Many would agree that chocolate plays an integral role in our lives today, but how did chocolate evolve into such a loved treat in the modern world? The history of chocolate is rich and unique in its kind and being able to understand how cacao was introduced, spread and hybridized in Europe, may ultimately enhance our appreciation of the godly good.
The Genesis of Chocolate
The Olmec are believed to be the first Mesoamerican group to cultivate cacao. Writings and artifacts also suggest that the cacao had a major ritual and ceremonial significance in the Maya society (Martin). The cacao was further consumed and traded among elite individuals, traders and soldiers in the Aztec society. The cacao was primarily consumed as a beverage, carefully prepared with maize, chili peppers, and other domestic spices (Martin). More information and Mesoamerican recipes of chocolate beverages can be found here!
The First European Encounter
Christopher Columbus encountered cacao beans during one of his early voyages but he did not realize the value of these “almonds” nor did he taste them (Coe and Coe, 109). It was not until in 1544 that chocolate made its way across the Atlantic to Europe when a group of Maya nobles brought it as a gift for the Spanish court (Coe and Coe, 130-131). Chocolate became particularly popular during the Baroque Age and spread quickly among royalties and aristocratic families in Europe (Coe and Coe 125; Priscilla, 24). Chocolate houses were eventually introduced in Britain and became natural meeting places for affluent males who enjoyed discussing politics (Martin).
The cacao was initially considered a luxury good and was solely consumed by elite individuals in Europe, similarly to the Aztec society. The spiritual meaning of the cacao however was almost entirely stripped down and the cacao was first introduced for medicinal use in Europe (Coe and Coe, 126). Europeans adopted the tradition of consuming the cacao as a beverage but sweetened the
drink with sugar and substituted spices such as chili pepper and ear flower with commonly used spices such as vanilla and cinnamon (Coe and Coe, 146). Moreover, the Europeans also adopted the tradition of foaming the chocolate. Instead of pouring the drinks back and forth between vessels, they used molinillo whisks (Coe and Coe, 156-157). The French later introduced the Chocolatière among many other posh dining ware that facilitated consumption of cacao beverages among the aristocracy in Europe (Coe and Coe, 156-157). Similar frothers and dining ware were found in other parts of Europe during the Baroque Age and this marks an interesting point of material culture.
The Europeans initially adopted somewhat similar methods of consumption of chocolate as the Mesoamericans. They initially consumed it as a frothed beverage and added spices. The hybridization of the original drink was vital to facilitate the dissemination and appreciation of cacao. Similarly, to Aztec society, cacao was considered a luxury good and it was not until later that industrial progress and mechanization enabled chocolate to became available to members of all social classes. These industrial progresses facilitated the emergence of bulk chocolate and it seems worthwhile to reflect on how the chocolate that we consume today greatly differs from the chocolate that was initially consumed by the Mesoamericans.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.
Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods”.” Harvard University. Cambridge, MA. 3 Feb. 2016. Lecture.
Presilla, Marciel, E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.
Charpentier le Vieux, Jean-Baptiste. La Famille du duc de Penthièvre en 1768 ou La Tasse de Chocolat. 1768. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons, 2014. Web. 19 Feb 2016. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALa_famille_du_Duc_de_Penthi%C3%A8vre_dit_la_tasse_de_chocolat.jpg
Leone Puno, James. Roasted Cacao Beans. Flickr, 2013. Digital image. Web. 19 Feb.2016. https://flic.kr/p/eb37Uo
Mujer vertiendo chocolate – Codex Tudela. 1553. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons, 2010. Web. 19 Feb 2016. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMujer_vertiendo_chocolate_-_Codex_Tudela.jpg
Van Cauwenbergh, Joseph-Théodore. Chocolate Pot. 1774. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons, 2012. Web. 19 Feb. 2016. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Joseph-Théodore_Van_Cauwenbergh_-_Chocolate_Pot_-_Walters_571802.jpg