Modern Ideas of Traditional Mesoamerican Chocolate Recipes

Though chocolate has achieved global adoration, with the modern organic foods trend, people remain increasingly interested in finding ways to invoke chocolate’s Mesoamerican origin.  These recipes are growing in popularity. By reviewing them, one can use a historiographical approach to understanding modern ideas about the origins of one of the world’s most popular foods.  Chocolate is omnipresent in modern life, but it is useful to consider what we think we know about it, especially those who do not study chocolate directly. A way to do this is to note the popular means of learning about chocolate, specifically through the recipes that have endured to modern day, purported by experts to represent an authentic reversion to the original uses of chocolate.

The Smithsonian Magazine offers a history of chocolate that they admit might come as a surprise to many members of their audience.  “When you think of chocolate, most people don’t think of Mesoamerica. They think of Belgian chocolate,” notes Hayes Lavis, a Smithsonian expert in the history of the American continents (Garthwaite, What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate).  The article details how chocolate had an important and quotidian role in the Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec cultures of Central and Southern America.  The article acknowledges that the chocolate production was very geographically limited, but fails to properly explain how cacao had initially been cultivated in the Amazon basin region of South America (http://www.c-spot.com/, A Concise History Of Chocolate).  Instead, they spend significant parts of the article focusing on the diffusion of the chocolate drink into European culture allows the piece to offer a means of relating the subject matter to most of the audience (Garthwaite, History of Chocolate).  They conclude with what they purport to be a traditional chocolate drink.

Their recipe is simple, befitting a drink that they report to have possibly been consumed dozens of times per day. To make a simple chocolate drink, they call for three tablespoons of ground cocoa, a small amount of finely chopped chili (less finely chopped for a milder taste), a mug of hot water, and two chocolate beans, dried and chopped, for a bitter taste.  First, one is to stir the cocoa into the water. Then, they begin adding the chili and beans to the taste of the consumer. With another stir, the drink is complete (Garthwaite, History of Chocolate).

The blog History Daily offers a condensed version of the history of chocolate, but includes an interesting recipe for what they claim to be an exceedingly common Mayan drink.  This “bitter water” matches much of the same description as the recipe that the Smithsonian details. However, their diction is significant for its minor differences, suggesting crushed (rather than ground) cocoa and a different means of presenting the drink (Harris, Xocolatl).  This blog recommends pouring the drink back and forth between multiple glasses or mugs until a “frothy foam” akin to that on “some of today’s Starbucks drinks” forms at the head of the drink (Harris, Xocolatl).  This reference to the popular cafe chain is in line with how the rest of the work seeks to draw comparisons with the Mayan relationship with early chocolate drinks to that of modern consumers and coffee (Harris, Xocolatl).  Significantly, they resist giving the Mesoamerican people credit for the invention of modern chocolate, instead preferring to focus on the reverence that those people gave cocoa-based products and drinks. This differs from more scholarly sources that tend to consider the final product a combination of both European and Central American innovation and cultural additions (“Chocolate – All About Chocolate – History of Chocolate,” http://archive.fieldmuseum.org/chocolate/history.html)

This picture is included with the history.com article. Perhaps it serves as a metaphor with how they like to consider the path from cacao to modern chocolate bars: a blissful and magical transition from bean to bar, with no consideration of the truths of the process.

The History Channel’s description of the origin of chocolate is significant because it combines much of the information from the Smithsonian website (citing them heavily and including much of the evidence that the Smithsonian includes in their article in the same order of presentation) (history.com, History of Chocolate).  But they also suggest that chocolate was a very common drink and their recipe that they include with their article adds additional means of adding to the taste of the bitter beverage.  Describing Mayan chocolate as a “thick and frothy” beverage, they offer that honey and chili pepper would be used to alter the taste (history.com, History of Chocolate).

These three recipes for chocolate constitute the most direct way with which many people in our modern society will be introduced with actual scholarship on the subject of the derivation of chocolate.  Each article is flawed, but ultimately useful for their combined reference to how information can be diffused to contemporary audiences. They need to engage more with the exploitative nature of the colonial relationship to chocolate and not avoid talking about the humanitarian crimes that the Spanish (and the rest of the Europeans) committed during their exploitative attempt to annex the New World for their own purposes.  Ignoring this and instead showing chocolate as the product of mercantile-era multiculturalism is disrespectful to the countless millions of people who were dehumanized and killed under the brutal European conquests of the Americas. We, as consumers and as learners, should do more to engage with the history of chocolate and conversation is the best means of doing this. The History.com article outlines their desire to provide factual content but recognizes that they occasionally need help “We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn’t look right, . . . . contact us! (history.com, History of Chocolate)” It is in everyone’s best interest if we all take them up on that offer.

Cited Sources:

the C-spot. “A CONCISE HISTORY OF CHOCOLATE.” Accessed March 25, 2020. https://www.c-spot.com/atlas/historical-timeline/.

“Chocolate – All About Chocolate – History of Chocolate.” Accessed March 25, 2020. http://archive.fieldmuseum.org/chocolate/history.html.

Editors, History com. “History of Chocolate.” HISTORY. Accessed March 25, 2020. https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-americas/history-of-chocolate.

Garthwaite, Josie. “What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate.” Smithsonian Magazine. Accessed March 25, 2020. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/archaeology-chocolate-180954243/.

Harris, Karen. “Xocolatl: The Mayan Food Of The Gods.” History Daily. Accessed March 25, 2020. https://historydaily.org/xocolatl-the-mayan-food-of-the-gods.

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