Tag Archives: Aztecs

Stimulating Relationships

The indulgence that we know as chocolate has its roots in a South American tree that can not exist without a symbiotic partner. Originating in the upper Amazonian River basin, as an understory tree of the rainforest, Theobroma cacao is a fascinating plant. Pollinated by a single type of insect, colorful melon like pods are full of sweet pulp and bitter seeds–which we refer to today as “beans.” These hefty pods have to attract the assistance of a hungry monkey, Toucan, or human to release the beans and the next generation of trees. Monkeys and birds like the sweet pulp, but when it comes to humans, we became addicted to the bean.

Cacao pods often grow in groups and can be many different colors.

T.cacao migrated northward along the Pacific coast to take hold in a place that is now Central America. Although the details of the journey between continents is a mystery, the first evidence in the historical record that cacao was used as a food source is found in the Rio Ceniza Valley of modern El Salvador. (Martin)

Chemical analysis of pottery shows 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) In the rural communities of the region today you can still find sweet pulpy drinks as well as meal-replacing beverages made from ground cacao beans and maize. These traditional ground bean beverages are bitter, filling, and stimulating enough to provide a morning or afternoon energy boost which keeps the drink popular despite being labor intensive to prepare. The stimulating caffeine and theobromine compounds that the Olmec people unlocked from the cacao bean became a driving force for the political relations and trade between nations until Cortez arrives in the modern era–usurping the entire region and economy for the Spanish crown.

The Classic Maya Civilization (250-900 CE) raised the imbibing of the rustic, gritty, cacao bean drink to a godly level. The artwork they left behind tells the story of how cacao was literally considered to be the food of their pantheon and used in rituals for pivotal moments in society and life. In The New Taste of Chocolate, Presilla points out that “from both the glyphs and actual pictured scenes on Maya posts we have been able to learn that chocolate made using particular recipes was drunk by kings and nobles. There is also evidence that it was used by people of all classes, particularly during rites of passage…” (12) 

 Mayan drinking vase documents one particular event.

The gourds that most people used for drinking have not withstood the impacts of time but some ceramic vessels of the wealthy remain intact. These colorful jewels of Western Hemisphere art document the details about ritual life by describing events, attendees, and even the ingredients. Many of these vessels can be seen in art collections today; the Mayan drinking vase on display in the permanent collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is a fine example of storytelling. 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.

Mayan Interpretive dignage MFA

Although the Mayan people still live in the same region today, they mysteriously abandoned their cities around 900 CE and were eventually conquered by the Aztec civilization. Cacao beans not only survived the invasion from the north, they could well have been the cause. The Aztecs so valued the stimulating substance that they used dried beans as coinage to exchange for produce, meat, and other locally available consumables.

small and large cacao bean
The size and quality of a cacao bean determined its worth in the Aztec economy.

Unfortunately for the Aztecs, though their money grew on trees, those trees did not grow on the arid plateau that was the center of their empire. They solved this dilemma by strategically conquering trade routes into regions where cacao was cultivated. The wealth of these conquered regions was then extracted by political tribute–much of which was paid in the form of fermented cacao beans. This cacao wealth was then added into the Aztec economy both by putting it onto the consumable market and by stockpiling it as currency in treasuries. Used throughout their empire as form of payment and a beverage of celebration, cacao was also milled into portable nuggets to use as traveling rations for instant energy. The earliest documents of the Spanish settlers refer to how the native culture prepared cacao with maize into a cold frothy beverage that was used as a meal replacement in the extreme heat of the subtropical afternoons. (Presilla 17-24)  Cacao literally fueled both the people of the working class and the general economy well into the Spanish colonial period.

Anasazi vessels are reminiscent in shape to the Mayan.

Recently have we discovered the literal lengths that native peoples went to in acquiring this stimulating beverage. Modern gas chromatography analysis on Native American pottery has increased our understanding of which cultures had access to the only source of theobromine in the hemisphere. Testing of North American artifacts has shown that long before the Aztecs usurped the market on cacao, the trade routes of the Mayans had extended northward to the Anasazi nation of modern New Mexico. 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, acquiring the ingredients for a cacao beverage came at great cost. (Mozdy) Such an expenditure indicates how intensely desired this addictive substance was.  

The historical record may not tell us how the first cacao trees made their way to a new continent, but we do know that once here, it helped fuel people, economies and trade for centuries. The stimulant properties that the seed contains spurred the native cultures of a continent to covet, acquire, distribute and control access to the plant itself. By affecting and connecting with humans in this way, the plant forged a symbiotic partnership with the indigenous peoples which ensured its survival and success throughout pre-Columbian era.  

Works Referenced:

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.

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. “Chocolate Expansion.” 8 Feb. 2017, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.

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.

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.

Image Citation:

Images may not be reused without attribution.

The Sacred, Ancient History of Chocolate

Maya Gods Bleeding Over Chocolate
The tremendous amount of importance the Mayas placed on chocolate would be considered silly today, but we are able to see how inscriptions of rituals and ideas that involved chocolate portrayed the true and intense historical importance of chocolate as pictured and explained, “Maya gods shedding blood over cacao, from the Madrid Codex. According to the hieroglyphic text, specific members of incense lumps and cacao beans are offered” (Coe and Coe 43).

Today, chocolate is widely known as a nice treat to eat, and a delicious beverage. The focus of this essay is on chocolate beverages. The many different modern recipes we know today of how to make and drink chocolate are important to us, because they yield delicious beverages. Usually, no second thought is given as to why we have been able to enjoy such recipes during modern times. The tradition of enjoying chocolate had to have begun somewhere and sometime ago to be able to have carried on into today. As is apparent by the photo and caption above, ancient Mesoamericans (in the case of the photo, the Mayas) greatly adored chocolate. In fact, the ancient Aztec, Mixtec, and Olmec peoples also had opportunities to enjoy chocolate during chocolate’s early history. Perhaps, the meaning behind the term, “food of the gods,” referring to chocolate, was taken more seriously in ancient times, allowing for progression of the custom (qtd by C. Martin “Mesoamerica”). By analyzing the historical accounts of ancient chocolate recipes and their social importance, we can see that the chocolate we know today has important underlying history.

Simply carrying on the tactful, thousands-of-years-old practice of experimenting with chocolate recipes that people often do today has historical importance.

Xocolatl Familiar
As we can see in the picture of this Spanish inscribed, nineteenth century dated notebook, variations of chocolate recipes can occur through inter-cultural contact. In the case of the picture here, the “xocolat familiar” recipe resulted from interaction between Spain and Mesoamerica (Presilla 42).

The discovery of chocolate is thought to be credited to the ancient Olmecs, who lived between 1200 BC and 300 BC along the southern Gulf coast of Mexico. The Olmec society evidently laid the foundation for the barely more recent Maya civilization (Presilla 9). Even though chocolate was discovered by the preexisting Olmecs, many historical traditions and customs surrounding chocolate have been developed by the succeeding Mayans, Mixtecs, and Aztecs. Some of the traditions that were developed by the ancient Mesoamerican groups are still culturally important today. Chocolate was involved in wedding rituals, death rituals, and celebrations. An important celebration in modern times, Dia de los Muertos, is a celebration that can be celebrated with chocolate beverages (C. Martin “Mesoamerica”). The variety of uses for chocolate is what really helps to portray how important chocolate really was to the ancient Mesoamericans.

Mayan Wedding Prep
In the picture, we can see ancient Mayans preparing for and planning a wedding engagement between a woman’s family and her admirer – a woman’s father was traditionally invited by her admirer to drink chocolate and discuss a marriage between the two mutually interested parties (C. Martin “Mesoamerica”).

In past and present cultures, great care is/was taken to make exceptional, authentic chocolate beverages. In modern times, many of us are used to preparing hot chocolate with a simple and quick recipe that includes a mix especially for adding to warm milk or water before being whisked or stirred together. Contrary to our well-known capitalistic version of hot chocolate, we might sometimes find people preparing recipes from scratch, as we can see in the video:


Per authentic Mesoamerican recipes, cacao beans are roasted, shelled, and ground into chocolate liquor. Most authentically, the chocolate liquor is added to warm water, usually along with regional spices. Regional flavors added to chocolate beverages include: “nuoc mam of Southeast Asia, the chili peppers (Capsicum species) of Mexico, West Africa, and parts of India and China, the sofrito of the Hispanic Americans, and so on” (Mintz 11). The care taken to prepare chocolate maintained its popularity, and allowed for continual use in modern times. Depending on the authentic recipe, there are certain ways to ensure that the chocolate drink is enjoyed with foam. For example, a molinillo could be used, or another way to create foam would be to continuously pour the chocolate between containers until foam forms (Cartwright). The “foam” tradition is seemingly unknowingly continued today with the use of marshmallows and whipped cream!

We can see in the picture an authentic molinillo that was used for creating foam in ancient Mesoamerica. The molinillo is still a quite useful tool for making foam in an authentic xocolatl recipe (C. Martin “Chocolate Expansion”).

As it is apparent, there are many ways in which the chocolate we know today has important history behind it. Of course, the original chocolate recipes have all been subject to variation throughout time. What is most important for someone who aspires to learn and appreciate chocolate is to understand its history, and appreciate the reasons behind the uses of such a delicacy. And the next time we decide to consume a chocolate beverage, we will have a better understanding of its historical origin in more technical terms than just thinking that, “such and such company processed this chocolate and distributed it in pouches before I bought it.” Perhaps, our better understanding of chocolate history will allow us to appreciate the chocolate beverages more than we previously have appreciated them.

Works Cited

Cartwright, Mark. “Chocolate.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike, 27 June 2014. Web. 09 Mar. 2017. <http://www.ancient.eu/Chocolate/&gt;.

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. Thames &Hudson Ltd: London, 2013. Print.

Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Expansion.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 8 Feb. 2017. Class Lecture.

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

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. New York: Viking Penguin, 1985. Print.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised. Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, CA, 2009 Print.

The Sunday Supper Project. “Preparing Drinking Chocolate near Oaxaca, Mexico.”YouTube.YouTube, 25 Apr. 2010. Web. 09 Mar. 2017. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GlAg7zIR57k&gt;.


Chocolate: A ritual unlike any other

Chocolate, the apparently simple food actually has a very rich and complex history. It is believed that it originated at the time of the first Mesoamerican civilizations and it played a very important role. That role has changed considerably over time, but today chocolate still plays an essential part of everyday life and it has become a tradition and ritual in many holidays.

Even though some researchers haven’t been able to find the exact time period of the beginning of chocolate consumption, it is widely believed that it commenced during the Olmec civilization, almost 4 millennia ago. This was confirmed by archeologists from the University of Pennsylvania who in 2008 announced that they found “ceramic vessels with residue traces of theobromine” in the sites of El Manatí and San Lorenzo (Andrei 2015). However, there is very limited direct evidence on the use of cacao in Mesoamerica until the later Mayan and Aztec civilizations.

Mayan vessel portraying a Cacao Tree

The beliefs and uses of chocolate then were significantly different to those today. The sweet, warm, liquid beverage we enjoy today is not what it was like during that time since they didn’t have access to ingredients like sugar. The Mayans prepared the drink in liquid form “seasoned with chili peppers and cornmeal, transferring the mixture repeatedly between pots until the top was covered with a thick foam” and it was mostly consumed by their Kings, nobleman, and newly married couples (Andrei 2015). Moreover, the Mayans also used chocolate for ritualistic purposes and for medicinal use. The Mayans frequently combined blood and chocolate as offerings for their Gods and had different chocolate recipes for different rituals. It is even believed that they had a Cacao God or Goddess. Furthermore, chocolate was credited with “curative properties – everything from reducing fever to helping clean the teeth was attributed to the cacao wonder” (Andrei 2015). Overall, chocolate played a very important role in the Mayan civilization and chocolate is portrayed in many Mayan texts, vessels, murals, and other types of art.

Chocolate might have played an even bigger role in the Aztec civilization because they did not only love chocolate, but they also had challenges acquiring it. Even though, the Aztecs believed that chocolate drinks were intoxicating and, as a result, did not allow women and children to consume it, their “nobility and male soldiers loved chocolate… It was served as a beverage only to adult males, specifically priests, government officials, military officers, distinguished warriors, and sometimes to the bravest enemy captives before sacrifice” (Grivetti 2005).  The difficulty in obtaining chocolate – because it did not grow around the highlands of Tenochtitlan – also added value and importance to cacao. It was so precious that the Aztecs even used it as currency and imposed taxes in the form of cacao to people they conquered. According to Sophie and Michael Coe, “a single cacao bean would buy one large tomato; three beans, a newly picked avocado; 30 beans, a rabbit; and 200 beans, a turkey” (Coe 1996). Additionally, like the Mayans, chocolate for the Aztecs had a religious importance. “In Aztec ritual, cacao was a metaphor for the heart torn out in sacrifice – the seeds inside the pod were thought to be like blood spilling out of the human body. Chocolate drinks were sometimes dyed blood-red with annatto to underline the point” (Henry 2009). With regards to the preparation process it was mostly similar to the Mayans, however the Aztecs had their chocolate drink cold, whereas the Mayans warm.






There are a lot of similarities in the importance of cacao culturally and religiously in the Aztec and Mayan civilizations. Today, chocolate is not seen as divine and important as it was back then, however, there is an argument to make that culture and tradition are important factors in the consumption of chocolate nowadays. Technology has played a role in accelerating the production of chocolate and significant labor is not required anymore. As a result, chocolate has globalized and it is accessible in every part of the world. This has led to significant changes in the customs and beliefs throughout time.

The way chocolate is consumed today is very different than it was hundreds of years ago. The production of this product has increased dramatically and now it is accessible and consumed in many different shape and forms. Chocolate is eatable in bars, liquid, and could achieve almost any form. There are chocolate factories that have statues of many different things and objects that are made of chocolate.








The most common uses for chocolate today are as dessert, reward, or gift. Eating sweet chocolate tends to put people in a better mood and provides them with energy. The taste gives many people incredible satisfaction which is why they use it for a wide variety of desserts. Once they accomplish their set goal they will reward themselves with a chocolate treat. Chocolate has also become one of the best and most common gifts people give during special occasions and holidays. For example, for many people, Valentine’s day wouldn’t feel right without giving chocolate as a gift to my significant other.

Chocolate has transitioned from divine in ancient civilizations to part of our everyday life today. However, there is still a ritual factor involved when consuming chocolate currently. No longer does it involve sacrifices or blood, but rather satisfaction, pleasure, and reward. People have many different uses for cacao, however the presence of a ritual is still involved at times. In my case this is during Valentine’s and when I visit my grandmother who makes a delicious homemade hot chocolate. For others it is during their birthday, Halloween, or Christmas, but the tradition continues.

Works Cited

Andrei, Mihai. “Chocolate History: The Early Days, Mesoamericans, Culture and Rituals. “ZME    Science. N.p., 13 Aug. (2015).

Champurrado (Mexican Hot Chocolate). Dir. Tastemade. Youtube, 10 Dec. 2012. Web.     <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oKCVI9fbdzA&gt;.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. “The True History of Chocolate.” (1996).

Grivetti, Louis E. “From aphrodisiac to health food: A cultural history of chocolate.” (2005).

Henry, Diana. “Aztecs and Cacao: The Bittersweet past of Chocolate.” The Telegraph. Telegraph   Media Group, 15 Sept. (2009).

Hunt, Patrick. Maya and Aztec Chocolate History and Antecedents. Digital image. Food History.   Electrum Magazine, 01 Apr. 2013. Web.

McDonald, James. “Why Do We Love To Eat Chocolate?” Food Guide. Street Directory, n.d.   Web.

Oliver, Thomas. A Chocolate Love Affair. Digital image. Eye on Spain. N.p., n.d. Web.

O’Neil, Megan E. Chocolate, Food of the Gods, in Maya Art. Digital image. LACMA. LACMA,     27 Oct. 2016. Web.

The Globalization of Chocolate Meriem Abid. Digital image. Infograph. Venngage, n.d. Web.


Native Culture in Relation to Our Perception of Chocolate

Our understanding of chocolate and the context in which it is consumed has evolved since chocolate was first “founded or created” by the Olmecs. The Mayans and Aztecs had specific customs and beliefs regarding cacao and its consumption in society. These practices have long since been lost in America’s contemporary relationship with chocolate. In this short essay, I will contrast the Mayan and Aztec traditions from our current traditions regarding chocolate; and further, argue that the ritual and religious aspect of cacao has evolved in today’s popular society.

Cacao originated in the north-west of South America and thus this area is the cultural center for cacao. Although the Aztecs and Mayans differed slightly in their consumption habits and practices, the cultural significance of cacao still held the same value in their respective societies. Cacao carried both social and religious prestige among the indigenous people. Not only was it called “the food of the gods”, but it was also prized enough to be used as currency.

Maya Cacao God. Retrieved from Cornell University.

The photo shown to the right depicts the cacao god. Gods were often associated with trees, linking the cacao trees and gods together. Vessels and bowls that once held cacao have been preserved and show us hieroglyphs representing both Gods and cacao; further exhibiting the religious significance of chocolate in their society (Coe 43). Cacao was also revered for its magical and god-like powers. Chocolate was linked to concepts of strength and power; for example “the warriors, the backbone of the Aztec state, were another group permitted chocolate. Cacao, in fact, was a regular part of military rations” (Coe 98). Cacao was an integral part of the Aztec and Mayan religious practices. In rituals the cacao pod was used to symbolize the human heart torn out for sacrifice (Coe 103). However, cacao’s power in Mayan and Aztec society extended beyond that of religion and military. Cacao played a significant role in banquets, baptisms, weddings, and burials. Cacao was also integrated in marriage rituals. For example, it was normal for the father of the potential bride to invite the father of the boy to discuss the marriage proposal over a chocolate beverage. Additionally, cacao was often given as a dowry. These practices show what a compelling force chocolate was to the Aztecs and Mayans.

While chocolate still has a strong presence today, it does not carry the same significance to us as it did to Aztecs and Mayans; yet, I would argue that we still have a ritualistic connection to chocolate. The industrialization of the food industry, while benefiting the capitalist side of the chocolate industry, took away the religious and traditional aspect of chocolate. With the invention of preserving, mechanization, retailing, and transporting, chocolate and other food stuffs become readily available and easily accessible to the public at large. Not only did industrialization make foodstuff less perishable but it also made it easier to disperse; “critical to the growth of the overseas trade was the development of large cargo ships capable of transporting  the raw materials to the metropolitan country in exchange  for the mass export of manufactured goods” (Goody 82).


The graph depicted on the left is from 2009 and shows the consumption of chocolate each year, consumed per person in pounds. The industrialization, mass production, and exportation of chocolate has led to a completely different public sentiment towards chocolate. In comparison to during the Aztec and Mayan era, because of its affordability, chocolate has become less of a luxury item. The invention of technology like the conch, the five roller refiner, and the hydraulic press have made chocolate manufacturing more efficient. The Mars company was famous for its efficiency in chocolate production. They employed engineers to improve the efficiency of their machines and “the result of this effort was the most efficient candy-making operation in the business” (Brenner 83). Mars additionally, created the Snickers bar that was only coated in chocolate, reducing its price and increasing its affordability; thereby, making their chocolate bars even more competitive in the free market. But despite chocolate lacking its previous characteristic as a luxury item, it still retains the quality of being an indulgent good. Thus, one could argue that the ritualistic aspect of chocolate is its mass and quite often consumption. Further, chocolate still carries significance on certain religious holidays.

For example, chocolate is central in the victorian creation of Valentine’s day. Chocolate has become an essential consumerist part of the festivities.

Starbucks Valentine’s Day Commercial

The video featured above was Starbuck’s 2017 Valentine’s day commercial, starring: chocolate. Generally the celebration of Valentine’s day is heteronormative as well as consumerist. This Valentine’s day commercial doesn’t play off of the normal gender binary, but, it does clearly link chocolate to the celebration. Chocolate is still an important part of religious holidays like Christmas and Easter. Yet, while its place in the celebrations is solidified, its religious significance is not quite as apparent as it was under the Aztecs and Mayans.

Thus, while chocolate is no longer the star of athletics, marriages, weddings, baptisms, burials, or rituals, its presence is still prominent in many of our religious celebrations. The mass distribution and consumption of chocolate has taken away from its spiritual and traditional uses in society. Yet, this same commercialism and mass distribution has allowed chocolate to remain a constant power and presence in today’s society.


Brenner, Joël Glenn. The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars.
       New York: Broadway, 2000. Print.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and              Hudson, 2013. Print.
Counihan, Carole, and Penny Van Esterik. Food and Culture: A Reader. New York: Routledge,         2013. Print.

Precious Thing: Chocolate as Currency and Delicacy in Ancient Mesoamerica

Though many people are aware of the origins of chocolate in ancient Mesoamerica, fewer know that it was valued for more than its flavor: cacao beans, from which chocolate is made, were used as currency across Mesoamerica. Today, the idea of paying for goods and services with food seems foreign to most in the Western world. The practice of eating things that we consider currency, though, is certainly not unheard of: a rising culinary trend has restaurants and companies topping everything from sushi to Kit Kat bars with gold.

Gold leaf on chocolate bar gold donut - forbes
Eating money ostentatiously marks the one eating as wealthy and elite. Though gold leaf is easily available from specialty grocers, eating gold is fairly unusual today, in contrast to the regular consumption of cacao in ancient Mesoamerica. Images: James Cronin/Flickr; Forbes. 

The use of cacao beans as money was unique, even in the context of the barter-based trade economy that spanned the Americas, and reflects the elite status cacao held in Mesoamerican society. Cacao’s role as currency may have had a more important role than previously considered in its transition from the New World to the Old World.

Cacao and the Maya

Cacao had a central place in Maya society, one that is often overshadowed by its importance in the later Aztec Empire. Chocolate was consumed at marriage negotiations and weddings and elaborate feasts of all kinds, and high-status Maya burial chambers often contained vessels filled with chocolate beverages – ostensibly to accompany the deceased on their journey to the afterlife (Coe & Coe 42).

God L with the Hero Twins.jpg
On the far right, a woman prepares a chocolate beverage. The preparation and consumption of cacao beverages was a part of many Mayan rites of passage, as well as Mayan daily life. Image: Francis Robicsek, The Maya Book of the Dead. 

Cacao was an important trade good for the Maya, and a strong cacao trade emerged in the Late Classic period. The use of cacao beans as a quasi-stable currency likely evolved from the regular exchange of cacao for other goods. By the 10th century, the Maya held an important mercantile position in Mesoamerica, exchanging goods between Maya states and with other peoples both north and south (Coe & Coe 53). The centrality of cacao to the Maya economy may have played a role in its emergence as currency.

The use of cacao beans as money, with a fixed rate of exchange with various other goods, may have begun just as early or earlier. It certainly appears in several European accounts from the Colonial period: Francisco Oviedo y Valdés, a chronicler from the 16th-century, did not identify the cacao beans as cacao but noted that about ten of the beans could be exchanged for a rabbit and about a hundred could be exchanged for a slave (Coe & Coe 59).  Cacao beans were in widespread use as currency by the Colonial Period.

Tenochtitlan and the Aztecs

The cacao trade was just as important for the Aztec as the Maya, if not more: the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan did not have a climate that would allow the Aztecs to cultivate cacao on their own (Presilla 17). Aztec merchants traveled far and wide to barter for cacao and bring it back to Tenochtitlan. Emperor Motecuhzoma’s royal coffers were said to contain nearly a billion beans (Coe & Coe 83); the Aztecs certainly worked hard to have access to a great deal of cacao. Like the Maya, the Aztecs used cacao beans to make purchases: Colonial documents report the prices of male and female turkeys (200 and 100 cacao beans, respectively), avocados (three beans), and other foods (Coe & Coe 99).

Codex Mendoza folio 47r.jpg
Among the gifts brought from Xoconochco to the Aztec rulers  in tribute were nearly 24,000 cacao beans. The Aztecs prized cacao, and the royals at Tenochtitlan absorbed cacao from several smaller states through tribute. Image: Codex Mendoza, Wikipedia. 

But though the Aztec trade and currency systems surrounding cacao were similar to those of the Maya, the consumption of cacao (had different rules). The finest chocolate beverages were likely restricted to the Maya elite, but there is still reason to believe that cacao was consumed as well by Maya commoners. This was not the case with the Aztecs: chocolate was consumed only by Aztec royals, nobility, warriors, and merchants (Coe & Coe 95). This may have had roots in the stratified nature of Aztec society, or it may have been influenced more directly by the economic value of cacao. In a society that could not grow its own cacao at the capital, supply would need to be carefully maintained in order to continue to meet royal and noble demand.

European Interest

The early Spanish conquerers were first interested in cacao not for its flavor, but for its economic importance (Presilla 18). Ferdinand Columbus, traveling with his father, observed natives stooping to pick up spilled cacao beans and before even knowing that they were cacao beans, realized that they had value (Coe & Coe 109). If cacao beans hadn’t been used as currency, it is entirely possible that the elite stigma associated with chocolate consumption would have disappeared. Early European accounts did not praise the taste of chocolate: “It seemed more a drink for pigs, than a drink for humanity,” Girolamo Benzoni wrote (Coe & Coe 110). Chocolate was first drunk in Europe when presented as a gift to the Spanish royal court by the Kekchi Maya in 1544 (Presilla 25). Without its place at the Maya royal banquets in the New World, it might never have been carried across the ocean at all. 

Without cacao’s dual role as beverage and currency, chocolate as we know it today might never have existed.


Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate, Third Edition. New York: Thames & Hudson, Ltd, 2013.

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

Studeman, Kristin T. “A 24-Karat Kit Kat Bar?: Why Edible Gold is Back in a Big Way.” Vogue. Condé Nast, 31 Dec. 2015. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

Conquistadors Changing Cacao Culture

The Aztecs’ Precious Cacao

Chocolate today is commonplace and eaten by almost everyone. In the 14th-16th centuries, the Aztec Empire cherished cacao. Cacao was only drunk by the elite and for special ceremonies. “If one of the common people drank it, if they drank it without sanction, it would cost their life” (Presilla, 19). In the Aztec society cacao was not drank among commoners, it was drank by the elite. The Spanish immediately felt the importance and value of the precious cacao. When the Spanish conquerers arrived in the New World, “they observed the Emperor Montezuma II drinking frothed chocolate with a degree of ceremony clearly marked as an exalted food” (18). Cacao was ranked with “gold and gems in records of solemn offerings to the dead” (18). The Aztecs had created a culture of veneration around cacao and over time this culture changed to be something common place and ubiquitous. The changing culture resulting from the shift in cultural ideals of those in charge.

 This is a photo from the Toxcatl ritual, where a young man is selected for his beauty. Again, it is clear that this is a drink to be talent, to impersonate Texcatlipoca  in a show of veneration. He receives many honors and at the end of his term he receives cups of chocolate mixed with achiote, symbolizing heart and blood, and then is sacrificed at the edge of an  obsidian blade. Once his beating heart is pulled out the rest of his body is an annual Spring ritual important for worshiping the deity the rest of his body is consumed. (A Concise History of Cacao) This gives us insight into the significance that cacao holds over the Aztecs. They cherished cacao and used it only for the most important events and only for those who are the most highly regarded.    http://www.c-spot.com/atlas/historical-timeline/

 Cortes comes to the New World

The revere and admiration the Aztec Empire expressed for cacao led Cortes to understand the riches and wealth cacao could bring. “Cortes was quick to see that in Aztec society cacao was a road to riches”(23).  In 1521 the Aztec Empire fell to Cortes and Moctezuma’s treasures of cacao were taken into his possession (23). Starting with Cortes, the culture around chocolate began to change. With Cortes in control of a large sum of cacao, it was not long before the cacao beans made their way to Spain. From Spain, “the cacao was spread to other countries in Europe such as Italy, France, England and most parts of Europe”(24).  It is unknown if Cortes is directly responsible for the transportation of cacao to Spain, but during his time cacao made it to Spain. Not only was cacao creating a culture in Europe, but cacao created a new culture among New Spain.


Photo: This is a picture of Montezuma and Cortes meeting. Montezuma was the Emperor of the Aztecs and Cortes  was  a conquistador from Spain. Eventually Moctezuma’s falls as Emperor and his cacao treasures are passed on to Cortes. http://www.sun-nation.org/sun-maya-hunab-ku.html

New Spain, New Cacao Culture

The adoration the Aztec Empire had for cacao was clear. Once Montezuma was dead, the Empire fell to Cortes, and this is where we start to see the changing  culture around cacao. With the death of Moctezuma, there was also the death of the cacao traditions and rituals. The Spanish brought new foods and started adopting the foods of the natives. The 16th century was characterized by  “the Spanish quickly [taking] over the role filled by pre-Hispanic lords  and administrators who had supervised the Mesoamerican cacao trade”(28).  The previous economy of the Aztec’s consisted of bartering and trading. “With the Spanish in control the colony of New Spain underwent a transition from a bater-based to a money economy that placed high emphasis on cash crops, especially cacao”(28). Instead of relying on a subsistence farming  economy, “the commoners adopted the Spanish attitudes toward profit as well as purchasable luxuries”(28). They would choose to buy fine foods over crops to plant and the luxury of cacao began to spread through all classes of society. By the 17th century cacao was being grown commercially and had spread to new colonies in South America, such as Venezuela. In the 18th century chocolate had been established popularly as a main staple in colonial cities. “Even black slaves drank it daily after breakfast.”(30) With the progression of time and the wiping out of the Aztec Empire, the conquerers commodified cacao and made it a central crop to the lives of their new colonies. The commodification of cacao allowed for changes in the way we drink, eat  and use cacao. 

Emperor Montezuma of the Aztecs liked drinking cocoa
In this photo we can see Moctezuma consuming the treasured cacao drink. Again, this is another instance where we  see  cacao being consumed by the elite. Once Moctezuma’s reign ended, and the Spanish took over, the drinking of chocolate penetrated all classes, even slaves were drinking it. 




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

Forbidden Luxury: Aztec Chocolate Regulation and Tradition

Aztec sculpture with cacao pod. demonstrating its importance and ubiquity in Aztec culture. Wikimedia Commons image.

In most of the world today, chocolate is ubiquitous and cheap: 99-cent candy bars, discounted post-Valentine’s Day candies, and hot chocolate cafes allow members of every economic class to enjoy the sweet treat. It may seem incomprehensible that the enjoyment of chocolate was once heavily regulated. However, among the Aztecs, chocolate consumption was influenced by Aztec religious beliefs and laws, and subsequently limited by social rank and regulated by special traditions.

Despite the availability of chocolate to every social strata in Mayan society, most of the Aztec population was not allowed to taste the end product once the cacao beans were turned into drinkable chocolate. This restriction stands in contrast to the fact that cacao beans were used as everyday currency: three beans, for instance, would buy a freshly-picked avocado (The Telegraph). A few interrelated factors might resolve the discrepancy. The Aztecs had to import cacao from a distance, which naturally led to restrictions place on the availability of chocolate drinks and explains how pochteca, the long-distance merchants that traded chocolate, were given elevated status that allowed them to partake in drinking chocolate. These traders “travelled through very dangerous lands to reach their markets, and often fought pitched battles with hostile foreign groups” (Coe and Coe), and their ability to drink the fruits of their labors might have been compensation for their warrior-like class status.

Chocolate’s status as a luxury was also cemented by Aztec religious belief and legal sumptuary codes: the Aztecs believed that their god Quetzalcoatl had brought chocolate to humans and had been cast out of heaven for his blasphemy (Kerr). Cacao was even referred to as “heart and blood” in this warlike society, and cacao was important to both warrior and religious ceremonies. Additionally, the Aztec emperor Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina laid down sumptuary laws that banned commoners from drinking cacao, among other luxuries. The Aztecs only allowed members of the royal house, the nobility, long-distance merchants, and warriors to drink chocolate. In fact, under these laws, the only commoners who might have been able to taste chocolate would have been the soldiers on the march (Coe and Coe, 99). In that exceptional case, transportable, ground pellets made of cacao were rationed out to soldiers while on a campaign.

Pochteca on their journey, bent over with the weight of their cargo. Wikimedia Commons.

The act of drinking chocolate was also regulated by several traditions governing how chocolate could be served to elites. Chocolate drinks were never sipped or drunk during the meal; rather, chocolate was drunk at the end of the banquet as a dessert (Coe and Coe, 96). Fray Bartolome de las Casas recounted how chocolate was served in painted calabash cups and how the lords revered these vessels as though the cups “were gold and silver” (Coe and Coe 98). Bernadino de Sahagún corroborates the use of special gourd and calabash cups to serve chocolate. In one account of a banquet held by merchants (one of the classes allowed to partake in the chocolate tradition), Sahagún recounts how the meal ended with the lords being served chocolate out of fine cups while the lesser citizens drank chocolate from clay cups. The hierarchical regulation on chocolate extended even to the types of drinking vessels that a person was permitted to use during the ritual of drinking.

Mayan drinking vessels depicting nobles drinking chocolate. Found using Google image search with usage rights stipulated.

In conclusion, chocolate enjoyment was restricted in Aztec society by its strict hierarchal rules, and reinforced by religious beliefs. The fact that pochtecas were allowed to participate in drinking chocolate was probably a testament to the dangers encountered on trade routes and underscores how important cacao was to the Aztecs. Luckily, there are no such restrictions on chocolate today, and its wide availability makes it a democratic treat.



Chocolate, Indulgence, and Women

In a technology inundated world, it might not seem strange at first, but once brought to one’s attention, it is striking the sheer number of chocolate advertisements that almost exclusively target women. A simple Google search yields more images of women indulging in chocolate than one would ever need (or indeed want) to see. These commercials promote chocolate by emphasizing the sinful and indulgent tastes it offers–these intense flavors apparently cause women to lose all their inhibitions. So intense is this desire that they cannot resist the temptation it offers. Here, I seek to examine how these associations were created between chocolate, women, and indulgence and how we can begin to counter these stereotypes.

The link between chocolate and gender is strongly tilted toward women. Here, chocolate is essentially equated to sex in this advertisement. Taken from http://makeupandbeauty.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/chocolate-addiction-in-women1.png.

If we examine these themes of gender and indulgence further, we see that they are present in most chocolate advertisements. In order to gain a better understanding of these issues, we closely examine this Magnum commercial:

The woman cannot resist the chocolate and so completely gives in to desire–nothing can stop her from getting to the Magnum truck. The driver of the truck sees her running and opens the truck doors with a knowing smile. She closes her eyes as she takes a bite out of the ice cream bar, utterly overcome by the tastes that have satisfied her deepest desires. In the portrayal of this event, we observe the intense sensuality the consumption of chocolate entails. At the end of the commercial, we find the crux of the appeal–“For pleasure seekers.” The Magnum ice cream bar consumer lives on the edge; this chocolate is not for everyone.

Breaking down this commercial, we see the underlying stereotypes that fuel production of these advertisements. First of all, the woman wears a ruffled dress to emphasize her femininity. Chocolate commercials traditionally target women because of the association our society has manufactured between the two. Why? In the diet-saturated culture we have in the US today, women are far more likely than men to have the goal of losing weight (National Eating Disorders Association). It is easy to sell chocolate to men as they are less likely to be worried about losing weight and therefore have a simpler time deciding whether or not to indulge in chocolate. On the other hand, advertisers want to portray women as having intense desires for chocolate and convince the female audience that this is a natural craving. Additionally, female characters in chocolate commercials are always beautiful women–chocolate companies want the female audience to conclude that they can still look as beautiful as the women in these commercials though they may indulge in chocolate. Therefore, as Emma Robertson writes, “whilst men may be the bearers of chocolate, women are positioned as consumers.” Secondly, there is an idea present that chocolate is sinful–it is for pleasure-seekers. This implies that chocolate is not something to indulge in on a daily basis. This idea is present in other brands of chocolate as well. For example, the Endangered Species brand describes its product as “Simple, smooth, sinful.” The darker side of chocolate contributes to the allure of the product; it is a sort of rebellion against a culture of dieting.

Given these ideas, we have created our own advertisement for chocolate in order to push back against these stereotypes common in chocolate commercials.

chocolate hiking
Shown here is our advertisement for the Choco Brand, created to counter a few of these chocolate stereotypes.

There is an attempt here to move away from the stereotype that a disproportionate number of women crave chocolate compared to men. This is entirely a myth, as many studies have discovered that the proportions of men and women consuming chocolate are quite similar and the same follows for the frequency with which they eat chocolate (CNN; Food News International). Cravings for chocolate are not reserved solely for the female sex but are almost a part of human nature. Furthermore, different kinds of women eat chocolate, and there are other reasons women might want to consume chocolate. As demonstrated through this advertisement we have created, chocolate does not need to be a sinful indulgence. Here, it is used to provide energy on an arduous hike. Those pictured here are not the beautiful female models traditionally used in chocolate advertisements but an average family with a mixture of men and women.

We want to view the consumption of chocolate, not as a dark temptation, but as something practical that can be used as a source of energy for both sexes. This is a return to the roots of chocolate. The Maya and Aztecs historically used chocolate as a source of nourishment. In Mayan culture, a warrior would customarily be adorned with cacao pods, which was associated with invincibility, but, perhaps more importantly, warriors that consumed chocolate were perceived as having more energy–a formidable opponent indeed (Martin 2-2). Even in more modern days, this idea is still present that chocolate can be a source of nutrition. Robertson writes that “[chocolate] formed an important part of Royal Navy rations, which accounted for half of Britain’s cocoa imports.” Indeed, most soldiers had chocolate rations one of the first English words a Japanese boy would learn during WWII was “chocolate.” (Martin 3-9).

We have transformed chocolate into a form far removed from the drinkable, frothing chocolate seen here in this Mayan painting. Taken from http://www.worldstandards.eu/images/palace%20scene.jpg.

Overall, this is an attempt to counter the belief that chocolate is an indulgence for females, which stems from the dieting culture that is often closely associated with the female identity. We also are able to tie this “new” image of chocolate back to its first uses of the Maya and Aztecs. However, chocolate has branched far from its roots in Mayan and Aztec culture. There has been such a great divergence that today, it would obviously be unreasonable to use chocolate as a meal replacement; the massive amounts of added sugar and fat would not offer the nutrients chocolate used to when spices and corn were added in the days of the Maya and Aztecs (Martin, 2-4). In any case, the theme that chocolate is an indulgent dessert in regard to females is a reflection of the culture in the United States today–chocolate has not always been associated in this way. Now the question remains whether this portrayal of women and chocolate is problematic and how these chocolate companies will continue to mold this image of feminine indulgence.




Works Cited

“8M consumers in UK eat chocolate every day.” Food News International, 17 April 2014. Web. 10 April 2015. <http://foodnewsinternational.com/2014/04/17/europe-8m-consumers-in-uk-eat-chocolate-every-day-says-report/&gt;.

“Endangered Species Chocolate, Natural Dark Chocolate.” iHerb.com. Web. 10 April 2015.<http://www.iherb.com/Endangered-Species-Chocolate-Natural-Dark-Chocolate-3-oz-85-g/32747&gt;.

Martin, Carla. Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Februrary 2, 2015.

Martin, Carla. Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Februrary 4, 2015.

Martin, Carla. Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. March 9, 2015.

Robertson, Emma. 2010. Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. pp. 1-131.

Shiltz, Tom. “Research on Males and Eating Disorders.” NEDA. Web. 10 April 2015. <https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/research-males-and-eating-disorders&gt;.

“Who consumes the most chocolate” CNN, 17 January 2012. Web. 10 April 2015. <http://thecnnfreedomproject.blogs.cnn.com/2012/01/17/who-consumes-the-most-chocolate/&gt;.



Extension Undergraduate Model Essay: The Body Cacao: The Intrinsic Link Between Cacao and the Physical Human Body

Republished with the permission of the author as an Extension Undergraduate Model Essay.


Cacao and the physical aspect of humanity have been intrinsically connected throughout recorded history. This connection plays out as a recurring theme in the ancient texts, artifacts, and current evidence, to the point they are notable and essential, if not interdependent. Throughout history, cacao could not be taken without a very physically intimate, hands-on, and laboriously intensive relationship with humans. Rare archaeological documents and artifacts from the earliest times, as far back as the Mayan Codices, and the Popul Vuh (Martin), suggest that humans have divine origin within the cacao tree, and have had to work exhaustively for their nourishment and enjoyment of it. Many in tribal, colonial, and even modern eras, lived their entire lives working in cacao fields, never setting foot outside of cacao culture. Some died alongside cacao in great battle or as a human sacrifice in cacao laden rituals. Thus, the long relationship between physical man and cacao has been one of simultaneous love, respect, and turmoil, and it seems fitting to say, as Michael D. Coe offers in his book, The True History of Chocolate, “It was the best of drinks, it was the worst of drinks” ( 203).

images (3)
Late Classic period polychrome Maya vase, Popol Vuh Museum Guatemala

Cacao was for the elite, and at times it was also common, but it was always creating a sacred bond between gods and humans. “It was the beverage of everyday people and also the food of the rulers and gods,” says Jonathan Haas, curator of the “Chocolate” exhibition at the Field Museum in Chicago (Huffington Post). Although the ancient texts of the Mayans and Aztecs differ a bit in their creation story, it is clear that both ancient cultures believed cacao to be a natural element essential to the physical body of mankind. Of the Dresden Codex, which deals with sacred ritual activities,  Michael Coe writes, “seated gods can be seen holding cacao pods, or dishes heaped with cacao beans” (42). Coe writes further of the Madrid Codex, that the god’s blood pouring out over the cacao, ” links the godly blood with the cacao beans…” and is to then be consumed by humans (42), suggesting a Trinitarian bond between the physical element of humanity (body), cacao, and the divine.

Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 6.36.22 PMAdditionally, the Mayans and Aztecs used cacao as daily nourishment for the body, as well as medicinal remedy for a multitude of ailments, which were passed on to the Spaniards, and infused with Galenic medical theory (Coe 121-123). Written by Juan de Cárdenas in 1951, a treatise on New World Foods, advised “cacao, if toasted and ground and mixed with a bit of atole gruel, is fattening and sustaining, aiding the digestion and making one happy and strong (Coe 123).” Of course, there were also warnings by Cárdenas that if taken “green” or too often, it could also lead to poor health and even addiction. This was later reinforced in 1648, by Thomas Gage, who wrote of an account of addiction by a group of white elite woman who swore they could not get through even a single Catholic Mass without taking a drink, and ultimately poisoned the Bishop who had tried to stop them (Coe 180-181).

Mayan sacrifice

Rendering further evidence for the historic linkage between cacao and the human body, this time through ritual, is offered by culinary author and historian, Maricel Presilla. She writes in her book, The New Taste of Chocolate, that ancient Mayan vase paintings depict scenes of chocolate drinking among the governing elites. Presilla advises that the cacao they are drinking is a frothy hot drink, which was reserved as the highest honor and dyed red with Achiote to resemble sacrificial, human blood (13). But, perhaps the greatest of testimony to the bond between cacao and the human body by way of ritual, was in the human sacrifice, of which Presilla writes,The most lavish of all the merchant’s banquets were those involving the sacrifice of slaves and the eating of their flesh (22).”


Cacao trees in cluster

Yet even now the harvesting and processing of cacao is a significant aspect in which the linkage between the physical body and cacao usage can be demonstrated. It is a notoriously labor intensive and physically challenging series of tasks, requiring many hours of human effort to produce cacao in small and large quantities. Chocolate expert, Mark Canizaro writes in his blog, xocoatl.org, how the cacao trees are grown in clusters and even today on corporate plantations, are grown in a way that makes it difficult for machinery to harvest. Therefore, the laborers must cut each pod individually, with a swift chop of a sharp blade and let the pod fall to the ground (Canizaro).

See video on today’s cacao harvest methods, compliments of ICF Group:

Although today much of the transport of cacao is done by vehicle, the harvesting remains manual and many corporate landowners have been  accused of kidnapping and enslaving people, including children, to meet the labor demand (Canizaro). In this, we find yet more evidence of the essential link between that of the physical human and cacao. Moreover, it suggests that the historic linkage between cacao and the human body continues; and begs the question whether despite modernity, we continue to value sacred cacao greater than our own sacred kind.

See video on slavery in the cacao trade, compliments of 7th Business:

Works Cited

Canizaro, Mark Chocolate. “The Production of Chocolate from Cacao.” Xocoatl.org. Xocoatl.org n.d. Web. 20 Feb 2015.

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. Thames & Hudson Ltd: London, 2013. Print.

ICF Group. “How to Harvest Cocoa.” Youtube. Youbute, 3 Mar 2013. 18 Feb 2015.

Martin, Carla D. “Written Record.” Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods.”  Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 04 Feb. 2015. Class Lecture.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised. Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, 2009. Print.

“What the Ancient Maya Can Teach Us  About Living Well.” Huff Post: The Third Metric. Huffington Post.com, 23 Jan 2014. Web. 19 Feb 2015.

7th Business. “Must See! Disgusting Slavery!” Youtube. Youtube, 2 Jan 2013. Web. 18 Feb 2015.

The Transformative Power of Culture

The Spanish conquistadors first came into contact with chocolate during their voyages to the New World, following the footsteps of Christopher Columbus. In 1502, Columbus arrived to Guanaja and came across a dugout canoe, in which he discovered “almonds” [cacao beans] that were used by the indigenous people of Mexico as a form of money (Coe & Coe, 109). A popular myth claims Columbus was the first person to try chocolate in the New World, however records suggest Columbus found these beans to be of little value and quickly left to Panamá in search of gold (Coe & Coe, 109). It was only with the arrival of other conquistador’s years later that the true wealth of these beans and their product became appreciated.

As Marciel Presilla discusses in his book titled The New Taste of Chocolate, most of what is known about the relation between chocolate and the pre-Hispanic Aztecs comes from narratives recorded after the Conquest of the New World (Presilla,18). Girolamo de Benzoni wrote a narrative in 1975 called the History of the New World, describing his bewilderment at the peculiarity and somewhat bizarre beverage drunk by the most notable members of the indigenous population (Coe & Coe, 110). In one of the excerpts, he describes the chocolate drink as one that “seemed more a drink for pigs, than a drink for humanity. I was in this country for more than a year, and never wanted to taste it…” (Coe & Coe, 110).

The following image portrays Hernan Cortez being offered the chocolate drink in his arrival to the Aztec Empire in 1519. He is portrayed in lavish ceremonial attire seemingly fit for a god, however his expression suggests his discontent with the chocolate drink he holds in his hands.


It is important to note the conquistador’s initial attitudes of dissatisfaction towards the chocolate beverage, which would soon change as a result of the direct encounter of the Indians with the European people.

Culture plays a crucial role in people’s initial perception and understanding of a new culture. I will assert the importance of culture in shaping the European settlers perspective on chocolate, while allowing them to adapt to the alien environment of the New World. As the settlers began establishing their lives in the New World following the Conquest, a process of hybridization or creolization began to take place between the two cultures. This process resulted from the Europeans and Indians adopting certain practices from each other’s cultures, and adapting them to satisfy their particular lifestyle. For example, the Spanish began consuming less wheat and more maize, and adopting Nahuatl words for native plants and animals into their language, while the Indians adopted certain domestic animals and fruit trees into their life (Coe & Coe, 112). Chocolate would follow a similar path in which it would undergo a transformation of certain qualities that would allow it to assimilate into the Spanish and European culture.

In terms of preparation of the chocolate drink, the Mayan and Aztec’s added spices such as honey, agave syrup, “ear flower” and chilli pepper (Coe & Coe, 115). The Spanish and Europeans had a “sweet tooth” due to the introduction of sugar into their culture during medieval times (Coe & Coe, 115). Cortez valued the idea of the elaborate, thickly spiced mixture drank by the Indians, which is why toasted corn and spices like vanilla and achiote would be added to the Hispanicized chocolate (Presilla, 25). However, the Europeans palate for sweetness would result in the transformation of chocolate from a think and heavily spiced drink, to a heavily sweetened drink. And so, the Spanish were the first to combine chocolate with the sugar they produced from the sugar cane plantations worked by African slaves in the Caribbean (Presilla, 25). The practice of sweetening would eventually lead to wide range of chocolate brands we have today, labeled with varying percentages of cacao and sweetness as seen in the image below.


The Europeans considered the froth of chocolate to be the most valued part of the drink. However, the greater sense of technological efficiency that steered their culture lead to the development of a new method of preparing froth that didn’t involve repeatedly poring it between two vessels (Prisilla, 26). The method involved a tool called a molinillo that would beat the chocolate and make it foam (Prisilla, 26), as seen in the video below.

The transformation of chocolate preparation asserts the importance of culture in shaping the European settlers perspective on chocolate, while allowing them to adapt to the alien environment of the New World.


“A Royal Gift – Box of Chocolate – Café Mika.” Caf Mika. N.p., 11 Dec. 2014. Web. 16 Feb.       2015. <http://mika.is/a-royal-gift-box-of-chocolate/&gt;.

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

“Mexican Hot Chocolate.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2015.     <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Hfqgp4B9X8&gt;.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with     Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. Print.

“Sweet Dark Chocolate.” Chocolercom Expand Your Chocolate Expertise RSS. N.p., n.d. Web.     16 Feb. 2015. <http://chocoler.com/live/2012/02/05/sweet-dark-chocolate/&gt;.