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/.