Feasting with Foam

There is plenty of evidence that Maya Culture (BCE 1800 – CE 1600) ceramic pots  and bowls that depict ritual on the pots themselves, were apparently created to be used for these same rituals, as part of the story-telling time for the rites. The stories include the co-consumption of chocolate, a community ritual aspect clearly depicted on the pots (Urcid, 2014). The cacao beverages appear to have a standard requirement: of an aesthetically pleasing, probably gastronomically pleasurable presence, of a foamy head. Cacao (chocolate) beverage consumption continues to this day in mesoamerica, as  a shared community pleasure. On the Maya ceramic artifacts, the cacao beverage foam rises well above the rim of the pot of what is presumably a chocolate beverage, with evidence of this in glyph and depictions (Urcid Fig. 20). Many of these pots that have been tested for the contents have been found to contain traces of Theobromine — and therefore, traces of cacao (Theobroma cacao).

A most likely candidate for the drink in question, might be a beverage akin to the Oaxacan chocolatatole — a time consuming labor intensive beverage/food item that is still traditionally prepared for religious feast days in the 21st century, using the ritually calcified pataxte, that is, the anaerobically fermented seeds of fruit of the Jaguar Tree, Theobroma bicolor (Green, 2010. Mendoza 2014).

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1 November 2014 (Dia de Muertos–All Souls Day) Tweet of Liz Acosta, Secretaria Gral. del Comité Directivo Estatal PRI Oaxaca. Empresaria, LAE Egresada y Titulada de la UPAEP.

According to Javier Urcid, Mayan ceramic cacao vessels were formed specifically with tripod legs for use in cacao beverage consumption rituals, particularly, the marriage ritual. Based on the depictions of cacao ritual on the vases themselves, the parties grasp tripod legs of the foaming bowl of cacao, where the story of their ritual is also told in picture and glyph.

Urcid 2014 Figure 20

Figure 20 from Urcid, 2014.

Urcid goes even further with this interpretation:

“…as the newlyweds shared the foamy cacao flavored and garnished with flowers and other spices, the couple could read one scene at a time; and maybe it was during this moment in the celebration that the vessel was rotated in their hands so that, aided by poetic speech, the coparticipants completed the reading of the visual narrative.” (Urcid, 2014:158)


The marriage of Lord 8 Deer and Lady 13 Serpent. The lady grasps a tripod leg to present the drink.

The chocolateatole is created from a pre-prepared brick, which is made from ground up calcified pataxte, wheat berries or rice, and cacao. This prepared brick is ground and added to water to create the foam that tops the warm atole (maize gruel). Judith Strupp Green has analyzed her experiments created with the ingredients she learned about in her mesoamerican field researches where she embedded and learned from native teachers, about the foaming drink made using the ritually prepared seeds from the Jaguar tree fruit, Theobroma bicolor (pataxte). The likely compound responsible for the persistent foam, is the slightly higher fat content in the calcified pataxte, that is, from the white enlarged seeds of Theobroma bicolor which have been buried between layers of varying materials and left in the earth to anaerobically ferment between unearthing and re-washing over a course of roughly 6 months. (Green, 2010. Mendoza, 2014)

Green 2009 Fig 15 Page 338

Green, 2010 Figure 15 page 338

Judith Green had samples of her kitchen experiments analyzed by W. Jeffrey Hurst who is head of the lab at the Hershey Co. Technical Center. The difference in fatty acid levels (specifically palmitic acid) between the normally fermented T. bicolor seeds and the anaerobically fermented T. bicolor seeds (calcified pataxte) was noticeable, in that the calcified pataxte preparations contained about 6 times more palmitic acid than the normally fermented pataxte preparations. The ritual preparation of T. bicolor seeds, by repeated burials and washings between burials, most likely results in this palmitic acid difference.

Brian Stross posits that foam equates to fermentation (of beverages) and the consumption of foaming (fermented) beverages carried meanings in sacred contexts, and therefore, alcohol consumption, or inebriation (buzz as we call it in our times), was reserved for certain prescribed ritual situations and that the preparations of fermented drinks were carried out by ritual specialists. (Stross, 2011)

In a compendium of sources by Dillinger, et. al. from 2000, most of them dating from post-contact colonialist chroniclers, the medical or anecdotal mentions of chocolate for health, ritual, and well-being in mesoamerica and Mexico, run a wide gamut of uses and indications. The article concludes the summary with the following statement,

“Chocolate is more than a beverage or confection; chocolate is more than the sum of its interesting phytochemicals. Chocolate is a part of history; chocolate tells the story of people and events from antiquity to the present.”(Dillinger,2071S)

Abigail Mendoza, on chocolateatole.
In this video, Abigail explains the method for making Oaxacan chocolateatole, from end to end. Her  description includes details about the  layering of materials with the T. bicolor seeds in the earth covering ritual, to make the calcified pataxte (anaerobically fermented Theobroma bicolor) that is the necessary ingredient for chocolateatole (one word). She discusses the ingredients, the preparations, and demonstrates the finished product of the earth fermented T. bicolor seeds, and the difference between cacao blanco (calcified pataxte) and cacao.

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Judith Strupp Green learned about the ritual burial of the T. bicolor seeds for calcified pataxte, from a family of Oaxacan Zapotec weavers. The chocolateatol in Oaxaca which Green tasted only twice in three years, was prepared for occasional feast days and (usually) consumed as part of a breakfast or late-morning meal. The chocolateatol prepared from the calcified pataxte was the highlight of the particular feast day. The similar drink champurrado, by contrast, while very similar to chocolateatol, is a commonplace beverage served daily and without the special foam. Champurrado contains only red cacao(T. cacao), atole, vanilla, and sugar, whereas chocolateatol foam, layered over the warm atole (maize gruel) contains wheat, cinnamon, red cacao (T. cacao), and calcified pataxte–the ritually prepared (anaerobically fermented) seeds of  T. bicolor. (Green, 2010)


Bibliography & Works Cited:

Dillinger, Teresa L. et al. (2000) “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity?
A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate.” The Journal of Nutrition, 130:2057S-2072S

Green, JS (2010) “Feasting with foam: ceremonial drinks of cacao, maize, and pataxte cacao”. Precolumbian Foodways: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Food, Culture, and markets in Ancient Mesoamerica. ” New York: Springer Science. 341–366

Mendoza, Abigail “chocolateatole en Oaxaca.” img.mx Instituto Mexicano de Gastronomica. 2014. Youtube.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q8sIXOZPjuY

Stross, Brian (2011) “Food, Foam, and Fermentation in Mesoamerica.” Food, Culture & Society, 14:4, 477-501

Urcid, Javier. (2014) “Mythical Past and Historied Present: Another Interpretation of a Polychrome Vessel from Nochixtlan, Oaxaca.” Signs and Society, Vol. 2, No. 1 pp. 127-170


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