Tag Archives: Aztec

The Myth of Separation

The Aztec culture is notorious for their often bloody rituals, which are now widely thought to be egregiously barbaric. We look upon Aztec sacrificial practices as evidence of a sadistic and morally bankrupt culture, of a people who are terrible in ways we could never be; but assuming this inherent separation keeps us from exploring the breadth of human connection and commonality.

In The true history of chocolate Coe & Coe explain that the view of Aztec society as barbaric is handed down to us by the Spanish conquistadores as an excuse for their terrible treatment of the Aztecs (Coe, 65). While the Spanish had their own motivations to portray the Aztecs as barbarians, it’s easy to imagine that they might have also felt genuine shock at Aztec practices which included ritual human sacrifice.

An example of one such ritual, which was carried out yearly, proceeded as follows: A slave was chosen to be dressed and treated as the god Quetzalcoatl for 40 days, after which he was told that he would be killed the following day. He was then required to dance with perfect happiness, as a sorrowful response was thought to be a bad omen. If he was not able to remain cheerful he would be given a drink of chocolate which was mixed with bloody water from the washing of sacrificial knives. This drink, known as itzpacalatl, was said to bewitch him and bring about renewed happiness and dancing (Coe, 103). One fascinating element of this ritual is the importance placed on the sacrifice’s happiness (or at least the display of it). Another fascinating element; the function of nourishment and fortification from the chocolate having a transformative role in the experience of being sacrificed.

It is important to note that bloody Aztec rituals were not done merely for sadistic entertainment. In “The Aztec Ritual Sacrifices,” Izeki explains that sacrifice was integral to Aztec religion and considered necessary for maintaining order in the universe. It was believed that humans were created to give their lives to the gods in order to maintain creation. Izeki notes, too, that death was not thought to be permanent but rather cyclical— the Aztecs believed “that sacrificial victims became divine beings after being slain, that the dead lived an afterlife, and that each part of a soul went back to its provenance”(Izeki).

Solely looking voyeuristically at Aztec rituals as evidence of barbarism allows us to foster a comforting sense of moral superiority. However, this sense of superiority and separations may be a misconception. When we study the history of chocolate we uncover a deep historical connection with the Aztecs. This connection can be seen first through the consumption and ritualization of cacao.

800px-valentines_chocolates1Like the Aztecs, we love chocolate, and like the Aztecs, we imbue it with symbolism. The Aztecs sometimes used cacao pods to ritualistically symbolize the human heart— we sometimes gift heart-shaped boxes of chocolate to symbolize love (Coe 103).

Might there be a connection even in the dark specifics of the discussed ritual to aspects of our culture today? In her thesis Revulsion and Palatability, Angie Wheaton explores the topic of rituals surrounding the death penalty, with a special focus on the ritual of giving the condemned a choice of last meals. This ritual has been the subject of several art projects, like the one shown in the below image.

5430175617_6328bbd2d7_z-1Wheaton explains that this ritual of providing nourishment and comfort to those we put to death in the form of favorite foods has a longstanding tradition, and is still common practice in most places (one notable exception being Texas) (Wheaton, 6). This tradition has much in common with the Aztec ritual of providing sacrifices with the culturally favored form of nourishment, cacao. Wheaton argues that in the context of the death penalty, “rituality has helped cushion the revulsion that is inherently present when taking the life of a human being” (Wheaton, v). Might this effect also be one explanation for the specifics of Aztec rituals?

The use of chocolate as an intoxicant in the discussed Aztec ritual is somewhat perplexing. Though cacao beans do contain caffeine and theobromine which cause a stimulant effect, this effect is moderate and insufficient to cause extreme euphoria. Despite this, there are also people today who consume chocolate in ritualistic settings for the purpose of intoxication.


In the Business Insider article “San Franciscans are obsessed with ‘cacao ceremonies,’ where they claim to get high on chocolate,” author Melia Robinson details currently trendy rituals where people gather to drink concentrated cacao drinks. Participants report “a wide range of reactions, from feelings of connectedness and ecstasy to hallucinations” (Robinson).

The common concept of superiority and separation between people today and the Aztecs is a myth. Through the lens of chocolate, food, and ritual, we can uncover striking similarities between these cultures. These common threads of practice and perception between the people of today and the Aztecs may serve to remind us that however different we might like to think ourselves from those that commit atrocities, we are more alike than we are different. We are all human and capable of both great things and terrible ones.


Works Cited:

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. 3rd ed., Thames and Hudson, 2013.

Wheaton, Angie. Revulsion and Palatability: The Staying Power of Death Penalty Rituals – Last Meals and Beyond, Eastern Kentucky University, Ann Arbor, 2013, ProQuest, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/1433293088?accountid=11311.

Robinson, Melia. “San Franciscans are obsessed with ‘cacao ceremonies,’ where they claim to get high on chocolate.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 19 May 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/cacao-ceremony-san-francisco-2017-5.

Izeki, Mutsumi (2014) The Aztec Ritual Sacrifices, Performance Research, 3:3, 25-32, DOI: 10.1080/13528165.1998.10871623

Last Meal Photo credit John Dalton on Flikr, Creative Commons license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

Cacao Drink Photo credit Julie Gibbons on Flikr, Creative Commons license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Other images in public domain


A Salute to Chocolate

Endurance to Diplomacy: Highlights of Chocolate in the Military

Chocolate is enjoyed worldwide by both children and adults and its popularity continues to grow. A recent report by Technavio valued the global chocolate market at $105.56 billion with an estimated value of 137.12 billion in 2021.[1] With these earnings, chocolate is truly the “food of the [shareholder] gods.”

Setting market success aside, chocolate is a unique fruit that contains theobromine, caffeine, and cocoa butter (fat), which can provide a needed energy boost, stave off hunger, and it is less likely to spoil on long journeys. These qualities make chocolate practical for many uses. One use probably not at the forefront of everyone’s mind, is military use, which has its roots in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.

Map of Mesoamerica highlighting Mayan and Aztec empires
Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica (partial view). Highlighting Mayan influence and Aztec empire.
Statuette of Mayan with cacao pods on uniform
Cacao pods dangle from this Mayan warrior or Mayan athlete? Academic debate continues on this Mayan’s identity. Either way, he would benefit from cacao’s energy boosting and fortifying properties.

The people of Mesoamerica may not have known the scientific reasons why their chocolate, or cacao, gave them energy or satisfied their hunger, but they were certainly aware of these benefits. Chocolate was a common ration for both Mayan and Aztec warriors. Although the Aztecs limited their chocolate consumption to the elite, their soldiers were allowed to partake. Ground cacao could be made into small wafers for easier travel and remote preparation.[2] Chocolate use, among Mayans, was more democratized and consumed along many classes for rituals, medicinal, and social occasions. Mayan soldiers too carried chocolate into battle.[3] Flexible and fortifying, chocolate provided a handy fix to fight hunger, or an opponent, for soldiers in Mesoamerica as for those in North America.

In 1757, 1,200 French and Indian forces were preparing for battle from Fort Carillon (then Fort Ticonderoga) in New York state. The officers issued an additional “two pounds of chocolate,” to energize the troops.[4] Twenty years later at that very fort, chocolate continued to fortify. During the American Revolution, young Captain Moses Greenleaf noted in his diary that he had hot chocolate when he first arrived at Fort Ticonderoga in the spring of 1777.[5] That summer, when he and his small army were ordered to evacuation the fort, he ate chocolate dinner and breakfast to strengthen him on “as fatigueing [sic] a[9].”[6] In additional to fortifying soldiers, chocolate’s popularity was also due to its perceived health benefits.

General Grant sits atop of horse in front of Union Army camp
General Ulysses S. Grant at City Point during Civil War. Close quarters like these, for long periods of time, could create unsanitary conditions.

During the Civil War unsanitary field conditions and malnutrition claimed more lives than battle. Concerned with this growing public health crisis, The United States Sanitary Commission (USSC), purchased more than $20,000 pounds of chocolate during the Civil War from the Baker Chocolate Company. The USSC believed chocolate had nutritional and healing properties and served it to wounded soldiers to improve their health. [8] In 1864, Dr. E. Donnelly, a field surgeon wrote the Baker Company with this endorsement “a chocolate should be made to keep in a powdered condition, not too sweet, and free from all husks or other irritating substances. Chocolate … would be much more nutritious than coffee, not so irritating to the bowels.” [9] The Baker Company would later show their patriotism through chocolate.

During World War I, the Baker Company would stamp chocolate with the intials “W.T.W” (Win The War).[10]  A warm sentiment that would reach Allied soldiers around the world, forming strong bonds with them. This is just one example of chocolate diplomacy.

Berlin Airlift, Lt. Halverson, Chocolate Flyer
Miniature parachutes can be seen dropping from Halvorsen’s C-54 as he brings the plane in for a landing at Tempelhof.

Another example of chocolate diplomacy against a backdrop of hardship and despair comes in post World War II Germany. Berlin was split between the U.S. and its Allies (West Germany) and the Soviets (East Germany). In 1948 the Soviet Union sought to control all of Berlin and closed it off in hopes of starving out West Berliners. For over a year, Allied forces provided daily airdrops of provisions to West Berliners. One the most popular pilots was Lieutenant Gail S. Halvorsen, better known as the “the Chocolate Flyer.” Inspired by meeting the children of Berlin and their shy demeanor, Halvorsen wrapped candy bars and gum into little packages, then dropped them to the awaiting children. As Halvorsen explains “Day by day the crowd of kids waiting for the drop got bigger, and day by day my supply of handkerchiefs, old shirts, GI sheets, and old shorts, all of which I use for parachutes, gets smaller.”[11] The chocolate drops would be repeated many times after Halverson left Germany. The Operation was covered by the International press displaying Allied forces in a positive light on the world stage.

On the heels of World War II and at the start of the Cold War, chocolate was able to perform yet another service – publicity.  For centuries, chocolate has been serving the military on many levels. From fortification to diplomacy; energy to encouragement; now publicity and propaganda, chocolate continues to serve.

Works Cited

[1] Business Wire. Technavio. Top 6 Vendors in the Global Chocolate Market from 2017 to 2021: Technavio. June 28, 2017. Web. March 4, 2018. https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20170628005998/en/Top-6-Vendors-Global-Chocolate-Market-2017

[2] Coe, Sophie D.. The True History of Chocolate (Kindle Locations 1372-1373). Thames & Hudson. Kindle Edition.

[3] Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerican and the “food of the gods”. Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. Jan. 31, 2018. Class Lecture 2.

[4] Grivetti, Louis E.; Shapiro, Howard-Yana. Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage (Kindle Locations 15908-15911). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

[5] Ibid. (Kindle Location 15887).

[6] Ibid. (Kindle Location 16244).

[7] Ibid. (Kindle Locations 12681-12682).

[8] Ibid. (Kindle Location 14089).

[9] Ibid. (Kindle Locations 14093-14094).

[10] Ibid. (Kindle Location 14212).

[11] Giangreco, D.M. and Griffin, Robert E. The Berlin Crisis of 1948, its Origins and Aftermath. Presidio Press. New York. Excerpts Published by Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum. Web. March 8, 2018. https://www.trumanlibrary.org/whistlestop/BERLIN_A/CHOCOLAT.HTM

The Then and Now of Cacao: Contrasting the Cacao of Mesoamerica with Today’s Chocolate

From simple Hershey Kisses, to rich Swiss chocolates, to wacky Japanese Kit-Kats, few foods have become as wildly and internationally popular as chocolate. Chocolate has a long and rich history, with the first confirmed cacao container being dated to approximately 1400 BCE (Coe and Coe 36). While many are aware that Mesoamericans were the first to cultivate and consume cacao, there are many misconceptions about the ‘chocolate’  they ate. The ingredients, preparation, and traditions surrounding cacao in pre-Columbian civilizations is very different from the chocolate many of us enjoy today. While modern western-style chocolate has its roots in Mesoamerica, it is almost alien to the cacao that the Mayans and Aztecs consumed.

One of the differences between modern chocolate and Mesoamerican cacao is the state in which it was consumed. While some might imagine the Mayans eating a chocolate bar or chocolate-covered ice-cream, in actuality cacao was very rarely consumed in a solid form. It was usually served as a drink or a thin maze-gruel.

This Magnum ice cream commercial perpetuates the misconception that the Mayans produced solid chocolate

Mesoamerican cacao tasted very different from the chocolate we know today. Original cacao was not a sweet treat. Mesoamericans tended to use more spicy and savory ingredients to flavor their cacao drinks, such as chillies, (Coe and Coe 49) peppery ‘ear flower’ (62), ground achiote, and herbs (Presilla 9). There was no sugarcane in the pre-Colombian Americas, so if the drink was sweetened it was with honey, maguey sap, or mamey sapote pits (9). This gave cacao a much wider spectrum of flavors than modern chocolate. Some flavors of Mesoamerican cacao might not be reproducible; two plants, the itsim-te and yu-tal (Coe and Coe 49) were common Mayan cacao ingredients, but the translation of what these items were has been lost. Contrary to popular belief, cinnamon was not an ingredient used in Mesoamerican cacao. This is because cinnamon is not a New World spice; it was only introduced to the Aztecs once the Spanish invaded. The misguided belief that ‘Old-World’ flavors like cinnamon were used in Mesoamerican cacao can likely be attributed to modern companies. Haagen-Dazs used cinnamon in their ‘Mayan chocolate’ flavor, and created interactive ads in which one can use a ‘Mayan stone tool’ to peel the bark off of a cinnamon tree.



This Haagen Dazs ice cream looks tasty, but is historically inaccurate

The preparation of chocolate today is highly mechanized and produces a solid product. The preparation of cacao in Mesoamerica was quite different. To create the cacao, beans were first laid out to dry in the sun. They were then roasted on a clay griddle called a comale. The shells were removed, and the roasted cacao was ground into paste on

A traditional Metate grinding stone

stone slabs called metates.  Water and the other ingredients were then mixed into the cacao paste. Once the paste had reached a liquid state, it was poured between two containers to achieve a foamy texture.  The cacao was then served, either warm by the Mayans or cool by the Aztecs, in clay goblets.

Cacao being poured back and forth to create a foam.

One of the most stark differences between modern chocolate and Mesoamerican cacao is the ritual and association surrounding its consumption. If you were to ask a modern a chocolate-eater about the occasions they consume chocolate, they might recall a casual snack, a fancy gift box, or a Valentine’s Day treat. Most modern chocolate ‘rituals’ usually have positive associations and its consumption is fairly unexceptional. In contrast, Mesoamerican societies viewed the consumption of cacao to be a semi-sacred event. In Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, Cameron McNeil noted that “In later Mesoamerican societies for which we have data on social alliances, cacao was a primary object of exchanges between social groups, marking betrothal, marriage, and children’s life cycle rituals. In the Codex Nuttall, scenes showing vessels containing a brown foamy beverage are found in contexts of marriage, betrothal, children’s life-cycle rituals, funerary, and ancestor veneration ceremonies.” (McNeil) The ritual surrounding Mesoamerican cacao can be paralleled to how wine might be held sacred in many modern religious ceremonies.  One can see how highly cacao was venerated by looking at its use in death rituals. When examining the Hunal and Magarita royal tombs, eleven of the sixty-three containers found tested positive for Theobromine, a chemical indicator of cacao. Aside from lack of sacred rituals associated with eating chocolate today, there is also another significant difference between cacao then and now; attainability. While in modern times anyone can walk into a candy store and buy a bar of chocolate for a reasonable price, the majority of Mesoamericans never had the chance to consume cacao. The True History of Chocolate states that “among the Aztecs and other Mesoamericans… the drinking of chocolate was confined to the elite, to the royal house, to the lords and nobility, to the long distance merchants, and to the warriors.” (Coe and Coe 95)

This video illustrates the evolving nature of cacao and chocolate. 

Modern chocolate and Mesoamerican cacao are undeniably different from each other. While they both are products of the cacao bean, the other ingredients, the preparation, and the cultural attitude surrounding Mesoamerican cacao drinks are far removed from today’s average chocolate bar.

Text Sources:

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

“HAAGEN-DAZS: MAYAN CHOCOLATE ICE CREAM.” Creativity Online, 7 June 2006, creativity-online.com/work/haagendazs-mayan-chocolate-ice-cream/6611.

McNeil, Cameron L. Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao (Maya Studies). University Press of Florida, 2006. University Scholarship Press Online, florida.universitypressscholarship.com.i.ezproxy.nypl.org/view/10.5744/florida/9780813029535.001.0001/upso-9780813029535.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: a Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ten Speed Press, 2009.

“The History of Chocolate: The Mayans and the Aztecs.” Godiva Chocolates.co.uk, www.godivachocolates.co.uk/the-history-of-chocolate-mayans-aztecs.html.

“The History of Chocolate Part 2: European.” Godiva Chocolates.co.uk, www.godivachocolates.co.uk/the-history-of-chocolate-europe.html

Photo and Video sources, in order of appearance (starting with featured image):

“Two Mixtec Kings Drinking and Giving Teh Cacao Licour.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ans_21_06_2.jpg#/media/File:Ans_21_06_2.jpg.

rockerboydaniel. “Magnum Mayan Mystica.” YouTube, YouTube, 24 June 2008, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ltHkoisXNmg.

“HAAGEN-DAZS: MAYAN CHOCOLATE ICE CREAM.” Creativity Online, 7 June 2006, creativity-online.com/work/haagendazs-mayan-chocolate-ice-cream/6611.

“A Mexican Metate or Grinding Stone.” Wikipedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fotg_cocoa_d195_a_mexican_metate_or_grinding_stone.png.

“Mujer Vertiendo Chocolate – Codex Tudela.” Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Cocoa#/media/File:Mujer_vertiendo_chocolate_-_Codex_Tudela.jpg.

TEDEducation. “The History of Chocolate – Deanna Pucciarelli.” YouTube, YouTube, 16 Mar. 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibjUpk9Iagk



Chocolate in Mesoamerican and Western traditions: A Social and Ceremonial Treat

In our American culture, there is no sweet flavor that enjoys the popularity of chocolate. From its use in cakes to ice cream, the sweet and creamy nature of chocolate has become a massive cultural and entrepreneurial phenomenon that is central to our eating habits and socialization. However, the origins of chocolate date back to thousands of years in the Amazonian rainforest where the Cacao plant was first domesticated. Most people are accustomed to its sweet flavor and mildly roasted aftertaste, however, for the Maya and Aztecs, chocolate encompassed a variety of drinks with different flavors that were enjoyed by everyone from commoners to elite rulers like Aztec emperor Moctezuma, who was said to consume more than ten cups of chocolate a day (How Chocolate Works, 25:21). The perception around chocolate in pre-Columbian times included religious, social and medicinal elements that survive to this day in our modern times.

Our obsession with chocolate (Cacao) can be said to be quite extreme, however, for ancient Mesoamerican civilization it encompassed a much broader category of food and rituals. For the Aztecs and Maya, chocolate became central for their relationship with others and fulfilled a religious purpose within its mythology: “ […]the ethnohistorical sources from Central Mexico make clear that many types of chocolate drinks were enjoyed by elites of the Highlands. The Florentine Codex describes the rich variety of chocolate offered to Mexica Aztec rulers, including “green cacao-pods, honeyed chocolate, flowered chocolate, flavored with green vanilla, bright red chocolate, huitztecolli-flavored chocolate, flower-colored chocolate, black chocolate, white chocolate” (McNeil, 184). Chocolate, or its original fruit name Cacao, was treated not only as a comfort sweet drink as we perceive it in our society; they also attributed medicinal, aphrodisiac and even ceremonial purposes to the fruit itself which has a citrus-like flavor.

Initially, South American tribes created a variety of fermented drinks with the Cacao pulp or “chicha” which later evolved into including its bitter seeds or “almendras”. Such drinks became central for socialization and are still enjoyed by most adults in celebratory and everyday settings (depending on the drink). For example, non-alcoholic recipes: “ [they] are made by fermenting the cacao seeds, drying them, optionally toasting them, grinding them, and mixing them with water in a thick, bitter suspension” (McNeil, 140). This drink can be considered the equivalent of our current understanding of coffee; it is often described as refreshing, gives you energy and does not inebriate. The slightly roasted and bitter flavor of chocolate we are accustomed to came to be after years of experimentation with the fruit. Archeological evidence shows that the Maya applied roasting and drying techniques to peppers, squashes and achiote, and such practice was later applied to cacao seeds that eventually developed the roasted and bitter flavor of chocolate as we know it today. “[…] the Classic Maya took their chocolate very seriously and that it was a drink of pleasure as well as political and social importance” (McNeil, 201). Scientists were are able to find the alkaloids Theobromine and Feine which are found cacao products. Such presence in ancient vessels along Maya writings describing “Kakaw” made it possible to infer that Mesoamerican civilizations attributed significant importance to cacao-made drinks and even attributed aphrodisiac properties (Sophie & Michael D. Coe, 31). In addition, ceremonial varieties were also used by the Maya who even had a cacao deity. In her book, The New Taste of Chocolate, Maricel Presilla writes: “We know that chocolate colored with Achiote had the symbolic meaning of a sacrificial victim’s blood, the sacred fluid that was the fuel of the Maya ritual universe” (Presilla, 13). As cacao was sacredly mentioned in the creation story of the Popol Vuh, in which the cacao god ascends from the underworld, it was given sacred properties and therefore used in religious ceremonies.

Maya rise and Fall; Princeton Museum; Ancient Cultures; Maya; Mayan; ; Princeton Vase; Cacao

In modern western tradition, chocolate is socialized slightly different than its Mesoamerican counterparts: chocolate is treated as a comfort food (or a treat) of a rewarding nature without ceremonial purposes. As a result, aggressive marketing campaigns are developed in which chocolate becomes a commodity to show affection or endearment such as Valentine’s Day. In this way, chocolate still plays a role in developing a highly social interaction between members of such societies around the food. In the western world, cacao seeds are usually roasted, milk is added, and sweetened with sugar and the byproduct is not alcoholic. Some Europeans chocolate producers like the Belgian company Godiva Chocolatier make high profits by marketing all varieties of chocolate products (from milk and dark chocolate bars to smoothies and seasonal strawberries that are covered in melted chocolate). Sweet chocolate has become an accessible delicacy that is enjoyed by most members of our society and shows no sigs of slowing down. The cacao plant has become so influential in our society that it has been adapted all over the world to suit each market’s needs. For example, in Mexico, some varieties of spicy chocolate still exist, and in South America, some varieties of sweet chocolate make use of the pulp to add some flavor.

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 Coe, Sophie D. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

“Princeton Vase, from Nakbe Region.” Princeton Vase, from Nakbe Region.

 The History of Chocolate: The Mayans and Aztecs, http://www.godivachocolates.co.uk/the-history-of-chocolate-mayans-aztecs.html.

Marshall Brain & Shanna Freeman “How Chocolate Works” 1 April 2000.
HowStuffWorks.com. <https://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/edible-innovations/chocolate.htm&gt; 8 March

McNeil, Cameron L. Chocolate in Mesoamerica : a Cultural History of Cacao. University Press of Florida, 2006. Print.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate : a Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. 1st rev. ed., Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.


Drawing on Chocolate: How Society Displays its Values on its Favorite Food

From the earliest of its history, chocolate has been tied to the value systems of the people that consumed it. As cacao products and recipes traveled around the world, the decorations and designs that people have chosen to use on containers give us insight into the value systems of their cultures.

Mezo-American Values

Relics of Meso-American pottery date to the same place and timeframe as the archeological record of chocolate–with the Olmec people. (Rose) Chemical analysis of pottery shards shows that the Olmec culture made cacao pulp into an intoxicating beer-type drink at least 1000 years before the current era. Eventually the cacao bean byproduct fermented into its own food source and began to resemble chocolate–at least in its crudest liquid form. (Henderson)

Screen Shot 2017-03-05 at 10.39.18 PM
The Mayan drinking vase on display in the permanent collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is an example of documentation of ceremony, politics, and the importance of chocolate in their society. Slightly larger than a modern quart jar, the drinking vase has a wrap-around visual narrative that details a ritual, specifically noting out that kakaw (cacao) was one of the stimulating substances used in this event.

Our first pictorial record of the original bitter drink begins with the wealthiest of the Mayan society. These colorful jewels of Western Hemisphere art document the details about ritual life by describing events, attendees, and even the ingredients of the beverage. Documenting their religion and political record onto the containers from which they drank chocolate shows the importance of the beverage in their society.

The Aztec created rounded bowls from the calabash gourds which the local populace used to prepare their daily cacao. The society elite commissioned ceremonial pottery that took the same shape and name as the gourd vessels–jícara. Vessels like this were documented in the first Spanish histories, with descriptions of cacao preparation being poured from bowl to bowl to create a frothy top. (Presilla 32)

By the time the Spanish arrived, Aztec decorations were becoming less literal than the Mayans’ had been, and were more symbolic of the gods’ earthy powers. Geometric representation of forces such as lightening and serpents were replacing the drawings of the gods themselves. As colonization progressed, the strong geometric symbolism was married with the Spanich-Islamic influences and techniques–showing up in the hybridization of cuisines, ingredients (Lauden) as well as in the art motifs.

The ultimate reason for the Spanish colonization the Americas was to extract the wealth from the natural resources of the new world. Although the Spanish government justified their version of slavery with the religious conversion of the Native Americans, in the end the colonization effort needed to be a wealth-producing enterprise. Along with agricultural products such as chocolate and sugar, metals were of great value in the European market. Native cultures shared the affinity for gold, silver and copper and used them as ornament and decorative items for the elite, but they had not perfected many techniques to create items for utilitarian purposes. The Spanish brought the knowledge of metallurgy which led to the local creation of copper chocolate pots for drink preparation. They also used silver to create handles and feet on the local cups made from coconut, literally wrapping the drink in wealth.

This video of a Filipino chocolate preparation shows the use of a copper chocolate pot and a molinillo stick to stir the chocolate into a froth. This is how the Spanish modified the native Nahuatl method of pouring the chocolate from bowl to bowl to produce a froth. (Coe 156), (Presilla 20)

After the Spanish arrival, pottery designs started showing stronger geometric divisions and flowery natural imagery moving away from the stylization of the Aztec and becoming more reminiscent of the designs that were slathered on mother Spain’s 12th century Moorish architecture. Images of upper-class colonial life, replaced the Native American depictions of myths and ceremonies. Plantation life was becoming more important than the natural forces and religions of Mexico. The sgrafitto, or incised pottery techniques that the Spaniards brought with them, married well with the engraved and carved techniques that had been in Meso-America since the Olmecs, but allowed for a more refined hand to carve into gourds and coconuts as well as pottery. (Presilla 32)

Jícara such as this one from Peru uses the sgrafitto technique to create a delicate designs that bring to mind the Spanish homeland.

The gourd-bowl shape has become synonymous with colorful, modern Mexican tourist-style pottery in the shape of flowerpots and salad bowls. Calabash gourds are still grown, dried, carved and sold today in the markets of Tabasco. Grown from a native American tree that is remarkably similar to cacao in habit and form–modern uses for the gourds can be anything from drinking, to measuring, to display.

The influence and pottery technology of the Olmecs had moved northward with trade routes to the Pueblo people. Gas chromatography analysis of North American artifacts has shown that long before the Aztecs had usurped the regional market on cacao, the trade routes of the Mayans had extended northward to canyons of New Mexico. (Mozdy) The Anasazi cultures created tall, vessels reminiscent of the Mayan vase shape, decorated with extremely stylized iconography that represented the common Meso-American pantheon.

These examples from Chaco Canyon are covered with lightening bolts that reflect the Pueblo’s interpretation of the imported Mezoamerican rain god, Quetzocoatle and display the reverence to the forces of nature that the local culture held. (Eaton 38)

This 1200-mile path between where the vessels were found (in the Pueblo Bonito of Chaco Canyon) and the nearest source of cacao would have required 600 hours of backpacking through rough country and sweltering heat. As one researcher phrased it “That’s a long way to go for something that you don’t need for survival”, [something] that’s more of a delicacy…” Whether the Anasazi acquired this cacao through dedicated treks south–which would have taken weeks–or their pueblo was the endpoint of an even slower hand-to-hand, village-to-village trade route. (Mozdy)

European Values

Soon after chocolate washed across the courts of Europe, trade with the east opened up, bringing with it tea, and a new the technology harder, refined pottery that we still refer to as “china”. Tea was not treated just as basic sustenance. Like the original chocolate beverage, there was ceremony attached to it that appealed to the idle wealthy who could afford these imported beverages. Tea was prepared in a fancy ceramic pot–separate from the kettle used to heat the water. Then it was decanted to a cup to delicately sip. The wealthy started applying the same approach their chocolate. Long gone was the habit of preparing and drinking chocolate out of the same vessel. The wealthy had even stopped decanting directly from a copper pot into a cup. Drinking chocolate now represented wealth and was given all the trappings to prove it. Chocolate was prepared in the kitchen and placed in the chocolate pot, or chocotalière, by servants, then brought to the public gathering of wealthy ladies, and delicately poured into cups and handed round by the magnanimous hostess. (Coe 156-159)

The best and most expensive chinoiserie hailed from Germany, where Johann Friedrich Böttger duplicated the art of Chinese fine porcelain making.


Chocolate pots were made from the most expensive of porcelain, and shaped in the fashion of teapots with some adjustments. Traditional teapots have a short, squat form into order to be able to keep heat in and extract the flavor from the swirling tea leaves that are actively stewing in the hot water. A low-seated spout is fixed with an interior strainer to keep the floating leaves in the pot once you are ready to pour the fully brewed beverage. Coffee pots, on the other hand, need a tall form and highly placed straining spout for the opposite reason. As it is basically a decanting mechanism for an already brewed beverage, the height of the coffee pot allows any grounds from the brew to settle to the bottom, or get caught in the strainer. (Righthand)

Chocolate pots can be hard to spot, as they often hybridize these two forms–typically tall, but often bulbous. Early European chocolate pots most always have a removable finial to allow for a mixing stick to create the desired froth and keep the chocolate mixed. As cocoa powder was developed and cocoa preparations replaced true hot chocolate, the stirring stick went by the wayside, and chocotalière became nearly indistinguishable from coffee pots. The last distinguishing characteristic of a coffee pot was the internal strainer where the spout and body meet, and a spout that lowered over time.

Drinking chocolate represented wealth, therefore decorations were those that affluent courtiers and nouveau-riche traders would value. Gone were the forces of Meso-American nature, or plantation life, and in came garden scene–often mimicking the exotic origins of the pot. Elaborately painted and gilt decorations brought the wealth of court on the surface of the chocolate pot. An 18th century fad called “Chinoiserie” depicted the European’s visions of Asian gardens with palm trees, umbrellas, and architecture that they imagined would be found in the gardens of the imperial court of China. As many of the traders were making fortunes off the new-found economy, the asian motifs became a temporary obsession throughout the continent and its colonies.

Pottery for the middle class living in British colonies was most often imported from Staffordshire England. Extremely fine china rarely made it across the Atlantic during the colonial period.

Chocolate drinkers in the British colonies of North America usually imported English middle-class pottery with basic garden motifs to take to their breakfast tables. Very little pottery was made in New England so imported china had a cache of wealth and the designs were reminiscent of the estate and gardens of England as colonists tried to keep up all the appearances of home. The wealthiest of families had their chocolate pots crafted by local silversmiths, and garnished with the family seal to tie their family names and crests directly with the wealth that the precious metal embodied.


Modern Global Values


As solid chocolate became available and ubiquitous throughout western culture, the packaging of it has changed with the form, but the still conveyed the values of the local surroundings. To make chocolate appealing to a mass Victorian audience, purveyors wrapped it in the trappings of health and wholesomeness. As modern food science undermined the myth of “healthful chocolate” and the western world was coming out of a financial depression, the ideology of wealth returned. Silver wrappers, foil lettering on thick, glossy boxes, expansive packaging, and silky imagery are on all price-points of chocolate. Our favorite addiction is made more expensive by giving it the trappings of luxury: heart-shaped boxes and ribbons; gilded truffles and patisseries. Feeling rich makes many of us very happy.

The fact that cacao is grown as a third world agricultural product, but consumed almost exclusively in comfortable homes of first world economies has been coming to the attention of consumers over the last half a century. For the socially conscious consumer–those whose values do not hold with personal indulgence without consideration to the cost to others and the planet–a whole new branding for chocolate has developed.

These consumers feel better about buying chocolate that is emblazoned with the iconography of Fair Trade, organic, or direct trade certifications–even if the certification system is more of a seasonal band-aid than a true economic transformation. (Sylla) The sheer plethora of virtuous symbols appearing on labels in the chocolate isle work to the benefit of the marketing. The variety of symbols and levels of individual certification system adds layers of confusion to the real benefits. The level of confusion is so high, there is no way the average consumer can understand all the nuances and impacts. In the end buyers spend more for a product that has a “seal of approval,” and go on their merry way with the psychological satisfaction of having done something good for the “other.”  They get to feel good without ever looking for any proof of the benefit these programs have on the lives of the farmers.

Slapping a feel-good seal on a wrapper has become so successful as marketing, that major companies are eschewing certifications that are attached to bureaucratic oversight of bona fide good intent, and instead are working toward establishing their own brands’ seal of ethical approval and creating home-grown social initiatives that are much easier to operationalize and do not threaten profits in the way that transforming the cacao supply chain would. Adding these icons into the patchwork of other initiatives ensures that social initiative logos appear on more and more packaging. Buying products branded with one of the myriad of ethical icons assuages the consciences of most purchasers. (Martin) In this way, we ensure that imagery that conveys these values will keep on proliferating on the packaging of our chocolate.

Works Referenced:

Brigden, Zachariah. Chocolate Pot. 1755. Silver. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts.

Burt, Benjamin, and Nathaniel Hurd. Teapot. 1763. Silver. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts.

“Crescentia cujete.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 03 Apr. 2017. Web. 07 May 2017. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crescentia_cujete>.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.

Eaton, William M. Odyssey of the Pueblo Indians: an introduction to Pueblo Indian petroglyphs, pictographs, and kiva art murals in the Southwest. Paducah, KY: Turner Pub., 1999. Print.

Henderson, John S., et al. “Chemical and Archaeological Evidence for the Earliest Cacao Beverages.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, National Acad Sciences, 16 Nov. 2007, www.pnas.org/content/104/48/18937.full. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

Laudan, Rachel, and Ignacio Urquiza. “The Mexican Kitchen’s Islamic Connection.” Aramco World. Saudi Aramco Services Co, May 2004. http://archive.aramcoworld.com/issue/200403/the.mexican.kitchen.s.islamic.connection.htm. Accessed 3 Feb. 2017

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Revised ed., Berkeley, NY, Ten Speed Press, 2009.

Martin, Carla D. “Alternative trade and virtuous localization/globalization.” 5 April 2017, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.

“Metallurgy in pre-Columbian America.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 02 May 2017. Web. 07 May 2017.

Mozdy, Michael. “Cacao in Chaco Canyon.” Natural History Museum of Utah, Natural History Museum of Utah, 4 Aug. 2017, nhmu.utah.edu/blog/2016/08/04/cacao-chaco-canyon. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.

Righthand, Jess. “A Brief History of the Chocolate Pot .” Smithsonian.com. The Smithsonian Institution, 13 Feb. 2005. Web. 23 Feb. 2017. <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/brief-history-chocolate-pot-180954241/>.

Rose, Mark. “Olmec People, Olmec Art.” Archeology. Archaeological Institute of America, n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2017.

Sylla, Ndongo Samba., and David Clément Leye. The fair trade scandal marketing poverty to benefit the rich. Athens, OH: Ohio U Press, 2014. Print.

Unknown. Anasazi [Pueblo] pottery, Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, New MexicoAMNH Digital Special Collections, accessed March 06, 2017, lbry-web-007.amnh.org/digital/items/show/38991.

Unknown. Drinking Vase for “om kakaw”. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, 2003.

Unknown. Gourd (jicara) with red figures. Circa 1700. Lacquered Gourd. Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, San Francisco, California.

Unknown. Jícara. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, 2003.

Image Citations:

Unless otherwise noted, drawings and photographs are works of the author and images may not be reused without attribution.




The Evolution of Cacao-Based Drinks in Mexico

Millions of tons of chocolate are produced each year, yet few today would guess that this sugary treat had its origins in frothy, semi-sweet cacao drinks prepared for Maya and Aztec royalty. Chocolate bars, candies, cakes, and pastries are the most popular forms of the food in most of the US and Europe today. Chocolate milk and hot chocolate retain some basic similarity with the cacao drinks of thousands of years ago, yet they combine the chocolate with milk, sugar, and other ingredients that would have been foreign to the Maya and Aztecs. Yet, in Mexico, a tradition of cacao beverages has been preserved from the fall of the Aztec empire to the present day. In this paper, I investigate modern cacao drinks and argue that though they are often marketed with references to the Maya and Aztecs, modern drinks represent a unique hybridity of ancient traditions and European ingredients and styles of preparation.

Chemical analysis has shown that cacao beverages were produced in Mesoamerica as early as 1100 BCE.[1] Cacao beverages were prepared by both the Maya and Aztec, and were considered very precious because cacao beans were used as a form of currency.[2] Maya drinks, especially those produced in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, were known for being prepared hot, while Aztec cacao drinks were generally cold.[3] In Aztec times, cacao beverages were often prepared in different ways depending on the quality of the cacao. High quality cacao was combined with water and frothed, while lower-quality cacao was often combined with other ingredients, including corn, seeds, chili peppers, vanilla, and other flowers.[4] By the time the Spanish arrived in the 1600’s, cacao beverages were sold in markets across Mexico, though cacao remained expensive and had high social significance.[5] Because of the wide range of different flavorings combined with cacao drinks, different regions of present-day Mexico each had unique interpretations of cacao beverages during Aztec times.[6]

Today, Mexico still has a wide range of cacao-based drinks available in different regions of the country. During lecture on February 1st, we watched a video detailing the preparation of Champurrado, a popular chocolate beverage in Mexico today.[7] In this video, the drink is prepared using pre-processed bars of dark chocolate, rather than the raw cacao that would have been used in ancient beverages. Additionally, the Champurrado is mixed with sugar, milk, cinnamon, and star anise – additions that are distinctively European. However, Champurrado also contains masa harina (a form of corn flour) and water, and makes use of a traditional molinillo (an item introduced to Mesoamerica by the Spanish[8]) to mix the ingredients and create a froth. Though the mixture of cacao and water is distinctively Mesoamerican, the additional ingredients and use of a molinillo reflect the influence of Spanish colonialism.

However, Champurrado is just one of many popular cacao drinks in Mexico today – and just one of many unique combinations of ancient recipes and European influences. Today there are a variety of different cacao drinks made in different regions of Mexico, for example bu’pu in Tehuantepec, chorote in Tabasco, tascalate in Chiapas, and tejate in Oaxaca.[9]

Tejate is perhaps the most authentic, as archaeological research has shown that many of its ingredients, as well as the vessels it is served in, reflect the style of cacao beverages produced in Oaxaca for thousands of years.[10] According to a 2009 article from The Atlantic, in tejate’s recipe “you’ll almost always find a blend of nixtamal corn, cacao beans, mamey seed, and rosita de cacao–the secret ingredient that makes tejate truly special. Rosita de cacao is the flower of the funeral tree (Quararibea funebris).”[11] Once the ingredients are combined, tejate is served combined with water and topped with a pile of frothy foam.[12] Similar cacao-foam-based drinks can be found passed-down from generation to generation in Cholula, Puebla, and other regions of Mexico.[13] Though tejate combines cacao, corn, flowers, and abundant foam, much like ancient drinks, it also includes modern influences. Today, tejate is served with a sugar-based syrup, and some have experimented with serving tejate paste “in cookies, cake, ice, powder,” and other forms that stray away from the traditional liquid.[14] Though tejate recipes have been passed down for generations and represent a unique cultural inheritance, they have not been immune to the ingredients and new tastes imported by Spanish colonizers.

The video below describes a drink that can be found in Mexico City, Espuma de Cacao[15] – a beverage very similar to the tejate prepared across Oaxaca. However, it is notable that this version of the drink specifically calls it “El elixir de los Dioses” – the elixir of the Gods – a direct reference to the elite pedigree of cacao beverages in Maya and Aztec times. The video does not reference the influence of Spanish colonialism, yet the inclusion of sugar in the recipe reflects the changes to traditional recipes that occurred under Spanish rule.

Video is from OZY travel blog article.[16]

Besides the recipes for cacao-foam drinks passed down in communities across Mexico, there are also recipes that have been created specifically to recreate the cacao-drinking experience of the Aztecs and Mayans. Munchies documents some such recipes made by Fernando Rodriguez, a businessman in Teotihuacan.[17] Rodriguez uses recipes for ancient drinks, found in such sources as the Popul Vuh and Florentine Codex, to design modern drinks that rely on the same key spices, flavors, flowers, and production methods.[18] Though Rodriguez bases most of his drinks on the historical clues he finds from ancient writings, he still makes some blends that introduce cinnamon, ginger, and other spices that were first introduced to Mesoamerica by Spanish colonizers.[19]

Though different areas of Mexico each have their own variations on how to prepare and serve cacao-based drinks, there are common threads that connect all these beverages. In all areas, modern Mexicans are proud of their unique cultural heritage stemming from Aztec and Maya civilization, and market modern cacao drinks for the ancient wisdom and tradition that they perpetuate. Many of the ancient drink-making customs remain the same – corn, flowers, and water are often added, and foam is still often considered a desirable element to top the beverage. Yet, Spanish and European taste and colonial influence can also be seen in many variations of these drinks. The most common manifestation of this is the addition of sugar, though cinnamon, ginger, star anise, other spices, and milk also reflect the influx of European ingredients and taste preferences. The cacao beverages produced across Mexico today are unique, with no clear counterpart in most other countries, yet they represent both the heritage of ancient civilizations and, more subtly, the complex and difficult legacy of Spanish colonialism.


[1] John S. Henderson, Rosemary A. Joyce, Gretchen R. Hall, W. Jeffrey Hurst, and Patrick E. Mcgovern, “Chemical and Archaeological Evidence for the Earliest Cacao Beverages,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, no. 48 (2007): 18937. http://www.pnas.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/content/104/48/18937.full

[2] Sophie D. Coe, and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 3rd ed. (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013), 81-84.

[3] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 83-84.

[4] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 86-94.

[5] Daniela Soleri, Marcus Winter, Steven R. Bozarth, and W. Jeffrey Hurst, “Archaeological Residues and Recipes: Exploratory Testing for Evidence of Maize and Cacao Beverages in Postclassic Vessels from the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico,” Latin American Antiquity 24, no. 03 (2013): 345-62, 345-347, accessed via Hollis, http://www.jstor.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/stable/23645680?seq=3#page_scan_tab_contents

[6] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 94.

[7] Dr. Carla Martin, “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods,’” February 1, 2017, slide 82, https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1FzrAQvjXJZnu7lTixblZ1FsyfDjnXtQ-8JyXd2uq5ZM/edit#slide=id.gef490479d_4_279

[8] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 83-85.

[9] Soleri, et al, “Archaeological Residues and Recipes,” 347.

[10] Soleri, et al, “Archaeological Residues and Recipes.”

[11] Alex Whitmore, “Cacao Tejate: Ancient Chocolate Drink,” The Atlantic, April 28, 2009, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/04/cacao-tejate-ancient-chocolate-drink/16609/

[12] Whitmore, “Cacao Tejate.”

[13] Margot Castaneda, “How Mexico Is Rediscovering (and Reinventing) Ancient Cacao Drinks,” Munchies (a branch of Vice News), January 7, 2017, https://munchies.vice.com/en_us/article/how-mexico-is-rediscovering-ancient-cacao-drinks

[14] Castaneda, “How Mexico Is Rediscovering (and Reinventing) Ancient Cacao Drinks.”

[15] Libby Coleman, “This Chocolatey Mexican Drink Will Get You Foaming at the Mouth,” OZY, January 24, 2017, http://www.ozy.com/good-sht/this-chocolatey-mexican-drink-will-get-you-foaming-at-the-mouth/75134

[16] Coleman, “This Chocolatey Mexican Drink.”

[17] Castaneda, “How Mexico Is Rediscovering (and Reinventing) Ancient Cacao Drinks.”

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.



Multimedia Sources 

Castaneda, Margot. “How Mexico Is Rediscovering (and Reinventing) Ancient Cacao Drinks.” Munchies (a branch of Vice News). January 7, 2017. https://munchies.vice.com/en_us/article/how-mexico-is-rediscovering-ancient-cacao-drinks

Coleman, Libby. “This Chocolatey Mexican Drink Will Get You Foaming at the Mouth.” OZY. January 24, 2017. http://www.ozy.com/good-sht/this-chocolatey-mexican-drink-will-get-you-foaming-at-the-mouth/75134

Whitmore, Alex. “Cacao Tejate: Ancient Chocolate Drink.” The Atlantic. April 28, 2009. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/04/cacao-tejate-ancient-chocolate-drink/16609/


Academic Sources 

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013.

Henderson, John S., Rosemary A. Joyce, Gretchen R. Hall, W. Jeffrey Hurst, and Patrick E. Mcgovern. “Chemical and Archaeological Evidence for the Earliest Cacao Beverages.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, no. 48 (2007): 18937. Accessed via Hollis. http://www.pnas.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/content/104/48/18937.full

Martin, Carla. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” February 1, 2017. https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1FzrAQvjXJZnu7lTixblZ1FsyfDjnXtQ-8JyXd2uq5ZM/edit#slide=id.gef490479d_4_279

Soleri, Daniela, Marcus Winter, Steven R. Bozarth, and W. Jeffrey Hurst. “Archaeological Residues and Recipes: Exploratory Testing for Evidence of Maize and Cacao Beverages in Postclassic Vessels from the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico.” Latin American Antiquity 24, no. 03 (2013): 345-62. accessed via Hollis. http://www.jstor.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/stable/23645680?seq=3#page_scan_tab_contents


Chocolatey Perceptions: The Simulacra of Cacao

“… the human body is basically an ambulatory colony of trillions of benevolent bacteria of many species, and their complex activity in metabolism and absorption of specific compounds is just becoming known to medical science.” (Coe, p. 31)[1]

A principal perceptive conceit innate to the human condition is the tendency to obscure staggeringly complex phenomena with simulacra[2], which applies so pertinently to our own self-perception as it does to any exogenous phenomenon. This, stemming from the exigences of adaptive prudence, or evolutionary imperative, nonetheless sullies our capacity for holistic and objective appraisal of phenomena and our interactions therewith. By conceptualisation, sociocultural, biopsychological, and linguistic construction, what might simply be labelled and categorised as ‘cacao’ or ‘chocolate’ is to humans a functional simulacrum, with all manner of narratives relative to time and place projected thereon; which, in turn, entail little comprehension of the complex chemistry, economics, industry, and so forth, existential to the product consumed. This article is not intended as a dissection of contemporary conceptions and misconceptions of cacao, but rather as an exploration of the semiotics that surrounded it in Maya, Mexica, and related indigenous Mesoamerican cultures, to offer elucidation of our own perceptions of the ‘food of the gods’ and indeed our predilection for simulacra more widely.


Factors monetary

            There are few starker examples of the simulacrum than money. Money is something into which we divest value – divest in the sense that value is displaced from the material objects or practicable services that the metric represents, and for which it is a means of exchange, to the point that, so often in monetary economies of all kinds and not simply in advanced consumerist marketocracies, it becomes an object in and of itself; our conception of value becomes invested in that symbol thereof: money. One of the key particularities of cacao is that it was, for centuries, used by the peoples of Mesoamerica, and later European colonists, as currency (Coe, p. 59). Cacao is a cultigen indigenous to the New World (Mintz, p. 36), specifically to the Amazonian basin towards the Ecuadorian coast, but, while radiocarbon dating has placed the consumption of cacao, in a semi-refined form, in the ancient Barra civilisation through the Olmecs and Izapa (Coe, pp. 36-38), it is the Maya and Mexica for whom we have a wealth of evidence that cacao beans were used as a means of exchange.

Ironically, it may be that one of the first examples of cacao as currency comes from the troves of counterfeit, clay cacao beans found at Balberta, a Classic Maya settlement near to Izapa in the south of modern-day Guatemala (p. 50). The crafting of delicate, ‘almond-like’ cacao beans would have been painstaking and the absurdity of such an endeavour highlights the marked subjective value, psychologically constructed upon its economic usage as tender, and thus indulgence of the simulacrum. When Christopher Columbus made contact with the Maya, believed to be the Putún Maya, near the island Guajana, he and his son, Ferdinand, made mention of the outwardly peculiar inclination of the natives to these beans – ‘those almonds which in New Spain are used for money’ (Weinberg et al., pp. 53-55). In perspicacity, we might similarly substitute the symbolic value placed on paper or digital money in our own cultures to cacao beans, as our own simulacrum is, superficially, of similar arbitrariness – as indeed the Spanish would learn to in their new colonies (Weinberg et al., p. 254). Yet, this would be to make little interrogation into the nature of that particular cultigen and its specificity.


Factors otherwise economic


Map of Aztec and Maya Regions, latinamericanstudies.org

Central to cacao’s trade were the waterway networks of the aforementioned Chontal or Putún Maya, who rose to great prominence in the twilight of the Classic Maya period, 250-900 AD, judging by the dress of those depicted on stelae as far and wide as Seibal, in Petén, and Cacaxtla in Tlaxcala (Coe, pp. 52-53) – which may well be demonstrative of the reach and penetration of the cacao-based economy in Mesoamerica even prior to the collapse of Classic Maya ca. 900 AD. Their descendants in the Maya heartlands – see map above – would never be subjugated by the Mexica given their shrewd and peaceful management of trade eastward and onwards into South America (p. 73). Indeed, the Mexica would attribute some degree of prestige to the role of their own guild-like merchants, the pachteca, who would venture across a territory spanning the map of Mesoamerica. The Mexica, as the Spanish, would assimilate into the extant economic order and adopt the incumbent social construction of value, maintaining the norms at play even to the point of collaboration with the gatekeepers of that economic order. This memetic transmission of the symbolic value of cacao between cultures may offer some insight into the processes by which our own perceptions of phenomena, not only that of chocolate, are reproduced.


Factors theological


Gods blood-letting over cacao, Madrid Codex (Public Domain)

            The symbolic value of cacao is omnipresent in the theology of Mesoamerican cultures. Mayan documents were typically written on bark paper and were thus perishable, placing extra importance on the few that survive (Coe, p. 43). In the Late Mayan Madrid Codex gods are depicted letting their own blood onto cacao, part of a persistent metaphorical link between divinity, blood, and cacao (p. 43; see image above). One key factor in the sanguine element of this symbolism was that chocolate was, at the time, often prepared by mixture of ground cocoa powder with achiote[3]. One might view this as predication for symbolism that came about post hoc, as conscious and perfunctory development of the recipe to fit theological and ceremonial purpose, or as some sort of coalescence of the two, but it is the development of that visceral, aesthetic, and ultimately semiotic function to the chocolate that is chiefly of pertinence here – not causality. Another text, the Popul Vuh, was codified by Spanish colonists in an attempt to detail the theology of the Quiché Maya, but it would appear to corroborate beliefs held somewhat consistently, or at least developed dialectically, in Mesoamerica – as attested by Izapa era stone stelae (Coe, pp. 37-40). The sacrosanctity of trees, often anthropomorphised and in the form of a cacao tree, was a consistent feature and the fact that the divine twins and mortal realm were born of the axis mundi[4] can be thought of as another major element in cacao’s rich symbolism[5]. If one were in need of any further proof of chocolate as a simulacrum, its very presence in grave goods[6] shows conceptions extending far beyond the intrinsic value its consumption holds in the mortal realm.


Factors psychological

(Please follow hyperlink for video)


Chocolate: Benefits vs. Dangers | Is Theobromine Safe?

The complex chemistry of chocolate, and specifically that of cacao, has certainly played a role in the psychology of its perception, be that specious or otherwise. Hervé Robert’s Les vertus thérapeutiques du chocolat is, to date, the most comprehensive medical study of the effects of chocolate, in which he indicated the psychoactive and stimulant effects of methylxanthines[7] theobromine (named for the genus Theobroma) and caffeine and β-phenylethylamine[8], as well as the production of serotonin[9] (Smith, p. 1). Both the Maya and Mexica appear to have used chocolate drinks for stimulant purposes, supplying them to soldiers before combat and athletes before competitions (Weinberg et al., p. 55) – much as we might today drink cups of strong coffee before writing an article. Since there is widespread evidence of cacao consumption in spite of its status as tender[10] there must have been some degree of pleasure associated therewith. One can see how differential food preference across vast cultures and thousands of years may have led to the selective elevation of this particular crop, an affinity therefor. The video above offers an introduction to the debate over the psychological effects of theobromine and caffeine on the brain and body; in modern debates surrounding nutritional and psychological effects of certain substances there tends to be a degree of moral hazard due to the vested economic interests of companies or government agencies that fund research, inertia in food preferences, and the conscious search for foodstuffs with unbalanced value[11]. Stalemate maintains the simulacrum as the technical or highly specialised nature of debates, be they on economics, psychology, chemistry, or any other avenue for debate, often so wholly obfuscate nuances in approach to the phenomenon, ie. chocolate, as to nullify it and so strengthen superficial, expedient categorisation much in the way that ethnobotany, theology, or even the Hippocratic-Galenic humoural system did before.


As alluded by the quotation that begun this essay, we have a tendency to reduce the individual human unit to one of uniformity, and consistency of narrative purpose and action, and we take comfort in the somewhat fallacious notion that the trillions of bacteria and cells, even their organelles, that compose us are altogether singular in their congruence. We construct flattened, reductive, two-dimensional avatars that allow us to obscure that complexity with the simulacra ‘Matthew’ or ‘Elliott’, et cetera. This expedient form of categorisation extends from self-perception to all exogenous phenomena, amongst which cacao is no different.




[1] This article is greatly indebted to the scholarship of Jonathan D. Coe and his late wife Sophie D. Coe, whose book The True History of Chocolate provides the backbone of the historical knowledge here discussed and, in this initial quotation, the genesis for exploration of simulacra in cacao.

[2] “A simulacrum refers to something that replaces reality with its representation”; Dino Franco Felluga, discussing Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (Felluga, p. 281).

[3] Bixa orellana, a red colouring agent

[4] The ‘world’s axis’, a tree that spans the underworld, Xibalba in Mayan mythology, from whence the divine twins originate, the mortal, and the celestial realms – an element common to numerous world theologies.

[5] The 7th century Palenque Maya king Pakal the Great claimed divine legitimacy for his rule by claiming to have descended from a cacao tree.

[6] Incidentally of major import to the ‘cracking’ of Mayan script given the propensity to analyse contents of containers by microspectroscopy and cross-reference this to labels and historical linguistics.

[7] Methylxanthines (ie. caffeine and theobromine) are a class of chemical often sought out with vigour by humanity; they tend to arise in plants as response to injury and can offer neural shock to small pests but in humans an effect found to be in some way pleasing, and that pleasure may be considered psychologically addictive.

[8] The neuro-regulatory effect of phenylethylamine approximates a shallow increase in serotonin. Indeed, there is ongoing discussion in the scientific community as to whether the trans-resveratrol, the bio-active quotient of the anti-oxidant resveratrol that is present in cacao, stimulates actual release of serotonin (cf. NCBI links).

[9] A biochemical process typically associated with softer mood transitions and thus pleasantness or contentedness.

[10] There are of course elements of social stratification not touched on here, and indeed the direct relationship of consumption to the monetary value of the product gives it an air of decadence still played on in chocolate marketing to this day (cf. Godiva link below); though intrinsically it is no different to the consumption of any other product of economic value it is compared to lighting cigars with $50 bills.

[11] As in the current taste for antioxidants, specifically quercetin in chocolate (cf. Life Enhancement link).


Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2006 (3rd Ed).

Felluga, Dino F.. Critical Theory: The Key Concepts. London: Routledge, 2005.

Mintz, Sidney W.. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1985.

Smith, Lucie. “Les vertus du chocolat.” Review of Les vertus thérapeutiques du chocolat by Hervé Robert. Paris: Éditions Artulen, 1990.

Weinberg, Bennett A. and Bonnie K. Bealer. The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug. London: Routledge, 2002.


Web Sources

‘6 pc. Dark Decadence Truffle Flight, $17’ (containing ‘Aztec Spice Truffles’), Godiva


‘Metabolism and bioavailability of trans-resveratrol’, PubMed.gov


‘Antidepressant-like effect of trans-resveratrol: Involvement of serotonin and noradrenaline system’, PubMed.gov


‘Effects of resveratrol on memory performance, hippocampal functional connectivity, and glucose metabolism in healthy older adults’, PubMed.gov


‘Trace Amines and the Trace Amine-Associated Receptor 1: Pharmacology, Neurochemistry, and Clinical Implications’, PubMed.gov


‘Reservatrol and Quercetin – Puzzling Gifts of Nature’, Life Enhancement


‘Rival Candy Projects Both Parse Cocoa’s DNA’, New York Times; September 15th 2010



Further Reading

‘7 Facts You Should Know About Trans-Resveratrol’, Global Healing Center


‘The History of Chocolate: The Mayans and Aztecs’, Godiva



Pre-Columbian cacao usage: more than a delicious snack


In contemporary society, the primary role of chocolate is as something to consume. Although some types of chocolate are more expensive or valued than others, it is generally easy to obtain, not necessarily precious, and available to just about anyone who desires it. In pre-Columbian cultures, however, although chocolate was used as a food, it also had other kinds of significance. It was a precious item, not necessarily available to those who were not elite, and had much symbolic and religious significance, playing an important role at various occasions.

Although evidence of cacao has been found on Olmec pottery shards from as early as 1650 B.C., not much is known about the cacao related customs or beliefs of the Olmec people. More is known about the role of cacao in the Mayan and Aztec civilizations that followed them, thanks to the depictions of cacao in Mayan books (codices) and ceramics and the recollections of the Spanish priests and conquerors, who observed Aztec society before it fell. Indeed, the decoding of the Mayan symbol for cacao (see below) was one of the keys to translating the Mayan hieroglyphic language. (Carla Martin, chocolate class).


Mayan script for the word ‘kakaw’. The drawing is based on Kettunen, Harri; Helmke, Christophe (2008).  “Introduction to Maya Hieroglyphs: Workshop Handbook'”. p. 73.  To learn more about Mayan hieroglyphs, visit: http://www.mesoweb.com/resources/handbook/WH2008.pdf.

The Mayan and Aztec civilizations shared similarities in their use of cacao. It’s preparation was far more varied than it is today. Presilla tells us that the idea of how to prepare cacao may have come from other foodstuffs such as maize that were dried, roasted and ground. The beverage made of ground cacao beans and water was typically bitter and savory –  often flavored with chilis and other botanicals – and only sometimes sweetened. Coe tells us that it was often mixed with maize (mature or young) was a way to make a nutritious gruel with more caloric value. Presilla mentions the use of cacao as a seasoning in other dishes as well. The froth was particularly desirable and was created by pouring the liquid from one container into another, sometimes at great height.

Aztec woman pouring

Picture of Aztec woman, from the Codex Tudela, pouring chocolate from one container to another to raise the foam.

Although cacao may have been available to various strata of Mayan society, in Aztec society it could only be used by the elite: nobles, the merchant class (long distance traders), and warriors. The Aztecs felt that bad luck would come if a commoner drank cacao – and the penalty for a commoner who did so was death. According to Coe, the Aztecs also did not care for drunkenness (the penalty was death) and chocolate was viewed as an alternative beverage to alcoholic beverages.  Warm cacao generally seems to have been preferred by Mayans, and it was typically served in tall vessels. When it was served cool, they served it in shallow bowls. The Aztecs liked their cacao cool and served it in small round gourd bowls. The Aztec warrior class also had cacao as part of their rations – the ground cacao was pressed into wafers for portability on their treks. (Coe)

Cacao vessels could be quite elaborate. The ornate ceramic jar depicted below is an example of a Mayan cacao drinking cup. According to the Walters art gallery, the hieroglyphs describe it as a cacao drinking cup, and include the name of the owner. It is covered with a variety of cacao imagery and decorated with molded cacao pods, which also indicate that it is intended for cacao. It’s fine construction indicates that it is for the use of the upper classes. It may have been intended for use in a special feast or as a special gift.


Mayan lidded cacao vessel, decorated with molded cacao pods and cacao imagery and glyphs

Festive and ceremonial use of cacao was a feature for both the Aztecs and the Mayans. At Mayan marriages, the couple exchanged 5 cacao beans with each other. Mayans also had a baptism-like ritual in which children who reached puberty were anointed with a cacao mixture. (Coe, Mexilore). Aztec traders (the pocheta) hosted large banquets as a means of climbing the ladder to higher ranks within the guild, and cacao was an important aspect of the banquet. (Coe) The word “chokolaj” means “to drink chocolate together”, thus referring to the communal aspect of consuming chocolate. (Coe)

Although important as a foodstuff, cacao was also used as money. It was a precious item, as it was fussy to grow and could only be cultivated in a narrow range of temperatures. It would not grow in Aztec lands and had to be acquired through long distance trade or as tribute paid by conquered peoples. Cacao beans were used to pay laborers and Coe tells us of price lists which show the value of various commodities (tomato, rabbit, avocado, etc.) in cacao beans. As Coe points out, drinking cacao was equivalent to actually drinking actual money.

Cacao was also a feature of the symbolic and spiritual universe of the pre-Columbians. Many pictures depict gods with cacao trees, pods, and seeds, including a portrait of the opossum god bearing the legend, “cacao is his food.” (Coe) Cacao was among the offerings placed in graves for the dead to take to the after life. (Presilla) In Aztec cosmic imagery a cacao tree stands at the south, in the land of the dead. (Coe)

The Mayans and the Aztecs also associated blood and cacao.  According to Coe, cacao could metaphorically be referred to by the words for heart and blood, and cacao was sometimes colored with achiote to become red like blood. Some scholars believe that this could be because of the resemblance of the cacao pod to the heart. Or, perhaps as Coe suggests, it was because both the heart and the cacao pod “were the repositories of precious liquids.” Coe also refers to an image in the Mayan Madrid Codex in which gods pierce their ears with obsidian blades. The blood drops down and sprinkles on cacao pods. Finally, as Coe and Mexilore tell us, in the annual Aztec ritual to ensure the continuation of the world, the sacrificial victim was supposed to dance happily before his death and the removal of his heart. To enchant him and keep him happy as he danced, he was made to drink cacao made with the water used to wash the blood from the obsidian blades that were used on the previous sacrificial victim. (Coe)

Cacao played a large and significant role in pre-Columbian society. As a foodstuff, it was prepared in a myriad of ways. It marked important occasions and was typically consumed by the elite. It’s preciousness is shown in that it could be used as money. Indeed, cacao was a significant aspect of the pre-columbian view of the cosmos. One has to wonder what they would think of today’s easy availability, low cost, and casual use.

References Cited

Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Maricel E. Presilla, The New Taste of Chocolate, revised. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2009.

Mexicolore, The food of the Gods: Cacao use among the prehispanic Maya, http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/maya/chocolate/cacao-use-among-the-prehispanic-maya.

Mexicolore, Chocolate: the blood of the Gods?, http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/maya/chocolate/blood-of-the-gods. 

Walters Art Gallery, lidded vessel description                    http://art.thewalters.org/detail/80194/lidded-vessel/

Wikipedia Commons, Mayan glyph for cacao, public domain.


Wikipedia Commons, Aztec woman in Codex Tudela.


Wikipedia Commons, Mayan lidded vessel, owned by Walters Art Gallery, public domain. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/37/Mayan_-_Lidded_Vessel_-_Walters_20092039_-_Side_D.jpg/423px-Mayan_-_Lidded_Vessel_-_Walters_20092039_-_Side_D.jpg








The Spread of Cacao and Cultural Appropriation

Cacao is a staple of the western culinary tradition and is enjoyed in nearly every region of the world. Why has cacao become so popular? The answer to this question is not simply “because it tastes good.” Some will turn to biology to answer this question. The presence of theobromine, caffeine, and sugar in chocolate releases feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine to the frontal lobe, hippocampus and hypothalamus (1). While this helps explain why so many different cultures throughout history enjoy chocolate, this biological explanation is not sufficient. Cacao in its natural form has very different chemical properties than a bar of chocolate. Cacao is difficult to cultivate and requires complex processes to go from bean to chocolate bar. It is true that people crave chocolate– but the stimulant properties in chocolate are not strong enough to justify the amount of effort and expertise required to bring chocolate on the market.

Tracing the spread of cacao from Central America requires us to examine how culture, economics, and biology interact.For most of history, the world has borrowed the process of cacao production without paying homage to the cultures that discovered the process. This Food must be understood from a holistic point of view where we are not only examining the final product, but the entire system of production bringing that product into existence (2). The processes used to cultivate cacao are intrinsically intertwined with the cultures that discovered the process of cultivation.

Understanding the spread of cacao requires us to examine its origins and the cultural practices surrounding it. Examining this migration offers important lessons about cultural appropriation and economic development and can help us be more mindful, compassionate consumers.

The first people to cultivate cacao were the Olmec civilization (1500 BCE – 400 BCE). The genetic origin of cacao can be traced to the amazon river bed area in what is modern day ecuador (3).

Screen Shot 2017-03-11 at 8.59.27 PM.png

(Source: Martin, Carla. 01 FEB 2017, Chocolate Culture and the Politics of Food. Lecture Slide, Harvard Extension School)

Cacao developed humid lowlands of Yucatan Peninsula, generally the domain of the Maya. However, much of the culture surrounding cacao did not develop in that area. We find evidence of cacao culture in the Aztec region which was much hotter and drier. The Aztec relied on Maya labor to produce the cacao products which were central to their religious and cultural practices.

Much of what we know about the early culture surrounding cacao development comes from Bernardino de Sahagún (1499-1590), who spent many years learning about the way of life of the Aztec. Sahagún is credited as being the world’s first anthropologist and strived to understand the Aztec civilization outside of western biases. The culmination of Sahagún’s work was Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España, in which he chronicled the significance of cacao in Aztec rituals, as an indicator of social class for the wealthy, and as a conduit of trade. Sahagún also detailed the crucial network of roads that enabled interregional trade. The reason why we know cacao moved from the Maya zone of influence to the Aztec zone of influence is from Sahagún’s writings.

Beyond this, there is further evidence that cacao trade extended beyond the Aztec-Maya empire as far north as present day Southwestern United States. A cylindrical vessel from 900 CE found in this area tested positive for evidence of cacao and it is believed that the residents of southwest pueblo bartered turquoise in exchange for cacao. This suggests that cacao was central to interregional trade in early Mesoamerica.

Screen Shot 2017-03-11 at 10.00.12 PM.png

(Source: Martin, Carla. 01 FEB 2017, Chocolate Culture and the Politics of Food. Lecture Slide, Harvard Extension School)

Development of cacao remained confined to this region of the world until Christopher Columbus arrived in Guanaja Bay Island off the coast of present-day Honduras in the Caribbean. Cacao was of particular interest to the Spanish colonists who were suffering malnutrition from their long voyage across the ocean. Cacao was seen as an advantageous export and as a medicinal supplement. The first exports of cacao from the Izalcos port of Acajutla saw rapid growth between the 1500s to 1600s. The price of cacao skyrocketed as chocolate became a popular luxury among European nobility.

Screen Shot 2017-03-11 at 10.11.25 PM.png

(Source: Martin, Carla. 01 FEB 2017, Chocolate Culture and the Politics of Food. Lecture Slide, Harvard Extension School)

The rise in popularity of cacao occurred alongside the rise of sugar exports. As colonies grew to develop the production of sugar and cacao, so grew the rise of racism and the international slave trade. The industrial revolution ushered in a new age of economic prosperity built on innovation and also exploited labor and resources. Much like the Aztecs to the Maya, Europeans and North Americans relied on slave labor to produce their goods, especially chocolate.

Presently, the systems of exploitation and inequality on cacao production still persist. Chocolate is a $100 billion dollar per year industry and 75% of the world’s chocolate is consumed in North America and Europe. However, 75% of cacao comes from West and Central Africa. The average cacao farmer makes 0.50-0.80 cents per day– well below the Work Bank’s global poverty line of $1.10. Looking at these figures and statistics, it is incumbent upon us to be conscious consumers so we don’t continue the system of oppression and exploitation that has persisted throughout the past.


(1) Albers, Susan. 11 FEB 2014, Psychology Today. Retrieved 05 MAR 2017. Link: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/comfort-cravings/201402/why-do-we-crave-chocolate-so-much

(2) Mintz, Sidney W. 1986[1985]. Sweetness and Power. pp. 74-150.

(3) Proposed by Cheeseman in 1994. Motomayor et all (2002).


Chocolate and Romance: A Historical Exploration of Chocolate’s Association with Love

Chocolate in modern society is deeply intertwined with ideas of romance, love, and lust. From our celebration of Valentine’s Day, a holiday in which the exchange of chocolate and love notes is foundational, to advertisements from chocolate companies filled with sexual innuendos, we are constantly bombarded with ideas and images depicting chocolate’s association with romance. While many consider chocolate’s relationship with love to be a tactic manufactured by large chocolate companies to increase sales, there has been a long-standing association between chocolate and budding romance that began in pre-Columbian times. Chocolate’s affiliation with love and romance today is both rooted in tradition and influenced by capitalistic endeavors to sell more chocolate.

One of the earliest examples of chocolate’s role in romantic relationships is an ancient Mayan marriage ritual called tac haa. The ritual involved the potential groom’s family serving a chocolate drink to the father of the woman he wanted to marry. The men, including the father of the potential groom, father of the potential bride, and the admirer himself would sit together and discuss the marriage, while women remained removed from the negotiations. The women, such as the potential groom’s mother, would be involved in making the chocolate drink that was served to the guests (Martin, Lecture 2).  Another Mayan marriage ritual involving chocolate took place at the actual wedding ceremony. The Mayan bride and groom would exchange five cacao beans with each other, and wedding guests would drink chocolate together (Coe and Coe 61). Ancient rituals such as tac haa and the exchange of cacao beans do not directly resemble modern traditions surrounding chocolate and romance (i.e. heart-shaped chocolate boxes that are presented to significant others), but both ancient Mayan marriage rituals and heart-shaped chocolate boxes share the common thread of lovers being united through chocolate. It could be that rituals like tac haa serve as prototypes for modern traditions involving chocolate and courtship.

An example of a contemporary courting ritual involving chocolate is depicted in the following advertisement for Edible Arrangements: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1I1FW1ffSc. The advertisement showcases a man setting up a romantic evening on Valentine’s Day. It is clear to any viewer that this is a romantic evening because of the cultural connotations of the objects presented in the ad. For example, the man lights candles, there is a rose and box of chocolates set on the table, and slow music plays in the background. Roses, candles, and chocolate are all objects American society associates with romance, specifically with courting women. As the advertisement progresses, the heart-shaped box of chocolates begins to speak, saying that he is the “ultimate wing-man,” reiterating the idea of chocolate being used to woo women in our society. The object of the advertisement is to demonstrate how Edible Arrangements is superior to the box of chocolates in wooing the woman. However, including the box of chocolates as something to compete with further emphasizes the notion of offering chocolate as an established method of courtship in our society.

Presenting chocolate to a significant other is not only used as a method of courtship in modern society, but has evolved into becoming fundamentally associated with the definition of “romantic” altogether. For example, AskMen, a popular website that offers life advice to men, contains an article entitled “9 Simple Romantic Ideas for Every Man” linked here http://www.askmen.com/dating/heidi_60/77b_dating_girl.html.  One of the romantic ideas listed is to “Be More Thoughtful,” and a suggestion on how to do so is to “leave [your significant other] a chocolate ‘kiss’ on her pillow before bedtime.” It is apparent that giving your partner chocolate should be viewed as a thoughtful gesture, and by doing so one can be described as “romantic.” Thousands of men visit AskMen for daily advice and likely follow it, indicating how chocolate has become an extremely conventional method of showcasing a man’s thoughtfulness and affection for a woman. Similarly, the way chocolate is presented in this article suggests that women too have been conditioned to feel loved and appreciated when their partner gives them chocolate.

Chocolate’s affiliation with romance extends further than simple courtship and gift-giving. In fact, people have long used chocolate as an aphrodisiac, or in combination with believed aphrodisiacs, to heighten sexual desire in themselves and in others.  A chocolate beverage called Atextli consumed by the Aztecs was believed to be healthy due to its supposed aphrodisiac qualities (Elferink 27). Chocolate beverages have also been documented as being used in love potions to seduce and control men. Margarita Orellana writes, “Because of its dark color and grainy texture, chocolate provided an ideal cover for items associated with sexual witchcraft. These included various powders and herbs, as well as female body parts and fluids, which women then mixed into a chocolate beverage and fed to men to control their sexuality” (81). Whether chocolate truly possesses aphrodisiac qualities or not, modern chocolate companies often use chocolate’s historical association with sexuality as the basis of their marketing. Linked here is an example of a typical chocolate advertisement from Lindt, a company known for their chocolate truffles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RgGz2oNk0Pg. Although not overt, once can see how Lindt is sexualizing chocolate in this advertisement. Terms like “irresistible,” “passion,” and “luscious” have carnal connotations, and the image of the woman removing her scarf suggests that the idea of consuming chocolate has heightened her sexual desires.

The affiliation between chocolate and romance, beginning with Aztec and Mayan traditions, perseveres in modern times. Something else that has remained in tact is the idea of men using chocolate to court women, and women having sexualized responses to chocolate. There seems to be a stark difference between men and women’s interactions with chocolate that have become engrained into contemporary society.

Works Cited:

Coe, Sophie D., Michael D. Coe, and Ryan J. Huxtable. The true history of chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

De Orellana, Margarita, et al. “Chocolate III: RITUAL, ART AND MEMORY.” Artes De México, no. 110, 2013, pp. 72–96., http://www.jstor.org/stable/24318995.

“Edible Arrangements Advertisement.” YouTube, uploaded by MBR616, http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=b1I1FW1ffSc. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017.

“Lindt Chocolate Commercial.” YouTube, uploaded by LindtChocolateUSA, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RgGz2oNk0Pg. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017.

Jan G. R. Elferink. “Aphrodisiac Use in Pre-Columbian Aztec and Inca Cultures.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 9, no. 1/2, 2000, pp. 25–36., http://www.jstor.org/stable/3704630.

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and ‘The Food of the Gods’.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard College: Cambridge, MA. 1 Feb. 2017. Class Lecture.

“9 Simple Romantic Ideas for Every Man.” AskMen, http://www.askmen.com/dating/heidi_60/ 77b_dating_girl.html. Accessed 10 Mar. 2017.