cacao’s Relationship with Mesoamerican Society. The system used to trade cacao was very extensive, and in some cases, shaped the economy of a community. Cacao was farmed in the rural areas of a society, where it would be harvested and brought to the urban centers, either for trade for goods not easily accessible in the distant regions, or as a tribute to the ruler. Cacao beans were very valuable and were used as currency, as noted in a Nahuatl document we viewed in class, which described the approximate worth of cacao beans in comparison to other commodities. While very important to the economies of Mesoamerican societies, cacao was equally, if not more so, important for its use in religious and social contexts. In the Codex Féjérvary-Mayer, it shows that the Mayans believed that the cacao tree played a role in creation stories and interactions with their gods. Another social role cacao played was its role in general socialization rituals. One such ritual, called tac haa, involved a courter serving a chocolate drink to the father of a woman he wished to marry. Chocolate was usually served at fancy meals and feasts for the upper classes of society.
In Baroque Europe, only the social aspect of the chocolate carried over to general society. In countries like Spain and France, chocolate was only consumed by the upper class, who had access to other goods like sugar and spices to sweeten and adjust the taste to their liking. It was a status symbol for the wealthy. In England, before tea and coffee became mainstream, accessible products, chocolate was served in “chocolate houses”, where the citizenry would gather to discuss politics and other relevant topics. These chocolate houses became important staples in the English social scene. When it first arrived, these houses promoted this new chocolate drink for its many benefits. “Within the next decade, a slew of pamphlets appeared proclaiming the miraculous, panacean qualities of the new drink, which would boost fertility, cure consumption, alleviate indigestion and reverse ageing”, said an article documenting the history of British chocolate houses in the Telegraph, a British newspaper. This led to the explosion of popularity of chocolate in England.
While the people who first discovered the use of cacao in Mesoamerica had a plethora of uses for it, which included monetary, religious, and social purposes, both the Mesoamerican civilizations and Baroque Europe used chocolate as a tool for socialization and gathering with peers.