Chocolate and peanut butter, chocolate and caramel, chocolate and mint – these are pairings that immediately come to mind when the modern day consumer thinks of chocolate. For the Maya and Aztec, cacao and corn was a common combination. This presents more than just a contrast in flavor; it is a marriage of a basic staple ingredient in ancient cuisine, corn, and an ingredient considered luxurious, chocolate (Presilla, 14).
Despite their eventual different statuses, both chocolate and corn were associated with cosmic life cycles (Presilla, 14). The Popul Vuh (“Book of Counsel”) was the sacred book of the Quiche Maya written by a Franciscan friar after the Spanish Conquest (c. 1550s). In one story, male twins born from parents who created the universe get beheaded in the Maya underworld. One of their heads is hung up in a calabash tree, and it impregnates the daughter of a ruler, who then gives birth to Hero Twins. These twins must complete a series of tasks and resurrect their father, who is known as the Maize God.
Mayan Maize God
Doing so allows them to become the sun and the moon (Coe and Coe, 39). On a Classic Mayan vase (Classic period: 250-950 CE), the head of the Maize God is shown in a cacao tree instead of a calabash tree as in the original story (Coe and Coe, 38-39).
Classic Maya Vase: The head of the Maize God appears on a cacao tree
Another part of the Popol Vuh includes chocolate and corn together again. Both are listed as foods in the Mountain of Sustenance that the gods need to find in order to form human bodies in their final form (Coe and Coe, 39). Based on cacao’s portrayal in the Popol Vuh, it was still considered to be of the same status as common foods, like corn, around the time of the Spanish Conquest. It seems that by the time the calabash tree appeared as a cacao tree on the Mayan vase, cacao’s place in society had significantly changed.
Cacao’s practical relation to corn, outside of ancient texts, was largely tied to its use in beverages. The Maya made sak-ha from ground mature maize that was not nixtamalized (i.e. not cooked in an alkaline solution), and cacao was one of the substances used to flavor this drink in addition to chili peppers and herbs. The invading Europeans also adopted this drink. It was used for people who were ill as well as a quick way to get the necessary calories for the day without a lot of extra labor (Coe and Coe, 50). A corn gruel known as tanch’ukwa in Maya (now called atole) was also flavored with chocolate (Presilla, 14). More luxurious drinks were also made with both corn and cacao. One savory drink, called pinole, consisted of ground maize and cacao. It was served foaming and was used to celebrate feasts (Coe and Coe, 59). The Aztecs drank gruel similar to that of the Maya, using their poorer quality chocolate to mix with maize (Coe and Coe, 85).
Chocolate and corn are even depicted together on Mayan vases from the Late Classic period (600-800 CE). On one Mayan vase (c. 683), two nobles bring ear flowers, which were commonly used to flavor cacao, to a ruler. A bowl on the corner of the ruler’s platform is thought to contain atole (Presilla, 13-14). On another vase depicted in the image below, a royal figure sits beside a pot of a frothy cacao beverage. On the floor below him, there sits a container of tamales that are thought to be covered in a chocolate-chili sauce (Presilla, 13).
Late Classic Mayan vase: A royal figure and his cacao beverage, tamales beneath him
So what happened to the ubiquitous use of cacao paired with corn? A Google search using the terms “corn chocolate” and “maize chocolate” yields no direct matches. The most popular products and recipes that use both corn and chocolate include chocolate covered popcorn, a chocolate bar with popcorn pieces in it, chocolate cornbread, and chocolate corn flake clusters.
None of these products feature ground maize in its purest form, as the common Mayan and Aztec beverages did. Instead, they use more processed versions of corn and include extensive sweeteners, while the ancient drinks were considered savory. Part of this transition can be attributed to chocolate’s role in modern society. It is now a food regularly enjoyed by all classes of people, but it is predominately viewed as a dessert or a special treat, so consumers are less inclined to pair it with mild, unassuming ingredients like corn. Instead, decadent fillings and potent flavors are what people crave to accompany their chocolate. Additionally, consumers today rarely see or work with chocolate in an unfinished state. They buy it as bars wrapped up in colorful paper and as cocoa powder in boxes.
As a result of this, there is no “inferior” chocolate product being sold that consumers would want to use to flavor bland, gruel-like cuisine. Instead, the chocolate or cocoa itself is the main attraction to which other flavors are often added, not the other way around. Keeping these changes in mind, it seems unlikely that ground maize chocolate bars will become the next big trend in candy any time soon.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.