Theobroma cacao. The food of the gods. It has a long history, one that gets longer every time new discoveries are made. The cacao tree itself dates back even farther, but the fruit has likely been consumed by humans as long as we have known of it, and though the preparation has changed over time, the importance to human culture has not.
Cacao is remembered, from less modern times, as the province of the elite. Who better to enjoy the food of the gods on earth than those considered gods on earth, or descendants of gods, the kings and queens? The rulers, the nobles, the warriors, they are among the select few granted the privilege of such a luxury. Theirs are the names and faces associated with the remaining artefacts of the Maya, the Aztecs, and the Olmec. Images in stone or on clay, words left behind from languages only partly deciphered, recipes handed down, all of these things help build the picture of what once was, and have helped to create what is now.
Originally, it must be assumed, cacao was eaten as a fruit, for its pulp, and it is still unknown how or when it was first discovered that, through an intricate process, the nibs inside the cacao seeds could be transformed into something so different. When and however it happened, cacao became a beverage, and remained a beverage for many centuries, even to the present day.
The most important part of a cacao beverage, today and in the past, is the frothy head. Today, mechanical steamers create foam when milk is aerated, or whipped cream is added to the top of a drink for effect as well as taste.
But before the age of Starbucks, a foamy head to a cacao beverage was still essential, if not more so. The foam “was considered the most desirable part of the drink by the Aztecs, and almost certainly by the Classic Maya. And by the later Maya too…” (Coe, 48).
“The raising of a froth – the feature most visible to chocolate connoisseurs – required repeated pourings from one container lifted above shoulder height into another on the ground,” (Presilla, 20). This would also later be achieved by using a wooden whisk called a molinillo (pictured below)
– a tool which is still in use today. Not quite as high tech as a Mastrena, but just as suitable for the task.
Over time, cacao could be enjoyed hot or cold, and mixed with a variety of other ingredients. Corn was used to thicken cacao into a kind of gruel, chilies could be used to give it a kick, or honey could be used as a sweetener (the Maya had even bred a stingless honey bee!), but always it would come with a frothy top. “Rosario Olivias Weston… quotes the nineteenth-century traveler Johann Jakob von Tschudi as saying that at Sunday almuerzo (brunch) black servants would even froth each guest’s chocolate in the cup, sometimes so dexterously that the froth almost completely filled the cup, leaving only a couple of spoonfuls of liquid,” (Presilla, 31).
While not the common hot chocolate of the modern era (and even hot chocolate is made very differently around the globe), cacao beverages are still being made that must be very similar to those made centuries ago.
While our ideas of cacao have changed, and our particular tastes vary, our desire for the food of the gods remains.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate, Third Edition. New York: Thames & Hudson, Ltd, 2013.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised. A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009.
Common Grounds Coffeehouse & Café
The Princeton Vase, Late Classic Maya (c. AD 750)
All other images from the personal gallery of the poster