Upon first glance, corn and chocolate do not seem like two foods that would mix well together, but civilizations as old as the Maya combined them in recipes that people still use today. Maize and cacao both played significant roles in Mayan religion in addition to being major crops. Cacao contains caffeine that the Maya used as a stimulant while maize provided an easy way for them to consume required calories without much effort or significant resources (Coe & Coe 50). The above reasons logically led to the pairing of the two in several recipes with varied uses, but the religious connection provides an explanation for why these recipes were so common.
The Maize God played an important role in Mayan religion given that maize was such a staple in the Mayan diet. Interestingly, several times in Mayan art and writing, the Maize God is connected to cacao in some way. In one story in the Popul Vuh, the severed head of the Maize God is hung up in a tree that is portrayed as a cacao tree in the Classic Maya vase above (Coe & Coe 39). In this story, the Maize God is the son of an old couple who created the universe, which clearly makes him an important figure in the Mayan religion.
In another Classic Maya artifact, shown above, the Maize god is represented as a cacao tree (Coe & Coe 43). The fact that such an important Mayan God is portrayed as a cacao tree illustrates how significant cacao was to the Maya. This depiction also helps to explain why recipes containing maize and cacao were used in rituals and ceremonies (Coe & Coe 49-50). The two ingredients held significant religious meaning to the Maya so it makes sense they would be mixed together for important events.
The Aztecs also chose to combine maize and cacao in their recipes, but cacao was usually reserved for the elite in their society (Presilla 5). Warriors were supplied with cacao and “the all-important corn” when they were on campaigns (Presilla 5). The cacao acted as a stimulant for the warriors while the corn provided them with the necessary nutrition.
Scholars have found cacao and maize drinks on Mayan artifacts, specifically a vase that shows a bowl of atole—a chocolate corn gruel—next to a dignitary (Presilla 14). Presilla sums up the relationship between maize and chocolate, saying “One is the basic, necessary staff [sic] of everyday life, the other the food most synonymous with luxury and status. But they both bore mythical associations with cosmic life cycles, and it is clear that the two were indeed combined in Maya cuisine” (Presilla 14). As explained by Presilla, abundant evidence exists that cacao and maize were combined to make drinks and gruel, which seems logical given the importance of each, both religiously and as food staples.
Today this pairing can be found in modern recipes. Mexican champurrado, chocolate corn gruel, is one such recipe. Recipes for atole are also still common in Mexico (Presilla 14). The image above shows chocolate being whisked into corn gruel to make champurrado. It is interesting to see this image juxtaposed against how a similar recipe would have been made in Classic Mayan times. The Mayan recipe survives, but in a world with whisks, chocolate bars, and stoves.
The significance of cacao and maize in the past explains the persistence of recipes containing them today. With the understanding of the religious and social importance of maize and cacao, it is no wonder the two are paired together so frequently.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013.
Presilla, Maricel. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009.
Classic Maya vase image: http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/images-6/668_06_2.jpg
Classic Maya Maize God as cacao tree image: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/8e/41/08/8e41080bfc3e8bbc27e8031229ce0d8a.jpg
Whisking champurrado image: http://www.seriouseats.com/images/2015/02/20150202-mexican-atoles-drinks-vicky-wasik-7.jpg