The Mystery of the Molinillo

The introduction of chocolate to the New World in the 16-17th century led to multiple transformations and transmutations of the original Old World cacao. When chocolate became commonplace in the Spanish court in the first half of the 1600s, it had changed in name, taste, preparation, believed health properties and even type. However, this hybridization was not restricted to just chocolate, but in fact applied to many objects journeying from one world to the next. Nor was this hybridization a one-sided phenomenon. The molinillo, a whisk-like tool used to froth drinks, is an important artifact in the history of chocolate because it shows that the encounter between the New World and the Old World was mutually influential and, at the time, also mutually beneficial.

During the age of the Aztecs, chocolate, known as cacahuatl in their native Nahuatl language, was primarily served cold (Coe and Coe 114-115), and one Mesoamerican method used to froth the drink was to pour it “back and forth between two vessels” (Presilla 26), like in the image from the Aztec Codex Tedula below.

Aztec woman frothing chocolate by pouring drink from one vessel to another

However, in the mid-16th century, Creole Spaniards introduced the molinillo in Mesoamerica, an innovation in the field of foaming drinks (Coe and Coe, 120). The molinillo, as pictured below, is a wooden instrument, with rings around the center stick that would shake and rattle and also create air bubbles in the chocolate liquid when spun between the hands.

Molinillo from the Hearst Museum

Beyond just acting as a frothing instrument, the molinillo, called molinet in some early English texts (Gage), seemed to also be once used to grind chocolate tablets (or wafers), which may explain the origin of its name, meaning “little mill” (Ledesma). Another potential explanation for the name is that it may have undergone a transmutation in the other direction, deriving itself from the Nahuatl verb molinia, meaning “to shake, waggle, or move” (Coe and Coe 120).

Once introduced, the molinillo quickly became adopted by the native Mesoamericans, as evidenced in this image of an American Indian with a chocolate pot and molinillo next to his feet from 1693. Based on just this drawing, the origin of each of the objects, especially the molinillo seems ambiguous, as the man pictured here may be a Native Aztec or a Creole Spaniard. Thus, this shows the complicated nature of the exchange between the two worlds.

OLD DRAWING OF AN AMERICAN INDIAN; AT HIS FEET A CHOCOLATE-CUP, CHOCOLATE-POT, AND CHOCOLATE WHISK OR “MOLINET.” (From Traitez Nouveaux et Curieux du Café, du Thé, et du Chocolate. Dufour, 1693).

Another highly disputed topic, even today, is the linguistic origin of our word “chocolate”. According to Thomas Gage, an Englishman who travelled the New World, the word chocolate (chocolatte in his text) originated as a hybrid of the Nahuatl word atl, meaning water, and the sound from which the water mixed with chocolate makes when it is stirred to frothing with a molinet (an English word for the molinillo at the time), “choco, choco, choco” (Gage). Because the molinillo was a New World innovation around the 16th century, we can hypothesize that Gage’s retelling doesn’t represent the whole story of how chocolate received its name. Modern scholars in fact tend to agree that the world chocolate was more likely a hybrid between the Maya word “chocol”, cacao and the Aztec word “atl”, water, a hybrid that first occurred in print around 1570 (Coe and Coe 117-119). In this theory, the molinillo may have been just a bystander.

Today, the molinillo is used widely in Mexico and around the world – more evidence that the innovation has crossed cultural borders many times over and has been adopted by many different peoples. The innovation itself, though originally a Creole Spanish creation, was shaped through Aztec linguistic influences and itself shaped Aztec culture and even possibly the linguistic origins of our own “chocolate” word today. By studying artifacts such as this, we can see how complicated the New World – Old World hybridizations can become, and how they can produce mutually influential outcomes.

Multimedia Sources

Works Cited

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

Gage, Thomas. The English-American, His Travail by Sea and Land, Or, A New Survey of the West-India’s. London: R. Cotes, 1648. Early English Books Online. Web. 15 Feb. 2015.

Ledesma, Antonio Colmenero De. A Curious Treatise of the Nature and Quality of Chocolate. Written in Spanish by Antonio Colmenero, Doctor in Physicke and Chirurgery. And Put into English by Don Diego De Vades-forte. London: By I. Okes, Dwelling in Little St. Bartholomewes, 1640. Early English Books Online. Web. 15 Feb. 2015.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. Print.


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