Tag Archives: beverage

Chocolate, Social Class, and Religion in Enlightenment Europe

Tea, Coffee, and Chocolate drinking in Eighteenth Century Europe

Across the countries of Enlightenment era Europe, elites distinguished themselves from other social classes through their exclusive social and consumption practices—musical evenings with private orchestras, fluency in multiple languages, and international travel as exemplified in the Grand Tour of the Continent’s most fascinating historical sites (Jacob, 2016). These class-defining practices notably included the drinking of chocolate as a beverage. Taken this way, chocolate “had been an elite drink among the copper-skinned, befeathered Mesoamericans”—i.e. the Olmecs and Mayans who first invented the idea of processing cacao beans into a chocolate drink—and it “stayed that way among the white-skinned, perfumed, bewigged, overdressed royalty and nobility of Europe” (Coe and Coe, 2019).

The relationship between chocolate consumption and the social position, ideology and religion of particular individuals in the Enlightenment period is not a simple one, however. While chocolate was clearly an elite drink that was also associated with the Catholic church, a more detailed investigation of consumption patterns and preferences among Enlightenment individuals shows that we cannot simply read off a person’s social position, religious outlook or ideological commitments from their beverage consumption preferences—nor vice versa. To try to do so would lead to serious error, and to understand the situations and choices of particular individuals it is necessary to look at the meanings they attached to various beverages, and the compromises they may have made in regard to their values, in a more nuanced way.

The Enlightenment period is considered to have been approximately coextensive with the 18th century in Europe (Robertson, 2015). Why did chocolate remain associated with the social elite in general over such a long period of time, in countries from Spain and Italy to France and England? Part of the answer is illuminated when we examine the slow progress made during the 18th century toward making chocolate more affordable through mechanical manufacture. Although Europeans had first become familiar with imbibing chocolate during the Renaissance, as late as 1772 the famous Encycopédie compiled by Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert depicted contemporary methods of chocolate manufacture that had barely advanced from those of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica (Coe and Coe, 2019).

In fact, some modest advances in mechanizing chocolate manufacture did occur during the Enlightenment period, notably in Great Britain’s American colonies, as well as in France. In 1765, a Massachusetts chocolate-making firm began used water power to grind cocoa beans, and in 1776 a hydraulic machine that could reduce chocolate to paste was invented in France (Morton and Morton, 1986). But it was not until the second quarter of the 19th century, with the invention of a new process of cacao refinement in Holland, that things really began to change (Coe and Coe, 2019).

This stagnation in technological progress helped to keep chocolate expensive during the Enlightenment era—and consequently out of reach middle class consumers, who had little choice but to choose cheaper drinks—notably coffee—instead. In the coffee-houses of 18th century Venice, for example, a cup of chocolate cost three times the price of a cup of coffee (Coe and Coe, 2019). In consequence, coffee remained by far the more popular drink in the Serene Republic.

Caffè Florian in Venice survives from the Eighteenth Century

This consumption pattern was not repeated across other Italian cities, however. In Rome and Naples chocolate remained the drink of choice. The foundation for Venice’s distinctive preference for coffee would appear to lie in the city’s historical success as a seafaring, trading republic that had first made its fortune as the gateway to Europe at the western terminus of the Silk Route (Norwich, 2012). The commercial origins of Venice’s wealth resulted in a civic culture dominated by its mercantile class, a social reality we see reflected in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. By contrast, in other Italian cities, most notably in the papal city of Rome and at the Vatican itself, chocolate was consumed heavily. The situation was similar in Naples, which was ruled by the Spanish branch of the royal Bourbon dynasty. The dominance of these latter cities by royal and aristocratic elites has been implicated by their citizens’ prevailing preference for chocolate over coffee, in contrast to the coffee-oriented beverage culture of Venice (Coe and Coe, 2019).

An image of Voltaire (with raised arm), Condorcet (seated at the right) and other philosophes discussing at the Café Procope in Paris

These differing patterns in chocolate consumption helped to justify the outlook of anti-clerical radicals of the era, who associated chocolate drinking with the oppressive Catholic Church (Coe and Coe, 2019). This does not mean, however, that all such radicals eschewed chocolate drinking. The case of Voltaire, perhaps the greatest anti-clerical thinker of the age, is instructive in this regard. While we might expect Voltaire to have been very much a coffee-drinker on the basis of his social position and ideological orientation, there is considerable evidence for his liking of chocolate as well as coffee. It is recorded, for example, that when Prussia’s young music- and art-loving king Frederick the Great invited the old philosophe to stay with him in 1740, much chocolate was imbibed by both (Sorel, 1998). Moreover, Voltaire maintained a liking for chocolate, as well as coffee, to the end of his life. The Marquis de Condorcet, youngest of the great philosophes, visited the elderly Voltaire at his estate at Ferney near Geneva in 1770. Condorcet later recorded that “a dozen cups of coffee mixed with chocolate” constituted “the only nourishment which M. de Voltaire took from five in the morning till three in the afternoon” (Condorcet, 2020). Even after the French Revolution, Voltaire appears to have “remained sufficiently of the ancien régime to prefer his morning chocolate … over all other hot drinks” (Coe and Coe, 2019). This was despite the cacao for the chocolate having being produced by slave labor.

Nor was chocolate automatically the preferred choice of the religiously inclined. Many of the musical compositions of Johan Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) that ostensibly appear entirely secular arguably bear the distinctive imprint of his Lutheran piety (Gaines, 2005). Moreover, although Bach’s life extended well into the Enlightenment era, his religious commitments appear to have made him resist the period’s secularized, religion-questioning avant garde culture. This caused tensions during his visit with Frederick the Great in 1747, when the old composer’s religious temperament led him to clash fiercely with the young king’s advanced Enlightenment outlook (Gaines, 2005). For Bach, chocolate may have been associated less with the Catholic church than with elite social, artistic and intellectual preferences that he would have regarded as questionable, to say the least. This is speculative and asks for further investigation. But perhaps differences in Bach’s and Frederick’s preferred beverages accentuated, or at least reflected, their intellectual and religious differences. At all events, while Bach wrote a cantata in praise of coffee, he wrote nothing about chocolate (Coe and Coe, 2019).

Works cited:

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2019

Condorcet, Nicholas. Life of Voltaire. Web. 6 March 2020


Gaines, James R. Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment. Harper Perennial 2006

Jacob, Margaret. The Enlightenment: A Brief History with Documents. Bedford/St. Martins 2016

Julius, John. A History of Venice. Viking 2013

Morton, Marcia, and Frederic Morton. Chocolate: An Illustrated History. Outlet 1988

Robertson, John. The Enlightenment: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press 2015

Sorel, Nancy. First Encounters: A Book of Memorable Meetings. Random House 1998

From Kitchen to Culture

A sociohistorical analysis of ancient Mayan chocolate recipes

Food and recipes are a glimpse into the intimate cultural customs and beliefs of a civilization. Chocolate, the ever-popular sweet treat, beverage, and flavor, has a culinary history that is as rich and complex as the food itself. The ancient Maya and their Olmec ancestors introduced drinking chocolate to Mesoamerica, and later to the entire Old World (Coe Kindle loc. 914). Historians have deduced recipes of these original beverages, which enhanced cacao with indigenous flavorings, additives, and techniques. These ingredients, methods of preparation, and contexts of consumption reflect not only Mayan culinary tastes, but also the cultural and social customs and beliefs of the time. Through the analysis of two particular recipes from the Lacandón Maya, this work will examine the connections between the culinary, cultural, and historical aspects of cacao in Mesoamerica.

Geographic region of Lacandón civilization in Chiapas and Petén

The Lacandón Maya lived in the cacao-cultivating regions of Chiapas, Mexico and Petén, Guatemala. The Lacandón were not direct descendants of the Classic Maya; but rather, developed from inter-indigenous interactions between Classic Maya and other cultures (Cecil 261). Despite their dwindling numbers, the Lacandón have maintained many traditions, particularly culinary practices, from their original Classic Mayan roots. This is especially significant considering the lack of written documentation of Classic Maya chocolate recipes. Any references to cacao preparation were typically illustrations and scenes of cacao consumption or social use. Despite their artistic value, these hieroglyphs lacked culinary detail, as they translated simply to “cacao,” only indicating the purpose of the vessel (Coe Kindle loc. 608). The subsequent work of anthropologists and historians have uncovered two Lacandón recipes for chocolate beverages, demonstrating the various uses, additives, and social contexts of chocolate.

Classic Mayan glyph for “cacao”
Cacao vessel, as indicated by the hieroglyphs around the rim

Secular cacao recipes and uses

One of the most significant aspects of chocolate in Maya culture was its versatility and ubiquity in a variety of different social contexts. Cacao-based beverages were enjoyed regularly as an everyday drink, in secular settings or for practical purposes. The Maya termed this chacau haa, meaning “hot water” or “hot chocolate.” Another type of common beverage was saca, which evolved from the traditional sak ha drink made of corn gruel (Coe Kindle loc. 875). Saca incorporated cacao with the traditional cooked maize and water, providing body and substance to the otherwise watery chocolate drink. Combined with cacao’s caffeine, this chocolate maize drink served as an excellent source of fuel and calories. Mayan warriors were also depicted with cacao pods, referencing the invigorating, sustaining properties of such cacao beverages (Martin slide 52).

The first Lacandón recipe presented by Sophie and Michael Coe was claimed to be for “ordinary consumption” (Kindle loc. 885). The basic ingredients and techniques of this secular recipe were the foundation from which more culinarily complex and socially meaningful recipes were developed. The main components were cacao beans, maize, and suqir. The preparation involved first grinding the cacao beans with a metate, mixing the grounds with water to form a paste, straining the mixture, and finally adding more water while heating and beating to produce foam (Coe Kindle loc. 896). The addition of maize mirrors the basic saca recipe, using corn to increase the beverage’s value as caloric fuel. Despite the practical aspects of chocolate consumption, the Maya most highly valued the delicious taste and sensation of the foam. This was created with the addition of suqir, a vine that acted as a foaming agent, and the technique of beating the hot chocolate (Cook 257). This preparation would have taken a significant amount of time and effort, especially in comparison to the modern-day electric tools developed for the same purpose of foaming beverages. Thus, it is evident that the Maya valued even their ordinary chocolate drinking enough to put forth the effort in its foaming and preparation.

72% Ecuador Hot Chocolate - Monsieur Truffe AUD5
The prized foam atop hot chocolate beverages

Sacred cacao recipes and rituals

Despite its widespread consumption among the Maya and their descendants, cacao was also a culturally sacred, ritualistic comestible. The second Lacandón recipe was intended for sacred purposes, as seen in the additives and special techniques that carried religious significance. The ritual sponsor’s wife prepared the drink “in a special cooking hut next to the ‘god house’ where the clay effigy ‘god pots’ are kept” (Coe Kindle loc. 896). These god pots were essential in Lacandón spiritual practices. They were called ol, translating to “center” or “heart of,” presumably because they served as otherworldly portals (Dreiss 57). This corresponds to the Mayan belief that the cacao tree was the center of the universe and source of all life, connecting the Sky, Earth, and Underworld (Martin slide 44). These god pots were sculpted with the likenesses of cacao gods and were used as vessels to transmit the Lacandón spiritual offerings.

Vessels for cocoa / Съдове за какао
Cacao vessels and god pots

Before the ceremonial offering and “feeding” of the cacao to the god pots, there were several other critical components distinguishing the sacred cacao from the secular. Aak’, a soft grass, was added to enhance the frothing process while beating the liquid. Additionally, to ensure that the beverage had sufficient foam to please the gods, the women preparers would simultaneously sing a special frothing song (Dreiss 58). The frothed cacao would then be poured into the god pots, which contained either sak ha, the aforementioned corn gruel, or balché, another ceremonial drink. In a ritualistic context, the Maya offered sak ha to the gods of various crops, to protect them from plagues and ensure a substantial harvest. Balché was made from water fermented with the bark of the balché tree, which was supposed to impart sanctity and protection against evil, as well as provide hallucinogenic effects to the drinkers (Cano 4). The addition of these two beverages for ritual offerings reflects the Classic Maya belief in cacao’s role in fertility. As another example, the Madrid Codex depicts the Mayan moon goddess and rain god exchanging cacao to maintain the earth’s fertility (Martin slide 38). This combination of sacred beverages highlights the importance of cacao in Maya rituals and the inherent assumption that gods too, love chocolate.

The juxtaposition of the secular and sacred Maya chocolate recipes reveals the stark differences in cacao consumption based on social context. The addition of corn as maize may be interpreted as a caloric enhancement when cacao was consumed as fuel. In a sacred preparation, this maize could also serve as a godly offering to protect the cacao crops. The consistent practice of beating the liquid and adding frothing agents was also a vital technique to please both human imbibers and gods. These recipes demonstrate the versatility of cacao and its ability to embody different cultural meanings through its preparation, method of serving or consuming, and its spiritual synergy with additional ingredients. Cacao was a delicious foundation that could be adapted to fulfill both humans’ gastronomic and spiritual appetites, contributing to its persistent popularity throughout history.

Works Cited: Scholarly Sources

  1. Cano, Mirtha. Sacred Food and Drinks. FLAAR Network, 2008.
  2. Cecil, Leslie G., and Timothy W. Pugh. Maya Worldviews at Conquest. University Press of Colorado, 2009.
  3. Coe, Sophie D and Michael D., Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson. Kindle Edition.
  4. Cook, Suzanne. The Forest of the Lacandon Maya: An Ethnobotanical Guide. Springer US, 2016.
  5. Dreiss, Meredith L., and Greenhill, Sharon. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. University of Arizona Press, 2008.
  6. Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” AAAS 119X, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University. 6 Feb. 2019.

Works Cited: Multimedia Sources

  1. Alpha. 72% Ecuador Hot Chocolate – Monsieur Truffe AUD5. 5 Mar 2011. Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/9prH1J. Accessed 10 Mar 2019.
  2. Burchell, Simon. Maya civilization location map. Wikimedia Commons, 26 May 2015, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maya_civilization_location_map_-_geography.svg. Accessed 10 Mar 2019.
  3. Maya. Vessel with Battle Scene. 600. John L. Severance Fund, Cleveland Museum of Art. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Clevelandart_2012.32.jpg. Accessed 10 Mar 2019.
  4. Mitko_denev. Vessels for cocoa. 6 Jan 2008. Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/4nzkzY. Accessed 10 Mar 2019.
  5. Soparamens. Cacao-glyph. Wikimedia Commons, 29 Mar 2017, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cacao-glyph_vectorized.png. Accessed 10 Mar 2019.

Drinking Culture

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

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


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

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


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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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