Drinking Money: How Did Chocolate Become so Popular?

Chocolate is almost a necessary food in our diets today. However, this was not how it was first received by the Europeans in the 15th and 16th centuries. Although the Maya and the Aztecs worshiped the cacao bean religiously, the initial impressions of cacao by the Europeans was disgust. Chocolate only truly became popular in Europe after they added their own flavorings such as sugar and vanilla, compared to the popular chili peppers added by the mesoamericans. Just how did this seemingly repelling food product become incorporated into the daily European diet?

Not many people know this today, but chocolate is made from the beans contained within this cacao fruit.

The entire concept of chocolate has changed since its first form consumed by the mesoamericans. The food we now call chocolate used to be a drink, instead of a candy bar. And instead of a sweet treat, it was often a bitter drink used as a meal replacement. The first encounter of Europeans with cacao beans occurred when Columbus traveled to Guanaja, an island off of Honduras. He witnessed the value of the cacao bean when he observed that, “they seemed to hold these almonds [cacao beans] at a great price; for when they were brought on board ship together with their goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stopped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen” (Coe & Coe 108). As the Spanish conquistadors stayed longer in the New World, they realized that the Maya and Aztec actually used the cacao beans as a form of currency.

Social anthropologists agree that the island of Guanaja was the site of the first encounter of Europeans with cacao beans.

Surely, the amount of value the Aztecs placed on the beans piqued the interests of the Spaniards. Some researchers speculate that the cacao bean naturally became the unit of currency in the mesoamerican region because of its similarity to coins. They are light and therefore relatively easy to transport. Additionally, it is simple to establish units with these beans (Schoko Museum). The Nahuatl document of the Aztecs details some of the trades that could be made with the cacao bean. For example, one male turkey would cost 200 cacao beans (Martin, February 9). The taste, however was less enticing. The famous historian, Girolamo Benzoni once asserted that chocolate seemed more like a drink for pigs than for humanity (Martin, February 11). It was the fact that Europeans believed these peoples to be savages that kept them from trying chocolate at first, even though only the elite in Aztec society could drink the beverage. Chocolate was a noble, precious drink. Additionally, if a commoner tasted the drink, this violation was possibly punishable by death (Presilla 15). When Benzoni finally deigned to taste the drink, he found that it was very practical—it provided energy and was very filling. Others, however, did not enjoy the taste, as practical as the chocolate drink seemed.

Chocolate, for Aztecs, was a drink fit for gods and kings. This glyph shows the serving of a frothy chocolate drink to a king.

The Europeans did not enjoy the taste of cacao until they added their own flavors. But how could this bean, from what these people would have called a savage region, become so popular in Europe? In Aztec society, as mentioned before, the chocolate beverage was associated with the elite. It is said that the Aztec king Motecuhzoma stored more than 960 million cacao beans in his warehouse and drank thousands of cups of the beverage throughout his lifetime (Coe & Coe 96). Then so too did it become the drink of the elite in Europe. With the exception of Great Britain, only the nobles could afford to drink chocolate in the 16th and 17th centuries—they were literally drinking money. Beginning with Great Britain, the drink was slowly democratized. Men from all strata of society would congregate in the English chocolate houses, drink chocolate together, and criticize the king and his court (Martin, February 11). Chocolate would later become a food accessible to all.

Why is this important? Chocolate arrived in Europe before coffee or even tea, and the way they treated chocolate would determine how people would enjoy stimulant beverages (Martin, February 11). Though this characteristic of cacao beans may not be the entire story of how chocolate became a staple in our diets, it may lead to more insight into the history of chocolate and perhaps even the role of chocolate in our lives. The Spanish conquistadors may have looked upon the Aztecs as savages, but today we still maintain many of the chocolate traditions that were practiced back then.

 

Works Cited

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

Presilla, Marical. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Pres, 2009. Print.

Professor Carla Martin. Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. 9 February 2015.

Professor Carla Martin. Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.11 February 2015.

Schoko Museum. “History.” The Schoko Museum: The Fascinating World of Chocolate. 2015. Web. 20 February 2015. <http://www.schokomuseum.at/en/knowledge/history>.

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