Until very recently, chocolate had a reputation as a health food. In pre-colonial Mesoamerica and early modern Europe, chocolate was associated with the divine and with material wealth. As chocolate became an industrially-produced and widely-available commodity in the 19th century, chocolate was seen as “healthy” because it was a calorically dense and affordable luxury — fuel for an ever-expanding working class. While Americans and Europeans largely stopped associating chocolate with health by the late 20th century, chocolate’s reputation is being rehabilitated in the 21st century. We now see chocolate — particularly dark chocolate and unsweetened cocoa products — as cancer-fighting antioxidants, as components of a “balanced, natural” diet, as indulgent and curative superfoods. These shifting narratives around chocolate and health reflect broader historical narratives about what it meant to be healthy and who deserved access to healthy foods. In the age of wellness culture, perhaps we can see our newest “chocolate as superfood” narrative as a return to the centuries-old notion of chocolate as an elite luxury.
Long before Spain, Portugal, and France colonized Mesoamerica, the Aztecs understood cacao as a divine and invigorating food. Cacao’s caffeine energized laborers and cacao was mixed with hearty ingredients like corn to create a filling meal replacement (Coe, Chapter 2). While cacao was available to common people in limited quantities, it was most commonly consumed by priests and the nobility (Coe, Chapter 2). It was both an expensive luxury food and a key element in religious rituals and myths. For example, in this pre-Columbian Aztec document, the cacao tree is depicted as the “tree of life,” a sort of divine bridge connecting the heavens, the Earth, and the underworld (Coe, Chapter 2). These conceptions of cacao as a divine, life-giving substance and a very healthy food were inextricably linked in Aztec culture. In this way, cacao represented access to both health and wealth.
In the age of colonialism, early modern Europeans also understood cacao and chocolate through this paradigm of health, wealth, and divinity. Because it was novel, delicious, and relatively rare (especially as cacao production dropped under the encomienda system), Europeans came to see chocolate as an otherworldly and medicinal luxury. Chocolate initially challenged European ideas about religion and medicine. For example, there was much debate over whether Catholics should be allowed to consume such a rich and exotic substance during Lent, and Pope Alexander VII had to issue an edict declaring chocolate permissible in the 17th century to put this debate to rest (Ball, 2000). However, Europeans quickly came to see chocolate as a health food. Like newly-available stimulants coffee and tea, chocolate provided quick energy. European doctors prescribed chocolate to treat a variety of ailments, ranging from malnutrition to smallpox (Lippi, 2013). In this period, thinness and disease were associated with poverty, and poverty was associated with moral inferiority (Himmelfarb, 1984). Therefore, a fattening, energizing, and expensive food like chocolate easily fit into early modern Europe’s understanding of what it meant to be healthy.
In contrast, the industrial age democratized chocolate and millions of working class Europeans and Americans could enjoy chocolate’s “health benefits” for the first time. Instead of a luxurious health food, chocolate was now fuel for blue collar workers. For example, in this turn-of-the-century advertisement, chocolate is depicted as a quick snack for burly factory workers. In declaring that their chocolate “[made] strong men stronger,” Cadbury positioned chocolate as a utilitarian health food, not just a sweet treat.
Fig. 1: Aldin, Cecil. Cadbury’s Cocoa Makes Strong Men Stronger. Cadbury.com, c. 1900. https://tinyurl.com/ycw95smb
Cadbury also employed images of rosy-cheeked children and glowing women to encourage consumers of every gender and socioeconomic class to use chocolate to improve their health. In this mid-twentieth century advertisement, women are advised to consume the chocolate drink Ovaltine for “restful sleep,” “vitality,” and “morning freshness.”
Fig 2: Ovaltine Advertisement. Flickr.com, c. 1940. https://tinyurl.com/y7djkts3
Chocolate’s position as a widely-available health elixir in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries represented a radical reimagining of who chocolate was for — and in many ways, a reimagining of who health was for. As western economies increasingly relied on industrial labor, the governments of these newly-industrialized countries subsidized and encouraged the consumption of “invigorating” and “healthy” foods, including chocolate (Ludlow, 2012). This reorientation of westerners’ attitude toward chocolate and health can be best understood as a shift in the means of production and the construction of value. When wealth was produced through land (e.g. agriculture and rents), aristocrats could afford to maintain their health through chocolate consumption and their health was prioritized. However, when western economies industrialized, labor created wealth more directly, and individual consumers and governments had both the means and incentive to prioritize workers’ health.
In the past few decades, chocolate lost its reputation as a healthy food. After World War II, malnutrition and contagious diseases no longer plagued wealthy western countries as they had in the early modern or industrial periods. Instead, consumers’ health anxieties centered around diet-related lifestyle diseases like heart disease. Fewer and fewer people in these wealthy countries performed manual labor, so calorie-dense, “invigorating” foods were no longer a necessity. Sugary, fatty foods like chocolate were no longer healthy. In fact, chocolate was blamed for a range of health problems, including acne and diabetes (“Global Health Risks” 2009). Chocolate has only been redeemed as part of the “whole foods” movement of the past few years. This movement can be understood as a cultural shift toward an organic, “natural” diet. In the era of cold pressed juice and quinoa, lightly sweetened and “unprocessed” chocolate products have been reframed as life-prolonging foods. Chocolate’s antioxidants, “healthy fats,” and origins as a hand-harvested and fermented crop make it an attractive choice for health-conscious consumers (Beluz, 2017). Of course, these “healthy” chocolate products don’t come cheap. As we see below, Amazon.com sells bags of raw, organic cacao nibs for over $20 per bag.
Fig. 3: Screenshot. Amazon.com, accessed Mar 21, 2018. https://tinyurl.com/ya3jdcka
These chocolate products are largely inaccessible to poor and working class people, even in wealthy western countries. This modern association of chocolate, health, and wealth more closely resembles early modern Europe’s conception of chocolate as an exotic health tonic for the wealthy, rather than the industrial era’s understanding of chocolate as humble fuel for the working class. We must consider whether our reimagining of the association between chocolate and health is symptomatic of a broader late-capitalist turn away from the interests of the working class.
Ball, Ann. “When the Church Said ‘No’ to Chocolate.” Mexconnect.com, Jan 1 2000. http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/1469-when-the-church-said-no-to-chocolate
Belluz, Julia. “Dark Chocolate is Now a Health Food. Here’s How That Happened.” Vox.com, Oct 18, 2017. https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2017/10/18/15995478/chocolate-health-benefits-heart-disease
Coe, Sophie and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 1996.
“Global Health Risks: Mortality and Burden of Disease Attributable to Selected Major Risks.” World Health Organization, 2009. http://www.who.int/healthinfo/global_burden_disease/GlobalHealthRisks_report_full.pdf
Himmelfarb, Gertrude. “The Idea of Poverty.” History Today, vol. 34, no. 4, Apr 1984. https://www.historytoday.com/gertrude-himmelfarb/idea-poverty
Lippi, Donatella. “Chocolate in History: Food, Medicine, and Medi-Food.” Nutrients, vol. 5, no. 5, 2013. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3708337/
Ludlow, Helen. “Ghana, Cocoa, Colonialism, and Globalisation: Introducing Historiography.” Yesterday and Today no. 8, Dec 2012. http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S2223-03862012000200002
Introduction of the works
The relationship between commercial cacao production in Brazil and compelled or forced labor is one of extreme historical importance, yet it takes up little to no space in the history books. In his 2007 work, Slave Labor and Chocolate in Brazil: The Culture of Cacao Plantations in Amazonia and Bahia (17th to 19th Centuries), Timothy Walker analyzes this relationship, and believes that his research fills a gap in current academic literature. He argues that while popular published works explicate the importance of sugar, they do little to understand cacao plantations. For example, Walker explains that in Sweetness and Power, Sidney Mintz “argu[es] that sugar production was the primary reason for the institution of African slavery in the western hemisphere,” but what is not as well explained in his book is “the initial dependence on forced native American labor in the Brazilian cacao industry…and later heavy reliance of African slaves” (Walker, 78). What Walker’s work does not pay as much attention to, is the interconnectedness of the sugar and cacao industries in Brazil. In his concern over the unrepresented literature on cacao, he seems to discount (or at least does not sufficiently address) the importance of Brazil’s sugar production and its relationship to the cacao industry. Despite this, when put in conversation with other literatures such Herbert Klein and Francisco Vidal Luna’s Slavery in Brazil (2010), a much more comprehensive understanding of the economics of slavery and its relationship to the sugar and cacao industries can be drawn out.
Origins and Scope of Slavery and Crop Production in Brazil
In the American education system, slavery is taught to us from a quite slanted perspective that barely makes mention of slave trades in other parts of the world. We learn about the great extent to which slavery affected the United States and its enduring legacy in our institutions, so it can be incredibly difficult to wrap our minds around the idea that it could have occurred on an much larger scale. Figure 1 below illustrates the major regions where slaves arrived from Africa, and the size of the circle corresponds with the number of slaves brought to that area. Brazil received almost ten times as many slaves as the United States did (accounting for approximately 40% ), and was thus in higher demand by European powers to produce sugar and cacao commodities.
Fig. 1. Major regions where captives disembarked, all years.
In Brazil, “[e]nterprising colonists had begun to plant sugar as early as the 1510s,” but by the 1580s, two major areas in the Northeast (Pernambuco and Bahia) became the largest production centers for sugar (Klein and Luna, 25). What we also learn from Walker, is that these same areas (mainly Bahia in addition to the Amazonian region) played the most important role in Brazil’s cacao production economy. With these products being grown in the country’s most fertile regions and close to major slave ports, a special production symmetry arose. As they were grown in close proximity, they “developed a strong commercial co-relationship in American and European markets” and “[e]lite consumers learned to combine bitter natural cacao with a sweetening agent to make the food more palatable” (Walker, 84). Sugar plantations later made their way down to southeastern Brazil in the Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo regions in the late eighteenth century, which drove the slave ports in the South to receive even more slaves in total than in the North (Klein and Luna, 69).
Fig. 2. Clearing agricultural land in Bahia, early 19th century.
Changes in Demand and Supply
The increasing or decreasing rate of production of sugar and cacao in Brazil was almost always a direct response to changing demand from Europeans. The demand for slaves also directly coincided with the plantation labor demands, so these factors went hand in hand. However, an increase in demand from Brazil specifically was not only because more Europeans wanted the commodity. One of the biggest hikes in demand for Brazilian sugar (and thus slaves as well) was due to the “collapse of Haitian slave production and the mid nineteenth century decline of British West Indian sugar production” (Klein and Luna, 78). This strengthened the plantation system in the Northeast of Brazil and allowed for even more expansion in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Ultimately, through the historical shifts in demand and supply from all regions involved in the production of these commodities, we can understand the intricate interconnectedness between the cacao, sugar, and slave markets. It is crucial to consider their overlapping histories, and not view them in a vacuum in order to arrive at a comprehensive image of how they influenced each other throughout history.
Fig. 3. Relative share of Brazil in world sugar production.
Klein, Herbert S., and Luna, Francisco Vidal. Slavery in Brazil. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: the Place of Sugar in Modern History. Viking, 1985.
Walker, Timothy. “Slave Labor and Chocolate in Brazil: The Culture of Cacao Plantations in Amazonia and Bahia (17th–19th Centuries).” Food and Foodways, vol. 15, no. 1-2, 2007, pp. 75–106.
Eltis, David, and Richardson, David. Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Yale University Press, 2010.
Walker, Timothy. “Slave Labor and Chocolate in Brazil: The Culture of Cacao Plantations in Amazonia and Bahia (17th–19th Centuries).” Food and Foodways, vol. 15, no. 1-2, 2007, pp. 79.
Fraginals, El Ingenio, I, pp. 40-2; II: 173. ***Found in Slavery in Brazil on page 80.***
While chocolate for most people in the United States gathers images of candy bars, delicious desserts, or even hot cocoa, many are also aware of the more traditional style of cacao beverage produced traditionally in Mesoamerica. These early chocolate beverages made from the traditional process of fermenting the seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree, drying these fermented seeds, grinding them, and finally adding water to the ground seeds to form a thick beverage are almost omnipresent in Mesoamerican cultures (McNeil 2009).
The earliest discovered vessels containing chemical residue of cacao date back to 600-400 B.C.E. from Belize (Dreiss and Greenhill 2008). Traditionally, academics assumed that Theobroma cacao tree was initially cultivated by humans in order to create the type of beverage described above which involves the lengthy process of fermenting, grinding, and mixing the cacao seeds with water.
Prominent chocolate scholars Sophie and Michael Coe employ this argument to support the hypothesis that Theobroma cacao was first cultivated in Mesoamerica, rather than South America, as the chocolate beverage described above was highly prominent in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, while in Pre-Columbian South America, this drink was absent (Coe and Coe 1996). However, when examining other traditional Mesoamerican and South American uses of comestibles of the Theobroma Cacao tree, a new theory for the initial cultivation of Theobroma Cacao may emerge (Joyce and Henderson 2006).
(Video demonstration of the cacao grinding process into a modern cacao drink below)
While the traditional processed chocolate drink described above may have been prominent in Mesoamerica, other traditional beverages using products from Theobroma cacao were extremely common across both Mesoamerica and South America as well. Although many different types of foods and beverages were produced, one that may shed light on the origins of the multi-step traditional chocolate beverage creation process and the initial cultivation of Theobroma cacao is an alcoholic beverage derived from the fermentation of the pulp and seeds found inside cacao pods referred to as “chicha” (Joyce and Henderson 2006). While this alcoholic drink is typically associated with pre-Columbian cultures in South America, and the nonalcoholic processed chocolate beverage discussed initially is associated with pre-Columbian cultures in Mesoamerica, there is evidence to suggest that alcoholic drinks made from fermenting the pulp of cacao pods were produced in pre-Columbian Mayan and Aztec Mesoamerica as well (Joyce and Henderson 2006).
(Video demonstrating the cacao pulp fermentation process)
As such, the discovery of the production of chicha may paint a new picture for the initial cultivation of Theobroma cacao. It does not make intuitive sense to reason that Theobroma cacao was initially cultivated to make the non-alcoholic chocolate beverage, as it is complex lengthy multistep process without clear initial benefits. It makes more sense to hypothesize that the traditional ground nonalcoholic beverage may have arisen out of the byproducts of brewing chicha, as chicha is a necessary byproduct of creating the nonalcoholic traditional chocolate beverage (Joyce and Henderson 2006). This narrative points to the initial cultivation of Theobroma cacao in order to make chicha. The benefits of the fermentation of the seeds would have then become discovered as a byproduct of the fermentation process to make chicha. In fact, the fermented cacao seeds may have then been eaten as a source of dietary fat, similar to how palm seeds were eaten in Mesoamerica for their rich fat content (Joyce and Henderson 2006). Additionally, cacao seeds would have been impossible to separate from the pulp prior to fermentation due to the gluey texture of the cacao pulp.
This new narrative of the non-alcoholic chocolate drink arising out of the chicha fermentation process possesses further implications for the history of cacao in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. There is widespread evidence of the ritualized nature of serving cacao as a means of social performance (Dreiss and Greenhill 2008). The serving of the traditional cacao beverage utilized special serving and preparing vessels across Mesoamerica. Later pottery vessels from the post classic period (1000-1521 C.E.) are designed with a flared neck in order to facilitate frothing when pouring into cups, a necessary step for the traditional cacao drink to suspend the ground seeds in water in order to acquire the correct consistency (Joyce and Henderson 2006). Older pottery vessels tend to have narrow taller necks, which are not as suited to this frothing technique.
The new flared neck bottle form develops around 900-700 B.C.E. In the social ceremonies in which cacao was served, the hosting party would create social debt to honor guests through the serving a feast prepared specifically for the guests (McNeil 2009). However, a fermented drink such as chicha would have already been in production due to the lengthy fermentation process. Fermented drinks would not have been given the same credit as the specifically prepared feasts for ceremonial occasions. Creating a performance out of serving the beverage would then circumvent this issue (Joyce and Henderson 2006). These types of drink serving performances were commonplace with traditional non-alcoholic cacao beverages in later Mesoamerican society, with the hosting party adding other ingredients such as flowers or ground seeds at the time of serving (Dreiss and Greenhill 2008). The process of grinding cacao seeds into a fine meal, may have originated as a method to increase the amount of social debt and honor to guests as the ground seeds were added to fermented cacao beverages at the time of serving. As such, these grounds had to be frothed into the drink at the time of serving creating a performance aspect to the drink. Therefore, this necessary performance aspect of the fermented drink may be the origins of the non-alcoholic varieties made from ground seeds and water which became universal across Mesoamerica (Joyce and Henderson 2006).
Through examination of the use of fermented cacao beverages, we reanalyzed the narrative of the origin of the cultivation of Theobroma cacao and discovered a potential new and enlightening prelude to the traditional origin story of modern cacao products. Cacao may have been first used in order to create the alcoholic “chicha” beverage which then gave rise to the traditional multistep nonalcoholic cacao beverage as a byproduct of complex serving performances of the alcoholic one during social ceremonies to honor guests.
Christian, Mark. “A CONCISE HISTORY OF CHOCOLATE.” The C-Spot, www.c-spot.com/atlas/historical-timeline/.
Coe, Sophie D and Coe Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 1996.
Dreiss, Meredith L., and Greenhill, Sharon. Chocolate : Pathway to the Gods. University ofArizona Press, 2008.
George, Andy. “Fermenting & Roasting | How to Make Everything: Chocolate Bar.” YouTube,How to Make Everything, 11 Feb. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=mUJ0heMcE-g.
Gross, Robin. “How to Make Authentic Mexican Hot Chocolate (Chocolate Caliente).” The Spruce, 30 Aug. 2017, http://www.thespruce.com/authentic-mexican-hot-chocolate-4148366.
Joyce, Rosemary A, and Henderson, John S. “The Development of Cacao Beverages in Formative Mesoamerica.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, University Press of Florida, 2006.
McNeil, C. L..Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao. Gainesville: UniversityPress of Florida, 2009. Project MUSE,
Oneil, Megan E. “Chocolate, Food of the Gods, in Maya Art.” Unframed, LACMA, 27 Oct. 2016, unframed.lacma.org/2016/10/27/chocolate-food-gods-maya-art.
wilmo55. “Preparing Drinking Chocolate near Oaxaca, Mexico.” YouTube, YouTube, 25 Apr.2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GlAg7zIR57k.
When Americans think “slavery” they most likely picture the one below, a middle school taught history of blacks on southern plantations underneath the blazing sun picking cotton for hours a day with little pay or none.
The symbolic image of a whip for lashings might also come to mind, or the political divisiveness caused by the institution necessitating a Civil War that still lingers in the air today. Maybe they remember a bit more than average and can recall tobacco as the first American “cash crop”, or can picture the simplistic, triangular slave trade as the united states imported bodies from Africa and exported goods to Europe. All these thoughts and perceptions however, stem from the misconception of slavery being uniquely held to North America with some involvement from the British, and negates the truth of slavery preceding colonization into the new world of the Americas with the United States’ component having only a minimal impact. This is important as one must first understand slavery and the slave trade in the new world at it’s conception to fully grasp the context of slavery in the United States. To do this, one must see sugar as the crop that financed the origins of the slave trade, and not the cotton or tobacco crops of North America. Once you do this, you realize that the simple triangular slave trade, is not so simple, and looks more like the one seen below.
To examine why and how sugar came to be the crop that altered afro-american relationships forever, one must look no further than the West Indies and South America. At one point or another, small island countries such as Haiti, Cuba, and Jamaica were major financial supporters of their European owners. Just as an example, in the late 1700s, Haitian sugar provided nearly half the value of french trade, and exported about half of the world’s sugar production.. In their paper, Sweet Diversity: Colonial Goods and the Rise of European Living Standards after 1492, Hersh and Voth explain the demand:
“As the price of sugar declined, consumption spread to the lower classes. It was frequently used as a substitute for a protein source, consumed in the absence of meat when and where meat was too expensive. Though the simple carbohydrates from sugar do not have all the nutritional qualities of a protein source, its consumption offered calories at a time where energy availability may have severely constrained labor input (Fogel 1994). In addition, sugar was used to add sweetness and calories to food and drink, especially to tea or coffee, or added in liquid or powdered form to a whole range of foods … Sugar was also used in medicines. Combining caffeinated drinks with sugar was a European innovation, as was the adding of milk (Goodman 1995). Sweetened tea became popular amongst all classes in England. Tea and sugar (or coffee and sugar) were therefore complementary goods. For the poor, a cup of sugary tea could reduce feelings of hunger, and give energy for a short time. Tea could serve as a substitute for a hot meal, especially where heating fuel was in scarce supply (Mintz 1985).”
By this point sugar production was the result of nearly 200 years of entrepreneurial advancements to take advantage of the high demand in Europe (I use the term “advancement” loosely and only related to the increase in sugar production, regardless of the morals surrounding them). Some of the advancements made were notable, a steam engine to better crush and separate the sucrose from the sugar cane, seen below, or a locomotive to move sugar cane from far out fields on the plantation.
Other “advancements” were more logistical, such as methodical record keeping and note taking. Perhaps the most important, although, had to be the development of the coordinating to transport free labor across the atlantic and putting them to work on sugar plantations.
Over the years, the usage of black slaves necessitated the desensitizing of their owners surrounding their quality of life. As told by slavery museum in Liverpool:
“Inside the plantation works, the conditions were often worse, especially the heat of the boiling house. Additionally, the hours were long, especially at harvest time. The death rate on the plantations was high, a result of overwork, poor nutrition and work conditions, brutality and disease. Many plantation owners preferred to import new slaves rather than providing the means and conditions for the survival of their existing slaves.”
This desensitivity lead way to racism, which only further perpetuated the horrible treatment of slaves in the Americas. As explained by Dr. William Hardy of the Open University, “The long-term economic exploitation of millions of black slaves was to have a profound effect on the New World’s history. Most fundamentally, it produced deep social divides between the rich white and poor black communities, the consequences of which still haunt American societies now, many years after emancipation.”
It’s hard to argue that sugar production would become as lucrative as it was, when it was, without the use of free labor, so it’s easy to see how the exploitation of Africans directly led to wealth growth in European nations who participated. However, not only did Europeans exploit the use of labor from Africa, they exploited the use of land from much of the Americas. By exporting virtually everything those colonies created back to the mother-country, the countries who were producing the most lucrative crops on the planet never saw a share of the wealth created. This relative economic stagnation could explain why many countries which were once occupied by European ones, today remain rather poor and play catch up to the rest of the world.
Hardy, William. “Riches & Misery: The Consequences Of The Atlantic Slave Trade.”OpenLearn, The Open University, 25 Feb. 2014, http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/riches-misery-the-consequences-the-atlantic-slave-trade#.
Hersh, Jonathan, and Hans-Joachim Voth. “Sweet Diversity: Colonial Goods and the Rise of European Living Standards after 1492.” SSRN Electronic Journal, 2009, p. 9., doi:10.2139/ssrn.1402322.
“Slavery in the Caribbean.” National Museums Liverpool, http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ism/slavery/archaeology/caribbean/.
Chocolate, more so than most foods, carries a sentiment of love and affection when shared with and given to other people, driven by the notion that it can be a luxury. Today, about 83% of people are likely to share candy or chocolate on Valentine’s day, and chocolate sales compile 75% of Valentine’s Day candy purchases (NCA). While it is believed that known chocolate brands (Hershey’s, Dove, etc.) influence our association of chocolate with love and affection (they certainly do to a significant extent), closer analysis suggests that usage of chocolate as a vessel for love and affection may stem from the luxurious nature of cacao in ancient Mesoamerica and chocolate in 17th-18th century Europe and the methods by which these commodities were consumed.
Chocolate as an Affectionate Gift Today
A significant amount of advertisement by chocolate companies frame chocolate as a luxury good that can be given as a gift to show affection towards another person. This advertisement by Perugina (owned by Nestle) highlights the symbol of chocolate as an expression of love for a family member, friend, and partner. The chocolate product advertised in this instance, as in many other, does not even appear until the final few seconds. And, when it does appear, it is given from a man to a woman and eaten in a substantially delicate fashion- the way one would treat anything opulent. This sumptuous branding of chocolate as a delicacy inherently labels it as a worthy gift that shos fondness towards someone. If that aspect is not enough to influence people to think of chocolate as a luxury gift that shows affection to someone, the quote from the advertisement, “The Italian way to say, ‘I love you’” lays out the message pretty clearly, and can be found in many similar messages throughout world chocolate marketing- one needs to only look as far as the product of a Hershey’s ‘Kiss’ or a heart-shaped dove.
Chocolate as a Social Enabler in Ancient Mesoamerica
Today’s notion of chocolate as a luxury to be shared with others is not new by any means. Ancient Mayans can be seen using cacao in the context of love through marriage rituals. The Mayans associated cacao with their gods and religion- shown in colonial documents such as the Popul Vuh and the Dresden Codex, in which the Opposum God carries the Rain God on its back with the hieroglyphic caption “cacao is his food” (pictured above)(Martin, 2018). The glorification of cacao in these sacred contexts can be seen as the first notion of chocolate, or its origin cacao in this instance, as a luxurious commodity consumed by the powerful. Moreover, it appears as though the depiction of the God’s usage of cacao trickles down to carry social significance for the actual Mayan people. The image above shows their marriage ritual of the father of the groom offering cacao to the father of the bride to invite him to discuss the marriage, providing one of (if not the earliest) known examples connecting chocolate to fostering relationships.
Chocolate as a Luxury in 17th-18th Century Europe
The tradition of chocolate as a meaningful ritual via its opulence continued quickly into the assimilation of chocolate consumption in European culture in the 17th and 18th centuries. Specifically, the development of chocolate pots in Europe and their migration to Boston added to chocolate’s luxurious allure in both places: “fashioned for an elite clientele to serve imported luxury foodstuffs…chocolate pots were among the rarest silver forms in the early eighteenth century) (Falino, 2008). The creation of these pots initially may have been motivated by desire for functionality: “what distinguishes the chocolate pot from the coffee pot is the hole in the top under the swiveling (or hinged) finial that allows for a stirring rod to be inserted and do its work without cooling the drink” (Deitz, 1989). However, the functional appeal does nothing to hide its luxurious nature. In this surviving chocolate pot by Edward Webb, the base and top are decorated with intricate fluted design. These vessels made for the consumption of chocolate were desired only by wealthy merchants and a “succession of royal appointees who had sufficient funds and an appetite for the latest styles” (Deitz, 1989). In a similar fashion to the Mayans, the consumption of Chocolate was ritualized beginning in this rich form with silver pots.
The Consumption in Chocolate Houses by Elite Add to the Allure
The development of chocolate houses in 17th-century Europe add to the history of chocolate as a luxury. These houses fostered political discussion and developed what Loveman calls “a separate identity” from coffee-houses. They soon evolved into the venue for parties with other types of drinks and games mostly for gentlemen, while “respectable ladies could call at a chocolate house” (Loveman, 2013). Furthermore, by 1680, a dialogue began during the making of a new chocolate house in Westminister developing the notion that women loved chocolate in a similar fashion that is advertised today (Loveman, 2013). These chocolate houses allowed for the practice of the consumption of chocolate by elites not only confirmed to the nature of chocolate as a luxury but also brought people together because of its appeal.
When people think about Valentine’s Day, they think about chocolate, specifically heart-shaped chocolate, and love. The association with love and affection is influenced by advertisements by chocolate companies today that convince us that chocolate is a delicacy to be shared with others, and they are able to convince us of this belief because of a deeply rooted history of chocolate as a luxury item. From the ancient Mayans believed that cacao was a food of the Gods, to 17th-century European elites using lavish silver pots to drink it, to the silky smooth texture with which they are created today, chocolate has always carried immensely more meaning than the simple ingredients that have combined to create it, allowing us to use it as a symbol for much more than a bit of food.
“A Baci Chocolate TV Ad Italy “Say It with a Kiss” Valentine’s Day 2010.” YouTube. January 10, 2010. Accessed March 20, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fBkBqMZnTVU.
Carla Martin. “Chocolate Expansion.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard University, Cambridge. 31 Jan. 2018. Lecture.
“Chocolate Pot.” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. April 06, 2017. Accessed March 20, 2018. http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/chocolate-pot-42519.
Falino, Jeannine, and Gerald W. R. Ward. Silver of the Americas, 1600-2000: American Silver in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Boston: MFA Publ., 2008.
Kate Loveman; The Introduction of Chocolate into England: Retailers, Researchers, and Consumers, 1640–1730, Journal of Social History, Volume 47, Issue 1, 1 September 2013, Pages 27–46, https://doi-org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/10.1093/jsh/sht050
Marcy Norton; Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics, The American Historical Review, Volume 111, Issue 3, 1 June 2006, Pages 660–691, https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr.111.3.660
Paula Deitz. (1989, February 19). Chocolate Pots Brewed Ingenuity. New York Times (1923-Current File), p. H38.
“Valentine’s Day Central.” NCA. Accessed March 19, 2018. https://www.candyusa.com/life-candy/valentines-day-central/.
The Arab-Islamic Civilization spread the cultivation and consumption of sugar, changing worldwide habits and trends in food culture and creations to the modern day. Straddling three continents, Islamic empires in the medieval era allowed an intermingling of cultures and traditions, from East to West. “The Arab expansion westward marked a turning point in the European experience of sugar…the Arabs introduced sugar cane, its cultivation, the art of sugar making, and a taste for this different kind of sweetness.” (Mintz, 23) It would change the course of history and affect lands and peoples much far away; laying the foundations of large scale plantations that would eventually be established in the Americas and Caribbean Islands.
In a few centuries, sugar went from being a scarce spice and medicine, to a widely consumed, daily staple product of people of all economic standing, all over the world. The crystallization of sugar first started in India and was used in Persia by the sixth century. After the rise of Islam, the Arabs entered Persia and were introduced to the age-old process of sugar produced from cane, adopting and further developing these techniques. They planted sugar-cane in plantations across their empires, in Mesopotamia, the Levant, Egypt, North Africa, Al-Andalus (Spain and Portugal), and by the tenth century the Arabs were growing the crop in Sicily, all the while perfecting the process of refining it in sugar mills. (Salloum, 4)
Picture 1: Map Showing Sugar Cultivation by Muslims
In the lands of the Mediterranean, Arabs developed agriculture and introduced new crops to the land, such as, orange, lemon, banana, saffron, fig, date trees, and most importantly, sugar cane. Wherever the Arabs went, they brought sugar, the product and technology of its production with them, to the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily, Crete and Malta. (Mintz, 25) During the Muslim rule in Spain, there was numerous contributions of irrigation, soil management, and scholarly efforts in farming innovation. (Hughes, 68) These plants were used not only in agriculture, but for pharmacy, gardens, luxury trade, and arts.
For nearly eight centuries, under her (Muslim) rulers, Spain set to all of Europe a shining example of a civilized and enlightened State. Her fertile provinces, rendered doubly prolific by the industry and engineering skill of her conquerors, bore fruit an hundredfold. Cities innumerable sprang up in the rich valleys of the Guadalquivir and the Guadiana, whose names, and names only, still commemorate the vanished glories of their past. (Lane-Poole, vii)
Irrigation and agricultural practices established then has had a lasting impact. “The knowledge, handwork, commodities, and luxuries of the East were brought by caravans to the farther East, and came by shipping from the Levant to the Mediterranean ports of Spain. Seeds and plants were thus transported; thus, came rice and cotton and the sugar-cane”. (Coppee, 397) Sugar was cultivated as far north as Castellon, which is probably the most northerly point of its commercial cultivation. To the south, it was grown in Arabia Felix, Abyssinia, and the islands and the mainland of East Africa from the ninth century. From Arabia Felix, or directly from Oman, the plant was brought to Zanzibar, where it was reported the finest sugar came. From Zanzibar, the plant could have been taken to Madagascar. (Watson, 30)
Sugar was at first regarded an important spice and medicinal component and was consumed in large quantities in the Middle East. It was used by physicians from India to Spain, slowly entering European medical practice via Arab Pharmacology. (Mintz, 80) As early as the eleventh century a treatise on sugar was written by a Baghdadi doctor. (Watson, 27) In addition to the medicinal component, Arabs had a rich development of recipes and cuisine that strongly featured sugar at the time of its movement to Europe. In the Medieval Islamic world, sugar enriched many dishes: sour foods, fish, meats, and stews. Of course, pastries and jams especially were a “paradise of sugar”, using syrups made of white sugar and crystals of colored sugar. Specific sweets using sugar such as stuffed cannoli, squash jam, caramelized semolina, jelly, among others. In Europe, the names of a number of several medieval dishes reveal their Arab origin. (Zaouali, 44)
“The decades that followed the Moors’ conquest of the Iberian Peninsula brought in a dominant Arab influence—in culture, food, and drink, but especially in the introduction of sugarcane-based sweet treats… And there the foundation was laid for sugar-cane based sweet treats of the world as well…In the history of sweet treats, few “events” had the impact on Western civilizations as did the near-800-year occupation of the Iberian Peninsula by Muslim peoples. Their main sweet treat legacy—sugarcane” (Roufs, 304)
There was a further East to West transmission of food culture as well. Figures such as Ziryab, credited with the renewal of the culinary arts in Spain and Europe. In the ninth century, he moved from Abbasid Baghdad to the ruler’s court in Cordoba. He led a renewal of culinary understanding and elegance, introducing low tables, tablecloths, cups made from glass, and the succession of courses in a definite order, ending with a sweet dessert. (Zaouali, 41).
Picture 2: Fourteenth century manuscript document from Ibn al-Bitar’s “Book of Simples” depicting sugar cane.
The dispersal of Arab inspired sweets left a mark especially on Southern Europe, Spain, Portugal, and Sicily; also transmitted to the Americas with later conquests of the Spanish and Portuguese empires. Sweet dishes found in Mexico and Latin America such Bunuelos, Alfajores, and Arroz con Leche, were inherited from the medieval Arab chefs in Damascus and Baghdad. (Salloum, 8) The Arab legacy on sweet foods remains in modern day commodities, many deriving their name directly from the Arabic language. The word ‘Candy’ comes from the Arabic qandi, stemming from the Sanskrit khanda (piece of sugar). Sherbet, Syrup and Sorbet derive from the Arabic word shariba or sharab (to drink). The ubiquitous drinks Soda Suwwad (saltwort), Coffee (qahwa), and Alcohol are all derived from Arabic. Other food term that originate from Arabic, include fruits and vegetables such as Lemon, Lime, Orange, Shaddock, Apricot, Artichoke, Spinach, as well as spices such as Sumac, Saffron, Carob, Caraway, and Tamarind. Rice and pasta were also transmitted to Europe via the Arabs (Watson, 23). Marzipan and sugar decorations were documented in the Middle East centuries before its appearance in Europe, especially in festive times such as Ramadan. (Mintz, 88).
What Came First? The Issue of Differentiating Cacao Appreciation from Cacao Preparation
By now, it is incontrovertible that two Mesoamerican civilizations—the Maya and, shortly thereafter, the Aztecs—were the first to develop a vast range of creative recipes and technically-advanced preparations of cacao. Ever since the discovery of the Princeton vase, we have been able to date the preparation and consumption of chocolate-based drinks to as early as A.D. 750. Meanwhile, Stephen Houston and David Stuart have confirmed that chocolate drinks could be prepared to feature a variety of flavor profiles, textures, and even temperatures. Indeed, we have the Maya and Aztec to thank for a variety of innovative recipes that feature cacao as their main ingredient.
Heretofore, historians have used this information to bolster arguments about the ingenuity, creativity, and sophisticated nature of the Maya and Aztec civilizations. In The True History of Chocolate, Sophie and Michael Coe They describe the various ways in which the veritable Golden Age of Mayan civilization manifested itself: the erection of temples and palaces, installation of successful court systems, and development of various chocolate recipes. They argue that the preponderance of cacao preparations utilized by the Maya was just one of several manifestations of the civilization’s sophistication. Moreover, they note that cacao was a highly valuable product in both societies, used variably as a foodstuff for the elite, a ritual offering to the gods, and even as currency.  In this light, it would seem that the variety of cacao recipes were developed because the substance was already considered to be valuable.
Though the Maya and Aztecs were undoubtedly sophisticated and intellectual peoples, and though cacao certainly meant a great deal to them in its own right, I would like to problematize the assumption that they devised such developed preparations for cacao simply because the product carried monetary and ceremonial value. On the contrary, the proliferation of recipes and rise in respect for cacao are inextricably linked and intensely intertwined, two phenomena that occurred simultaneously and encouraged one another. By analyzing cacao preparations, I show how the preparation of cacao played an important role in engendering and augmenting an appreciation and adoration of the foodstuff. In so doing, I will prove that the early fascination with cacao did not cause the development of recipes with which to honor it; rather, the two phenomena were always contemporary and interrelated.
Making, Creating, and Self-Implicating: Intertwining Cacao and the Self
“She grinds cacao [beans]; she crushes, breaks, pulverizes them. She chooses, selects, separates them. She drenches, soaks, steeps them. She adds water sparingly, conservatively; aerates it, filters it, strains it, pours it back and forth, aerates it; she makes it form a head, makes foam; she removes the head, makes it thicken, makes it dry, pours water in, stirs water into it.”
When Fray Bernardo de Sahagún asked natives of the Yucatán for insight into the Mayan process of creating fine chocolate, he received the above description. Undoubtedly, the account confirms the Maya’s technical advancement—it evidences a woman so adept at food preparation that she easily carries out a multi-step process in order to achieve a precise, desired consistency. But beyond evincing the facility with which Maya women prepared this ceremonially important foodstuff, this passage elevates the very act of creating a chocolate beverage to the level of ritual.
The tone, structure, and content of this passage reveals that the act of preparing cacao beverages was itself ritualistic and profound, allowing the chef to implicate herself in the creation of ritually-significant foodstuffs. Written in lilting, assonant triads, this account lulls readers with a mesmerizing beat. “She chooses, selects, separates.” “She drenches, soaks, steeps.” These words accurately describe the preparation, but reading them is itself enjoyable. Moreover, the content implies a close relationship between the chocolate handler and the final chocolate product. Throughout, the subject of each sentence is not the chocolate but rather the person manipulating it. This woman acts upon the chocolate—she pulverizes, filters, strains, aerates, and pours itThis is crucial, for it implies that the artisan is the most important ingredient in this ritually significant beverage. By molding, shaping, and changing the cacao into a drink, the woman insinuates her very being into the foodstuff.
Certainly, one should consider the lengthy process of harvesting cacao as part of the process of creating the drink. As this video shows, this process was time-intensive and required subjective and objective specialized knowledge. After harvesting the pods, farmers remove the mucilaginous center, leave the seed to ferment, sun-dry, and toast, and finally shell them to remove the nibs that will be ground on a metate to produce chocolate liqueur. Such a process would have certainly engendered a respect and appreciation for cacao beyond its monetary or ritualistic value.
Moreover, watching the process of making such a beverage confirms what the above poetic passage suggests. Namely, that the process was itself highly ritualized and called for its agent to insinuate him or herself into the final product. As early as four seconds into this video, the maker of this beverage begins a choreographed process of a certain frothing motion and particular method of serving the foamy liquid. Just as a dancer makes practiced motions look effortless, this gentleman creates the illusion that this process is simple. However, his performance belies the forethought, practice, and repetitive preparation required to master the recipe’s flavor balance and textures.
Imbibing and Internalizing
Finally, it is important to consider the implications of the final step in the process of creating cacao-based beverages: consuming them. The Princeton Vase, when it was originally discovered and deciphered, was an exciting find for anthropologists because it “it illustrates the process of pouring the potion from one vessel into another to raise the foam, which was considered the most desirable part of the drink by the Aztecs, and almost certainly by the Classic Maya.”
As I have mentioned, this finding has usually been discussed in the context of Spanish conquest. In The New Taste of Chocolate, Maricel E. Presilla assures readers that “before the Spanish arrived, frothed drinks were often used as sacred offerings (a use that persisted into modern times in scattered spots).” While this is an important reminder given previous histories’ tendency to unduly credit Europeans with the discovery, creation, and appreciation of chocolate, it distracts readers from aseparate, important element—the implied last step of any recipe: consumption. It is easy to forget, amidst all of the talk of creative seasoning and ritualized preparation of cacao beverages, that the final step in each of these processes was to serve the beverage to a Mayan or Aztec royal. Given that the final, drinkable product was one that, I argue, functioned as an extension of its maker, this final step of any recipe is crucial to understanding how cacao preparations engendered and augmented appreciation for cacao. Indeed, it must have been a heady experience to serve such a beverage—which symbolized painstaking labor, a ritualistic extension of the self—to the Mayan or Aztec king and watch him imbibe it with pure bliss.
Potential Recipes for Success
Today, “the mere idea of chocolate without sugar seems incomprehensible to most of us.” Just as the Europeans colonizers initially turned their noses at the complex, sometimes bitter flavor profiles of Mesoamerican cacao-based beverages and sought to mask its flavor with sugar to serve not only their own taste preferences but also their imperialist and capitalistic motives, Americans today have let themselves grow accustomed to overwhelming sweetness—with disastrous consequences. These days, it seems our fastest ticket to improved health is to somehow decrease our sugar intake. To modern readers, who may be unfamiliar with the tastes of chocolate as the Maya and Aztecs knew it, the profundity of the cacao-consuming experience should inspire pause and careful thought.
Indeed, the process of making, creating, molding, mixing, and changing the chocolate—followed by the process of consuming it and internalizing it—allowed the cacao to take on a type of value that was neither monetary nor social, but instead personal. By altering and then consuming cacao, the Aztecs and Maya entwined themselves in the creation of its value and then literally and figuratively internalizing that value by eating the cacao.
 Coe, 48.
 Coe, 61.
 Coe, 49.
 Coe, 39.
 Coe, 48.
 Lecture, 24 Jan. 2018.
 Lecture, 31 Jan. 2018.
 Coe, 84.
 Lecture, 24 Jan. 2018.
 Coe, 48.
 Presilla, 9.
 Lecture, 31 Jan. 2018.
 Coe, 94.
 Lecture, 7 Feb. 2018.
 Mintz, 43-4 and 121.
Presilla, Maricel. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013. The True History of Chocolate. 3nd edition. London: Thames & Hudson.
Mintz, Sidney. 1986. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.
The global importance of cacao today is rooted in a widespread love of chocolate. The chocolate industry is one that is lucrative yet exploitive, enticing but oppressive—yet all based on the versatile fruit cacao. Cacao, named the “food of the gods” (theobroma cacao) by Carl Linnaeus, gleans its importance today from its role in the chocolate industry, but in the ancient Maya civilization cacao’s significance was as much religious as it was dietary (Luna 87). This post will explore artifacts from the classical period of the Mayan civilization (500-800 CE) and evidence of cacao’s influential spiritual significance. The ancient artifacts explored showcase cacao’s intimate relationship with the human origin story of the ancient Maya. These spiritual beliefs laid the foundation for the important role cacao would play in Mayan civilization from a social, religious, and alimentary perspective.
Cacao and the Origin of Life
As Maya hieroglyphic specialist Gabrielle Vail explains, the role of cacao was grounded in an ancient history that traced back to the creation of humanity. According to the Popol Vuh, and ancient Mayan epic, cacao is one of the “precious substances”, along with corn, that poured from the “Sustenance Mountain” to ultimately create humanity (Vail 4). Before cacao catalyzed the creation of human beings, it belonged to the realm of the Underworld lords, where it “grew from the body of the sacrificed god of maize, who was defeated by the lords of the Underworld in an earlier era” (Vail 4). Later the god of maize would be resurrected by his sons the Hero Twins, who overcame the gods of the Underworld, ushering in the advent of human life (Vail 4).
The Maize God in the Sustenance Mountain
The work of historian Simon Martin provides great insight on the role of cacao in Classical Mayan religion. The image below displays a black ware vase and Martin’s sketch of the artifact. Known as the Berlin vase, it depicts what Martin calls the “transubstantiation of man, maize, and cacao” (156). Produced in the Early Classic period, the artifact illustrates the mythological tale of cacao’s divine role. The vase depicts the death and transformation of the maize god, and the new lord who would follow in his footsteps (Martin 157). The lord who continues in the maize god’s steps is represented by the middle tree, which sprouts two cacao pods. The corpse of the maize god, reduced to a skeleton, can be seen at the base of the image.
The Maize God as a Cacao Tree
The image below is from a small stone bowl from the Early Classic era of Mayan civilization (250-600 CE). Martin analyzes the relationship between the artistic imagery and hieroglyphic text in this piece. Per Martin, the ripe cacao pods that adorn the man’s limbs and the “wavy wood motifs” which decorate his skin, indicate that this artifact depicts an anthropomorphic cacao tree (155). Although this deity has been dubbed a ‘Cacao God’ Martin argues that references to cacao in the image instead depict the Maize God as “the embodiment of a cacao tree” (155-156). Martin substantiates this conclusion through the translation of the hieroglyphs, which roughly translate to “Maize Tree God” (156). This combination of cacao imagery and maize deity inscription led Martin, like Vail, to the sixteenth-century K’iche’ Maya epic, the Popul Vuh, a mythological tale in which both the artifact’s text and depiction make sense.
The Maize God as a World Tree
This image below is Simon Martin’s sketch of the lid of a Late Classic period ceramic censer which depicts an arched maize god with a cacao pod in his headdress (Martin 167). The artifact depicts the maize god in an inverted posture bearing a cacao pod. The depiction of the god is reminiscent of the idea of World Trees, which were often depicted with inverted postures (see the inverted crocodilian tree below). The artifact continues in line with the Popul Vuh, with the maize god now appearing as a World Tree. World Trees are a vital concept with ancient Mayan lore. According to the colonial era Chilam Bam documents of Yucutan, world trees helped define the limits of the cosmos and the cardinal directions (Martin 165). The depiction of the maize god as a World Tree followed his death and consequent rebirth as such a tree.
The artifacts explored demonstrate the high value attributed to cacao within the religion of the ancient Mayan civilization. Cacao was revered on a cosmic and existential level, central to the organization of the universe and the creation of humanity. Anahi Luna suggests another spiritual connection the Maya had to cacao, by highlighting their affinity for plants with anthropomorphic structures. This idea can explain the sacred nature of both cacao and corn within the culture, both of which possess an orderly arrangement of seeds (Luna 85). The prevalence of cacao within Mayan spirituality would continue, allowing cacao to play an important role cacao in rituals, offerings, wedding ceremonies, and eventually be used as currency (Vail 5-6).
Transatlantic Taste Buds: Chocolate, Globalization and Palate Change
The Maya Bar (above) is 70% cacao solids, described by manufacturer Gearhearts Fine Chocolates as “dark chocolate accented with cinnamon, orange and smoky Ancho chile” (Gearhearts). This homage to Mesoamerican cacao recipes from Gearhearts, a Virginia-based American artisanal chocolatier, is a paragon of the common-culture legacy of chocolate’s indigenous roots. Although oranges were never an original ingredient in Mesoamerican cacao recipes (they originated in Asia, and in fact weren’t brought to modern-day South and Central America until the arrival of the Spaniards in the 1500s), the bar’s overarching nod to the Maya and the flavors and ingredients they utilized is an example of the cultural influence that this group of people had (Morton). In fact, transatlantic trade and interaction between European and Mesoamerican populations had a significant effect on the consumption patterns of each group of people. These changes were visible in the way that each culture ate and drank not only chocolate, but also dozens of other food staples. Most centrally, the advent of chocolate began an irreversible expansion of the European palate.
Today, chocolate remains a food with rich cross-cultural roots, and it carries aspects of both Mesoamerican and European influence that have persisted for hundreds of years. Though it was the Europeans who were the colonizers, Mesoamericanization of the European palate was significantly more pronounced than the reverse influence of the Europeans on Mesoamerican consumption habits. The Europeans viewed chocolate as an exotic, untamable substance, in the no-man’s-land between luxury and health. Even in the early stages of colonialization, Europeans recognized its importance and value, both in Mesoamerican culture and as a commodity. Anthropologist Sidney Mintz writes in Sweetness and Power, “… for [the Spaniards’] North European rivals trade mattered more… and plantation products figured importantly…[including] cacao, a New world cultigen and more an indigenous food than a drink” (Mintz 36). Cacao became critical and desirable in several socioeconomic contexts, and rapidly became popular amongst elite individuals, first in Spain and later Italy, France, and even the United Kingdom.
Most importantly, chocolate was the first time that European society placed a high culinary and cultural value on bitter flavors. It set a flavor precedent for the success of tea and coffee, both of which became extremely societally significant all over the continent (Mintz). Even the highly-prized froth that formed on top of the cacao beverage (below) has a European descendant in the form of the foamed and frothed milk that is instrumental to so many coffee-based drinks today. Chocolate was a fundamental case of the Europeans adapting to, or- depending on one’s perspective- co-opting, the extremely foreign chemical flavor preferences of another culture.
Of course, as with any occurrence of cultural fusion, Europeans didn’t completely adhere to traditional practices and recipes. They made several changes to the chocolate beverage recipe to fit their tastes – most notable were the additions of sugar, by the Spaniards, and milk and milk powder, by a Swede. They also assigned new meanings to chocolate beverages that had not been shared by the Maya and the Aztecs. In his book The Brief History of Chocolate, Yale anthropologist Michael Coe writes, “The Spaniards had stripped it of the spiritual meaning which it had for the Mesoamericans, and imbued it with qualities altogether absent among the Aztecs and Maya: for the invaders, it was a drug, a medicine…” (Coe & Coe 126). Interestingly, much of colonial and postcolonial Mesoamerica grew to share the same views: because of colonial occupation, mostly by the Spaniards, some of the European adaptations of chocolate ended up reflecting back to the Mesoamericans.
The culinary and industrial technology which premiered in Europe during the Industrial Revolution brought a level of physical refinement and cultural-economic prestige to chocolate that had been inaccessible to the Mesoamericans. “Eating chocolate,” as it was called, was characterized by the silky textures created by conching and further processing. Prior to the Europeans, the only commonplace solidification had been in the form of Mesoamerican “cacao balls.” These dried lumps of ground cacao and maize, which have since been replaced by balls of cacao, sugar, and flour, were broken or grated “… dissolved… in water… and heated [it] to make a thick hot drink” (Presilla 2). This solidification allowed for chocolate to travel differently and to travel prepared for consumption, contributing to the ultimate democratization of chocolate that we see in both Mesoamerica and Europe today.
The two graphics below, from a lecture by Dr. Carla Martin, detail the prevalence of certain additional ingredients in both European and Mesoamerican colonial chocolate recipes. Some of these ingredients, like vanilla (and to a lesser extent achiote), became popular quickly and are still extremely common in Western chocolate today. The bounce-back mentioned above extended to many of the common additives: sugar became popular even in Mesoamerican cacao recipes during the colonial period, and was found in approximately 40% of recipes (Martin).
Ultimately, the braiding of European and Mesoamerican culture via the transatlantic slave-driven trade had long-lasting impacts on chocolate and cacao. From ingredients preferred by each group permeating into the chocolate preparations of the other group to shared cultural significances, the Europeans and Mesoamericans would not have experienced chocolate in the same way- whether that be positive or negative- if it weren’t for each other.
Coe, D. Sophie and Coe, D. Michael. The True History of Chocolate, 3rd Edition. Thames & Hudson, 2013.
Gearhearts Fine Chocolates. Gearhearts Fine Chocolates. Web. Accessed Mar. 11, 2018.
Martin, Carla D. “Expansion”. Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. Feb. 7, 2018. Class Lecture 3.
Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power. Penguin Random House LLC, 1985.
Morton, J. Orange. p. 134–142. In: Fruits of warm climates, Miami, FL, 1987. Web. Accessed Mar 9, 2018.
Presilla, E. Maricel. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, 2009.
Photos, Google (foam from the Mexican Cook website)