From Chokola’j to Chocolate, How an Indigenous Good Became The Product of Mass Consumption.

Understanding the historical change of chocolate from an indigenous experience to one of mass consumption is crucial when seeking to understand why capitalist systems are built around certain foods. In the case of chocolate, there were two underlying factors that led to the globalization and mass production of this substance. The first being the very nature of cacao as a social food. The experience of cacao had a great social value that made it appealing to European colonizers. Cacao could be easily integrated into different societies and fit into religion, nutrition, and even socioeconomic class. Cacao’s social value increased demand and developed a huge market potential for chocolate production. The second factor was the wide range and scale of chocolate, culinarily. This led to its mass hybridization, allowing it conforming to all different tastes and preferences making it more economically profitable.

Food is fundamentally social, but some food more than others. Cacao began as a social food in indigenous communities in South America. Cacao’s several names Theobroma Cacao meaning “drink of the Gods” and Chokola’j meaning “to drink together” are representative of the fact that cacao held great social value in indigenous communities. The ritual consumption of cacao was framed as a sensory experience and was held sacred in spiritual and medicinal purposes. Nahuatl songs depicted cacao as divine and the experience of drinking cacao was said to evoke somatic states (Sampeck 74). Creating and consuming different tastes of cacao was also part of its rituals. However, the pre-Columbian preparation of the drink was not standardized among indigenous communities. Each had its own particular recipe for growing, processing, and seasoning cacao (Sampeck 77). Cacao was made with vanilla, chili peppers, and several different fruits (Sampeck 77). Archeological remains prove that there were various blends of cacao drinks. Cacao has also been used as currency in many Mesoamerican communities adding to its social value (Sampeck 82).

Image: Indigenous person holding a cacao pod. The depiction of this sculpture is relevant to the fact that cacao held great value in indigenous communities as many remains show indigenous individuals with cacao. 

“File: Cacao Aztec Sculpture.jpg.” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 21 Nov 2019, 15:45 UTC. 27 Mar 2020, 20:24 <https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Cacao_Aztec_Sculpture.jpg&oldid=376824044>.

Compared to a staple food like maize, which was widely consumed among indigenous communities, Cacao was more important due to its social significance and various infusions. Its popularization among indigenous people transferred to Europe when the Spanish arrived and devastated Indigenous populations. While both foods, cacao and maize, were transferred to Europe during the Columbian exchange the intrinsic social value associated with cacao remained. Because of cacao’s multifunctional communal uses and various flavors deemed it valuable, it could cater to European social culture in a way that maize couldn’t. This is essentially what allowed cacao to be mass-produced, as consumer demand increased market potential also increased. Also, complementary goods that became to be associated with chocolate also help to grow the developing market. (Minz 8)

When the Spanish were introduced to cacao in the 1500s they were intrigued by the many distinctive uses of cacao in indigenous communities (Christain 2). They sought to integrate this somatic, social, and economical use into the frameworks of their own society and it was very easy to do so. Cacao was unique because it was one of the few foods that could survive the long voyage from South America to Europe, in what would later be known as the Columbian exchange. Once cacao reached Europe it was easy to integrate into the lives of many who could afford to overindulge in the good because of its intrinsic social value and its various flavors that could cater to all types of people. Cacao, now known as chocolate, spread across Europe. Chocolate, still in the drink form, appeared in French and British high society and chocolate social houses that catered to the social elite. (Lovemann 29)

Image: Chocolate social houses for the elite in Britain, shows that chocolate had an ingrain social value that could be transferred to different society’s worlds apart. “File:Chocolate-house-london-c1708.jpg.” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 30 Jan 2020, 13:58 UTC. 27 Mar 2020, 20:26 <https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Chocolate-house-london-c1708.jpg&oldid=391038745>

The spread of cacao across Europe also contributed to the transcontinental diffusion of cacao and variations of taste due to the blend of cacao with other substances. Europeans used sugar, cinnamon, and milk to form the different tastes of chocolate. 

Cacao’s inherent social value and its various blends are a huge part of the reason why it would later be mass-produced. Because it could be shared among many different individuals in society with different preferences, it became a product of desire which led to increased demand. Supply met this demand soon after during the Industrial Revolution. The social value and hybridizations of chocolate grew on the onset of the Industrial Revolution when chocolate was commodified and made widely available to the poor (Carlo 1). In the 1800s, Coenraad Johannes Van Houten extracted the fat from chocolate using alkaline salts (Carlo 1). This made it much more affordable to produce and it was sold at a cheaper price, which made it available to different socioeconomic classes. Later, Joseph Fry made the first solid chocolate bar and Rodolphe Lindt created the first conching machine changing chocolate’s taste and texture to what we know it today (Carlo 1).

Image: depictions of some of today’s diverse chocolate flavors, milk chocolate, dark chocolate, white chocolate. This demonstrates how chocolate could conform to all tastes and preferences appealing to larger groups of people.

“File:Chocolate(bgFFF).jpg.” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 3 Apr 2017, 15:18 UTC. 27 Mar 2020, 20:25 <https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Chocolate(bgFFF).jpg&oldid=239673729>.

Chocolates inherent social uses and it a range and scale in form and flavor changed how it was consumed worldwide. Chocolate fit into the global market because it met the demand of individuals looking to overindulge and socialize. Chocolate stands apart in variety. The degree to which cacao was modified appealed to new groups of people increasing social value and developing a larger market for the production and consumption of the good. However, the integration of chocolate into European societies and the distinctive taste formed, speaks to the tragedies of colonialism and the erasure of indigenous practices that encompassed cacao. 

Works cited: 

Sampeck, Kathryn, and Jonathan Thayn. 2017. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” pp. 72-99

Mintz, Sidney. 1986[1985]. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.

Christian, Mark. “Ethical Chocolate & Social Capitalism: Consumers of the World Unite.” Spot, 25 Mar. 2011, http://www.c-spot.com/editorials/ethical-chocolate-social-capitalism-consumers-of-the-world-unite/.

Loveman, Kate. “The Introduction of Chocolate into England: Retailers, Researchers, and Consumers, 1640-1730.” Journal of Social History, vol. 47, no. 1, 2013, pp. 27–46. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43306044. Accessed 27 Mar. 2020.

Christian, Mark. “Ethical Chocolate & Social Capitalism: Consumers of the World Unite.” Spot, 25 Mar. 2011, http://www.c-spot.com/editorials/ethical-chocolate-social-capitalism-consumers-of-the-world-unite/.

Carlo, Juan. “How Did Chocolate Become so Popular?” Why Is Chocolate So Popular? | Juan Carlo Blog, 28 Feb. 2017, juancarlo.ph/blog/chocolate-popular/.

“File:Cacao Aztec Sculpture.jpg.” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 21 Nov 2019, 15:45 UTC. 27 Mar 2020, 20:24 <https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Cacao_Aztec_Sculpture.jpg&oldid=376824044>.

“File:Chocolate(bgFFF).jpg.” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 3 Apr 2017, 15:18 UTC. 27 Mar 2020, 20:25 <https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Chocolate(bgFFF).jpg&oldid=239673729>.“File:Chocolate-house-london-c1708.jpg.” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 30 Jan 2020, 13:58 UTC. 27 Mar 2020, 20:26 <https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Chocolate-house-london-c1708.jpg&oldid=391038745>

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