Innovating the Culture Away: The Evolution of Cacao’s Preparation

For the many Mesoamerican peoples with access to cacao, traditional preparation methods contributed largely to the plant’s known cultural significance. The customary techniques of chocolate production represented a cornerstone of cultural and political gatherings (Coe and Coe 45-47). Additionally, the presence of ritualistic cacao preparations at momentous occasions, and the product’s spiritual connotations and economic utility (Leissle 30), maintained an intimate connection between the sacred plant and Mesoamerican life. The reach of cacao expanded following encounters with Western colonizers, and gradually Mesoamerican preparation practices were hybridized through a European lens. Furthermore, an industrializing Europe introduced numerous innovations in the preparation of chocolate products (Leissle 38-39). Hence, by the 19th century, a large factor in cacao’s original cultural significance—its preparation—had been separated from the plant itself.

Mesoamerican Preparation

On account of the plant’s particular environmental preferences, there were just several epicenters of intensive Theobroma cacao production in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Nevertheless, cacao was among the most prevalent products in Mesoamerican life, serving numerous cultural and economic purposes (Sampeck and Thayn 75). The nature of the T. cacao plant influenced many of the processing steps required prior to the preparation of cacao beverages. The pods cannot be opened to unveil the prized seeds (“beans”) without the aid of an animal (Leissle 27); moreover, much of the sought-after aroma and flavor profile of the beans must be brought out through production processes such as fermentation and roasting (Coe and Coe 22-24). These arduous procedures are essential to produce cacao nibs, the starting point for deeper exploration of Mesoamerican preparation techniques and recipes (Coe and Coe 22).

From its nib state, the cacao was ground into small granules which, with enough grinding, could become a paste-like substance now known as cacao liquor (Coe and Coe 24). Mesoamerican societies like the Aztecs employed a metate, or curved grinding stone, during this process (Coe and Coe 115).

A metate, used to grind cacao nibs in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica

Importantly, once the cacao was ground, Mesoamerican preparations diverged based on ingredients, the terroir of the cacao used, and the target consumers—elites, common people, or gods (Coe and Coe 61-63; Sampeck and Thayn 77). Cacao beverage recipes distinguished Mesoamerican regions from their neighbors, as common supplemental ingredients included vanilla, chilis, various flowers, and the corn-based atole (Sampeck and Thayn 81-82). One widely desired element in cacao beverages across Mesoamerica was a frothy texture, often created in pre-Columbian times by repeatedly pouring a cacao beverage from one vessel into another from a height (Coe and Coe 48, 62; Leissle 31). The below scene from the Princeton Vase, while quite dramatic and busy, includes on the right-hand side a woman pouring a cacao beverage from one vessel to another in pursuit of the foamy texture cherished in pre-colonial Mesoamerica (Coe and Coe 48). This calligraphic painting supports the presence of ritualistic cacao preparations in cultural settings, such as the mythological scene unfolding below.

A mythological scene from the Princeton Vase (670-750 A.D.) depicting the deity known as “God L,” who was associated with trade. On the right-hand side of the scene, a woman is frothing a cacao beverage by pouring it from one vessel to another from a height.

Cultural Significance and Ubiquity of Cacao

The traditional preparations of cacao in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica—both the techniques used and the recipes followed—were meticulous and even ritualistic. Martin and Sampeck note, “The distinctive tools and preparation of cacao beverages…created a highly distinctive sensorial experience of cacao beverages in Mesoamerican foodways” (41). This cultural experience was especially present in Mesoamerican life due to the social, spiritual, and economic pervasiveness of cacao.

The T. cacao plant itself was intimately linked to Maya culture. The Dresden Codex frequently depicts gods as cacao trees or holding cacao pods and beans (Coe and Coe 42-43). In addition, cacao was offered during healing rituals, marriage arrangements, and burials (Coe and Coe 45-47; Martin and Sampeck 39). In both the Maya and Aztec civilizations, rituals of preparing and drinking cacao were instrumental in political and economic affairs (Leissle 30). In short, cacao was undeniably embedded in Mesoamerican society. Plus, the techniques and recipes used to make cacao beverages were relatively familiar to the people of a given region (Sampeck and Thayn 82). Thus, each instance of cacao in religious, cultural, or economic life represented an opportunity for Mesoamerican people to stay in touch with their local traditions of taste and preparation. The ritualistic preparations of cacao in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica served to reinforce the connection between the people and the plant.

Beginnings of Western Influence

In the 16th century, European explorers encountered Mesoamerican peoples and their cacao-based traditions. Europeans initially appreciated the beans’ utility as currency (Martin and Sampeck 41). As for the comestible side of cacao, European adoption was more gradual (Norton 660); in fact, Europeans took up the newly coined chocolate “in a generally Mesoamerican way, both in flavorings and in manner of preparation” (Sampeck and Thayn 80). These early encounters marked the beginning of Western influence on the preparation of cacao and chocolate products—a multi-century trend that steadily eroded the sociocultural significance of the plant and its bounty.

To bridge the unique tastes of Mesoamerica and Western Europe, cacao experienced a process of hybridization: Europeans drank their chocolate hot, rather than cold as in the Aztec tradition; they sweetened the product with cane sugar; and they introduced Old World spices, such as cinnamon, anise, and black pepper, into their chocolate recipes (Coe and Coe 114-115). Some preparation methods, such as grinding the nibs over a heated metate, carried over in early European recipes. Other techniques changed, such as the introduction of the molinillo, a swizzle-stick that replaced the pouring-between-vessels method of frothing the beverage (Coe and Coe 115). Europeans further translated cacao-making tools into new materials, such as metal and porcelain (Martin and Sampeck 43).

A Still Life of Peaches, Fish, Chestnuts, a Tin Plate and Sweet Box and
Two Mexican Lacquer Cups, by Spanish painter Antonio Ponce (1608–1677). A molinillo is pictured next to a container of ground cacao—evidence that Europeans initially engaged in the textural and flavor experiences of Mesoamerican cacao.

In 1556, the so-called “Anonymous Conqueror,” a companion of Hernán Cortés, described the preparation of an Aztec cacao beverage (Frydenborg 58). The author’s awed descriptions of the instruments used, the novel foam texture, and cacao’s health benefits display a Western curiosity toward Mesoamerican cacao preparation. Through encounters like these, cacao preparation began to be filtered through a Western lens—one which eventually rendered cacao a global commodity (Leissle 34). Increasingly, the preparation of a once-sacred product became detached from its sociocultural significance, as Kristy Leissle summarizes superbly:

“For all its history prior to European colonization, cacao as a fruit on a tree, as currency, and as a drink had been deeply connected, within civilizational traditions that barely distinguished between its economic, social, cultural, and food values. Now, those values diverged”

Leissle 34

Innovating the Culture Away

Over the next two centuries, the global taste for chocolate expanded, and a broader socioeconomic base gained access to the product (Leissle 36-38). In the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution unlocked new preparation methods for chocolate that drastically separated the modern conception of cacao from its traditional Mesoamerican roots. For one, the burgeoning industrial manufacture of chocolate nullified the notion of cacao’s terroir, once so important to the localization of recipes and preparation techniques. The goal of creating uniform products was achieved by blending cacao beans, yielding a new consumption experience in “stark contrast to historical chocolate flavor experiences” (Martin and Sampeck 49). Today’s most renowned names in chocolate—Cadbury, Nestlé, Lindt, Hershey, and the like—were behind these industrial shifts in preparation (Martin and Sampeck 49). Rudolphe Lindt’s 1879 invention of the conche, a device that employed rollers to reduce the size of ground cacao particles, attained a smoother chocolate for confections (Coe and Coe 247-248; Leissle 39).

An example of an industrial conche, a more modern manifestation of Lindt’s 19th-century invention. Begin at 1:25.

Innovations like the conche supported the chocolate industry’s ability to scale globally (Martin and Sampeck 49). Yet, they also contributed to a striking shift from local production—settings in which “people knew who made the tools they used and the foods they ate”—to factory production (Leissle 38). The impersonal preparation methods of 19th-century chocolate were wholly disparate from the socioculturally relevant, ritualistic Mesoamerican preparations from the days of the Maya and Aztecs.

Conclusion: Food for Thought

The historical narrative of chocolate preparation, featuring a glaring dislocation of cacao’s cultural connotations from its purely comestible properties, represents a critical step in the formation of the modern conception of chocolate. Compared to cacao’s Mesoamerican roots, most chocolate is mass-produced with little sociocultural attachment; in the absence of traditional preparation practices, there are fewer reminders of the cacao plant’s original societal significance. Thus, cacao has been reduced to a mere commodity in the eyes of most global chocolate producers. This shift in the world’s conception of cacao allowed the product to be “absorbed into expanding overseas…capitalism” (Mintz 69), which arguably set the stage for the well-documented exploitation and inequity underlying chocolate production to this day.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition., Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Frydenborg, Kay. Chocolate: Sweet Science & Dark Secrets of the World’s Favorite Treat. 2015.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.

Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.Hu, no. special issue 3, 2015, pp. 37–60.

Mintz, Sidney W. (Sidney Wilfred). Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, 1986.

Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review, vol. 111, no. 3, 2006, pp. 660–91.

Sampeck, Kathryn E., and Jonathan Thayn. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” Substance and Seduction : Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, First edition., University of Texas Press, 2017, pp. 72–99.

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