Transatlantic Taste Buds: Chocolate, Globalization and Palate Change
The Maya Bar (above) is 70% cacao solids, described by manufacturer Gearhearts Fine Chocolates as “dark chocolate accented with cinnamon, orange and smoky Ancho chile” (Gearhearts). This homage to Mesoamerican cacao recipes from Gearhearts, a Virginia-based American artisanal chocolatier, is a paragon of the common-culture legacy of chocolate’s indigenous roots. Although oranges were never an original ingredient in Mesoamerican cacao recipes (they originated in Asia, and in fact weren’t brought to modern-day South and Central America until the arrival of the Spaniards in the 1500s), the bar’s overarching nod to the Maya and the flavors and ingredients they utilized is an example of the cultural influence that this group of people had (Morton). In fact, transatlantic trade and interaction between European and Mesoamerican populations had a significant effect on the consumption patterns of each group of people. These changes were visible in the way that each culture ate and drank not only chocolate, but also dozens of other food staples. Most centrally, the advent of chocolate began an irreversible expansion of the European palate.
Today, chocolate remains a food with rich cross-cultural roots, and it carries aspects of both Mesoamerican and European influence that have persisted for hundreds of years. Though it was the Europeans who were the colonizers, Mesoamericanization of the European palate was significantly more pronounced than the reverse influence of the Europeans on Mesoamerican consumption habits. The Europeans viewed chocolate as an exotic, untamable substance, in the no-man’s-land between luxury and health. Even in the early stages of colonialization, Europeans recognized its importance and value, both in Mesoamerican culture and as a commodity. Anthropologist Sidney Mintz writes in Sweetness and Power, “… for [the Spaniards’] North European rivals trade mattered more… and plantation products figured importantly…[including] cacao, a New world cultigen and more an indigenous food than a drink” (Mintz 36). Cacao became critical and desirable in several socioeconomic contexts, and rapidly became popular amongst elite individuals, first in Spain and later Italy, France, and even the United Kingdom.
Most importantly, chocolate was the first time that European society placed a high culinary and cultural value on bitter flavors. It set a flavor precedent for the success of tea and coffee, both of which became extremely societally significant all over the continent (Mintz). Even the highly-prized froth that formed on top of the cacao beverage (below) has a European descendant in the form of the foamed and frothed milk that is instrumental to so many coffee-based drinks today. Chocolate was a fundamental case of the Europeans adapting to, or- depending on one’s perspective- co-opting, the extremely foreign chemical flavor preferences of another culture.
Of course, as with any occurrence of cultural fusion, Europeans didn’t completely adhere to traditional practices and recipes. They made several changes to the chocolate beverage recipe to fit their tastes – most notable were the additions of sugar, by the Spaniards, and milk and milk powder, by a Swede. They also assigned new meanings to chocolate beverages that had not been shared by the Maya and the Aztecs. In his book The Brief History of Chocolate, Yale anthropologist Michael Coe writes, “The Spaniards had stripped it of the spiritual meaning which it had for the Mesoamericans, and imbued it with qualities altogether absent among the Aztecs and Maya: for the invaders, it was a drug, a medicine…” (Coe & Coe 126). Interestingly, much of colonial and postcolonial Mesoamerica grew to share the same views: because of colonial occupation, mostly by the Spaniards, some of the European adaptations of chocolate ended up reflecting back to the Mesoamericans.
The culinary and industrial technology which premiered in Europe during the Industrial Revolution brought a level of physical refinement and cultural-economic prestige to chocolate that had been inaccessible to the Mesoamericans. “Eating chocolate,” as it was called, was characterized by the silky textures created by conching and further processing. Prior to the Europeans, the only commonplace solidification had been in the form of Mesoamerican “cacao balls.” These dried lumps of ground cacao and maize, which have since been replaced by balls of cacao, sugar, and flour, were broken or grated “… dissolved… in water… and heated [it] to make a thick hot drink” (Presilla 2). This solidification allowed for chocolate to travel differently and to travel prepared for consumption, contributing to the ultimate democratization of chocolate that we see in both Mesoamerica and Europe today.
The two graphics below, from a lecture by Dr. Carla Martin, detail the prevalence of certain additional ingredients in both European and Mesoamerican colonial chocolate recipes. Some of these ingredients, like vanilla (and to a lesser extent achiote), became popular quickly and are still extremely common in Western chocolate today. The bounce-back mentioned above extended to many of the common additives: sugar became popular even in Mesoamerican cacao recipes during the colonial period, and was found in approximately 40% of recipes (Martin).
Ultimately, the braiding of European and Mesoamerican culture via the transatlantic slave-driven trade had long-lasting impacts on chocolate and cacao. From ingredients preferred by each group permeating into the chocolate preparations of the other group to shared cultural significances, the Europeans and Mesoamericans would not have experienced chocolate in the same way- whether that be positive or negative- if it weren’t for each other.
Coe, D. Sophie and Coe, D. Michael. The True History of Chocolate, 3rd Edition. Thames & Hudson, 2013.
Gearhearts Fine Chocolates. Gearhearts Fine Chocolates. Web. Accessed Mar. 11, 2018.
Martin, Carla D. “Expansion”. Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. Feb. 7, 2018. Class Lecture 3.
Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power. Penguin Random House LLC, 1985.
Morton, J. Orange. p. 134–142. In: Fruits of warm climates, Miami, FL, 1987. Web. Accessed Mar 9, 2018.
Presilla, E. Maricel. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, 2009.
Photos, Google (foam from the Mexican Cook website)