Chocolate, particularly in beverage form, was a revered food among Mesoamericans—namely the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec peoples—and permeated many of their customs and beliefs. Additionally, a number of artifacts have furnished illustrations in which celestial beings were often depicted exchanging cacao beans among themselves, which further alludes to cacao’s role as a sacred commodity. For Mesoamerican mortals, cacao held a prominent role in sacred rituals associated with various stages of life that spanned the continuum from cradle to grave. However, while cacao beans and the beverages made from cacao liquor were most certainly prized, it was the foam that topped those beverages that was “considered the most desirable part of the drink by the Aztec and almost certainly by the Classic Maya” (Coe & Coe, 2013), which begs the question: why was this edible foam so revered?
Surviving codices indicate that both the Maya and Aztec treated cacao beverages reverently, “whether as the frothed kakaw beverage of the Maya or the foaming cacahuatl drink of the Aztecs” (Dreiss & Greenhill 2008). The famous Classic period vessel known as the Princeton Vase depicts a supernatural palace scene in which a woman is reverently pouring a chocolate beverage from one vessel to another supposedly to generate the revered foam. More importantly, god L sits nearby on his dais. This illustration suggests that the gods, too, placed a premium on their foamy beverages.
In another surviving relic, the Mexican Tudela Codex, there are scenes in which Aztec women are depicted standing stoically pouring cacao beverages from one vessel to another to “raise” foam. This method was both labor and time intensive but yet still, Mesoamericans executed this painstaking task with reverence and intense focus; clearly a task that was taken seriously.
By the post-Conquest period, an alternative to the labor-intensive method of “raising” chocolate foam was provided by Spanish colonists who introduced the molinillo, “an elongated paddle with movable rings . . . introduced to create foam with an easy twirl.” In some areas foaming agents such as flor de cacao and suqir were added to chocolate beverages to create a more robust foam (Dreiss & Greenhill 2008). Fast-forward to today, millennia later, and the Lacandon Maya, who reside in eastern Chiapas, are keeping this time-honored tradition alive. In their preparation, they spoon off the foam from the chocolate beverage and serve it on top of a gruel made from maize—“to them . . . cacao foam is the most desirable part” (Coe & Coe, 2013).
It stands to reason, therefore, that raising a strong “head” on cacao beverages had symbolic value that was so strong this practice remains alive today in areas where descendants of Mesoamericans reside. An explanation for this intriguing practice was provided by Dreiss and Greenhill (2008):
“The most essential and sacred part of the ritual cacao drink was the foam on top. Indeed, the ancient Zapotecs believed that the vital force of the wind god, Pee, [pronounced be] was present in everything, even in the animated foam of chocolate. Contemporary folklore still holds that chocolate is for the body, but the foam is for the soul.”
Other scholarly works describe the force pe as synonymous with breath or spirit; “a vital force that made all living things move” (Marcus 1978). This concept helps to better interpret the enormous effort that Mesoamericans exerted to produce the highly revered cacao foam and froth, and their rationale behind creating as robust a foam as possible. Cacao foam might have been symbolic of vitality and life!
Coe, S. D. and Coe, M. D. (2013) The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson.
Dreiss, M. L. and Greenhill, S. E. (2008). Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. University of Arizona Tuscon Press.
Presilla, M. E. (2001). The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
Marcus, Joyce. “Archaeology and Religion: A Comparison of the Zapotec and Maya”. World Archaeology 10.2 (1978): 172–191.