How Cacahuatl Became Chocolate

Many modern-day chocolate enthusiasts are surprised to learn that when the Spaniards first encountered Mesoamerica they were repulsed by the cacao-beverage of the native Aztecs. Due to its gritty texture and bitter taste, some even said it was more of a drink for pigs than humans and even barbaric, due to the sight of Aztecs with red-stained mouths as if they had been drinking blood due to their achiote-laced chocolate. Spanish aversion to drinking cacao eventually dissipated, partly due to the filling, nonalcoholic nature of the beverage and out of necessity. Having palates familiar with Old World flavors, the new settlers imported livestock such as cows and sheep as well as crops such as wheat, sugar cane, and peaches. The Maya and Aztecs used honey as a sweetener but had nothing close to the sweet tooth cravings of the Europeans. Not surprisingly, hybridization began to occur between the two cultures. An entire generation of Spanish Creoles born, and this was the context in which chocolate was eventually transplanted to Old Spain and the rest of Europe, which led to the introduction of chocolate to the European colonies in North America, the Caribbean, and around the world through trade. If the original Mesoamerican cacao beverage had not undergone extensive hybridization with European customs such as taste modification and linguistic changes, then chocolate as we know it probably would have never existed.

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Imaginary scene of Aztecs creating chocolate, from John Ogillby’s America, of 1671. The artist has misunderstood the use of the metate, and has incorrectly included the post-Conquest molinillo. (Coe 113).

There is much debate concerning the origins of the word “chocolate”. In many old documents and letters chocolate is referred to as “cacahuatl”, (“cacao water”). One compelling reason for the linguistic switch among its white consumers is the reality that words and word roots in one language can become awkward and even offensive once transferred to a foreign cultural and linguistic setting. In most Roman languages, the word “caca” is a vulgar term for feces. (The term cacafuego—“shitfire” even appears in an early 18th century Spanish-English dictionary.) It is understandable why Spaniards would be uncomfortable with a word beginning with “caca” to describe a thick, brown drink they wanted to introduce to Europeans back home. One popular theory of where “chocolate” came from is the Maya word “chocol” and the Aztec word for water “atl”. It is safe to say if this name change had not happened, then the drink would have probably never become popular back in Europe, and without introducing the new methods of preparing and serving the drink, (i.e. the introduction of sugar), then chocolate would have remained a local delicacy of Central and South America among the native elites, not eventually a global phenomenon consumed by all social classes.

The chocolate drink was originally served as a cold, bitter, unsweetened beverage, probably in part due to the warm climate of Central America. The Spanish insisted on drinking their chocolate hot and regularly sweetening it with cane sugar, as well as replacing spices such as “ear flower” and the foreign chili pepper with more familiar flavors such as cinnamon, anise seed, and black pepper. Europeans also needed to figure out a way that they could transport chocolate across the ocean on long voyages back to Spain; chocolate was too perishable. The Spaniards manufactured the finished beverage from a dried wafer or tablet of ground cacao that just needed hot water and sugar added to it. Guatemalan nuns may have invented this method, but Aztec warriors were also issued similar “instant chocolate” for sustenance during military campaigns. The Spaniards used these wafers as a convenient way to store and ship the cacao as a dried product, not unlike the instant hot cocoa we continue to drink today.

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Image from nationwidecandy.com (2015)

And finally, the last change required in order for chocolate to become popular in Europe was its marketing. Unlike the sacredness and spirituality of chocolate in the Aztec context, in Europe it was marketed as medicine beneficial for all humoral temperaments (a desirable trait in the Baroque medical terminology of the time). Similar to other common drugs of the time (i.e. tea and coffee) the medicine became recreational, not unlike the Coca Cola phenomenon in the Americna South. All of these drinks engendered a craving for them by those who drank them, (due to their stimulant nature) and chocolate became a mainstream component of the European diet.

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The Family of the Duke of Penthievre or The Cup of Chocolate by Jean-Baptiste Chapentier. (mystudios.com)

Ultimately, at the time Europe had the most widespread access to the majority of the globe through colonization. In order for the Europeans to have spread chocolate to their territories, they would have to had developed a craving for the beverage, which would not have happened if hybridization of the Mesoamerican beverage had not occurred through taste, language, and initial branding as a health food.

 

Citations:

Coe, Sophia D. and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson. 2007. Print. Chapter 4: Encounters and Transformation, Chapter 5: Chocolate Encounter Europe, pp.106-176.  

Chapentier, Jean-Baptiste. The Family of the Duke of Penthievre (The Cup of Chocolate). 1768. http://www.mystudios.com 20 Feb 2015

Dakin, Karen and Wichmann, Soren. Ancient Mesoamerica. Vol 11 Issue 1. Jan 2000, pp. 55-75.  http://dx.doi.org  08 September 2000. WEb. 20 Feb 2015. Abstract. 

Ogillby, John. America. 1671. Engraving. The True History of Chocolate. Coe, Sophie D., Coe, Michael D. 2nd ed. 2007. 113. Print.

Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate with Marshmallows. online posting for sale. http://www.nationwidecandy.com. 20 Feb 2015

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