Today, due to the commonality of chocolate as an everyday treat, except for the most expensive, finest-quality chocolates consumed by the those with “well-lined pockets,” (Coe 95), it might be difficult to imagine chocolate as “the emperor’s banquet” (Coe 96). However, pre-Columbian customs reflect a history of chocolate as “the drink of the elite” (Coe 95). The history of this truth lies in glyphs and memoirs recounted by sources who bore witness to this luxury. Chocolate held a place in society by which commoners rarely partook. The historical significance of this custom allows one to trace the history of chocolate as it has evolved for today’s culture to appreciate. History often does not offer palatable derivation.
To extrapolate upon this history, one has imagined that the cacao bean is “the bean of the gods.”
The Aztec elite – the royal house, lords and nobility, long-distance merchants, and warriors (Coe 95) imbibed chocolate, adding to the glory of their imperial existence. With exception, soldiers were welcomed to join, but chocolate was mostly confined to the noble class. This distinction also excluded priests. Coe contends that this chocolate ritual might resemble champagne toasts among today’s elite. This insertion might help present-day society understand the importance of the historical feast that these rulers enjoyed: for champagne is not the usual drink of twenty-first century patrons.
One should note that chocolate was served at the end of the meal. Much like tobacco, brandy, and cigars, chocolate was a delicacy to be appreciated at banquet’s end (Coe 95). Every cultural norm deserves study as one envisions the life of those who celebrated these rites. It is purported that Aztec Emperor Montezuma drank more than his fair share of chocolate!
The sources upon which this tradition rests include eye-witness accounts of grandiosity and extravagance. Keep in mind that these centuries-old tales were often passed down by the emperors themselves. One story from Bernal Diaz del Castillo involves a “colossal event” in which “300 dishes were prepared especially for him” (Coe 95). Coe adds that Bernal Diaz was in his eighties when he recollected this celebration. Coe also suggests that the hyperbolic manner in which this tale is presented includes other dubious statements in his testimony. However, other accounts, including one from Fray Bartolome de la Casa, might seem more reliable as he, a Dominican friar, was less removed from this glory (Coe 96). According to Las Casas, chocolate was drank from calabash, painted vessels, from the gourds of the calabash tree (Presilla 12) and not from chalices of gold and silver. Regardless of the storyteller, Aztec artifacts confirm that chocolate was not for mere mortals but rather that of the upper class. These artifacts include glyphs and painted pictures that told a story of chocolate’s history. Vessels have been discovered with these artifacts, proving this legacy.
Many desired this social standing: for the pochteca, long-distance traders, regularly enjoyed chocolate drink (Coe 96). Those merchants who aspired to be among those ranks were obliged to host expensive banquets to prove their ability to maintain this economic status (Coe 97). This obligation deserves attention because it is a reflection of “climbing up the ranks” by which today’s society is held. Chocolate was synonymous with “luxury and status” (Presilla 14), but the costliness of this endeavor is a price that many sacrificed. This membership with its costly expenditures was tied to chocolate etiquette (Coe 98). Without this history, one might not appreciate the value of Aztec goods.
Coe, Sophie D. & Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 2013.
Presilla, Maricel. The New Taste of Chocolate. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2001.
Chocolate has been a defining food for several cultures throughout its history. From early Mesoamerica to modern Europe, it has been celebrates as, not just a rich and delicious dessert, but a significant cultural symbol. With the exception of Christopher Columbus and his compatriots, chocolate has almost always held a place among the elites of almost every society it has been a part of. This post will attempt to compare the treatment of chocolate by the elites of societies across time and space, from the Maya to renaissance Europe to present-day America.
While consumption of the cacao plant began with the Olmecs, centuries before the Maya civilization came to be, very little written record exists from that time, and those that do exist are somewhat indecipherable (Coe & Coe 39). Therefore, in the study of chocolate, historians often begin their discussion with the Maya. An understanding of the importance of the Cacao plant to Mayan society can be seen in its inclusion in their creation myth, the Popol Vuh. There remains some contention as to what level of significance cacao actually played in this story, but the fact remains that it must have been a relevant crop to be included at all (Coe & Coe 40). In Mayan civilization, cacao was accessible to many, but it was considered a food of the gods. One example of this is the Dresden Codex which says of the Rain God, “cacao is his food” (Coe & Coe 41). Many of the elites of Mayan society would be buried with cacao, a symbol of their wealth.
Among the Aztec elites, chocolate held an even more significant place than it did with the Maya. When the Aztecs discovered chocolate in Mayan civilization, it quickly became a favorite drink, replacing the traditional octli, which was mildly alcoholic (Coe & Coe 75). Additionally, the cacao bean became regarded as legal currency, signifying the stronghold the food had in Aztec society (Presilla 17). Cacao’s significance among the Aztec elite can be seen in its prevelance in Aztec art. The following is an Aztec sculpture of a man holding a large cacao pod.
Since the cacao tree was not native to the area of modern-day Mexico inhabited by the Aztec, it was imported from further south, restraining the product to the most elite members of society. Thus, in Aztec society, chocolate came to be revered more heavily than among the Maya, and drinking the beverage was a sign of great power and wealth.
Almost as soon as chocolate arrived in Europe, it became a drink of the elites. Maricel E. Presilla writes, “Chocolate arrived in Europe with the aura of an exotic luxury for the cognoscenti” (25). While chocolate eventually made its way to the lower tiers of European society, it was very much considered an extravagance for centuries. As shown in the following painting, English gentlemen would gather in coffee and chocolate houses during the 17th century to discuss politics. Chocolate did not truly become of food of the people until the introduction of “big chocolate” sometime later.
Throughout history, chocolate has been seen as a food of the gods, or at minimum, a food of the elite. The wealthy of every society with access to chocolate have taken it in as a standard part of their lives. Even today, chocolate preferences among leaders are interesting subjects of discussion. When asked what his favorite chocolate was, President Obama was prepared and immediately replied with the Seattle-based Fran’s Chocolate (Guzman). In the modern era, chocolate is highly accessible to many, but it has historically been a treat meant for the elites of society.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
A group of merchants, the pochteca, played a prominent role in the commercialization and commoditization of cacao within the Aztec empire. As the pochteca made cacao more available to the Aztec empire, cacao emerged as not only something of intrinsic value, but also of tradable value, permeating through various aspects of Aztec market life. Since farmers could not grow cacao within the Aztec empire due to the unsuitability of climate around the major cities, the only way cacao could appear in Aztec cities was through import. The pochteca served an economic function connecting buyers of cacao, often times Aztec nobility, with sellers, those who could indigenously grow the product. It is in this way that they served as intermediaries in the market for goods, particularly luxury goods, such as cacao.
The pochteca specialized in long-distance trade from foreign markets such as Xicallanco and Xoconocho to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. Often times they also served as warriors repelling attacks on their trade routes and as spies obtaining knowledge for the Aztec royalty, given that they developed fluency in various local languages through trade. As Coe & Coe mention, the pochteca were different from ordinary market traders. They were part of age-old guilds having their own god, Yacatecuhtli, responsible for commerce (Coe & Coe, 2013, pg. 74 & Van Tuerenhout, 2005, pg. 101). The hereditary nature of the guilds created a barrier of entry for commoners seeking to enter this trade business, thusly giving the pochteca a monopoly over long-distance trade of luxury goods. Furthermore, given that the pochteca were transporting luxury goods for royalty and nobility, they had high status in Aztec society, just below the noblemen themselves. They were granted their own court and laws and were allowed to wear the same type of clothing as the noblemen (Van Tuerenhout, 2005, pg. 100-101).
The image above documents the pochteca as illustrated by artists in Bernardino de Sahagún’s Florentine Codex, a comprehensive research project conducted in Mesoamerica in the mid to late 1500s. The image shows the pochteca en route with hunched over backs, indicating the labor-intensity and long-haul toil required to bring valuable goods to the Aztec empire. They are seen carrying woven sacks of tradable goods. Using a legend of tradable merchandise from a page of another compilation, the Mendoza Codex, in the image below, we see next to the tiger skins that the sacks the pochteca are carrying in fact contain cacao (Berdan & Anawalt, 1997). Furthermore, the footprints on the road in the image above indicate that the merchants are following some sort of pre-determined path, possibly a trade route to the imperial city centers. The road has been traversed before and illuminates the key role the pochteca played in transporting valuable tradable items, such as cacao, and in connecting the Aztec Empire to foreign lands.
Through the pochteca, cacao began to take on value as an exchangeable good in addition to the existing religious and fundamental value the Aztecs held for cacao. The Aztecs fundamentally revered cacao for its religious significance. The cacao tree represented the joining of earth to heaven and a gift from the God of Wisdom, Quetzalcoatl. Mothers would give cacao drinks to their children so they could gain wisdom. This religious backing, together with the tastes and preferences for the cacao product itself served as the primary source of value of cacao for the Aztecs and the primary driver of the cacao trade. However, given the long, arduous journeys of the pochteca, it became costly to obtain cacao and thus was reserved for the nobility. Cacao was thus limited in supply, began to be used in exchange, and thus developed practical value as people could use cacao beans in local exchange as currency. For example, to buy a canoe full of water or a turkey one would have to pay 100 cacao beans. The use of cacao as currency emerged as the pochteca took a percentage of the cacao they brought as a fee (Van Tuerenhout, 2005, pg. 100). As the volume of the cacao trade increased, cacao inventories of the pochteca and the royalty increased, paving the way for its use in exchange. This gave the product tradable value.
With respect to this tradeable value, cacao shared three characteristics economists today typically associate with money or currency. Firstly, within the Aztec empire, it served as a medium of exchange, used by vendors in big city markets like the one in Tenochtitlan. Secondly, records indicate that cacao had a good shelf and storage life, making it a store of value. Thirdly, it was a unit of account, since various producers and retailers used cacao to measure the cost of their product and compare product value, simply by looking at how much cacao one would have to give up to get one item over another. In this sense, cacao served many of the key functions of modern-day currency.
The pochtecas’ role as a market-maker, bringing cacao from the outside to the inside, also became prominent locally, where the nobility would ask them to sell surplus tribute they received from taxation of goods. In this sense, the proliferation of cacao’s significance as exchangeable value comes from the pochtecas’ trading and distribution of the good. Observing the cacao prices of various goods in past records allow historians to glean a perspective how the Aztec society relatively valued different goods based on their cost in cacao beans. In this way, the pochteca served a critical role in bringing cacao to the center of commercialized Aztec market life. Today, we see the longevity of the association of currency with cacao, through artistic representations with chocolate, such as in Hanukkah gelt!
Albert R. Mann Library. (2007). When Money Grew on Trees. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University.
Berdan, Frances and Patricia Anawalt. (1997). The Essential Codex Mendoza (1541). Berkeley.
In modern times, hot chocolate is enjoyed by people around the world. The most familiar types found in the grocery store are made up of a pre-sweetened powder that comes in a small package and may or may not contain 15% cocoa depending on the type of drink. Other types of drinking chocolate, such as Abuelita, come in pressed chocolate bars that are then dissolved in milk. Today, hot cocoa is available to people of every social and economic class. However, historically chocolate drinks were made in a very different manner, and they were most often only available to the elites.
The cultivation of cacao began as early as 1900 BC with the Olmec civilization (Presilla, 2001, p.10), but the oldest known cacao recipes come from the Maya and the Aztec civilizations.For the Maya civilization, cacao was available to people of every social and economic class, although little evidence remains of the drinking vessels used by the less affluent members of society (Presilla, 2001, p. 12)As cacao is difficult to grow, it is likely that the more affluent members of society had easier access to drinking cacao due to its rarity.Maya drinking chocolate was often made from water that contained the starch of lime-treated corn mixed with the cacao beans that had been ground into a paste.Mayan cacao was also flavored with ear flower, vanilla, honey, allspice, and chiles (Presilla, 2001, p. 13, 14).Frothy chocolate was favored by the Maya, and it would later also be favored by the Aztecs and the Spaniards.
Unlike the Maya, the Aztecs limited cacao consumption to the elites and the warrior class.Aztec cacao drinks were available (to the members of these social classes) in the market, and the makers of these drinks were considered true artisans, as:
“She who sells remade cacao for drinking first grinds it in this fashion:At the first [grinding] she breaks or crushes the beans; at the second they are slightly more ground; at the third and last they are very well ground, being mixed with boiled and rinsed corn kernels; and being thus ground and mixed, they add water [to the mixture] in any sort of vessel [vaso].If they add little [water] they have beautiful cacao; if they add a lot, it will not produce froth.” (Saghagun, Historia General)
Frothy cacao was considered to be the very best of the Aztec cacao drinks, and all other cacao drinks were considered inferior (Presilla, 2001, p.19-20).Today, cacao is drunk throughout the day or as a nightcap, but the Aztec elites drank their cacao at the end of meals (Coe, 2013, Kindle location 1330).The Aztecs, much like the Maya, used locally available ingredients to flavor their cacao.These ingredients included honey, ear flower, vanilla, string flower, magnolia, piper sanctum ( pepper flower), heart flower, chiles, and allspice.According to Coe in The True History of Chocolate, Aztec cacao was made with roasted ground cacao beans and sopata seeds that were mixed with ground corn and spices (Coe, 2013, Kindle location 1314).
The Spanish assimilated their own flavors when they brought chocolate over from Mesoamerica, including: cinnamon, sugar, and black pepper (Coe, 2013, Kindle Location 1599).The Spanish also began mixing cacao with cow’s milk.In order to grind the beans, a heated metate was used, and the precious and sought after froth was obtained using a molinillo stirring stick (Coe, 2013, Kindle Location 1599-1614).
While the historical flavors of drinking chocolate remain, cacao has become a much sweeter drink in modern times, and flavorings have continuously expanded.With the current trend towards a diet low in refined sugars, I wonder if the Maya and Aztec way of drinking unsweetened cacao might make a comeback.
Coe, Sophie D.; Coe, Michael D. (2013-06-28). The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson. Kindle Edition.
Presilla, Maricel. (2001). The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ten Speed Press.
Image 1: Swiss Miss Cocoa Collection, from the Swiss Miss website
Image 2: Abuelita Cocoa, from the Abuelita website
Image 3: Maya cocoa frothing, from the course slides
Today’s modern chocolate consumer revels in the extravagance of a society determined to have more than it can ever need, buy more than it can ever afford, and eat more than it can ever want, especially when it comes to chocolate. This newfound availability of a good once regarded as luxury, has now transformed chocolate to what many now consider mere candy. Gone are the nutrition, originality, and reverence once associated with the “food of the gods,” and what is left is nothing more than a sweet treat tainted with excessive amounts fat and cheap additives (Parkin, “What Are You Eating: Snickers”). And although many celebrate the “revolutionary” progression of chocolate from a food of the elite to one now accessible by all, the idea that chocolate is ubiquitous cannot be further from the truth. In fact, chocolate is still exclusive to the highest social classes, a luxury good through and through, and even with the worldwide rise in chocolate production, pure, high quality chocolate – that of which is now labeled as “artisan” or “craft” – is almost solely intended for elite consumption.
While the well-to-do savor their “bean-to-bars,” the general population must settle with the everyday “Hershey’s kisses” or “Milky ways,” poor substitutes that were created to satisfy the masses (Parkin, “What Are You Eating: Snickers”). Nevertheless, the degree to which this dichotomy extends is but a reflection of the past. The social arrangements observed today parallel that of previous societies throughout history, from the Aztec’s strict confinement of chocolate consumption within their social elite to the European’s emphasis on reserving the food for the upper class; the continuation of these previously observed patterns, as embodied by the range of products offered by vendors on either end of the social spectrum, indicates that chocolate still remains the luxury food it has always been, a source of indulgence for the rich and a commodity to strive towards for the poor (Coe, Coe 86-87, 159-160).
One does not need to venture very far into the chocolate industry to experience the glaring disparity between the quality of chocolate offered in the everyday convenience store and that of a gourmet, specialty shop. Here in Boston, the two are represented by the local CVS and South End’s very own Formaggio’s Kitchen, the first of which is a popular retailer across the US whereas the latter exists only in one other location – the elite community of New York City’s urban sprawl. Thus, before the chocolate itself is even considered, the sheer accessibility of these respective markets indicates the type of merchandise sold at each. It is no surprise then that the chocolate products offered at CVS differs not only in composition, but also in price and packaging from the luxury bars organized in neat rows at Formaggio’s.
CVS Caremark is one of the largest pharmacy convenience stores in the country and because it caters to all of society, everywhere, the retailer must offer a wide range of commodities to satisfy their broad clientele. In other words, they must stock their shelves with every type of brand name chocolate produced here in the States; from “Snickers” bars produced by Mars to the iconic “Hershey’s” milk chocolate bar produced by Hershey itself, CVS has it all (Hess, “Most Popular Halloween Candy in the USA”). However, although the diversity offered at any one of these convenience stores is impressive, the majority of their chocolate shares a single commonality: they are all composed entirely of milk chocolate, often supplemented with a large proportion of butter, unwarranted amounts of sugar, extra flavoring like vanilla, and other fillings such as nougat for the popular “Milky Way” (“Candy and Chocolate Bars Compared: Hershey’s, Nestle and Mars Nutrition Facts”; Parkin, “What Are You Eating: Snickers”). Many would argue that the added contents are what make these products as well-known as they have become, and even more claim that they crave this type of chocolate specifically for the peanut-caramel insides. Unfortunately for these misguided individuals, the reality is that these very fillings are exactly what prevents the typical “Reese’s” peanut butter cup from serving as a healthy addition to one’s life, and instead makes them the cheap, fattening candy that the average consumer can afford (“Candy and Chocolate Bars Compared: Hershey’s, Nestle and Mars Nutrition Facts”). This practice of mixing inexpensive ingredients into chocolate to help make it more affordable is analogous to the origins of chocolate consumption in Mesoamerica, setting the precedent that impure chocolate is associated with lower quality food (Coe, Coe 86-87; Presilla 20). In fact, the Aztecs, in preparing cacao, recognized that “the inferior product…was mixed with nixtamalli and water” to form a “chocolate-with-maize gruel,” but if the mixture was “cheapened by too much corn or thinned with too much water,” then all of the “effort would be for naught” (Coe, Coe 86-87; Presilla 20). The same concept has returned in modern form, and even though society has moved past the practice of combining corn and chocolate, the artificial ingredients used now are both worse and in larger quantity. As such, the brand name chocolate that dominates the market today are not what they all claim to be – rather than serving as energy-boosting power bars, these candies are the epitome of second-rate scraps, the culmination of the industry’s sly advertising and deceit (Hess, “Most Popular Halloween Candy in the USA”).
The goods offered at CVS can be identified for their lower quality merely by taking a look down the aisle; all of the chocolate is sold in bulk, the wrappings are colorful and meant to entice children, and the price tags that accompany any purchase fail to draw attention as well (Hess, “Most Popular Halloween Candy in the USA”). Indeed, everything chocolate at the convenience store is affordable and cheap, and it is fitting that the majority of these products are regarded as mere candy. This type of marketing in itself is suggestive of the type of goods advertised to the common shopper. Nowhere in the store will one find pure, gourmet chocolate like that from Formaggio’s Kitchen; instead, Halloween candy, sweets to be given out, and maybe a small treat on the go is all that is offered at CVS (Hess, “Most Popular Halloween Candy in the USA”). While there is nothing wrong with merchandise that serves these purposes, the chocolate here will never compare to the “craft” chocolate that should be enjoyed at leisure in the quiet luxury of one’s home.
Walking into Formaggio’s Kitchen, one is immediately transported to the most charming little shop in rural France, the quaintest street market in Spain, and the most curious ingredient store in Italy. Everything offered here is exotic, from the slabs of cheese on the wall to the rows of extra virgin olive oil on display. It is every culinary enthusiast’s dream. To top it all off, Formaggio’s Kitchen also boasts an impressive shelf of chocolate, each bar made entirely “bean-to-bar” by some of the most skilled confectioners around. Thus, it goes with saying that these products provide the purest experience of how chocolate should be prepared: made from scratch with the most traditional methods using fresh, unroasted cocoa beans of the highest quality (Williams, Eber 168-170). The finished result consists primarily of cacao and a small amount of cane sugar, and as expected, is simply delicious – anyone missing out is really missing the point of chocolate altogether. By foregoing the daunting list of artificial ingredients that are usually included in commercial products, the “craft” chocolate only offered at Formaggio’s represents the other end of the social spectrum and the true meaning of the saying “less is more,” much like the “unadulterated chocolate fit for lords” in Aztec society (Coe, Coe 86-87; Presilla 20; Williams, Eber 168-170). For these reasons, “chocolate” as a general term applies most suitably to these higher quality foods, and since only the elite are able to enjoy them, chocolate is still very much a sign of wealth and opulence.
With a noticeable increase in quality, there comes a noticeable increase in price as well. In order to pay for the more expensive cocoa beans and the longer, more meticulous method of preparing them for making bars, “craft” chocolate can cost from five times to ten times more than the generic products offered at the local CVS (Williams, Eber 168-170). Moreover, if only the wealthy elite are able to afford these chocolate products, then it must have adequate packaging to advertise to that particular social class; thus, the wrapping for these chocolate bars are ornate and artistically designed – not the cheap plastic bags that are used to attract consumers in the convenience store. Without a doubt, the sophistication of the packaging was far from subtle. From the specific fonts used to spell out each chocolate’s name to the thick paper the words were embossed in, the chocolate products have as much going for them inside as well as outside. This emphasis on serving the rich is a direct extension of the social customs in Europe in the 17th century wherein chocolate was reserved particularly for either royalty or the social elite, albeit the class differences were more publicly enforced back then than the more subtle inequalities today (Coe, Coe 159-160). Nevertheless, the disparity still exists and the steep costs, elaborate packaging, and the upscale district Formaggio’s is located all do their part to reinforce the degree to which this type of chocolate has historically and presently been advertised to the upper class, further distancing these products from their lesser, more generic counterparts.
The drastic market differences within the chocolate industry are manifested in the contrasting qualities, prices, and advertisements of the merchandise offered at that these two distinct locales. Whereas CVS’s modern, “buy-in-bulk” approach appeals to the average consumer in the US, Formaggio’s kitchen’s rustic, almost exotic goods exploit the curiosity – and money – of the rich. However, the sad reality that lies beyond the extensive hierarchy separating the two social classes is the fact that only the wealthy who shop at Formaggio’s kitchen truly experiences chocolate for what the food can offer: its unique taste, clean ingredients, and undiminished health benefits. Everyone else forced to settle with brand name chocolate stuffed with nougat and other fillers are merely duped by the industry itself. And although no change will ever come about from this injustice, due to the immense labor costs intrinsic to cocoa production, it is important for the average consumer to at least recognize what he or she actually walks out with after their everyday trip to the local CVS – or rather, what they’re not walking out with.