Chocolate has been a defining food for several cultures throughout its history. From early Mesoamerica to modern Europe, it has been celebrates as, not just a rich and delicious dessert, but a significant cultural symbol. With the exception of Christopher Columbus and his compatriots, chocolate has almost always held a place among the elites of almost every society it has been a part of. This post will attempt to compare the treatment of chocolate by the elites of societies across time and space, from the Maya to renaissance Europe to present-day America.
While consumption of the cacao plant began with the Olmecs, centuries before the Maya civilization came to be, very little written record exists from that time, and those that do exist are somewhat indecipherable (Coe & Coe 39). Therefore, in the study of chocolate, historians often begin their discussion with the Maya. An understanding of the importance of the Cacao plant to Mayan society can be seen in its inclusion in their creation myth, the Popol Vuh. There remains some contention as to what level of significance cacao actually played in this story, but the fact remains that it must have been a relevant crop to be included at all (Coe & Coe 40). In Mayan civilization, cacao was accessible to many, but it was considered a food of the gods. One example of this is the Dresden Codex which says of the Rain God, “cacao is his food” (Coe & Coe 41). Many of the elites of Mayan society would be buried with cacao, a symbol of their wealth.
Among the Aztec elites, chocolate held an even more significant place than it did with the Maya. When the Aztecs discovered chocolate in Mayan civilization, it quickly became a favorite drink, replacing the traditional octli, which was mildly alcoholic (Coe & Coe 75). Additionally, the cacao bean became regarded as legal currency, signifying the stronghold the food had in Aztec society (Presilla 17). Cacao’s significance among the Aztec elite can be seen in its prevelance in Aztec art. The following is an Aztec sculpture of a man holding a large cacao pod.
Since the cacao tree was not native to the area of modern-day Mexico inhabited by the Aztec, it was imported from further south, restraining the product to the most elite members of society. Thus, in Aztec society, chocolate came to be revered more heavily than among the Maya, and drinking the beverage was a sign of great power and wealth.
Almost as soon as chocolate arrived in Europe, it became a drink of the elites. Maricel E. Presilla writes, “Chocolate arrived in Europe with the aura of an exotic luxury for the cognoscenti” (25). While chocolate eventually made its way to the lower tiers of European society, it was very much considered an extravagance for centuries. As shown in the following painting, English gentlemen would gather in coffee and chocolate houses during the 17th century to discuss politics. Chocolate did not truly become of food of the people until the introduction of “big chocolate” sometime later.
Throughout history, chocolate has been seen as a food of the gods, or at minimum, a food of the elite. The wealthy of every society with access to chocolate have taken it in as a standard part of their lives. Even today, chocolate preferences among leaders are interesting subjects of discussion. When asked what his favorite chocolate was, President Obama was prepared and immediately replied with the Seattle-based Fran’s Chocolate (Guzman). In the modern era, chocolate is highly accessible to many, but it has historically been a treat meant for the elites of society.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
Greer, Rita. The Coffee House. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
Guzman, Monica. “How the Obamas Fell for Seattle’s Fran’s Chocolates.” Seattle Pi. Hurst Seattle Media, 18 July 2008. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
“Holding a Cacao Bean.” Latinamericanstudies.org. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.