Compliments to the Chef: Lessons from a Mayan Chocolate Recipe

In 2017, consumers in the United States spent over $22 billion on chocolate and ate an average of 12 pounds of chocolate per person. That chocolate is consumed in many forms: mass-market Hershey’s Kisses, melted chocolate covering a strawberry, chocolate powder warmed up with milk to be drunk, or an artisanal cacao bar, just to name a few. Chocolate has become so desirable and pervasive in our society that Kay Jewelers even has a collection of chocolate diamond rings.

In understanding the history of chocolate, it is important to consider early Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Aztecs and Mayans. In the interest of brevity, I will focus exclusively on the Mayan civilization below. My hope is that by examining a traditional Mayan chocolate recipe, and the societal context of chocolate in classical Mayan society, one will better understand both the evolution of chocolate and also Mayan society itself. At the risk of sounding dramatic, chocolate can be an incredibly powerful way of comprehending history.

The Classical Mayan Civilization

I begin with a map of the general location of the Mayan civilization (below). I have chosen to include this map for two reasons. The first is that in understanding Mayan cacao, it is necessary to think about environmental factors that dictate nuances such as the characteristics of the Mayan cacao trees and pods. For instance, cacao can only be grown in certain ranges of latitude, but even within that range, temperature and climate differences dictate the nature of the cacao pods in a given location (Coe and Coe, 2007). But the map is also worth keeping in mind when considering the spatial relation of cacao to other civilizations. From its origin in the Amazon Basin, cacao spread to Mesoamerican civilizations, and gradually to continents far and wide through institutions such as colonialization. In understanding how civilizations engaged with cacao, it is useful to keep a mental image of a map so as to understand how other cultures then created their own cacao recipes as it moved geographically around the world.

A map of the Mayan civilization

Although the so-called classical Mayan era occurred over a millennium ago in the years of 250AD through 800AD, historians have nonetheless been able to piece together aspects of the Mayan civilization through various means: artifacts, linguistics, and written documents, to name a few. Among these methods have been the work of epigraphers such as Yuri Knorosov which has allowed for historians to be able to read texts from the era such as the Dresden Codex (Coe and Coe, 2007). Being able to read books such as the Dresden Codex have in turn shed great insight into how the Mayan civilization engaged with cacao.  

Mayan Engagement with Cacao

From the Dresden Codex, for example, historians have been able to conclude that cacao had a place in ritualistic spheres of the Mayan civilization, with descriptions of the gods engaging with cacao (Coe and Coe, 2007). From the Madrid Codex, historians have learned of a powerful connection between human blood and chocolate in Mayan civilization (Coe and Coe, 2007). And from chemical analysis of residue on artifacts, researchers have been able to learn about the vessels through which cacao was enjoyed. While cacao thus held several ‘uses’ of sorts, whether for rituals or consumption, a common misconception is that cacao in Mayan civilization was solely enjoyed in pure form as a drink. Instead, as Coe describes, “pre-Conquest chocolate was not a single concoction to be drunk; it was a vast and complex array of drinks, gruels, porridges, powders, and probably solid substances, to all of which could be added a wide variety of flavorings” (Coe and Coe, 2007, p48). This serves as a nice segue into thinking about a Mayan recipe for cacao.

Mayan Chocolate Recipe

To modern-day Americans, a foodstuff recipe typically consists of a list of ingredients described in precise quantities and orders that result in an end-product ready for consumption. However, the use of the word recipe for the Mayans is much broader (Hull, 2010). From a Mayan recipe for chocolate, we can gather information such as the contexts in which cacao was consumed, the methods of preparation, and characteristics of a society-at-large.

Consider the chocolate recipe of sorts that was deciphered by David Stuart and others. In scenes depicted on vases, we can see the process by which Mayans frothed the chocolate beverage. The very act of frothing the beverage shows us a specific, integral feature of the Mayan chocolate. We concurrently see writings that mention flavorings that were added, such as chilli (Coe and Coe, 2007). The types of ingredients added to cacao help us to imagine flavor profiles of the Mayan diet, but also to then compare to later iterations of chocolate found in countries such as England with high levels of added sugar (Mintz, 1986). Finally, vocabulary related to chocolate are an integral part of the recipe. For instance, the term ‘tac haa’ related to fathers’ of a future married couple meeting and discussing the prospect of a wedding over chocolate (Coe and Coe, 2007). A vital component of the Mayan recipe was thus the social aspect of consumption of chocolate.

The image included below summarizes some of the above components of the recipe. For instance, the depicted drinking cup would be placed on the ground and have chocolate poured into it from an above height for the purposes of frothing. It also has elaborate depictions on the outside of the cup which are one of the many ways that historians and researchers have been able to piece together the very ‘recipes’ of the ancient Maya.

The drinking cup of a classic Maya noble.

Lessons from the Recipe

A great deal can be learned from what may appear above to be a simple recipe. For instance, we can think about how different recipes reflect the broader nature of a civilization. The Mayan recipe seems to focus on cacao as a social experience rather than a commodity. Sidney Mintz’s observations on how sedentary civilizations over time demand more complex carbohydrates in their diets then allows us to understand how recipes evolved to include more sugar and other such ingredients (Mintz, 1986).  

While the classical Mayan civilization may have fallen more than a millennium ago, the idea of Mayan chocolate has been both idealized and profit-ized; it has become synonymous with chocolate from a past era, eliciting feelings of more natural and wholesome cacao. The included National Geographic video (below) for instance, profiles a chocolatier in Guatemala who is claimed in the video to employ a present-day version of Mayan chocolate making. While the authenticity may be disputed, the genuine interest in understanding distant cultures and societies persists nonetheless.

National Geographic video on the continuing Mayan tradition of chocolate making

Ultimately, learning about the Mayan recipe has also made me want to be more cognizant of the deliberate choices that are made in the preparation of foodstuff. For instance, it is not only the ingredients that are selected that matter, but also the exacting methods (such as frothing of chocolate for the Mayans) that go into the final presentation.

Works Cited

Coe, S. (2007). The true history of chocolate (Revised [and updated ed.]. ed.). New York: Thames and Hudson.

Doyle, J. (2014). The Drinking Cup of a Classic Maya Noble. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed from https://www.metmuseum.org/blogs/now-at-the-met/2014/maya-drinking-cup

Hull, K., Staller, J., & Carrasco, M. (2010). An Epigraphic Analysis of Classic-Period Maya Foodstuffs. In Pre-Columbian Foodways: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Food, Culture, and Markets in Ancient Mesoamerica (pp. 235-256). New York, NY: Springer New York.

Mintz, S. (1986). Sweetness and power : The place of sugar in modern history. New York: Penguin Books.

Image Credits:

https://ancientcivilizationsworld.com/maya/ancient-maya-civilization-map/

https://www.metmuseum.org/blogs/now-at-the-met/2014/maya-drinking-cup

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