The Significance of Historical Cacao Recipes.

Chocolate recipes in ancient Mesoamerica are ones of great historical significance because of the emphasis and values placed on the recipes and their preparation. The preparation of cacao was considered to be a sensory process. That is why it has stood apart from many other food and drink preparations and why cacao beverages were considered so special and unique (Sampeck and Thayn 77).

The historical significance of the cacao drink preparation.

The chocolate drink consumed in ancient Mesoamerica was universally referred to as “Cacahuatl” (Coe and Coe 197). The fundamental recipe that the Aztecs followed was for a drink that was traditionally prepared to be consumed cold. The earliest record of this drink and its preparation can be found through the writings of the Anonymous Conqueror. He wrote that the cacao was first ground into a powder. This powder was put into basins where water was poured in. The powder and water were mixed well and transferred from one basin to another so that a foam could rise. The foam was created using a specific whisking too. The resulting liquid that is formed is poured into a drinking vessel and is mixed with specific silver, wood, or gold small spoons before it is consumed (Coe and Coe 197-198).

There were three commonly used objects that were utilized in the preparation of a cacao drink. The first being the whisking tool, referred to as a “molinillo.” The molinillo was the way in which the cacao liquid was frothed, and a foam was created through a vigorous whisking using this tool. The second object used was the spouted pot. This pot was a way in which more foam could be created by pouring the frothed liquid through long, narrow spouts at a heightened distance. Finally steep-sided cups were used to conserve the foam volume that was created in the drink. (Sampeck and Thayn 77-78).

Here we see an image of the cacao drink being carefully prepared. More specifically, depicted here is the step of pouring the frothed liquid from one vessel to another to increase frothiness. (Coe and Coe 113)

As described in The True History of Chocolate, according to Sahagun’s informants, fine chocolate was referred to as “tlaquetzalli” (meaning: precious thing) and was prepared by the seller also following a specific recipe. The cacao beans were grinded, then crushed, broken and pulverized. The nicest ones were chosen and separated. The substances were then drenched, soaked, and seeped, with water being added only sparingly. The products were then aerated, filtered, strained, and poured back and forth to aerate the concoction. A small foam is created through this process and then it is removed in order to thicken and dry the mixture. The final product is a thick, condensed version of cacao beans. Water is then added to create the cacao drink. (Coe and Coe 199-200).

Cacao recipes through social classes and regions.

This emphasis that was placed on the recipes and preparation of cacao left a lot of room for individual tastes to be developed. The recipes and tastes related to the cacao drinks were ways in which a distinction could be drawn between social classes and regions they were prepared for. Although the basic structure of the cacao drink recipe was generally the same, the specificity of the cacao preparation was left to the individual tastes of the preparer. The added ingredients and seasonings (such as dairy, sugar, spice) were aspects of the cacao beverage recipe that were tweaked to customize the drink to fit the tastes of those consuming it. Comparing cacao beverage recipes is one way in which one can track where tastes have travelled and what flavors were dominant in different regions and amongst various social classes (Sampeck and Thayn 73). The drinks themselves were also considered significant. They were consumed during important ceremonies to seal social contracts and to also affirm the rightfulness of the rulers (Martin and Sampeck 39). Before colonial contact, commoners didn’t use cacao drinks in the same way, creating a divide in the social classes (Martin and Sampeck 40). This is also another reason why there was an emphasis placed on the recipe and the preparation of these drinks, because there was a large ceremonial and class significance surrounding their consumption.

The importance of recipes in modern day examples.

It has been observed how there was a lot of attention placed to the details surrounding a cacao’s drink recipe and preparation. There are carefully planned steps in the execution of the recipe, all curated to achieve a certain result. We also see that there are specific tools that are used. Not any spoons could be used for mixing, not any tool could be used to make the foam, and not any cup could be used to serve the drink. The historical cacao beverage recipes were ones of great significance because of the value placed on the recipes and their execution. There was a sense of tradition and ritual-like quality to the recipes, which is something that can be observed to have been carried through time. We can see that these notions surrounding recipes have continued on in modern day society.

In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the classic tale by Ronald Dahl, it can be seen how there is a large emphasis placed on the chocolate recipes themselves. Participants of the factory tour are sworn to secrecy, never to reveal how Willy Wonka’s famed chocolates are made. Here too, it is seen how there is an emphasis placed not only on chocolate, but on its preparation and the recipe behind it.

An Image from the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory movie, depicting the initial explorations of the chocolate production factory.

Another present-day portrayal of chocolate recipes can be seen in the movie, Chocolat. In that movie, it can be seen how the preparation of chocolate was portrayed as a sensory, sinful, and sensual experience. The methodology was a precise and exact art form, and the recipes were made to tempt the people consuming the chocolate.

Several stills from the Chocolat movie depicting the detailed, specific, and sensory work that goes behind preparing chocolate.

Current day chocolate drink recipes that resemble those prepared in ancient Mesoamerica show just how significant the recipes of those times were. Here is a video of how one can make a modern-day chocolate drink.

You can see how there is a ritual-like quality to the steps behind making this drink (and even notice how there is still an emphasis placed on creating that beloved foam!)

The cacao beverage recipes may have changed over time, but the meaning behind the idea of a recipe has remained the same. There is a special and unique notion that comes with preparing a chocolate drink and other chocolate delicacies, and that can be traced back to the historical significance of the original cacao beverage recipes. Even though a lot of the details originating from the original preparations of historical recipes have changed, the concept of the tradition and the preservation of something significant within a community has remained constant.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013[1996].

Martin, Carla and Sampeck, Kathryn. 2016. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” 

Sampeck, Kathryn, and Jonathan Thayn. 2017. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.”

Image 1: Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013[1996].

Image 2: https://www.thanksgiving.com/everyday-thankfulness/activities/dinner-and-a-movie/dinner-and-a-movie-willy-wonka-the-chocolate-factory

Image 3: https://cinema-fanatic.com/2010/08/09/oscar-vault-monday-chocolat-2000-dir-lasse-hallstrom/

Video 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XPsaNuZfak8

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