Recipes and Reverence: Understanding the Role of Early Cacao Recipes in Mayan and Aztec Culture

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.[1] Meanwhile, Stephen Houston and David Stuart have confirmed that chocolate drinks could be prepared to feature a variety of flavor profiles,[2] textures, and even temperatures.[3] 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[4] 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.[5] 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. [6] 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,[7] 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.”[8]

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.[9] 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.”[10]


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).”[11] While this is an important reminder given previous histories’ tendency to unduly credit Europeans with the discovery, creation, and appreciation of chocolate,[12] 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.”[13] Just as the Europeans colonizers initially turned their noses at the complex, sometimes bitter flavor profiles of Mesoamerican cacao-based beverages[14] and sought to mask its flavor with sugar to serve not only their own taste preferences but also their imperialist and capitalistic motives,[15] 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.



[1] Coe, 48.

[2] Coe, 61.

[3] Coe, 49.

[4] Coe, 39.

[5] Coe, 48.

[6] Lecture, 24 Jan. 2018.

[7] Lecture, 31 Jan. 2018.

[8] Coe, 84.

[9] Lecture, 24 Jan. 2018.

[10] Coe, 48.

[11] Presilla, 9.

[12] Lecture, 31 Jan. 2018.

[13] Coe, 94.

[14] Lecture, 7 Feb. 2018.

[15] Mintz, 43-4 and 121.

Works Cited

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[1996]. The True History of Chocolate. 3nd edition. London: Thames & Hudson.

Mintz, Sidney. 1986[1985]. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.

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