Chocolate has a rich history in Mesoamerica, dating back to the Olmecs in 1500 BCE. However, it was not until after the Spanish invasion in the 16thcentury that chocolate traveled outside of Central America. Chocolate’s interaction with many different cultures and societies resulted in a hybridization process that spanned multiple generations, transforming it from the bitter drink consumed by the Maya and Aztecs to the sweet, sugary chocolate that dominates the world market today. Going through a similar hybridization process was the molinillo, a wooden tool used to produce froth during the chocolate-making process. A Spanish invention, the molinillo quickly became adopted in both Mesoamerica and Europe. However, today the molinillo is depicted in mass media as a distinctly Mesoamerican or Mexican tool, its Spanish and European past minimized and sometimes even neglected all together. This phenomenon can be explained by the difference in meaning attributed to the molinillo in Mesoamerican and European cultures. However, the contemporary characterization of the molinillo as solely Mexican undercuts its historical impact and significance; consequently, it is important to acknowledge the tool as a hybrid of many different cultures, not just one.
Although the molinillo was important in the chocolate making process, an entirely different method was used for hundreds of years before its introduction. The earliest known depiction of the original froth making process is the Princeton vase of the Maya, dating back to the late Classic period.
As shown, the Maya poured chocolate from one cup to another, the height helping to froth the liquid. This was the “exclusive method” of pre-conquest Mesoamerica, as evidenced by the Codex Tudela, which depicts a similar image only eight centuries later and on an Aztec artifact rather than Mayan (Coe and Coe, 85).
It was not until the late 16thcentury that the introduction of the molinillo greatly altered this process. The molinillo, thought to be derived from the Spanish word “molino”, or little mill, is a wooden, grooved beater invented by the Spaniards.
The Spaniards found that twirling a molinillo through an opening of a covered cup was a better way to produce foam. It was quickly adopted in Mesoamerica, and by the time Francesco d’Antonio Carletti, a Florentine businessman who traveled to Guatemala to observe the chocolate process, printed his official report in 1701, the molinillo was being widely used (Coe and Coe, 139). By 1780, the molinillo supplanted the former foam-making process completely, as evidenced by Francesco Saverio Claviergero’s published report on native Mexican life that describes the use of the molinillo but “totally omits the pouring from one vessel to another to produce a good head on the drink” (Coe and Coe, 85). Clearly, the molinillo quickly became an essential part of Mesoamerican life.
At the same time the molinillo was being adopted in Central America, it was also gaining popularity in Spain and other European countries. The importance of the molinillo can be seen in a recipe published by the Spaniard Antonio Comenero de Ledesma in 1644, which stated that chocolate is best prepared with a molinillo (Coe and Coe, 133). However, the use of the molinillo was not isolated to Spain. Other European countries adapted the tool to fit their own unique ways of preparing and serving chocolate. For example, the French prepared chocolate in ornate, silver chocolatiers and the molinillo was altered to match these vessels and fit their lids. The molinillo was so widely used it was even depicted in the art of the time, as shown below (Coe and Coe, 222).
Yet in contemporary media, there is little mention of the molinillo’s Spanish influences or its widespread use in Europe. Instead, it is identified as a Mexican artifact. For example, the first link that shows up after a simple Google search is a Wikipedia article that states that a molinillo is a “Mesoamerican tool”, and the only country mentioned in the article is Mexico. Although Wikipedia is not an academic source by any means, in today’s Internet age it is where most people get their information due to its convenience. Even an article that pops up from the Smithsonian magazine, the reputable written resource of the Smithsonian museum, describes the significance of the molinillo with no mention of its use in Europe. It even emphasizes that Spain contributed greatly to the chocolate process, but only in its introduction of sugar, not in its invention of the very artifact the article is about. This begs the question, why has contemporary culture diminished the importance of the Spanish and European past of the molinillo and augmented its Mexican one? Using the framework with which Sydney Mitz evaluates the spread of sugar in Great Britain in his book “Sweetness and Power” can elucidate the answer. According to Mintz, when studying food and the objects used to prepare food, it is essential to examine the meaning ascribed to them because meaning can differ substantially over time and across cultures.
For Mesoamerican civilizations, chocolate had a ritual significance. In Maya civilization, Gods were connected to cacao trees, often born of them. For the Aztecs, cacao trees were considered the center of the universe, or an axis mundil, that connected the “supernatural spheres and human spheres” (Carrasco, 92). As such, chocolate came to have strong religious connotations, and foam was seen as an essential and sacred part of the ritual drink, or as Meredith Dreiss comments, “chocolate is for the body, but foam is for the soul” (Dreiss). Because of this, the molinillo became an essential and incredibly meaningful part of life, as the same religious and cultural emphasis that was put on foam became associated with the tool that made the foam. Yet for the Spaniards and other European countries, this ritual aspect was lacking. When chocolate traveled across the ocean, it lost some of its former meaning while simultaneously gaining new meaning. This is because the meanings associated with symbols are “historically acquired- they arise, grow, change, and die- and they are culture-specific… they have no universal meaning; they ‘mean’ because they occur in specific cultural and historical contexts” (Mintz, 153). Once chocolate became situated in new cultures, it grew to have different contextual meaning, and none of the new meanings that Spaniards and Europeans associated with chocolate was as heavily focused on foam as it was in Mesoamerica. Consequently, to the Europeans the molinillo was simply a tool to make chocolate rather than a symbol.
In this context, it can be argued that the cultural meaning that Mesoamerica ascribed to the molinillo is what contributes to its identification today as a distinctly Mexican tool. This is because although a Spanish invention and widely used, the molinillo did not have a significant cultural meaning like it did in Mesoamerica, and therefore it’s European past is easily disassociated. However, when analyzing the significance of the molinillo, it is important to recognize its entire historical past, rather than just its Mexican one, as its hybridization is an essential part of its identity, just as hybridization is an essential part of chocolate’s identity.
Carrasco, Davíd. Religions of Mesoamerica. Waveland Press, 1990.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 2013.
Dreiss, Meredith L. and Sharon Edgar Greenhill. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. University of Arizona Press, 2008.
Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, 1986.
There are alternative theories, such as Dr. León-Portilla’s belief that molinillo is a Spanish derivation of the Nahuatl world molinia, meaning to “shake, waggle, or move” (Coe and Coe, 120 )