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.