The Then and Now of Cacao: Contrasting the Cacao of Mesoamerica with Today’s Chocolate

From simple Hershey Kisses, to rich Swiss chocolates, to wacky Japanese Kit-Kats, few foods have become as wildly and internationally popular as chocolate. Chocolate has a long and rich history, with the first confirmed cacao container being dated to approximately 1400 BCE (Coe and Coe 36). While many are aware that Mesoamericans were the first to cultivate and consume cacao, there are many misconceptions about the ‘chocolate’  they ate. The ingredients, preparation, and traditions surrounding cacao in pre-Columbian civilizations is very different from the chocolate many of us enjoy today. While modern western-style chocolate has its roots in Mesoamerica, it is almost alien to the cacao that the Mayans and Aztecs consumed.

One of the differences between modern chocolate and Mesoamerican cacao is the state in which it was consumed. While some might imagine the Mayans eating a chocolate bar or chocolate-covered ice-cream, in actuality cacao was very rarely consumed in a solid form. It was usually served as a drink or a thin maze-gruel.

This Magnum ice cream commercial perpetuates the misconception that the Mayans produced solid chocolate

Mesoamerican cacao tasted very different from the chocolate we know today. Original cacao was not a sweet treat. Mesoamericans tended to use more spicy and savory ingredients to flavor their cacao drinks, such as chillies, (Coe and Coe 49) peppery ‘ear flower’ (62), ground achiote, and herbs (Presilla 9). There was no sugarcane in the pre-Colombian Americas, so if the drink was sweetened it was with honey, maguey sap, or mamey sapote pits (9). This gave cacao a much wider spectrum of flavors than modern chocolate. Some flavors of Mesoamerican cacao might not be reproducible; two plants, the itsim-te and yu-tal (Coe and Coe 49) were common Mayan cacao ingredients, but the translation of what these items were has been lost. Contrary to popular belief, cinnamon was not an ingredient used in Mesoamerican cacao. This is because cinnamon is not a New World spice; it was only introduced to the Aztecs once the Spanish invaded. The misguided belief that ‘Old-World’ flavors like cinnamon were used in Mesoamerican cacao can likely be attributed to modern companies. Haagen-Dazs used cinnamon in their ‘Mayan chocolate’ flavor, and created interactive ads in which one can use a ‘Mayan stone tool’ to peel the bark off of a cinnamon tree.

 

 

This Haagen Dazs ice cream looks tasty, but is historically inaccurate

The preparation of chocolate today is highly mechanized and produces a solid product. The preparation of cacao in Mesoamerica was quite different. To create the cacao, beans were first laid out to dry in the sun. They were then roasted on a clay griddle called a comale. The shells were removed, and the roasted cacao was ground into paste on

metate
A traditional Metate grinding stone

stone slabs called metates.  Water and the other ingredients were then mixed into the cacao paste. Once the paste had reached a liquid state, it was poured between two containers to achieve a foamy texture.  The cacao was then served, either warm by the Mayans or cool by the Aztecs, in clay goblets.

293px-Mujer_vertiendo_chocolate_-_Codex_Tudela
Cacao being poured back and forth to create a foam.

One of the most stark differences between modern chocolate and Mesoamerican cacao is the ritual and association surrounding its consumption. If you were to ask a modern a chocolate-eater about the occasions they consume chocolate, they might recall a casual snack, a fancy gift box, or a Valentine’s Day treat. Most modern chocolate ‘rituals’ usually have positive associations and its consumption is fairly unexceptional. In contrast, Mesoamerican societies viewed the consumption of cacao to be a semi-sacred event. In Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, Cameron McNeil noted that “In later Mesoamerican societies for which we have data on social alliances, cacao was a primary object of exchanges between social groups, marking betrothal, marriage, and children’s life cycle rituals. In the Codex Nuttall, scenes showing vessels containing a brown foamy beverage are found in contexts of marriage, betrothal, children’s life-cycle rituals, funerary, and ancestor veneration ceremonies.” (McNeil) The ritual surrounding Mesoamerican cacao can be paralleled to how wine might be held sacred in many modern religious ceremonies.  One can see how highly cacao was venerated by looking at its use in death rituals. When examining the Hunal and Magarita royal tombs, eleven of the sixty-three containers found tested positive for Theobromine, a chemical indicator of cacao. Aside from lack of sacred rituals associated with eating chocolate today, there is also another significant difference between cacao then and now; attainability. While in modern times anyone can walk into a candy store and buy a bar of chocolate for a reasonable price, the majority of Mesoamericans never had the chance to consume cacao. The True History of Chocolate states that “among the Aztecs and other Mesoamericans… the drinking of chocolate was confined to the elite, to the royal house, to the lords and nobility, to the long distance merchants, and to the warriors.” (Coe and Coe 95)


This video illustrates the evolving nature of cacao and chocolate. 

Modern chocolate and Mesoamerican cacao are undeniably different from each other. While they both are products of the cacao bean, the other ingredients, the preparation, and the cultural attitude surrounding Mesoamerican cacao drinks are far removed from today’s average chocolate bar.

Text Sources:

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed., Thames and Hudson, 2013.

“HAAGEN-DAZS: MAYAN CHOCOLATE ICE CREAM.” Creativity Online, 7 June 2006, creativity-online.com/work/haagendazs-mayan-chocolate-ice-cream/6611.

McNeil, Cameron L. Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao (Maya Studies). University Press of Florida, 2006. University Scholarship Press Online, florida.universitypressscholarship.com.i.ezproxy.nypl.org/view/10.5744/florida/9780813029535.001.0001/upso-9780813029535.

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

“The History of Chocolate: The Mayans and the Aztecs.” Godiva Chocolates.co.uk, www.godivachocolates.co.uk/the-history-of-chocolate-mayans-aztecs.html.

“The History of Chocolate Part 2: European.” Godiva Chocolates.co.uk, www.godivachocolates.co.uk/the-history-of-chocolate-europe.html

Photo and Video sources, in order of appearance (starting with featured image):

“Two Mixtec Kings Drinking and Giving Teh Cacao Licour.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ans_21_06_2.jpg#/media/File:Ans_21_06_2.jpg.

rockerboydaniel. “Magnum Mayan Mystica.” YouTube, YouTube, 24 June 2008, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ltHkoisXNmg.

“HAAGEN-DAZS: MAYAN CHOCOLATE ICE CREAM.” Creativity Online, 7 June 2006, creativity-online.com/work/haagendazs-mayan-chocolate-ice-cream/6611.

“A Mexican Metate or Grinding Stone.” Wikipedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fotg_cocoa_d195_a_mexican_metate_or_grinding_stone.png.

“Mujer Vertiendo Chocolate – Codex Tudela.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Cocoa#/media/File:Mujer_vertiendo_chocolate_-_Codex_Tudela.jpg.

TEDEducation. “The History of Chocolate – Deanna Pucciarelli.” YouTube, YouTube, 16 Mar. 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibjUpk9Iagk

 

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