Tag Archives: Aztec

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.






When Chocolate Was Young

1. Into the Garden
Born on the slopes of the Amazon Basin, the first chocolate trees (Theobroma cacao) shed their fruit pods to the ground and could barely capture the attention of a passing squirrel or macaw. The Amazon by this time was a paradise of intertwined plant and animal life in greens, browns, all colors, in a quantity and variety not seen anywhere else on earth. Immense ceiba and laurel trees rose to protect the cacao from the burning rays of the sun, and grasses and leaves provided a moist and fertile blanket below. It would be an unknown many thousands of years but eventually the first man and woman walked barefoot down the slopes of the Andes and found the cacao tree, broke open a pod on a rock, and ate and drank of the sweet pulp inside. This was the beginning of the end of cacao in its truly pure and natural state; so began thousands of years of history as men became inextricably linked to the bitter seeds of the plant and made the first chocolate, and the seeds helped fuel war campaigns of the Olmec, Maya, Aztec and others, and meanwhile the seeds became the engine of trade, and literally the money that made the ancient Mesoamerican economies go round. Later they were the seeds of enslavement and the forced relocation of many millions of African men and women to cacao plantations in the Americas. In this article we will focus on the first cultivation of the cacao tree and the first making of chocolate; we are interested in who made chocolate, when, where, and for what purpose. We concentrate on the very beginning of the story. It is a story we know from the chemists and archaeologists whose artifact testing is writing the history of the earliest chocolate in the world.

As demonstrated above the cacao tree is exotic in appearance, with colored seed pods ranging from green to red to yellow to brown, and grow from the trunk instead of the branches (“cauliflory”). As the tree will only grow in warm and humid conditions of plus or minus 20 degrees of latitude, the surrounding plants are also exotic. Inside the thick rind of the fruit is a white or purplish pulp that can be made into a beverage–alcoholic or non-alcoholic–and also almond sized seeds which can be dried in the sun, roasted on a heated stone, de-shelled, and finally ground into a semi-liquid paste (raw chocolate). At some point, by man or by nature, the trees spread to upper central America and southern Mexico (the region known as Mesoamerica). From this vast garden setting the early peoples would add maize and water to chocolate to make gruel, and add also relishes like chili peppers, petals of “ear flower,” honey, maguey sap, vanilla, and achiote (Coe, 2013, pp. 62, 87, 94; Presilla, 2009, p. 9). It is important to know that both the pulp of cacao and the seed contain 1-2 % by weight caffeine and related stimulants (Coe, 2013, p. 29; Henderson, 2007). The Aztecs were known to make disks of solid chocolate, and amplified by the equivalent of 10 cups of coffee in 50 grams of chocolate their warriors would take to the trails, hunting for enemies and looking for new sources of slaves.

2. Into the Pot
Most of what we know or can guess about the earliest chocolate use in Mesoamerica is projected backwards from chocolate use today in rural regions, first-hand accounts of the Spanish colonizers, and Mesoamerican texts (codices), languages, and artifacts. As far as prehistoric use of chocolate goes, almost all of what we know has been gleaned from close examination of cooking and serving vessels, which may have illustrations, hieroglyphics, or even ancient residues that can be analyzed in the laboratory. 

Mesoamericans have made and used ceramic cookware for at least 3,500 years (Soleri, 2013). The forms can be remarkably evolved, as for example vessels with handles, double spouts, bridged spouts, lids with locking bayonets, colored illustrations, relief sculptures, or tripod legs (Hall, 1990; Powis, 2002). The vessels were made well enough to last several thousand years in some cases. Illustrations of cacao on prehistoric cookware are not so common and the textbook example is the Princeton Vase, a Mayan vessel from 670-750 AD (Late Classic); this illustration shows an elegantly dressed woman pouring what is undoubtedly a chocolate drink from a height to make a froth, with a wild assortment of other women and Mayan gods in attendance. The scene suggests gender aspects and class aspects of the early Mayan consumption of chocolate. The Maya were interested in the metaphysical aspects of frothy drinks, and the cylindrical jar and method of preparing chocolate shown is also described in Conquest era literature; perhaps this pouring from a height originally resembled the froth from waterfalls in the Yucatan. On another Mayan vessel a smart-looking monkey contemplates a cacao tree; of course monkeys were cracking open cacao pods on the peninsula long before man arrived in the region.

In the case of hieroglyphic writing on vessels, this shows the vivid and imaginative writing system created by the Mayans, the fine detail the artists were capable of, and an interesting Mayan version of the monogram. The various serving vessels, for example, might be labeled to identify the owner (usually male), the function of the vessel, and the recipe of the contents; in fact one of these personalized jars used for chocolate (vessel 15 of Hurst, 1989) was key to begin decoding the Mayan hieroglyphic system. (See David Stuart’s article in McNeil, 2006.)
Of course, careful examination of the excavation site around an artifact is essential to estimate age and function. 90% of Mesoamerican vessels shown to be associated with chocolate consumption are discovered in burial locations (Powis, 2002), and by context these are invariably burials of high-status individuals (see Powis for diagrams of graves containing approximately 20 vessels each, dubbed a “complete table setting”). These vessels are thought to have been filled with chocolate drinks and other foodstuffs for nourishment on the journey to the underworld (Hall, 1990); by the fill lines still visible we know they contained liquids, and sometimes residues remain that can be scraped off and tested. Intact chocolate vessels are likely to be found in burial sites because of the natural protection, however pieces of vessels (“potsherds”) are also found in ancient refuse heaps and ancient construction fill. Intact vessels removed from protected locations are preferred for residue testing because they are thought less likely to be contaminated.

(A detail of a line drawing by John Montgomery of the Princeton Vase is shown below. The original vase can be viewed at the Princeton University website, http://artmuseum.princeton.edu/collections/objects/32221 .)

3. Into the Laboratory

The sections above have hinted at some interesting questions without providing all of the answers. By the end of the 1980s, research into the natural history of chocolate had generated more questions than answers and new methods of attacking problems were needed; in 1989 Jeffrey Hurst, a chemist at the Hershey company, performed for the first time chemical testing on ceramic vessels recovered from digs in Mesoamerica (Hurst, 1989). There was a new expectation of discovery regarding who had made the first chocolate, what were the prehistoric recipes, which social classes consumed chocolate, and so forth.

In that first study Hurst tested an unspecified number of Mayan vessels from the Rio Azul site in Guatemala by High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC), the usual laboratory method for separating and identifying compounds (Fig. 1 below). The Hurst paper determined that several vessels dating to 460-480 AD had contained cacao; this pushed the use of cacao back to approximately one millenium before the first Spanish records and was therefore a landmark study. The paper also introduced two important notions that would be used (and sometimes questioned) in subsequent studies: 1. Theobroma cacao is the only Mesoamerican commodity containing theobromine, so theobromine can be used as a marker for cacao, and 2. Unglazed ceramics absorb theobromine, which is stable indefinitely and can be sampled without contamination by removing some of the ceramic (page 279, and see also Soleri, 2013, pages 349 and 357.) We remarked above that cacao contains 1-2% by weight theobromine and caffeine.

In 2002 Terry Powis sampled Mayan spouted pots from the Colha site in Belize on the Gulf Coast and found two of the pots had used for cacao, pushing the use of cacao back to 600-400 BC (Powis, 2002). Powis entertained the notion that the spout itself could be used as a marker for frothing and chocolate consumption (pp. 94, 96), although a spout may just be easier for pouring in general.

In 2007 John Henderson pushed consumption back to 1150 BC when he found 11 of 13 vessels from the Puerto Escondido site, Honduras, had been used for cacao (Henderson, 2007). Recall that pulp of cacao as well as the seeds contains theobromine and caffeine; Henderson concluded that the most ancient cacao drinks were not chocolate but made from the fermented cacao pulp. Unfortunately, both the volatile alcohol in pulp drinks and the lipids in chocolate drinks would disappear quickly from containers (Henderson p. 18939; Hurst, 1989, p. 286), and there is no test to distinguish between chocolate drinks and pulp drinks. Like Powis, Henderson suggested that spouted pots appearing approximately 1000 BC may be associated with frothing and chocolate drinks, versus pulp drinks. The vessels in this study were also tested for beeswax and capsain (markers for honey and chili pepper, respectively); the findings were negative.

In an effort to pin down the prehistoric use of cacao geographically, Powis next sampled over 100 vessels from both the Pacific and Gulf Coast regions (Powis, 2008) and found two very old vessels testing positive, one from each coastal region. It turns out a Mokaya vessel from the Paso de la Amada site in the state of Chiapas, Mexico is the oldest vessel with cacao residue ever found–dated to 1900-1500 BC by the construction fill where it was discovered. It is actually a broken piece from a small brown gourd-shaped pot with vertical ridges. The Mokaya were some of the very earliest settlers in Mesoamerica (1900-1700 BC; p. 36), and the find may settle the question of which coast first spread the cultivation of cacao, unless cultivation arose independently in both regions. Powis concluded that the Mokaya brought chocolate drink consumption to the Gulf Coast; in any case the Mokaya and pre-Olmecs had cacao drinks long before the Maya and the Aztecs had them.

By the time of a study by Daniela Soleri in 2013, researchers had gained confidence in their knowledge of Mesoamerican cacao consumption; in this study vessels from the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico were tested for maize as well as cacao, with the hopes of obtaining information on ancient cacao recipes (Soleri, 2013). As mentioned above, it is known that the Aztecs and Mayas prepared drinks and gruels made from cacao with maize; in fact this practice continues among some of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. The study found 3 of 8 artifact vessels had been used for cacao and 2 of these had also been used for maize; the conclusion was these very old vessels had been used for a recipe containing both cacao and maize. Of course, the positive test for cacao and maize does not prove simultaneous use beyond a doubt; vessels can be used across time for different things. The Soleri study is noteworthy as the first effort to provide any kind of a control: a present-day ceramic vessel used for five years to prepare cacao was also sampled.

Finally we report on a study of Daniela Washburn, which came under immediate fire because of its sampling method and conclusions. The 2014 study is notable for introduction of a proper control and testing for statistical significance. By sampling dust on the shelves at six museums (including the Peabody at Harvard) Washburn showed there is always some background methylxanthine contamination (theobromine and caffeine), but the theobromine levels found in vessels used for cacao are significantly greater and this is easily tested by an analysis of variance. The new non-destructive sampling method involves simply rinsing the ceramic vessel followed by centrifugation of the rinse water. The paper of Washburn was interested in whether cacao from Central America was traded to indigenous peoples of the American Southwest, Midwest, and Southeast; the study found that cacao was being used by populations as far away as Florida (1000 AD).

We caution the reader that we have not summarized here every study on the subject of artifact testing for chocolate/cacao; undoubtedly the number of studies will continue to multiply due to simpler testing procedures, the popularity of chocolate, and interest in the Aztecs and Maya and the history of chocolate. We hope we have given, however, some idea of what the archaeological interest in ancient chocolate consumption is all about.

Figure 1. A typical High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) setup is shown below. A solvent or solvents in (1) that are appropriate to the substance (7) to be separated out and identified are pumped by (5) though a “column” (9) that separates by adsorption. (10) is a detector for the wavelengths of e.g. UV light absorbed by the sample, and this information or “chromatogram” is recorded by the computer (11). The substance (in solution) is collected in (12). 


Coe, M. (2013). The true history of chocolate. London, England: Thames & Hudson, Ltd.
Hall, G. (1990). Cacao residues in ancient Maya vessels from Rio Azul, Guatemala. American Antiquity, 55(1), 138-143.
Henderson, J. (2007). Chemical and archaeological evidence for the earliest cacao beverages. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(48), 18937-18940.
Hurst, W. (1989). Authentication of cocoa in Maya vessels using High Performance Liquid Chromatographic techniques. Journal of Chromatography, 466, 279-289.
Lo Coco, F. (2007). Determination of theobromine, theophylline, and caffeine in by-products of cupuacu and cacao seeds by High Performance Liquid Chromatography. Journal of Chromatographic Science, 45, 273-275.
Loudon, G. (2016). Organic Chemistry. New York, NY: W. H. Freeman.
McNeil, C. 2006. Chocolate in Mesoamerica: a cultural history of cacao. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Gainesville.
Powis, T. (2002). Spouted vessels and cacao use among the Preclassic Maya. Latin American Antiquity, 13(1), 85-106.
Powis, T. (2008). The origins of cacao use in Mesoamerica. Mexicon [sic], 30, 35-38.
Presilla, M. (2009). The new taste of chocolate. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.
Snyder, L. (2010). Introduction to modern liquid chromatography. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Soleri, D. (2013). 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(3), 345-362.
Washburn D. (2014). Chemical analysis of cacao residues in archaeological ceramics from North America: considerations of contamination, sample size and systematic controls. Journal of Archaeological Science, 50, 2014.
* The red pod cacao tree illustration is (C) 2013; we obtained kind permission to use it from Lake Champlain Chocolates. The Princeton Vase line drawing is (C) 2000 by John Montgomery. The HPLC schematic drawing is licensed under Creative Commons.

Drinking Culture

Two of the most developed and complex human empires to ever populate the planet are the Maya (Classica Maya 250-900 AD) and the Aztecs (1420-1520). Prior to conquest by the Spanish conquistadors, these two massive societies inhabited the region now known as central Mexico. At the height of their power, both civilizations were enormous: the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan contained 200,000 people, and the roughly 40 cities of the Maya contained between 5,000 and 50,000 people each. These two empires are well known for their architecture, astronomy, food (specifically cacao, maize, and chili peppers), calendar, mathematics, writing, and religion. One commonality between the two societies was the presence of the cacao bean and its role in the lives of their citizens, specifically in the form of chocolate beverages. The pre-Conquest specialty cacao drink preparations of the Mayan and Aztec people provided a social, societal, and religious backbone for two of the most complex civilizations in modern human history.Man frothing chocolate drink

“Pre-Conquest chocolate was not a single concoction to be drunk; it was a vast and complex array of drinks, gruels, porridges, powders, and probably solid subtances” (Coe). Traditional Maya recipes included the tzune (made with cacao, maize, sapote seeds), saca (made from cooked maize, water, cacao), and a “Lacandon Sacred Drink”. This special drink was made by fermenting dried beans that were toasted and ground with a suqir vine and stirred into water. The tougher part of the vine was the foaming agent that was whipped up before serving (Martin). Aztec cacao drinks were actually initially produced to replace octli, a native wine that was alcoholic. Drunkenness was not looked upon favorably in the Aztec society, so a focus was turned to cacao. Aztec beverages contained more flavoring than their Mayan counterparts, using plants like chili peppers to create mild to extremely hot concoctions (McNeil). In terms of preparation, Aztec beverages were very similar to their Mayan counterparts, but were most often served cold. Traditionally popular recipes included honey chocolate, flower chocolate, vanilla chocolate, bright-red chocolate, and black/white chocolate: “the ruler was served his chocolate… green, made up of tender cacao; honeyed chocolate made with ground up flowers- with green vanilla pods; bright red chocolate; orange-colored chocolate; black chocolate; white chocolate. (Sahagun). These drinks were made by grinding cacao seeds into a powder and mixed with water while changing basins to whip up foam. The drink is then flavored (often with hueinacaztli, an ear-shaped flower) and mixed with small spoonfuls of gold, silver, or wood before consumption


These various specialty beverages produced in pre-Conquest Mesoamerica served immense social purposes. In addition to being a “social lubricant” that was enjoyed over conversation, there were several social customs that were centered on drinking chocolate. The term “chokola’j” which provides the foundation for the modern word “chocolate” means to drink chocolate together with friends in the Mayan culture. “Tac haa” is the word for a marriage ritual in which the man invites the father of a potential wife to discuss the future and marriage over a chocolate drink (Martin). Cacao drinks also operated as tokens of inter-societal bonding: “In later Mesoamerican societies for which we have data on social alliances, cacao was a primary object of exchange between social groups, marking betrothal, marriage, and children’s life cycle rituals” (Coe). For chocolate consumption to be so intertwined with everyday culture in pre-Conquest Mesoamerican shows its importance to the social lives of people in these societies.

Cacao beverages also served a societal purpose in terms of establishing and recognizing hierarchy in government. Specifically in the Aztec empire, Bernardino Sahagun, a missionary from Spain provided rich descriptions of cacao in royal cities as an example of a rich food consumed primarily by lords and people of distinction. Chocolate drinks were served as part of elaborate feasting systems; the royalty in Aztec culture were served chocolate with a meal that consisted of the finest maize breads, soups, fish/meat casseroles, and tamales. These feasting systems had great political implications: “the feasting system not only created a forum for sociopolitical alliance formation but it was also and essential economic mechanism wielded by Mesoamerica’s ruling elites” (McNeil). In addition to being a social element for Mesoamericans, cacao also heavily influenced the political makeup of societies.


Finally, cacao is deeply rooted in the religion of Mesoamerican societies, so much to the point that it has such influence over culture and politics as mentioned above. Throughout the Dresden Codex, cacao is featured as a food for the gods of the Mayan people. Consuming cacao, especially the luxurious foam of the beverage, is also thought to ease the soul during its journey into the Underworld after death (Martin). The Popol Vuh, a colonial document from the records of a Franciscan friar, states that gods used cacao and sweets to form humans: “and so they were happy over the provisions of the good mountain, filled with sweet things, thick with yellow corn, white corn, and thick with pataxte, arid cacao, zapotes, anonas, jacotes, nances, matasanos, sweets” (Popul Vuh).

The cacao tree and the undifferentiated beans that it produces also has many other uses in Mesoamerican societies such as its role in medicine; cacao is used as a stimulant and was believed to be able to cure exhaustion, mental illness, fevers, etc. There is no doubt that the cacao tree has huge historical significance in pre-Conquest Mesoamerica, as it essentially provided structure to the Maya and Aztec empires. Traditional cacao beverages were intertwined with the social lives of citizens, held significance in its role as an elite food that mediated conflict and formed political alliances, and were “foods of the gods” that comprised creation stories for its people. To see that a beverage made from a regional plant can have so much influence on the lives of entire civilizations is truly amazing.

Works Cited

Coe, S. et Coe, M. 2013. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. Thames and Hudson. Everbest Printing. Print.

Martin, C. 2007. Lecture Slides, AFRAMER 119X, Harvard University.

McNeil, C. 2009. Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao. University Press of Florida. Print.

Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings. Trans. Dennis Tedlock. New York: Simon and Schuster 1985

Sahagun, B. 1950-1982. Florentine Codex. General History of the Things of New Spain. Translated by A. Anderson and C. Dibble. School of American Research, Santa Fe, New Mexico, University of Utah Press.


Symbolism and Story in Contemporary Confection: A Profile of Alma Chocolate in Portland, Oregon

The Alma label is built around a nineteenth century botanical image of theobroma cacao by the Dutch artist, Berthe Hoola Van Nootenn. Visually connecting plant product to value-added product is a conscious choice for a business like Alma, particularly because cacao is not a plant most people outside of the tropical belt recognize. The illustration doesn’t note the variety of theobroma but its characteristics match that of the Cundeamor variety, a type of the treasured Criollo, with its deeply ridged and warty exterior and that curved, pointy tip (Presilla 2009, 62). The external characteristics of cacao pods vary hugely, even within a single variety of the species, but none of them are recognizable to the unfamiliarized eye. And chocolate is not a commodity most people think much about beyond gustatory pleasure. So I went to talk to Sarah Hart, owner of Alma Chocolates, about that Cundeamor pod on their label and the other subtle ways the company pays homage to the complex history of cacao. I wanted to know if Alma’s aesthetic nods to that history are meant to incite curiosity and conversation about its cultural significance.


The Makery, a Storied Space

The Alma Chocolate Makery in Portland, Oregon, is situated in a large and lofty space in a chic industrial corner of the city. I immediately noticed the cacao print hanging on the wall just inside the shop doors, framed in a slender and slightly chipped wood frame that looks like it may have hung in a grandmother’s dining room. The print hangs above shelves neatly lined with Alma’s signature caramel and complements the piquant aroma of steamed chocolate that hangs in the air. The production space is set behind two massive, blue-tinted, hanging wooden doors that look like they could have come straight from a sixteenth century mission in cacao country. Alma’s signature gold-leafed chocolates are displayed in a case lined with roasted cacao beans. The space was clearly designed with a reverence to the product and craft, and all who walk through the unassuming doors are encouraged to think about what exactly it is that they’re buying.


Honoring Chocolate

Sarah Hart moves quickly, smiles easily, and loves chocolate. She got the idea to start Alma almost fifteen years ago when she was putting together an Easter basket for her son and lamenting the fact that, despite how much and for how long she’d loved chocolate, most of the chocolate products available paid little mind to the cultural value of cacao or chocolate as craft. That Easter basket was a turning point in her life. Alma is not a bean-to-bar chocolatier but a confectioner with chocolate at its core. Hart learned the craft and built Alma out of the simple thought that “what is made out of chocolate should be amazing.” If we give chocolate that care and attention, Hart believes, we can change the industry.


The Story

Alma is driven by a reverence for the cultural history of cacao and a mission to honor its sacred beginnings. The about page of their website states “Its Latin names, theobroma, means ‘food of the gods.’ We are believers.” The plant name speaks of the sacred connection honored by Mesoamerican civilizations in their depictions and uses of cacao. Long before chocolate was made into hollow bunnies that taste more like milk than chocolate, it was a beverage and product that was treated with the utmost reverence. These first imbibers of cacao reserved the valuable beans for sacred rituals and as offerings to deities, kings, and people with whom they wished to win favor. For the Maya, cacao was perceived as connected to and representative of their gods, and consumed during their most important rituals connected to death, birth, and marriage. In the codices of the Classic Maya period, as well as in some Aztec renderings, we see cacao pods growing on the bodies of gods, the cacao tree in scenes of deities interacting, and hot, foamy cacao being poured and shared in the midst of sacred rituals.

Image by Mat Jones (http://mexicolore.co.uk) [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
In the year she spent learning to make chocolate and thinking about what it meant to her, Hart recognized a particular thread in the way we talk about chocolate that suggests its sacred past. As the daughter of a minister, “It was not lost on [her] that a lot of how people talk about chocolate is really religious and spiritual language, it’s the language of sin and redemption.”


While Alma doesn’t use imagery of Maya or Aztec rituals, those striking, gold-leafed icon chocolates are influenced by the Mexican Catholic traditions of the farmers she met while working with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. The gold leafing also calls to attention the value and symmetry of the two materials – cacao and gold – and cacao’s historic usage as currency by MesoAmerican civilizations. It’s a different kind of sacred imagery, but sacred all the same, and allows Hart to fulfill the Alma mission while standing out from the ever-growing crowd of artisan confectioners and chocolatiers.

Left Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Drinking Chocolate

The Maya word chokola’j refers to the drinking of chocolate together, an interaction that often carried great ritual and social significance. In their two shops, Alma offers a repertoire of traditional and signature drinking chocolates. The Mayan Milagro is made with ingredients typical to the Maya region of what is now modern-day Mexico – dark chocolate, ground almonds, chiles, and cinnamon. The drink’s description reminds me of the Mexican mole sauce. The Jasmine tea-infused version calls to mind the once-secret recipe created by Francesco Redi, physician and apothecary to the Grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici of seventeenth century Italy. Redi’s delicate jasmine-infused drinking chocolate became famous and highly sought after in European courts a the time (Coe and Coe 2013, 145).


The Chocolate Pause

Alma chocolates cannot be chosen or enjoyed without a moment of pause because they are divine but also because they are unique in their inspiration. A sip or bite of an Alma product demands reflection. That’s what Hart wants, that’s part of the mission of Alma – for chocolate to be a pausing point. My frothy cup of Mayan Milagro did just that – the almonds were left in tangible pieces, the mixture was barely sweet, and the chile and cinnamon interacted in such a way as to create a flavor all their own. It seemed more akin to Mayan drinking chocolate than what we now know as hot chocolate. Alma chocolate drinks differ from those ancient drinks to appeal and be palatable to a modern audience, of course, but the recipes are a respectful nod to cacao’s culinary history.

Hart says about chocolate, “If you stop and really taste it, there is something almost meditative [about it]. You have to stop and really pay attention and that actually brings you to yourself and the present moment.” The taste of an Alma chocolate will undoubtedly bring a discerning palette to the present moment but that old illustration of cacao and all of Alma’s distinct aesthetic choices spark a critical curiosity about the long road between pod and mug.




Citations & References

“The Flora of 19th Century Java.” 1996. BusinessWorld: 32. ProQuest.

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013 [1996]. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson.

Hart, Sarah. 2017. Recorded oral interview, March 6, 2017. On file with author. Portland, Oregon.

Martin, Carla. “Lecture 1: Mesoamerica and the food of the gods.” Harvard University, Cambridge. 1 Feb. 2017. Lecture.

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

*All photographs by author. Photographs are not public domain.




Chocolate – Elixir or Poison?

We see the articles pop up from time to time – chocolate is the new cure for every health affliction. It lowers this, supports that and treats everything else.  This concept of using chocolate to heal isn’t novel.  The origins of it’s healing properties date back to Mesoamerica and have evolved over the subsequent centuries.  But as chocolate became consumed by the masses thanks to producers who brought chocolate to the masses, the negative effects of consuming the confection have been talked about just as much as the positive effects.  Ultimately, is chocolate an elixir or a poison?


Chocolate was ingrained in almost every part of the lives of Mesoamericans.  Among many of the uses for cacao, there were a variety of medicinal applications.  Cacao was believed to help digestion, aid in inflammation, boost energy and was used as an anesthetic. Application of medicinal cacao used for afflictions found in Chilam Balam and The Ritual of the Bacams include 50 ways of curing and healing to address skin eruptions, fevers, and seizures.  Remedies were a combination of cacao and other botanical ingredients, like avocado, that are considered to be “superfoods” in modern society. (Martin, “Mesoamerica and the “Food of the Gods” 75-76) Traditional Aztec healers cured many ailments that we consider to be commonplace today with various forms of chocolate. For example, a stomachache for an Aztec would be treated with pure, unmixed chocolate (Grivetti and Shapiro 100),  which seemed as commonplace in their society as it might be to reach for Pepto Bismol in our society today. 


When the Spanish began noticing the powers of cacao after landing in Mesoamerica, they began adopting it for their own healing uses.  They noticed that it boosted energy and saw that Mesoamerican warriors who consumed cacao were made stronger. (Martin, “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods'” 58) The Anonymous Conqueror said in his description of Tenochtitlan in 1556 that, “this drink [cacao] is the healthiest thing, and the greatest sustenance of anything you could drink in the world, because he who drinks a cup of this liquid, no matter how far he walks, can go a whole day without eating anything else.” (Coe, and Coe, 86-88)

It’s clear that the Spanish saw that cacao was prized by Mesoamericans for a variety of reasons.  They began using cacao for their own healing purposes such as improved probability of conception, quality of breast milk, reversing the effects of exhaustion, impotence, vision-quest hangovers, mental illness, fevers, poison, skin eruptions, lung problems, agitation, diarrhea, indigestion, and flatulence. (Martin, “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods'” 76) Like the Mesoamericans, they used chocolate as a cure-all, further supporting the belief in chocolate’s healing and medicinal powers.

In the 1500’s when cacao made it’s way to Spain, Francisco Hernández & Dr. Juan de Cárdenas began working on incorporating adapting the use of cacao as medicine from

Galen’s Humoral Scheme

Mesoamerican into “civilized” frameworks. “An apothecary based on Humoral Medicine subscribes that cacao contains healing properties encompassing 3 & perhaps all 4 elements – air (fat), fire (bitter), earth (thick) & maybe water (sweet) – to yield a neutral temperament leaning ‘wet-cool’, thus making it acceptable.” (“A Concise History of Chocolate”)   Fifty years later, we saw the first of many flags that will come in the following centuries about whether chocolate is healthy or harmful when Dr. Santiago Valverde Turices published the first guide on chocolate, Un Discurso de Chocolate, in 1624. (“A Concise History of Chocolate”)  Almost 400 years later, we still debate this question.




As time progressed, chocolate became more industrialized.  Coenraad Johannes Van Houten manufactured cocoa powder in Holland in 1828, followed by Joseph Fry manufacturing of first chocolate bars for consumption in 1847. (Martin, “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal” 42, 44)  Chocolate got a bad rap as a “poison” not long after when some companies began tampering with chocolate by mixing in inedible ingredients (like crushed red brick) in order to decrease costs.  In the mid-1800’s, consumers’ distrust for processed foods, like chocolate, brought new meaning to the “poison” label. The British government was inspired to pass a number of food adulteration acts to make such practices illegal and to reassure consumers that their food was pure. (Martin, “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal” 18) This distrust of corrupt or poisoned foods, while mostly forgotten after corporations became more committed to ensuring the quality of their products, still endures in our modern society, especially with chocolate and candy consumption.

While food adulteration has subsided over the subsequent decades, companies have used other tactics to decrease chocolate production costs.  Chocolate is rarely seen mass-produced in a simple and pure form.  Big Chocolate, such as Mars and Hershey, use additives and have created offerings that use minimal chocolate, relying on the addition of cheaper ingredients to defray costs.  Compare the ingredients in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup versus a recipe for a homemade version of the treat in the above.  The mass-produced cup includes chemicals and ingredients not usually – if ever – found in a kitchen.  When you compare the botanical ingredients Mesoamericans used to mix with cacao and the ingredients that Big Chocolate uses in their production, it’s staggering to see the progression of chocolate product ingredients.


It’s clear based on many early texts that chocolate in its purest cacao form was believed (without scientific conclusion) that it had healing and strengthening properties. The wide adoption of chocolate as a health elixir during the 1500’s and before leads us to believe that the primitive results that Mesoamericans and Spanish explorers saw when using cacao did cure their ailments.

Modern researchers, such as those at Harvard, claim that “ingredients in cocoa can be healthy, but the high-calorie chocolate bars that contain it aren’t necessarily good for you.” The flavonoids found in chocolate “have beneficial effects on heart disease risks, as well as on blood flow to the brain. Chocolate is the candy that’s made by adding sugar, milk, and other ingredients to cocoa powder. Those ingredients also add fat and sugar, which counteract some of cacao’s health benefits.” (Chocolate: Pros and Cons of This Sweet Treat, Harvard Health Publications) It seems that chocolate in it’s simplest form and in moderation does, in fact, have positive health benefits.  The modern research on the food would seem to support the positive response that Mesoamericans saw when they used cacao as a health supplement.


  • “Chocolate: Pros and Cons of This Sweet Treat.” Harvard Health Publications. Harvard Medical School, n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
  • Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000. 86-88. Print.
  • “A Concise History of Chocolate.” The C-Spot. The C-Spot, 1 Mar. 2017. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
  • Grivetti, Louis, and Howard-Yana Shapiro. Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. 100. Print.
  • “Homemade Peanut Butter Cups.” Taste of Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
  • Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the “Food of the Gods”.” 01 Feb. 2017. Lecture.
  • Martin, Carla D. “Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal.” 9 Mar. 2017. Lecture.