Tag Archives: Aztecs

The Myth of Separation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Works Cited:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other images in public domain


Cheap Sugar and Expensive Cacao: the democratization of the “food of the gods.”

Chocolate means many things to many people, invoking feelings of romance, decadence, comfort, celebration, and memories of childhood. And despite its ubiquity across most of the globe, chocolate has maintained an aura of lavishness, mystery, and prestige. Once a food item strictly for the elites, chocolate has kept its image as a luxury item even though it has been cheaply available for over a century. How and why did chocolate go from an exclusive luxury item for the privileged to a staple everyday treat for the masses? The history of chocolate, or cacao, the treated fruit-seeds from which chocolate is produced, and how it became commonplace is inseparable from the history of colonialism, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the industrial revolution. And the same is true of the history of sugar. Ultimately it was the evolution and combining of these two once-exclusive products that changed chocolate from an expensive, rare commodity for a small elite class to an affordable, mass-producible snack for the everyday citizen of the industrialised world.

Chocolate finds its origin in the cacao tree, or theobroma cacao, literally “food of the gods, cacao,” as it was named by Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus.1 However, the word cacao had been used, as had the fruits and the seeds within, since long before Linnaeus encountered the species. Traces of cacao have been discovered on pottery dating as far back as 3,300 B.C. in Zamora Chinchipe, Ecuador,2 almost five thousand years before contact between Europe and Mesoamerica began. When Europeans first encountered cacao at the beginning of the sixteenth century, cacao was used as currency and consumed as a beverage by the ruling class of the Aztec empire. The drinking chocolate travelled first to the royal courts of Spain and then spread to the other major powers in Europe including, Italy, France, and England.  Drinking chocolate prevailed until the middle of the nineteenth century when solid chocolate was first produced for widespread sale.


Sugar has been known in Europe since long before cacao. Cultivated into its crystallized form in India as far back as 500 A.D.,3 and spread through the Arabic conquests of the eighth century, it was and remained “a luxury, a medicine, and a spice”4 until the seventeenth century. With the discovery and conquering of the West Indies, Europeans colonialists began to cultivate and mass-produce the luxury items – cacao, tobacco, coffee, rum, tea, and sugar – that would dramatically change the economies of the world forever.

By the nineteenth century sugar had a become a necessity of British daily life. And it was during this century that Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes Van Houten invented a machine that would lead to the ability to produce chocolate in its solid form. Van Houten’s hydraulic press separated the fat, cacao butter, from the cacao beans, leaving behind a powder we call cocoa.5 The British Fry family, who had been producing and selling drinking chocolate since the eighteenth century, discovered that by remixing this cocoa with the butter and adding sugar, a liquid that would harden could be made, and the first real chocolate bar was born.6


It should be stated that none of the major producers of solid chocolate who would come to dominate the market were the first to think to sweeten cacao for consumption. Adding honey to sweeten drinking chocolate had been commonplace in Mesoamerica before the arrival of the Spanish, and drinking chocolate recipes enjoyed by the aristocracy in Europe pervasively contained sugar. The change that took place that would significantly spread the consumption of chocolate was the pronounced increased, first, in the consumption of sugar. According to Sidney W. Mintz’s estimates, between 1800 and 1890 world production shot from approximately two-hundred and forty-five thousand tonnes of sugar to over six million, and he writes, “there is no doubt that the sucrose consumption of the poorer classes in the United Kingdom came to exceed that of the wealthier classes after 1850.”7 This transformative period in sugar production and consumption paired with Van Houten’s machine, which meant for easier and cheaper production of higher quality cacao powder and butter, set the stage for the mass-production and consumption of chocolate.


The public’s insatiable appetite for sugar has meant that chocolate production can be much cheaper, as the most expensive ingredient, cacao, can be used in less quantity. A good example of this is the enormously successful Hershey’s kiss that is just eleven percent cocoa and over fifty percent sugar.8 And the mass-production ideology that came with the industrial revolution led to astonishing manufacturing achievements. A good example of this is the lettering machine at the M&M factory that is able to print the M’s on M&M’s at, “200,000 M&M’s a minute, or 100 million M&M’s every eight hours:”9 needless to say, a far cry from the time-consuming procedure to make the drinking chocolate that was enjoyed by Mayans, Aztecs, and European “nobility” for the centuries and millennia prior. That milk chocolate can be legally called as such with just 10% cacao content has meant a form of chocolate can be made, and therefore bought and eaten, cheaply and regularly across class lines. So while there is debate as to the health effects of cheap chocolate and ethical concerns of cheaply sourced cacao, the “food of the gods” is now available to all mortals. And thank god for that.


Works Cited


  1. Presilla, Maricel. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press. Page 5
  2. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-22733002
  3. Mintz, Sidney W. 1985. Sweetness and Power: the Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin. Page 23
  4. Page 30
  5. Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. 1996. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson. Page 234
  6. Page 241
  7. Page 143
  8. Martin, Carla D. “The rise of big chocolate and race for the global market.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 3/7/18, Class Lecture
  9. Brenner, Joel. 2000. The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars. Page 185

From Bean to Boom: The Development of Chocolate as an Industrialized Food 

From its journey to Europe from the New World at the beginning of the sixteenth century all the way to its modern-day iteration, chocolate has become an important staple for people all over the world. Provided here is a brief history of its long and fruitful evolution through time – from Europeans first encounter with the substance through its development into an industrialized food. 

“Olmec Heartland”

The Olmecs (1500-400 BC) were almost certainly the first humans to consume chocolate. They would crush the cocoa beans, mix them with water and add spices, chillies and herbs – thus first creating, “the nectar of the Gods!”

Over time, the Mayans (600 BC) and Aztecs (400 AD) developed their own successful methods for cultivating cocoa. For these civilizations, cocoa was a symbol of privilege and abundance. It was used in religious rituals dedicated to Quetzalcoatl (the Aztec god responsible for bringing the cocoa tree to man) to Chak ek Chuah (the Mayan patron saint of cocoa) and as an offering at the funerals of noblemen. 


Discovery and Commercialization of Cocoa (16th century) In 1528 Hernando Cortez drank cacao with the Aztec emperor Montezuma and brought it back to Spain.

The Spanish court soon fell in love with this exotic elixir and adapted it to their tastes, adding cane sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and pepper. 

In 1585, the first cargo of cocoa beans arrived on the Iberian Peninsula from New Spain, launching the trade in cocoa, resulting in the establishment of the first chocolate shops and a rapidly growing demand for this mysterious nectar from the new world.  

The expansion of cocoa in Europe (17th – 19th centuries)
During the 17th century, cocoa began arriving in other ports throughout Europe, effortlessly conquering every region’s palate. Chocolate beverages were first embraced by the French court following the royal marriage of King Louis XIII to the Spanish Princess Anne of Austria in 1615.

Hot Chocolate in Versailles

In 1650 chocolate beverages first appeared in England coinciding with the arrival of tea from China and coffee from the Middle East. For many years it remained a treat reserved for the upper classes.

In 1659 the first chocolate-confection maker opened in Paris.

In 1720, Italian chocolate-makers received prizes in recognition of the quality of their products. Then in 1765, North America finally discovered the virtues of cocoa. 


Cocoa During the Industrial Era
Industrialization has had a marked democratizing effect on chocolate, transforming it from a rare delicacy reserved for royals, to a widely available and readily affordable treat for the masses. 


In 1828, Dutch Chemist Coenraad van Houten invented a process for extracting cocoa butter, allowing for the extraction of cocoa powder. This made chocolate more homogenous and less costly to produce. From this moment on, the history of cacao changed drastically.




In 1847, English chocolate maker J.S. Fry & Sons produced the first chocolate bar. The use of cocoa powder not only made creating chocolate drinks easier, but also made it possible to combine chocolate with sugar to create a solid bar.

In 1830-1879 Switzerland, chocolate flavored with hazelnuts was developed by Daniel Peteris followed by milk chocolate developed by Henri Nestlé. 

In 1879, the texture and taste of chocolate was further improved when Rodolphe Lindt invented the conching machine. This new machine made the process of making chocolate a lot faster, and also helped make chocolate smoother and creamier.

imagesWithin the United States in 1893, confectionist Milton Hershey found chocolate making equipment at the Worlds Fair in Chicago and began production at a factory in Pennsylvania. 

Chocolate followed the French and American infantry into the trenches of the First World War, and effectively all US chocolate production was requisitioned for the military during the Second World War. In France, chocolate sweets appeared between the wars, and French pralines were considered the most fashionable. This further inspired chocolate producers to experiment with new and exciting flavors.

Converting cacao seeds into chocolate has now evolved into a complex, mechanized process. At the factory the cacao blended, roasted, cracked, winnowed, ground, pressed, mixed, conched, refined and tempered into candy bars. A few icons of the early 1900s still survive today, like Hershey, Cadbury and Nestlé. Either hand-made or as a fast food, it is now an established part of the world’s vocabulary and diet. Famous French gastronome Anthelme Brillat-Savarin poetically summed up our universal love affair with chocolate, “What is health? It is chocolate!”


In these videos from Bon Apetit! you can see cocoa’s long and laborious journey from bean to bar. 




Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

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


Goody, Jack. Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine. In Counihan, Carole. Food and Culture: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 1997. Print.


“Olmec Heartland”

Hernando Cortez with Montezuma II

Hot Chocolate in Versailles

Chocolate Maid, Jean-Etienne Liotard, 1744

Van Houten “Chocolats”

Fry’s Chocolate





There is No Pleasure in Guilty Chocolate!

Why do you love chocolate? Because it is good! It tastes good and makes you happy. It is all that is good in the world wrapped in a beautiful candy bar. What if you learned that your delicious candy bar is a by-product of something bad, the output of someone else’s suffering?  A child’s suffering? Would you enjoy it just the same? Eating is not just a means to satisfy hunger; it is also an emotional and psychological experience.  We like to eat, and we like to eat good food without any negative connotations. Chocolate does not taste as good when it is served with a side of guilt. Chocolate tastes better when you wholeheartedly know that it came from a good place and produced in an ethical and social responsible manner.

Did you know that the global chocolate industry is nearly $100 billion dollars a year? The United States alone spends a little over 18 billion dollars in chocolate (2015), and that the average American consumes approximately 4.3 kilograms / 9.5 pounds of chocolate a year (2015). In comparison, beating the Americans at chocolate consumption are the Swiss who consume approximately a little over 9 kilograms / 20 pounds per person, then tied for second place are the Germans and the Austrians who approximately consume 3.6 kilograms / 7.4 pounds per person (Satioquia-Tan). Chocolate can be found anywhere around the world and is affordable to the masses especially to those who live in the developed world. Chocolate can be found in candy bars, truffles, fudge, cakes, muffins, biscuits, breakfast cereals, pancakes, health bars, sauces, drinks, in your café mocha, and anywhere you can sprinkle chocolate syrup. You can buy it in a specialty shop, supermarket, mini-market, drugstore, or any corner street gas station.

The majority of chocolate eaters are rather naïve in knowing the history and the current nature of the chocolate-making business. They simply eat it because they love chocolate without really knowing what it is, where it comes from, who makes and how; or any related social issues. For those consumers who are more aware of the social and economic impacts of the chocolate industry are a little more selective in choosing and enjoying their chocolate. To fully appreciate food is to experience it through all the possible senses, the physiological and psychological (Stuckey 13). Only twenty percent of what we physiologically taste happens in our mouths, the rest of the tasting experience happens through our remaining senses of sight, smell, touch, and sound. We, also, want to psychologically feel good about what we are eating. We want to know about the origins, the farming practices, and the ethics of what we are tasting (Stuckey 14). We want to know the context, the beautiful story, of what we are eating so we can enjoy it fully. The other option is to choose to remain a little ignorant of the subject as not to sour our chocolate taste, however this pleasure would be more superficial and would not represent the fullest appreciation of what we are eating. To fully appreciate today’s chocolate, we will have to fully experience it with the body and mind in full awareness of its origins, present journey and social impacts.

  1. What is Chocolate?

Cocoa is the main ingredient for all chocolate recipes.  Cocoa derives from cacao seeds, or more commonly referred to as cacao beans, which grow on the Theobroma Cacao tree.  Cacao trees are finicky trees that can only bear fruit in hot and humid tropical climates,twenty degrees from the equator at a specific altitude. These trees are highly dependent on midges, an insect, for its flowers to pollinate and bear fruit (Coe and Coe 19-21, 27). Cacao beans grow inside a fruity, pulp filled pod, approximately 30-40 beans grow inside one pod. Unlike most trees, where fruit grow dangling down from branches, cacao pods sprout directly from the tree trunk. In raw form, cacao beans constitute half its size in fat, cocoa butter. When cocoa butter is extracted from the cacao bean, what remains is the cocoa (or cocoa powder), the main ingredient of all chocolate (Coe and Coe 27). Before cacao beans turn into chocolate, cacao fruit is first farmed.  Upon harvest, fruit pods are removed from trees and cracked open to extract its beans with machetes. Cacao beans are then fermented, dried, sorted, roasted, transported, winnowed (deshelled), ground to a liquor, pressed (to remove the cacao butter), conched, and then what remains is added to chocolate-making recipes. Chocolate is the result of a labor intensive and highly processed food.

  1. Where Does Cacao Come From?

Cacao is native to the New World, the South American’s amazon basin region (Coe and Coe 25), and the Mesoamerican native cultures of the Mayans and Aztecs and predecessors were the first peoples to ever make chocolate dating back as far as 1500 BCE (Coe and Coe 33). Cacao was precious and a sacred food reserved for the elite, special occasions, and sacred rituals. Mayan and Aztecs Gods often appear alongside or in the form of cacao trees in their native hieroglyphs and surviving art (Coe and Coe 42). So precious, cacao beans were even used as a means of monetary currency. In 1545, documented is the commodity price of a tamale: one tamale equals one cacao bean (Coe and Coe 98-99). Upon colonizing Mesoamerica, the Spanish conquistadors were the first Europeans to discover and spread the taste of chocolate to Europe starting in the 1500’s (Coe and Coe 108). At the beginning of the chocolate history in Europe, chocolate was rare, expensive, and for the upper class.  Then as time passed and soon after the industrial revolution, chocolate became relatively common and affordable to the masses.

Amazon Basin
Amazon basin (based on Wikipedia, Amazon basin article, by Kmusser, using Digital Chart of the Word and GTOPO data)

After the end of the American colonial period, in the late 1800’s, the Spanish and the Portuguese introduced cacao to West Africa. Due to favorable climate conditions, cacao flourished in West Africa.  Today, approximately seventy percent of the world’s cacao comes from West Africa (Wessel and Quist-Wessel 1). The Ivory Coast and Ghana are the two major countries that supply cacao.  There are 2 million, small (3 hectares acres in size), independent farms (Ryan 52) in West Africa that supply three million metric tons of cacao per year (World Cocoa Foundation).

West Africa, Ivory Coast depicted in orange and Ghana  depicted in green (based on Wikipedia, Ghana-Ivory Coast Relations article)
  1. What Are the Social Issues Involving the Chocolate Industry?

Since the first Europeans, the Spanish conquistadors, landed in the New World, the cacao industry has been tainted with slavery and forced labor since 1650’s (Berlan 1092). Upon colonizing Mesoamerica, the Spanish forced the natives to pay tribute in labor and cacao to their new Spanish Crown.  After millions of natives died of diseases, the Spanish, like other colonists in the Americas, resorted to using chattel slavery from Africa to extract New World resources (Presilla 24, 33). Chattel slavery officially ended in 1884, however it continued in disguise in Portuguese West Africa well into the 1900’s in the cacao industry and some reports state that it persisted until 1962 (Berlan 1092).

Today, cacao farmer incomes are very volatile for it depends on operating profits, and since cacao is a commodity, the market price.  Farmers need to sell their cacao at a high enough price in order to pay off their operation expenses which includes labor, a major expense, just like most businesses. Unexpected operating expenses and / or a fall in market price can be devastating on farmer revenues/incomes. Cacao farmers, per capita, constantly live without the security of a reliable living wage. In 2015, cacao farmers earned 50 to 84 cents on the American dollar a day (Cocoabarometer). As it is, cacao farmers barely break even, and there is little economic incentive for them to stay in the cacao farming business.  Due to local poverty and lack of other options, farmers continue to grow cacao under pressure to lower operating costs and often resort to desperate means to make a profit, break even, or just enough to pay for rice and cooking oil (Off 5).

In more recent history in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, a wave of newspaper stories and documentary films exposed the existence of child labor, trafficking, and slaves in West African cacao farms which caused much consumer outrage. The media graphically showed the world the extreme poverty and hard lives of cacao farmers in West Africa and the desperate measures farmers take to lower operating costs by using child slave labor (Berlan 1089).

The documentary, Slavery: A Global Investigation (2000), especially shocked viewers by showing how easy it was to find child slaves working on cacao farms and how the local people seem to accept the practice as a way of life. On camera, journalists were able, with relative ease, to overtly interview real child slaves and get first-hand testimony about their hardships, a farm owner who openly admitted to having slaves and in how to get them, and a local official who confirmed as matter of fact that at least 90% of the Ivory Coast farms use child slave labor.  Ninety percent implies the existence of hundreds of thousands of slaves (Ryan 118). A 2000 US State Department report estimated that 15,000 Malian children worked on Ivory Coast cacao farms and that many of were under 12 years old and sold into indentured service (Off 133). Two of the local documentary crew even demonstrated how easy it was to buy slaves, posing as buyers, they went to the marketplace and were able to purchase two boys for the total of forty British pounds (approximately $40) within thirty minutes. Economics, low cacao market price, was credited as being the main reason why these farmers resorted to using slavery.  With such low cacao market prices, farmers cannot afford to pay employee wages and still make a profit, and they have no other income options. In contrast, in a free and mature economy, if a business is not profitable it goes out of business, and one can start a new business or find a new job, this is not the case for the West African cacao farmers.

Since the West African child labor scandals, there has an increased awareness and legislation attempts to eradicate forced and most hazardous child labor. Child labor in general is so embedded into the West African culture, not all children who work on farms are slaves or working with hazards. Most children work as part of the family on their family farms. It was deemed impossible and impractical to create a law that would abolish all form of child labor, however a voluntary agreement, The Harking-Engel Protocol, was signed among the Ivory Coast and the International Chocolate and Cocoa Industry in accordance with the International Labor Organization to end the worst forms of child labor in 2001 (Ryan 44, 47). Because of extreme poverty and lack of options, there are children who are better off working for they will at least have access to some food. Today, consumers are more aware, corporations have put efforts in demonstrating social responsibility in self-certifications, and nonprofit/advocacy organizations, have emerged and increased advocacy. There is still much poverty among cacao farmers, and many children  are still working on farms and some are still suspected of being forced to work against their will.  The child labor problems still exist today.  We, the world, hoped for that the state of child labor in West Africa would be better, however it could be worse.

It is natural that corporations would seek to do business with a poorer and less mature economies so to benefit from cheaper labor costs, but there should be limits when business practices violate human rights and the ability for workers to make a livable wage. It is evident that cacao farmers need more money so can they afford to hire farm workers to help cultivate their labor intensive cacao farms. In the least, the cacao market price needs to go up. It may mean that consumers would have to pay a little more for their chocolate treats. Would you be willing to pay a little more for your candy bar if it would end child and forced labor?

I realize that blindly throwing more money at the problem will not necessarily fix it if local corrupt governments and other stakeholders are still there to scheme away the extra money intended for the cacao farmers. This is a complex issue which requires multi-approach solution. We, the consumers, the governments, NGOs, the corporations, the media (or lack of media), the farmers, are all part of the problem, and we could also all be part of the solution. West African farmers and their children need special consideration for they are the most powerless demographic group in the chocolate food chain. The ones with the most power in the chocolate food chain by default have the most ability, and therefore the greater responsibility, to effect change. Wealthy companies and consumers are in the best position to invest and apply influence in the solution. We, the consumers, should expect that our chocolate companies to conduct business in an ethical and social responsible manner or make better consumer choices if they do not.

Here, in the first world, we would not accept the practice of child labor or slavery in our backyard, and we should not accept it elsewhere and in the products that we use and the foods we eat.  The West African modern-day slave issue is especially heartbreaking for it involves children in producing sweets that we all so enjoy so much. If we all knew that children were being kidnapped and forced to cultivate cacao, we would all enjoy the taste of our chocolate a little less. As consumers, we need to be more conscious about what we eat and learn as much as possible so we can make better consumer choices, maybe write a customer complaint to your chocolate provider or your congressman to influence change in law.  There is no better tasting chocolate than the one that is free from social guilt. In the end, we should all have the right to enjoy good and good-tasting chocolate.

Works Cited

Berlan, Amanda. “Social Sustainability in Agriculture: An Anthropological Perspective on Child Labour in Cocoa Production in Ghana. The Journal of Development Studies, vol. 49, no. 8, 2013, pp. 1088-1100. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00220388.2013.78004.

Cocoa Barometer 2015 report, USA Ed. Cocoabarometer.org. http://www.cocoabarometer.org/International_files/Cocoa%20Barometer%202015%20USA.pdf

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

Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. The New Press, 2008.

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

Ryan, Orla. Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa. Zed Books, 2011.

Satioquia-Tan, Janine. Americans East How Much Chocolate? CNBC.com, 23 Jul. 2015, 7:41 PM ET.  http://www.cnbc.com/2015/07/23/americans-eat-how-much-chocolate.html

Stuckey, Barb. Taste What You Are Missing: The  Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good. Free Press, 2012.

Slavery: A Global Investigation. Produced and directed by Brian Woods and Kate Blanchet.  A True Vision Production in Association with HBO, 2000. TopDocumentaryFilms, topdocumentaryfilms.com/slavery-a-global-investigation.

Wessel, Marius, and Foluke Quist-Wessel. Cocoa Production in West Africa, a Review and Analysis of Recent Developments. NJAS – Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences., vol. 74-74, pp. 1-7, 12-2015. doi.org/10.1016/j.njas.2015.09.001.

World Cocoa Foundation, http://www.worldcocoafoundation.org/category/program-region/africa.

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.