From Kitchen to Culture

A sociohistorical analysis of ancient Mayan chocolate recipes

Food and recipes are a glimpse into the intimate cultural customs and beliefs of a civilization. Chocolate, the ever-popular sweet treat, beverage, and flavor, has a culinary history that is as rich and complex as the food itself. The ancient Maya and their Olmec ancestors introduced drinking chocolate to Mesoamerica, and later to the entire Old World (Coe Kindle loc. 914). Historians have deduced recipes of these original beverages, which enhanced cacao with indigenous flavorings, additives, and techniques. These ingredients, methods of preparation, and contexts of consumption reflect not only Mayan culinary tastes, but also the cultural and social customs and beliefs of the time. Through the analysis of two particular recipes from the Lacandón Maya, this work will examine the connections between the culinary, cultural, and historical aspects of cacao in Mesoamerica.

Geographic region of Lacandón civilization in Chiapas and Petén

The Lacandón Maya lived in the cacao-cultivating regions of Chiapas, Mexico and Petén, Guatemala. The Lacandón were not direct descendants of the Classic Maya; but rather, developed from inter-indigenous interactions between Classic Maya and other cultures (Cecil 261). Despite their dwindling numbers, the Lacandón have maintained many traditions, particularly culinary practices, from their original Classic Mayan roots. This is especially significant considering the lack of written documentation of Classic Maya chocolate recipes. Any references to cacao preparation were typically illustrations and scenes of cacao consumption or social use. Despite their artistic value, these hieroglyphs lacked culinary detail, as they translated simply to “cacao,” only indicating the purpose of the vessel (Coe Kindle loc. 608). The subsequent work of anthropologists and historians have uncovered two Lacandón recipes for chocolate beverages, demonstrating the various uses, additives, and social contexts of chocolate.

Classic Mayan glyph for “cacao”
Cacao vessel, as indicated by the hieroglyphs around the rim

Secular cacao recipes and uses

One of the most significant aspects of chocolate in Maya culture was its versatility and ubiquity in a variety of different social contexts. Cacao-based beverages were enjoyed regularly as an everyday drink, in secular settings or for practical purposes. The Maya termed this chacau haa, meaning “hot water” or “hot chocolate.” Another type of common beverage was saca, which evolved from the traditional sak ha drink made of corn gruel (Coe Kindle loc. 875). Saca incorporated cacao with the traditional cooked maize and water, providing body and substance to the otherwise watery chocolate drink. Combined with cacao’s caffeine, this chocolate maize drink served as an excellent source of fuel and calories. Mayan warriors were also depicted with cacao pods, referencing the invigorating, sustaining properties of such cacao beverages (Martin slide 52).

The first Lacandón recipe presented by Sophie and Michael Coe was claimed to be for “ordinary consumption” (Kindle loc. 885). The basic ingredients and techniques of this secular recipe were the foundation from which more culinarily complex and socially meaningful recipes were developed. The main components were cacao beans, maize, and suqir. The preparation involved first grinding the cacao beans with a metate, mixing the grounds with water to form a paste, straining the mixture, and finally adding more water while heating and beating to produce foam (Coe Kindle loc. 896). The addition of maize mirrors the basic saca recipe, using corn to increase the beverage’s value as caloric fuel. Despite the practical aspects of chocolate consumption, the Maya most highly valued the delicious taste and sensation of the foam. This was created with the addition of suqir, a vine that acted as a foaming agent, and the technique of beating the hot chocolate (Cook 257). This preparation would have taken a significant amount of time and effort, especially in comparison to the modern-day electric tools developed for the same purpose of foaming beverages. Thus, it is evident that the Maya valued even their ordinary chocolate drinking enough to put forth the effort in its foaming and preparation.

72% Ecuador Hot Chocolate - Monsieur Truffe AUD5
The prized foam atop hot chocolate beverages

Sacred cacao recipes and rituals

Despite its widespread consumption among the Maya and their descendants, cacao was also a culturally sacred, ritualistic comestible. The second Lacandón recipe was intended for sacred purposes, as seen in the additives and special techniques that carried religious significance. The ritual sponsor’s wife prepared the drink “in a special cooking hut next to the ‘god house’ where the clay effigy ‘god pots’ are kept” (Coe Kindle loc. 896). These god pots were essential in Lacandón spiritual practices. They were called ol, translating to “center” or “heart of,” presumably because they served as otherworldly portals (Dreiss 57). This corresponds to the Mayan belief that the cacao tree was the center of the universe and source of all life, connecting the Sky, Earth, and Underworld (Martin slide 44). These god pots were sculpted with the likenesses of cacao gods and were used as vessels to transmit the Lacandón spiritual offerings.

Vessels for cocoa / Съдове за какао
Cacao vessels and god pots

Before the ceremonial offering and “feeding” of the cacao to the god pots, there were several other critical components distinguishing the sacred cacao from the secular. Aak’, a soft grass, was added to enhance the frothing process while beating the liquid. Additionally, to ensure that the beverage had sufficient foam to please the gods, the women preparers would simultaneously sing a special frothing song (Dreiss 58). The frothed cacao would then be poured into the god pots, which contained either sak ha, the aforementioned corn gruel, or balché, another ceremonial drink. In a ritualistic context, the Maya offered sak ha to the gods of various crops, to protect them from plagues and ensure a substantial harvest. Balché was made from water fermented with the bark of the balché tree, which was supposed to impart sanctity and protection against evil, as well as provide hallucinogenic effects to the drinkers (Cano 4). The addition of these two beverages for ritual offerings reflects the Classic Maya belief in cacao’s role in fertility. As another example, the Madrid Codex depicts the Mayan moon goddess and rain god exchanging cacao to maintain the earth’s fertility (Martin slide 38). This combination of sacred beverages highlights the importance of cacao in Maya rituals and the inherent assumption that gods too, love chocolate.

The juxtaposition of the secular and sacred Maya chocolate recipes reveals the stark differences in cacao consumption based on social context. The addition of corn as maize may be interpreted as a caloric enhancement when cacao was consumed as fuel. In a sacred preparation, this maize could also serve as a godly offering to protect the cacao crops. The consistent practice of beating the liquid and adding frothing agents was also a vital technique to please both human imbibers and gods. These recipes demonstrate the versatility of cacao and its ability to embody different cultural meanings through its preparation, method of serving or consuming, and its spiritual synergy with additional ingredients. Cacao was a delicious foundation that could be adapted to fulfill both humans’ gastronomic and spiritual appetites, contributing to its persistent popularity throughout history.

Works Cited: Scholarly Sources

  1. Cano, Mirtha. Sacred Food and Drinks. FLAAR Network, 2008.
  2. Cecil, Leslie G., and Timothy W. Pugh. Maya Worldviews at Conquest. University Press of Colorado, 2009.
  3. Coe, Sophie D and Michael D., Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson. Kindle Edition.
  4. Cook, Suzanne. The Forest of the Lacandon Maya: An Ethnobotanical Guide. Springer US, 2016.
  5. Dreiss, Meredith L., and Greenhill, Sharon. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. University of Arizona Press, 2008.
  6. Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” AAAS 119X, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University. 6 Feb. 2019.

Works Cited: Multimedia Sources

  1. Alpha. 72% Ecuador Hot Chocolate – Monsieur Truffe AUD5. 5 Mar 2011. Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/9prH1J. Accessed 10 Mar 2019.
  2. Burchell, Simon. Maya civilization location map. Wikimedia Commons, 26 May 2015, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maya_civilization_location_map_-_geography.svg. Accessed 10 Mar 2019.
  3. Maya. Vessel with Battle Scene. 600. John L. Severance Fund, Cleveland Museum of Art. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Clevelandart_2012.32.jpg. Accessed 10 Mar 2019.
  4. Mitko_denev. Vessels for cocoa. 6 Jan 2008. Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/4nzkzY. Accessed 10 Mar 2019.
  5. Soparamens. Cacao-glyph. Wikimedia Commons, 29 Mar 2017, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cacao-glyph_vectorized.png. Accessed 10 Mar 2019.

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