The Long Intercontinental and Multiethnic Career of the Mesoamerican Metate

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Figure 1: A Traditional Mesoamerican Metate and Mano

          In order to create their sacred chocolate drink, pre-Columbian Mesoamerican women kneeled on the ground to pulverize roasted beans with a mano on a curved grinding stone called a metate, which together act as a horizontal version of a mortar and pestle (Mcanany and Murata 12).  During this “gendered labor”, women added damp corn masa as well as other spices, “such as chile pepper, vanilla, and annatto”, to the cacao (Mcanany and Murata 12).  Originating as early as 7000 BCE, these grinding stones are some of the oldest domestic tools in the Americas (“Metate”).  This simple invention spread hand-in-hand with the popularization of cacao in Europe.  Due to its involvement in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican chocolate production and its persistence as a pillar of Latin American food traditions, its pervasive adoption by Europeans, and its influence on the modern, niche chocolate industry, the metate proves to be one of the most important artifacts in the history of chocolate.

Enjoying “an amazing intercontinental and multiethnic career”, metates rank among the few elements of the chocolate-making process that Europeans did not alter (Presilla 26).  In order to appeal to a European audience and “cross the ethnocentric taste barrier” between Mesoamericans and Europeans, chocolate had to undergo a hybridization process (Coe and Coe 114).  This hybridization changed or modified nearly everything about the chocolate-making and chocolate-consuming processes.  Instead of following Aztec customs of drinking chocolate at cold or at room temperature, Europeans “insisted on taking chocolate hot” (Coe and Coe 115).  In regard to the recipe, Europeans regularly sweetened the drink with cane sugar, and invaders introduced “Old World spices”, such as cinnamon, anise seed, and black pepper, in place of native Mesoamerican flavorings (Coe and Coe 115).  Europeans even replaced the method of obtaining the greatly desired froth of the drink.  While native Mesoamerican women customarily poured the liquid from one vessel to another from a height to achieve frothiness in the drink, Europeans used “a large, wooden swizzle-stick called a molinillo”(Coe and Coe 115).  Despite all these changes during the European adoption of chocolate, the metate was embraced by Europeans in the same capacity as it was used by Mesoamericans.

The age of mechanization of chocolate manufacturing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries made the metate obsolete, yet the device continued to be used in Latin America as a symbol of tradition and in Europe by artisanal confectioners.  Beginning in the sixteenth century the Mesoamerican invention of the metate and the technique perfected by the Aztecs and Maya of grinding up roasted cacao beans on it “travelled everywhere that cacao was turned into chocolate” (Presilla 180).  The metate instantly became a popular device in Europe; “The metate became as much at home in Spain, France (where it was called “the Spanish stone”), and the Philippines as in Mexico” (Presilla 26).  Figure 2 shows a carving from de Blegny’s 1687 treatise, depicting a European man using a metate to grind heated cacao beans.  This depiction is notable because European men took up the craft of chocolate-making in European, which was viewed as a woman’s task in Mesoamerica.

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 4.35.59 PM.pngFigure 2: European gentleman grinding cacao beans from de Blegny’s 1687 treatise

The industrial revolution marks a shift away from using the metate in favor of machine processes in the late 1700s, such as M. Doret’s hydraulic machine to grind chocolate and form a paste.  However, this transition to machine-based chocolate production took time, and cacao beans continued to be ground by hand (Coe and Coe 227).  The “ancient ways of making chocolate” persisted in “isolated pockets within Southern Europe” (Coe and Coe 233).  Confectioners in southern France in the 1870s continued to use metates as did the Romanengo chocolate establishment in Italy, which “still had stones to grind the cacao” as late as 1989 (Coe and Coe 233).  In fact, the industrialization of the chocolate industry made many consumers distrust the quality of the chocolate they purchased, which bolstered the artisanal chocolate industry and its use of metates as the artisanal chocolate was perceived as purer.  For example, Catalan chocolate makers in Spain encouraged observers to witness the chocolate being made with the metate to demonstrate to the buyer “that the chocolate he is buying is true-stone ground chocolate, made according to a procedure which…makes it more difficult to add adulterants” (Coe and Coe 233).

Figure 3:  Preparing Drinking Chocolate Near Oaxaca, Mexico

Today, many Latin Americans pay homage to their ancestors by using the traditional metate in making chocolate, and the niche chocolate industry often derives their techniques and tastes from this ancient style of chocolate production.  As shown in the video of Figure 3, a Mexican woman from Teotítlan Del Valle makes a traditional chocolate drink using a mano and a metate over a flame.  Alex Whitmore, CEO of Taza Chocolate, “brought a taste of Mexico to Somerville”, Massachusetts by making “authentic stone ground chocolate” (Hofherr) (Figure 4).  After apprenticing with Mexican molineros and “learning their ancient chocolate-making secrets”, Alex decided to use simple rotary stone mills derivative of the metate to create a chocolate with a “gritty, rustic texture” and be “one of a handful of companies in the country that are bean-to-bar chocolate makers” (Hofherr).  Taza and its rival companies symbolize a retreat to the roots of chocolate production and the traditional tools involved in the process.

taza_chocolate_mission_largeFigure 4: Taza Chocolate Mission

          Ultimately, the metate proves to be one of the most important instruments in the history of chocolate.  From its humble origins in the Maya and Aztec civilizations to its widespread adoption all over Europe, the metate enjoyed “an amazing intercontinental and multiethnic career”, transcending vastly different cultures and enduring the test of time (Presilla 26).  Due to the longevity and geographical range of its use and to the influence it has on contemporary niche confectioners, the metate helped shape the history of chocolate as we know it today.

Works Cited

A Mexican Metate, or Grinding Stone. Digital image. Mexicolore. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Mar. 2017.            <http://mexicolore.co.uk/images-4/482_03_2.jpg&gt;.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and              Hudson, 2013. Print.

Hofherr, Justine. “CEO Desk: How Taza Chocolate’s founder brought a taste of Mexico to             Somerville.” Boston.com. The Boston Globe, 23 Feb. 2016. Web. 8 Mar. 2017,                               https://www.boston.com/jobs/jobs-news/2016/02/23/ceo-desk-how-taza-                               chocolates-founder-brought-a-taste-of-mexico-to-the-east-coast

Le bon usage du thé, du caffee et du chocolat. Digital image. Rachellaudan.com. Rachel Laudan,           18 July 2010. Web. 9 Mar. 2017.

Mcanany, Patricia A., and Satoru Murata. “America’s First Connoisseurs of Chocolate.”               Food and Foodways 15. 1-2 (2007): 7-30. Taylor & Francis Online. Web. 8 Mar. 2017.

“Metate.” Mexicolore, 8 Mar. 2017, http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/artefacts/metate

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised: A Cultural and Natural History of                        Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.

Taza Chocolate Mission. Digital image. Taza Chocolate. Taza Chocolate, n.d. Web. 9 Mar.                   2017.

Wilmo55. “Preparing drinking chocolate near Oaxaca, Mexico.” Youtube. The Sunday                     Supper Project, 25 Apr. 2010. Web. 9 Mar. 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?               v=GlAg7zIR57k>.

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