Cacao was seen as an exotic, luxurious product, often being associated with the “luxury-loving” people of the hot lands of the Gulf Coast and the Maya lowlands from where it originated. The drinking of chocolate was limited to the Aztec elite, which consisted of lords, long-distance merchants, and warriors. The folks who led austere lives, such as priests, were not privy to chocolate beverages. The chocolate beverage was either drunk at the close of a meal or intermittently by the ruling class (Coe, 95). The association of drinking chocolate went hand-in-hand with high social standing (Presilla, 25). The Aztec royalty celebrated music, dance, and chocolate, and expressed it through poems. Chocolate was extremely important to them and so revered, that it was an essential part of their expression.
A couple of months ago, National Geographic released a rare Aztec map, known as the Codex Quetzalecatzin from 1500’s Mexico, which was acquired by the Library of Congress. It provides wonderful insight as to the relationship between the Mexican indigenous people and the arrival of the Spanish. It was during the Baroque age that cacao found its way in Baroque palaces and mansions of the wealthy and powerful. Though it had been an elite drink among the Mesoamericans, it continued with the overdressed royalty of Europe (Coe, 125). This included Baroque Spain. In fact, it was the Spanish who first married chocolate and sugar (Presilla, 25). It is no surprise since Spain was extremely wealthy and the production of sugar in the transatlantic slave trade made them even wealthier. This is how the story of cacao and chocolate went from a valuable commodity and an elite drink, respectively, to a relatively cheap product that is consumed by the large masses. Industrialization and the transatlantic slave trade played a pivotal role in chocolate’s evolution.
Chocolate on its own was not palatable but sugar changed that. The increased production of sugar is what fueled the transatlantic slave trade. In the West Indies, sugar was being produced at such a large scale, by the influx of slaves brought to work rigorously on sugar plantations in the Caribbean and Central America, even to the detriment of their health. For many of the colonizers, the well-being of the slaves were the least of their concerns since they could just bring in more slaves. The demand for sugar by the Europeans and the money to be made was just too great to care about any human rights since in their eyes, slaves were less than human, they were property. An example of a mill that was used in the production of sugar by the colonizers is still standing to this day in Aguada, Puerto Rico. I visited it in person last year and it is quite a scary site, not just because of its run-down condition but moreover because one can almost feel the horrific conditions that the workers underwent in the mill.
It is not a coincidence that the rise of sugar production and consumption gave rise to the production of cacao and chocolate consumption. Hence, the success of chocolate was the success of sugar (Mintz, 114). The uses of sugar as a sweetener grew, not just for chocolate beverages, but for chocolate food products, such as bars and brownies. New foods and beverages were incorporated into daily life unusually fast, and sugar played an important role (Mintz, 120). Many companies can be attributed to incorporating chocolate into our daily lives as a “must-have” pantry staple. To their credit, they created powerful messages via advertising mediums, which made sure the message they conveyed was loud and clear, even if the ads were not necessarily truthful. Hershey’s had an impeccable way of creating the image of chocolate as a healthy food item that could be used as a meal in itself. Not only as a meal, but as a health supplement that would lead to great health according to the ad’s claims, by showing a mom and her two kids using chocolate to keep the family healthy and as stepping stones to even greater health. The ad does not have many words but the artwork itself depicts everything you need to know about chocolate and particularly, Hershey’s chocolate. Simply put, if you wanted better health then you must have Hershey’s chocolate. Part of what moved chocolate into the mainstream, beyond technology and the advancement of sugar production, is smart advertising like the ones shown here.
But we can’t blame Hershey’s for taking the health approach to sell more chocolate. Even today, it is being marketed and branded as a health food. In fact, it is being taken a step further by incorporating “healthy” ingredients. But let’s be clear, it’s still candy. Here is a recent NY Times article celebrating new “healthy” chocolate products on the market currently.
Chocolate–a product that evolved from an elite status to an everyday food–can be attributed to the way technology had helped rev up the manufacturing of it and thus making it more widely available and accessible. Interestingly enough, as with most food products these days, the old way of making chocolate is making a comeback, as more people are craving quality and traceability. So the everyday-comfort-food has been getting a makeover in fine cacao production. Here’s a look at the ancient art of chocolate-making in Guatemala.
On the other side of that equation is the mass-produced version at Cadbury. To portray the image of quality, their chocolate-makers wear white lab coats, which make them appear as expert chocolatiers. Granted Cadbury has years of experience making chocolate but it’s quite a contrast from the above video in ancient chocolate-making.
It’s hard to imagine a world where chocolate was limited to the few especially since it so ubiquitous in our lives now. Whether you visit a coffee shop or a local food mart, you will be hard-pressed not to find chocolate in some form. Though it is easily accessible by the general population and not just by the elite, when it comes to quality, it seems that it is still the wealthy elite that will be able to afford to purchase the best stuff. Yes, society has changed and technology has advanced but human nature still covets the category of limited edition. It seems, some things never change.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate (Thames & Hudson Ltd, London, 2013)
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (Penguin Random House LLC, New York, 1985)
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes (Crown Publishing Group, New York, 2009)
Miller, Greg. “Rare Aztec Map Reveals a Glimpse of Life in 1500s Mexico.” National Geographic, (Dec. 2017) Online Edition.
Molvar, Kari. “The New Healthier Chocolate.” The New York Times, (Feb. 2018) Online Edition.
Image and Video Credits
Cioccolato Appassionato image: http://www.vintageadbrowser.com/clothes-ads-misc-years/6
Hershey’s images: https://storify.com/AAAS119x308/the-history-of-hershey-advertising
Sugar Mill Aguada, PR image: personal, 2016.
Central Coloso Sugar Mill video. Directed by Julio Pascual, 2016.
“The Ancient Art of Chocolate Making.” National Geographic video, September 11, 2017.
“Chocolate Making at Cadbury World.” YouTube video, June 5, 2017.