A life without chocolate seems impossible to imagine. Yet, chocolate has only been a part of human history since at least 1500 BC after the domestication of cacao by the Olmec empire. Even then, chocolate would not be heavily distributed until its introduction to the old world during the early sixteenth century. Since it’s beginning, chocolate had a dual identity as a transactional entity (cacao beans) as well as a consumable good in the form of a beverage in many mesoamerican civilizations. However, the shift of chocolate into the sugary concoction we know today can be attributed to the interaction of Spain with the Aztecs during the Spanish conquest.
Importance of Cacao in the Aztec Empire
The main ingredient of chocolate is cacao beans. Cacao occupied a special significance in the Aztec empire being attributed a sense of godly aura as it is often referred to as “food from the gods”. The Aztecs believed that cacao seeds were gifts from the god of wisdom, Quetzalcoatl, who brought the seeds to cultivate in his garden on Earth thus introducing this delicacy to humans (Garcia 10). This mystical attribution to cacao increases the overall value of this crop and helps understand its establishment as a suitable form of currency. In fact, in many mesoamerican civilizations such as the Maya and Aztec, there is evidence that cacao seeds were used as currency. Unlike the Maya, in which chocolate was consumed by both elite and the general population, the Aztec empire only allowed the emperor, elites and warriors to consume cacao brews (Squicciarini 13). The non-elite population was discouraged from consuming cacao solidifying chocolate symbolism as an indication of power and wealth. Aztec warriors were paid with cocoa beans and it was part of their regular military rations indicating the importance of cacao in this society (Squicciarini 13). The mystical aura and exclusivity of cacao increased the acceptance of cacao as a form of currency since it was not readily available to the public.
In addition, the rarity of cacao contributed to its attribution as a valuable commodity. In the fourteenth century, the Aztecs were the dominating empire in the region. However, the Aztecs were not able to grow cacao themselves. Tenochtitlan, central Mexico, did not have the appropriate climate conditions for cacao cultivation due to its location if the highlands of the region (Presilla 17). Cacao is a very difficult crop to cultivate not only because it is labor intensive, but because it requires specific tropical climate conditions. As a result, The Aztecs had to find another way to obtain cacao beans.
As a result of the inability to grow cacao themselves, the Aztecs required all areas under the empire that grew cacao to pay the Aztec empire cacao beans as tribute or taxes (Coe & Coe 99). This exchange between the empire and its colonies cemented cacao as a currency. Colonial documents show the exchange rates established and accepted by the empire. Cacao beans were used to make any kind of purchase raging from clothes, food, and even services. For example, a turkey hen costs 100 cacao beans while a turkey egg costs 3 cacao beans (Coe & Coe 99). These records show that cacao had infiltrated every transaction in daily life. Cacao beans as currency was accepted and honored throughout the empire. By the Spanish arrival, cacao was the main medium of transaction in the empire.
Spanish conquistadors quickly realized the importance of cacao beans in the Aztec empire and became interested in cacao for its economic importance rather than for its flavor (Presilla 18). The Spanish did not enjoy the bitter taste of the chocolate beverage. The importance of cacao is exemplified by Ferdinand Columbus (c. 1502):
“For their provisions they had such roots and grains as are eaten in Hispaniola [these would have been maize and manioc], and a sort of wine made out of maize which resembled English beer; and many of those almonds which in New Spain [Mexico] are used for money. They seemed to hold these almonds at a great price; for when they were brought on board ship together with their goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen.”
(Coe & Coe 109)
The “almonds” refer to cacao beans. The realization of its value came from the great care the Aztecs showed towards the preservation of this crop indicated by “they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen”. As the conquest advanced, the Spanish opted to continue the use of cacao beans as currency in conquered regions and as basis of chocolate beverage as a way to manage the empire more efficiently (Squicciarini 14). To establish their power, the Spanish assumed control of both the production and trade of cacao beans by setting up cacao plantations and taxing both its production and trade (Squicciarini 14). If cacao did not hold an importance place in mesoamerican civilizations, chocolate may have been lost during the Spanish conquest. The currency used could have easily been gold as the Spanish were accustomed to, but the significance of cacao allowed the Spanish to take control of mesoamerica by monopolizing the production of cacao.
Cacao and chocolate were introduced to Spain during the sixteenth century as a consumable good. The cocoa concoctions were first advertised as medicine, but later became liked for its taste and stimulation (Squicciarini 15). Its pairing with sugar (already available in Europe) increased its appetitiveness to the European population. This sweetened drink became a common beverage among Spanish nobility during early seventeenth century. Even through its changing preparation, chocolate retained its symbolism as an indication of power, wealth and luxury in Spain. The shift from elite to commoners occurred after the invention of the steam engine which allowed mass production during the late seventeenth century (Squicciarini 20). As new machines became available allowing for different types of chocolate to emerge, the price of chocolate dropped in the 1890 and 1900s increasing accessibility to the general population(Squicciarini 20). The boom of chocolate in Spain and the rest of Europe cemented chocolate as a consumable commodity erasing the identity as a currency that was attributed to chocolate for many centuries.
Without chocolate’s dual role as both a beverage and currency in the Aztec empire, it’s possible that chocolate as we know it today may have never existed. If cacao beans were not used as a currency, the Spanish conquistadors would have not been enticed to incorporate cacao and chocolate into their civilization thus dooming chocolate to be buried in history.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate, Third Edition. New York: Thames & Hudson, Ltd, 2013.
Garcia, Jesus. “Cacao and Marker-Assisted Selection.(Cacao Breeding Begins to Combat Diseases).” Agricultural Research, vol. 49, no. 8, 2001, p. 10.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised. A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009.
Squicciarini, M., and Johan F. M. Swinnen. The Economics of Chocolate. First ed., Oxford University Press, 2016.
Cacao production map obtained from Carla D. Martin, “Lecture 2: Mesoamerica and the ‘food of the gods’” February 5, 2020.
Imagine a world that uses chocolate as currency. It is safe to say that this world would quickly run into some economic and sanitation problems. Interestingly, chocolate happens to be made of a former, rather successful method of currency, Cacao seeds. Today, cacao seeds are most often cultivated and consumed as a comestible, namely chocolate, which is a preparation of roasted and smashed Cacao seeds. Chocolate has become an extremely popular delicacy of the modern world; however, for the ancient Maya and Aztecs, cacao was rarely consumed as an edible treat because it had more socially pertinent uses. In these two ancient civilizations, cacao production was perhaps the greatest indicator of wealth, which ultimately contributed heavily to the downfall of one of them.
For thousands of years in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, Cacao was one of the most treasured and versatile goods. In fact, the ancient Maya, one of the oldest recognized civilizations in the Americas, relied so heavily on the production of Cacao vessels that some historians believe the loss of the valued good led to the downfall of the powerful civilization (Learn 1). Cacao seeds were an effective item choice for currency because they are light, portable, durable, and usually are homogeneous in size and color. In fact, one of the first European accounts of cacao praised the usefulness and practicality of utilizing the good as currency (Martin-Sampeck 4).
Many historians falsely credit the Spaniards with the development of cacao as currency because the ancient civilizations of pre-Columbian mesoamerica implemented cacao seeds as coins in their monetary system not long before contact with Spain. We know this is not true because before the first European accounts of cacao as a comestible, there were records of the cacao as money and as an intrical part of the Mesoamerican monetary system (Martin-Sampeck 4). In another source called “Cacao Money”, Karen Sampeck writes that people objects that work well as money are “durable”, “distinctive”, and are a “convenient size” (Sampeck 1). Cacao seeds fit all of these said conditions, which led some people, like Peter Martyr to declare cacao as a superior form of money to any European coinage. This was a bold claim by Martyr because it contradicts the Eurocentric and often racist view held by many at that time that the Europeans were the most advanced, superior group of people.
Cacao became officially recognized by Europe as a form of currency in 1555, when one spanish real was equated to 140 cacao beans (Maré 1). The Aztecs, who viewed cacao as a gift from their god of wisdom, Quetzalcoatl, never adopted cacao into their monetary system, but cacao was almost comparable to gold in the fact that the accumulation of cacao meant guaranteed wealth and prosperity (Sampeck 1). Although cacao production was a vital part of both the ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations, the Aztecs had control over the most prolific cacao growing zones in Mesoamerica (Sampeck 6). Cacao is an exacting plant that needs a perfect combination of shade, rainfall and soil to grow properly, so it is believed that the Maya eventually began to exhaust their limited cacao supply.
As you can see in the map above, the cacao heartlands in the Maya territory were few and relatively small in size. A few bad months of weather had the capability of halting cacao production for the entire civilization, which would cause an economic collapse. The Ancient Maya civilization likely did collapse because of their economic overemphasis on cacao, but the connection between cacao and wealth continues even today. This is because Europeans were enamored by the monetary value of cacao before they fell in love with the taste. After the fall of the Maya civilization, cacao was being exported to every major European nation. Cacao made people rich in ancient times because it was money itself, but cacao’s versatility is continuing to generate wealth in today’s society in the form of cocoa butter products, cocoa powder, cacao bean fertilizer, and of course, chocolate (Singh-Cook 2).
Cacao may not have been the best choice as a form of currency, but there is no doubt that the ancient construct of cacao as an economic necessity in Mesoamerica has a lasting influence today. For example, Belgium relies heavily on their chocolate production to generate wealth for their country through tourism and consumption. Countries like Belgium would not be able to produce cacao products on such a large scale without the emphasis and esteemed value that was placed upon cacao as money by the pre-Columbian Mesoamericans.
In Ancient Mesoamerica, money really did grow on trees. Although people mostly bartered goods, the use of cacao stood out from the others. While cacao beans were consumable commodities, the ways ancient peoples used them exhibited the attributes of the use of currency. The civilizations at the time, such as the Mayans and Aztecs, valued cacao as money. Records remain of societies assigning amounts of cacao beans that could be used to purchase specific items. For example, using 200 cacao beans could secure someone a male turkey.
Ancient Mayans and Chocolate
The prominence of literature and research of the Aztec use of cacao often overshadows the central place the beans had in Mayan society. Yet the Maya had used cacao as a foundational item in their lives as well. The Maya used the beans in many important ceremonial rituals as it was believed cacao was a gift from the gods. Per this reverence, the Maya participated in sacred ceremonies that celebrated cacao. Archaeologists believe that ancient peoples used these ceremonies to open the mind to the spirit world. Cacao beans and chocolate beverage preparations also played an important role in special occasions throughout a person’s life. Anthropological research has shown that cacao was used as a form of dowry in wedding ceremonies. Cacao was also used to ceremonially introduce a child to the world shortly after birth. The Mayan would anoint the heads of babies with a chocolate mixture made up of cacao, flowers, and water. The Mayans were also convinced of the healing power of cacao and the drinks prepared with them and often used them for medicinal purposes. Finally, as cacao played an essential role throughout people’s lives, it was necessary for the end of their lives as well. Cacao beans played crucial roles in burial rights for the Mayan people. Cacao mixtures were often buried with people to give them a boost of energy to aid them on the journey to the afterlife.
From this massive reverence and dependence on cacao, a strong cacao trade emerged. The consistent use of cacao as a source of inherent value contributed to the beans becoming a secure form of currency for the people. A system in which one could pay fixed rates for goods with cacao beans emerged. Additionally, varying scenes on paintings and ceramics from the time show commodities delivered to Maya leaders as a tribute. Often shown in these depictions are woven bags labeled with the number of cacao beans they contain, thus exhibiting that the Mayans may have used cacao as a way to pay their taxes.
Aztecs and their Cacao Use
Aztecs highly valued cacao and used it as a form of currency as well. They used the beans in similar manners compared to the Mayans. They utilized the beans mainly for ceremonial measures and relevant circumstances mentioned above, such as in weddings and death rights. For example, the Aztecs revered the cacao as a gift from their god of wisdom, Quetzalcoatl. They viewed the cacao tree as the joining of the earth to heaven.
Yet beans were much harder to obtain as the ideal climate for growing cacao did not overlap with the regions of the Aztec empire. Therefore, the consumption of the beans was different compared to the Mayans. In Mayan culture, the use of cacao was considered to be for everyone, not just for the Maya elite. Commoners were to indulge in this gift from the gods as well.
Meanwhile, in the Aztec empire, the chocolate beverages were only to be consumed by elite royals, warriors, noblemen, and merchants. The primary source of beans for the Aztecs was through importation. The famed cacao importers in the Aztec empire were the pochteca, who had to travel great distances to acquire cacao. They connected the buyers of cacao, which was mostly made up of Aztec nobility, with the sellers in other regions. In addition to its religious and inherent value, the pochteca added value to the cacao beans as an exchangeable good.
Cacao beans were so valuable that people began to produce counterfeit seeds to pass as the currency. Sometimes they would hollow out the interior of the beans and re-filled them with substitutes such as rocks or sand. In an account by Bernardino de Sahagun, the counterfeiters would use items such as “amaranth seed dough, wax, (and) avocado pits” to falsify cacao beans. They would also make “fresh cacao beans whitish” to give them a dried look by “stirring them into the ashes”. The value perceived in cacao is evident through these counterfeit activities, as merchants risked their livelihoods and lives to manufacture additional beans.
Chocolate is an exceptionally human product. When one observes a cacao pod next to a bar of chocolate, it turns strikingly clear that the contents of a cacao pod must have undergone significant transformations before taking the shape and taste of a chocolate bar. And all of these transformations are inherently at the mercy of human decisions. As a matter of fact,“during nine tenths of its long history, chocolate was drunk, not eaten,” (Coe and Coe, 12). But, humans eventually metamorphosed chocolate back into a solid. To gain any insight on the present state of the chocolate industry, it is therefore essential to focus on the engagement between humans and chocolate. Hence, interviewing a Brazilian woman was an ideal, taken opportunity to better understand a 21st-century individual’s relationship with chocolate, the role chocolate plays on the individual’s life, and how chocolate’s significance may or may not have changed over time. Among other important themes, the interview leads to a two-faced thesis thatthe qualitative aspects of chocolate and its production are more dependent than ever on the desires of the consumers (the demand side of the market), and that cultural preferences and tastes for chocolate have changed.
Taking on the pseudonym “Marcela,” the subject of this interview has consumed chocolate all her life. As a child, Marcela had a preference for sweet, chocolaty treats. Today, Marcela consumes only dark chocolate, usually the 70% Lindt chocolate bar. Transitioning from sweet, cheaper chocolates to darker, more expensive chocolates, Marcela said she developed a more refined taste as she got older. But, while her tastes for chocolate changed over time, she thinks she remained hooked to chocolate mostly because of the addictive caffeine and sugar it contains. Discussing the contents of chocolates, Marcela actually was aware of the presence of flavonoids, which she thought to be “good for the heart.” Cacao contains hundreds of compounds, one of which is the antioxidant flavonoid compound, quercetin, “known to have not only antioxidant but also anti-inflammatory activity,” (Coe and Coe, 31). Since the Olmec civilization, cacao has indeed been associated with medical benefits, but also it has served as a sacred symbol, supposed aphrodisiac, source of energy and strength, unit of currency, and congregational drink. Today, though not all the potential benefits from the complex chemical structure of cacao are understood, at least dark chocolate can be recommended as a healthier alternative to sweeter, milky chocolates. Marcela revealed that the primary reason why she stopped eating sweet, milk-containing chocolate was because she took a conscious decision to regulate her sugar and fat intake.
Interestingly, Marcela drew a parallel between her consumption of chocolate and coffee: Both contain caffeine, and she does not go a day without either of them. Moreover, one should add that not only do chocolate and coffee contain caffeine in common, but they also each contain one more alkaloid (methylxanthine), theobromine and trigonelline, respectively. Marcela came to the conclusion that a piece of dark chocolate and a cup of coffee are like substitute goods for her: hence, in a kind of tradeoff between chocolate and coffee, she notices that she consumes more of one when she reduces the consumption of the other, and vice-versa. This characteristic of the demand side could have significant implications for the supply side of the markets of chocolate and coffee.
If coffee and dark chocolate were indeed substitute goods, and consumers behaved like Marcela, in theory the cross-price elasticity of demand should always be positive (Hayes). Since chocolate’s caffeine is addictive, people tend to be less sensitive to changes in its price. But, if coffee is a kind of substitute for chocolate, the demand for chocolate could perhaps be less inelastic than previously thought. So, ceteris paribus, if for instance dark chocolate’s price were to increase, some of the consumers could consume more coffee instead, and the relative strength of this substitution could impact the profitability and survival of the chocolate business. Unfortunately, cacao trees are pickier than humans when it comes to survival in the environment they live in, and cacao trees are very susceptible to diseases, too.
With climate change, and the potential variation of temperatures and humidity away from the desirable conditions for cacao to prosper, cacao producers may gradually have to transition away from cacao and into other crop plantations. Interestingly, some of this transition away from cacao in some regions may be partially offset by flexible businesses like Mayorga Organics. One of their food scientists, Melanie, mentioned in a lecture to college students in Massachusetts that Mayorga Organics is transitioning from coffee production to cacao production due to global warming. Meanwhile, large chocolate companies are investing in genetic modification as an alternative: In September 2018, “the 35 billion dollar corporation [Mars] pledged $1 billion as part of a plan to reduce the company’s carbon footprint by 60 percent or more by 2050,” (Vandette, Kate). Plus, Mars and UC Berkeley are collaborating in the exploration of gene editing by using CRISPR technology, as supported by an account in the World Economic Forum, (Brodwin, Erin).
Consumers today are surprisingly more educated about supply chain issues than they used to be. But how much do consumers know about the factors of production involved in the chocolate business, and how much do they care? During a significant period in history, both crops of cacao and coffee were dependent on human enslavement as a source of labor. Having visited cacao farms in Brazil before, Marcela knew that today the initial stages in the production process are still very manual, with no machinery; in big chocolate businesses the next parts are more industrialized. She remembered the strong smell she scented when walking in the shade of seemingly randomly-sorted cacao trees, and the humid tropical weather which makes her skin sticky. Today, in the typical production process of chocolate from bean to bar, there are several steps and technological components involved: machetes are generally used in the hand-labor-intensive harvesting of cacao pods within 20 degrees from north and 20 degrees south of the equator; extracted beans are fermented, dried, sorted and bagged, roasted, potentially Alkali-processed, winnowed, ground; pressing (in a hydraulic press) and conching happen last (Coe and Coe, 19). A chocolate bar may be complemented with additives such as milk, sugar, salt, pepper, other spices, nuts, or fruits, too.
Though Marcela might know a bit more than the average person about the process of chocolate, on an ordinary day she does not interrupt her chocolate eating to think of all the work which happens behind the scenes, before she purchases the packaged, final product at a supermarket. Even while Marcela was well-aware of the sad demise of cacao farms in Brazil affected by the witches’ broom disease, she was not aware that there are still concerns regarding illegal kinds of child labor found today in cacao farms, including some in Brazil (for example, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8H6088tpE8c and https://vimeo.com/332509945). Fortunately, Brazil has several programs for whistleblowing on child labor, and some are focused on publishing the names of those who need to be held accountable for. There are also several certifications through which companies may commit to avoid child labor. But, when it comes to chocolate production, it is a true endeavor to detect and regulate child labor in rural settings with weak infrastructure and limited access to technology, like Medicilândia in Pará, Brazil. Yet again, this is the time in history where consumers have perhaps the biggest say on supply than ever.
Millennials account for approximately one fourth of the world population, and play an increasingly significant role in the establishment of consumer trends. As a matter of fact, in the U.S., Millennials amount to the largest consumer group ever in the history of the country (Das Moumita, 76). Millennials are exerting their power through demands for more socially and environmentally sustainable processes (The Nielsen Company). Hence, moving forward, they are expected to continue having an important role in impacting the supply chain processes for chocolate production all around the world.
The targeting of the Millennial audience is already present in a very recent innovation – a “fourth” kind of chocolate. In her interview, Marcela mentioned that during Easter she read about a newly-created “Ruby Chocolate” in a section of the newspapers on palate. It is important to note that Easter is a very important in Brazil not just because the holiday has a large following population, but also because the nation as a whole adopted the custom of creating and consuming chocolate eggs during Easter. Regardless of the religious affiliations they may associate themselves with or without, Brazilians consume large quantities of chocolate during Easter. So, when Marcela set out to buy some Easter eggs, she decided to try Callebaut’s new chocolate:
“After dark, milk, and white chocolate, the ruby chocolate is the most incredible discovery of the last 80 years! // It is a new experience of flavor and color, obtained from ruby cacao almonds. With pink coloration and fruity, slightly acidic flavor, the ruby has unique characteristics which come from ingredients naturally present in cacao, without artificial coloring or flavoring. // The almonds of ruby cacao are found in diverse producing regions in the world, like Ecuador, Ivory Coast and even Brazil. // The authentic Belgian ruby chocolate of Callebaut is done with cacao cultivated in a sustainable manner, and its sales contribute with programs supporting cacao farmers and their families. // [In pink font] Give in to this experience and discover the color and flavor of ruby, the pink chocolate of Callebaut.”
This picture Marcela took provides a great opportunity to analyze the marketing strategy of the company. The first line of the propaganda markets ruby chocolate as a brand new, innovative product by placing it as “the most incredible discovery of the last 80 years.” This is probably especially attractive to Millenials, who are all about market disruptions. The choice of pink coloration is an interesting way to contrast with the tones of brown chocolate and white chocolates that consumers are used to. Perhaps it is a way to further target women, given the stereotypical association of pink with women. Plus, the possibility that this ruby chocolate is targeting women would actually make sense in the larger context of chocolate advertisements: if observed closely, many of the video advertisements for chocolates usually use the figure of a woman. In fact, the chocolate gift-giving culture overarchingly centers around men giving women chocolate – take Valentine’s day for example. So, with its pink coloring, ruby chocolate does seem to fit in this more general tendency to focus on attracting the more feminine consumers. This appeal to the status quo, or cultural recurrence, is then followed by a reference to the sources for the raw cacao materials in this chocolate bar. With strict adherence to the words used, one might be consuming ruby chocolate made with cacao from the Ivory Coast (the world’s largest cacao producer) or Ecuador, but the inclusion of Brazil as a source among these others may sway the Brazilian consumer towards thinking that ruby chocolate is actually Brazilian. That is thus a clever strategy to attract Brazilian consumers. This aspect of nationalism is also seen in the selling of the product as Belgian, which prompts the reputation of Belgium as a competent, quality chocolate producer. The next complement is again an appeal especially to Millennials: “The authentic Belgian ruby chocolate of Callebaut is done with cacao cultivated in a sustainable manner, and its sales contribute with programs supporting cacao farmers and their families.” With that, Callebaut leverages its social and environmental causes, without necessarily pinpointing exactly what these programs do, how effective they are, or what “a sustainable manner” means. The final phrase, in pink, circles back to the theme of women in chocolate media while also hinting at a sensual tension with chocolate through the imperative command, “give in.”
Regarding the actual experience Marcela had tasting the ruby chocolate, she reported that she did indeed feel a more fruity, citric taste. In her case, it turns out that she did not really enjoy that acidic feel. Taste is really something personal, as each individual consumer has his/her own particular preferences. Marcela likely would have preferred the taste of a chocolate with greater alkali (Dutch) processing, which reduces acidity and darkens the color of chocolate.
With the generous amount of time devoted by this interviewee in sharing her experiences with chocolate, two important insights stand out. First is a confirmation of the increasingly important say of consumers in the chocolate market. Second is the realization that cultural preferences and tastes for chocolate have changed over time. The adoption of cacao in different cultures, with changing preferences of taste, coupled with technological innovations meant the world could eventually reap the benefits of democratization and widespread consumption of chocolate. At the heart of the expansion of the chocolate market is the critically important increase in the social and economic power of women as consumers. Meanwhile, more sophisticated machinery and methods of processing further viabilized mass chocolate consumption and the rise of big chocolate industries.
Just as Marcela the interviewee changed her preferences from childhood to adulthood, so did the world’s consumers in a longer run. Today it is no longer common to see cacao beans used as barter currency, or to have chocolate drinks before going to war in ritual of Aztec warriors. Instead, chocolate is now more popularly consumed in a solid state, is frequently sweetened and mixed with milk, and is often purchased as a gift; the stereotypical gift-giving of chocolate is associated with a woman on the receiving end. Plus, cacao fruits themselves might be induced to change in the human led effort to genetically modify them, increase yields, improve immunity to diseases, and sustain the supply in the midst of climate change.
More than 2 centuries ago, John Phillips, founder of Phillips Exeter Academy, claimed that “[…] goodness without knowledge is weak and feeble, yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous, and that both united form the noblest character, and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to mankind.” The truth in these words has not changed. But, the relationship between humans and chocolate certainly has, and is constantly subject to alteration. So, looking into the future, change is the one thing people can be certain about. Hopefully, change shall come for the better, under the influence of both knowledge and goodness, together.
Ashihara, Hiroshi. “Metabolism of Alkaloids in Coffee Plants.” Brazilian Journal of Plant Physiology, vol. 18, no. 1, Mar. 2006, pp. 1–8. Crossref, doi:10.1590/S1677-04202006000100001.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
By the time of Spanish conquest, cacao was widely used as a medium of transaction in pan-Mesoamerica (Coe et al. 60). While cacao beans were consumable commodities, the way in which goods were exchanged with cacao beans more exhibits a behavior of currency rather than that of bartering. For instance, in a facsimile from the Codex Mendoza, the prices of jaguar skins and stone bowls are given in terms of numbers of cacao beans (“CHOCOLATE”).
Use of cacao was not restricted to such large purchases, and “Ovieda, whose history was published in 1526 states that in Nicaragua: everything is bought with cacao, however expensive or cheap, such as gold, slaves, clothing, things to eat and everything else” (Wood et al. 2). These sources show how cacao beans were used for both large and small daily transactions, and how they were eligible to be called a currency.
One of the reasons that cacao was able to function as a currency is that they were relatively rare and valuable. It “refuses to bear fruit outside a band of 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the Equator. Nor is it happy within this band of the tropics if the altitude is so high as to result in temperatures that fall below 60F or 16C”, which makes it one of the most labor intensive crops even today (Coe et al. 19).
One interesting difference of cacao beans from more common commodity money such as gold or silver is that they rot and decay over time. Even in modern conditions, stored with much care, cacao beans will last edible only up to nine months (Paretts). With regards to this property of cacao as a currency, Peter Maytr, one of the earlier observers of the Aztec community commented “Oh, blessed money which … preserveth the possessors thereof free from the hellish pestilence of avarice because it cannot be long kept hid underground”(“Encyclopedia of Money”). Aztec people were forced to spend the money that they earned for consumption or investment, which naturally would have boosted the economy growth, in addition to being free from the sin of avarice as Maytr puts it. It goes without saying that the Mesoamerican civilizations had an active economy and market, and this unique characteristic of cacao beans as a midpoint between deteriorating commodity and standardized currency may have been a major contributor of this.
I cannot help but compare this phenomena with the development of capitalism in Northern Europe as described in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Weber. He suggests that because the Protestant ethics condemned greed and unnecessary accumulation of wealth, the spread of this religion encouraged the emergence of capitalism. Despite numerous major differences between the two societies, it is intriguing to see that both had mechanisms that deterred the accumulation of wealth, and an active market economy.
As possible next steps, it would be interesting to look into market activity throughout time and space in the Mesoamerican region, and correlate it with the spread of cacao as a commodity and currency. Further, we could compare this with how the spread of more classical fiat money like gold and sliver affects the economy.
To underscore the ubiquitous permeation of the cacao plant throughout ancient Mesoamericans’ daily life, chocolate scholars consistently remark upon a peculiar application of the plant: the cacao bean’s use as money. Alexander del Mar, a 19th-century economic historian, describes a Mexican empire whose “usual currency… consisted of flat copper pieces and cacao beans”(del Mar, 45). Sophie and Michael Coe describe cacao as a “drink and a currency,” and a “coin of the realm” with which many market and wage transactions were conducted (Coe & Coe, 98-99). Maricel Presilla depicts an Aztec society in the 1500s where “cacao beans had taken on the status of legal money,”(Presilla, 17) and Rene Millon authored a 600-page “Study of Cacao in Ancient Mesoamerica” titled When Money Grew on Trees. But is this designation appropriate? Does the ancient use of cacao really qualify as a currency, a type of money?
An academic understanding of money is a proper foundation from which to begin this examination. While modern economic texts describe money as “an officially-issued legal tender” which generally consists of currency and coin, this definition quickly digresses into delineated categories to explain its accessibility and liquidity (Money). The money supply is described in classes from M0 (cash and its close relatives) to M3 (value stored in businesses) (Money Supply). Given the ambiguities and technicalities inherent in this modern financial accounting definition, it feels appropriate to work with a more historic understanding of currency, for which we turn to Classical Greece:
Aristotle pronounced the four criteria of money as
1. Having intrinsic value
4. Durable (Karimzadi, 206)
Cacao trade in ancient Aztec and Mayan societies certainly satisfies some of the above conditions; however, given the Aristotelian definition of money, cacao beans as used in pre-Columbian Central America fall well short of the oft-ascribed label of a currency or money. To illustrate this shortcoming, we test the four conditions in turn upon cacao bean application in Ancient Mesoamerican.
The intrinsic value of cacao beans is the easiest, and most palatable, condition to satisfy. As a well-documented food, cacao beans provided a source of nourishment in Mesoamerica. The bean was a staple from the governing elites to the poorest farmers, reflecting its universally accepted value beyond that of a currency (Presilla, 12-13). Further, in 1502, Ferdinand Columbus (son of Christopher) remarked on the odd reverence with which an indigenous person bent to collect a dropped bean, saying they stooped to pick it up “as if an eye had fallen”(Coe & Coe, 109).
The portability of the cacao bean is another evident property. Each cacao pod produces
“30-40 almond-shaped seeds” which, after fermentation and roasting, lend themselves well to travel and trade (Coe & Coe, 21). Cacao beans fulfilled this role of money to such extent that Aztec rulers included 200 loads of the seeds as part of their bi-annual tax collection, as illustrated in the sixteenth-century Codice Medoza record below.
Regarding the third property of currency, divisibility, cacao beans begin to stray from Aristotle’s definition. This property deals primarily with the orderly fractional and multiplicative qualities of a currency, such that one nickel can be broken into 5 pennies and 5 pennies can be exchanged for another nickel. While cacao beans are quite easily broken apart and formed into nibs, the edible portion, they are nearly impossible to reform (Coe & Coe, 22).
The final Aristotelian property of money, durability, is where cacao beans lose historians’ claim of a viable currency. Durability implies a reasonable longevity of the traded object. Aristotle described this attribute of money “as a guarantor of exchange for the future” (Karimzadi, 206). Good money allows its holder to forego present consumption for the implicit promise of higher consumption at a later date. Because cacao beans have a shelf life of six to nine months (depending on storage), they lose their nutritional value rapidly over time, along with their extended economic value (Paretts). It would be rather unwise to attempt to build wealth by amassing cacao beans. Therefore cacao beans, at best, only temporarily satisfy the durability requirement.
Ignoring the literal “farming out” of coinage (a role typically closely managed by the central state) necessary when using an organic substance as a unit of exchange, cacao beans do not satisfy the Aristotelian definition of money or currency. Therefore, anthropologists should consider modifying their claims of its use as such, instead referring to cacao bean exchange as, at times, “like money” or “as a means of exchange.” Having only fully satisfied two of the four conditions necessary, this adjustment is a minor correction that can satisfy all tastes.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013. Print. 33, 98-99
Del Mar, Alexander. The History of Money in America; from the Earliest times to the Establishment of the Constitution. New York: B. Franklin, 1899. Print. 45
Karimzadi, Shahzavar. Money and Its Origins. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print. 206
Millon, René Francis. When Money Grew on Trees a Study of Cacao in Ancient Mesoamerica. 1955. Print.
What is chocolate? Seriously, what is it? Consider what you know about the commodity. How much do you actually know? Well the fact of the matter is that there are people out there who do not know very much about chocolate, and that may be due to the current situation which has developed in the world, where the historical value of chocolate has diminished due to a variety of factors. Is chocolate still valued with such regard? It appears that these factors have led from chocolate being prestigious to being an average everyday food.
Historically, chocolate has been very significant. The Olmecs are believed to have been the first to create chocolate from cacao beans; however, the popularity of the beans did not increase drastically until much later (Coe&Coe 1996.26). The Dresden Codex, a series of Mayan books, features cacao quite frequently as something consumed by the gods (Martin, Lecture 2/4/15). This is evident of just how important cacao was in the ancient Mayan society. Marriage ceremonies also involved a good amount of cacao as it was used in the form of a dowry as well as to help smoothen proceedings between families looking to become united (Martin, Lecture 2/4/15). Other beliefs held at the time consisted of the cacao tree as being the source of life and very important in linking all of the worlds together. One can begin to realize just how integral cacao was and the level of importance and reverence cacao was treated with in the times of the Mayans, which compared with today’s treatment, seems ridiculous. With the ‘discovery’ of cacao in Latin American communities by explorers seeking new wealth in foreign lands, chocolate made its debut on the world scene. The initial reactions to cacao beans and rituals surrounding them were less than those of reverence or outright acceptance, as the foreigners had never before encountered what they were witnessing in the Latin American villages. One Spaniard, upon observing the natives of the land, described the cacao beans as almonds which were held in such high esteem that in the event of spillage, quick recovery would be mandated (Martin, Lecture 2/11/15). The conquistadors did not immediately realize the value of the beans, save that of when dealing in trade, until much more time had been spent dealing with the natives, and as such hybridization and other cultural mixings had taken place. This change was gradual, with people who would normally abstain from a beverage created from cacao beans eventually shifting to accepting the drink instead of branding it only fit for pigs (Coe&Coe 110). Currently the world holds chocolate as neither something so primitive and distasteful that it is only fit for those of low birth, neither is it held in such high regard that people get together all for the sake of drinking chocolate and making decisions which can have lifelong effects.
Moving forward, as chocolate began to spread throughout the Old World, so too did the controversy associated with it. Indeed, chocolate became such an important topic of discussion for some that letters to the pope were written as well as letters to decide how chocolate should be treated or viewed according to religious faiths and other conservative and regulatory criteria (Martin, Lecture 2/11/15). Although there is currently something about chocolate that may be viewed as sinful or seductive, the qualities of chocolate are not so depraved as to warrant discussion of its moral characteristics. Chocolate began to move throughout Europe much like sugar in the colonial era, and as well it followed the gradual trend of becoming increasingly prominent in the European food experience (Mintz 1985.5). As with sugar, chocolate began as a luxury good due to different factors; however, one of the major factors which made chocolate so valuable was that it was difficult to produce. Modern production would still be incredibly difficult, after all the processes needed have not changed, but we have methods of making production easier which did not exist in the past. The harvesting of cacao is labor intensive and required the involvement of significant manpower to be accomplished successfully (Martin, Lecture 2/18/15). Unlike cane sugar, there were two well-known varieties of cacao: the Criollos and Forasteros varieties. The forasteros have qualities which aid in survival and resistance to disease; however, the criollos are thought to be of higher quality although they require extremely delicate and dedicated care as they are much more susceptible to disease. The already difficult production of chocolate would have been made even more strenuous when cultivating the criollos variety. Tools definitely helped with the cultivation process along with other processes. Early chocolate drinks were made using archaic and labor intensive means, with individuals grinding up the beans and adding them to water with a few other ingredients to create their beverages. These tools, although developed to lessen the burden on those utilizing them, were still far from capable of doing what the machines we have today can do. The call for the necessary labor was answered in a way that today is frowned upon; however, in the past was widely accepted.
Slavery was a means to use cheap labor to produce a highly valuable commodity, but as slavery was introduced, the value of chocolate began to fade due to production becoming easier for the colonial masters at least, since they themselves did not have to go out and get physically involved in production. Slavery was often brutish and slaves were often treated as cargo or goods themselves rather than as human beings. Slaves were even listed as commodities or property in the records of what the masters owned (Satre 2005.9). The production of chocolate from the cacao beans was no easy task and as was stated before involved several processes requiring a large amount of manpower. To produce chocolate, the trees had to first be cultivated and delicately cared for before the pods were harvested and the seeds were removed from the pod and allowed to ferment for some time. After these steps the seeds are dried, roasted and winnowed or de-husked to allow for the nibs to remain (Martin, Lecture 2/25/15). This process would be incredibly difficult for the colonial masters if not for their slaves, and very likely difficult for chocolatiers of today if not for the machines they use. Innovations soon made their way into the chocolate process as new ideas on how to produce chocolate drove men to invent new methods for the production process. One such idea was the hydraulic press invented by Van Houten (Martin, Lecture 2/25/15). This machine was used to apply enormous amounts of pressure to raw ingredients which enabled the separation and compaction of the nibs which had been ground into chocolate liquor as they were introduced into the internal environment of the machine. This invention drastically changed the chocolate making process and made things easier for producers who were able to afford it. The price of chocolate also declined with this technological innovation making production easier and cheaper. As time moved forward more and more changes were made in the chocolate industry which brought the processes at the time, closer to what the processes of today are.
Another big development stemming from and expanding the increased demand of chocolate was the creation of the first chocolate bar by Joseph Fry (Martin, Lecture 2/25/15). This creation along with the development of powdered milk by Henri Nestle as well as the milk chocolate bar by Daniel Peter greatly influenced the way chocolate is consumed today. Many stores have isles specifically dedicated to chocolate bars and milk chocolate which can be kept at room temperature without melting for extended periods of time. One of the last and most important inventions of the time was the creation of the conch by Lindt (Martin, Lecture 2/25/15) This device was used to smoothen the chocolate and break down and heat up molecules releasing qualities which improved the overall experience of chocolate. These inventions have had a large influence on chocolate today.
The chocolate of today is much cheaper and that is due to a number of different factors. Inventions and innovation have played a key role in advancing the chocolate production process, making production and distribution of chocolate much easier as well as much cheaper than it was in the past. Previously required physical labor has been done away with since machines can more efficiently take care of tasks which humans would need a much longer amount of time to complete. Something that assisted the implementation of mechanized production was also a shift from the mindset which allowed slave labor. With increased amounts of people being concerned with how the chocolate they consume is produced, companies or chocolate producers who wished to retain some level of transparency were forced to adopt methods which were more socially acceptable, which involved making mechanical adjustments as well as increasing the pay to farmers who grow cacao; however, many farmers still make considerably low income, even though the chocolate industry is worth a lot of money.
Although the chocolate industry is worth billions of dollars, chocolate is mostly relatively inexpensive. This is made possible by historical changes over history in chocolate production including improved methods of production, improved and increased technology and innovation, and shifting mindsets. The combination of all these factors has allowed for not only the price of chocolate to decline, but also the prestige that chocolate gives off. No longer is chocolate a food fit for gods, or necessary in dealings, one cannot even use chocolate to buy other goods like in the past. Chocolate has become just another food, and its importance will continue to decline with more technological advancements, all other things being equal.
Carla D. Martin, “Lecture 2: Mesoamerica and the ‘food of the gods’” February 4, 2015.
Carla D. Martin, “Lecture 3: Chocolate expansion” February 11, 2015.
Carla D. Martin, “Lecture 4: Sugar and Cacao” February 18, 2015.
Carla D. Martin, “Lecture 5: Popular Sweet Tooths and Scandal’” February 25, 2015.
Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, NY: Viking, 1985. Print.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
Satre, Lowell J. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Athens, Ohio: Ohio UP, 2005. Print.
“The Sweet Science of Chocolate.” QUEST. Web. 13 May 2015.
“Big Hershey’s Coupon – Cheap Chocolate At Publix!” I Heart Publix. 29 Apr. 2015. Web. 13 May 2015.
“The World of Chocolate.” The World of Chocolate. Web. 13 May 2015.
Over the course of the semester, I’ve found myself chiefly concerned with the appropriation of Indigenous cultures within the production of goods for non-Indigenous consumption. To be clear, my concern is not with the sharing of culture, taste, and economies of people across land and oceans. Rather, the dilemma with chocolate exists in the historical institution of slavery and continued poor labor conditions ingrained in its industry, as well as the present appropriation of culture evident specifically in craft or artisanal chocolate and its advertisements. In order to observe how this subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, appropriation of culture interacts with the modern day consumer, I decided to host a chocolate tasting party and record the social and individual responses. I found that, regardless of the individual’s personal connection, chocolate served to highlight the importance of food both as culture and as shared community in their connection to sense memory; additionally, the chocolate tasting also revealed how food reflects the transformation of culture in displaced communities that have experienced forced assimilation and adaptation.
As this class knows by now, the theobromine cacao tree originates from the equatorial region, primarily within 20 degrees north and south of the equator (Presilla 8), that encapsulates modern-day Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. From this magnificent tree, the Indigenous peoples from the region were able to use cacao from the pods that grew on the theobromine’s trunk to produce chocolate. You might be thinking, “So what? Some Indians figured out how to make chocolate products.” We’re not talking about a discovery of plant use and food product within the last hundred years; we’re talking about the use of a plant to make chocolate products by, at least, 300 B.C., which dates chocolate production and consumption by more than 2,500 years. Anthropologists and researchers have found that the Olmec civilization (1200 B.C. to 300 B.C.), from the southeast coastal area of what is now Mexico, were most likely the first peoples to regularly use cacao for commerce, food, and religion. (Coe and Coe, Fash, Presilla). The Maya, who wielded great influence throughout the region from about 250 A.D. to 900 A.D., learned much about cacao from the Olmecs and continued to rely on it for their commerce, short and long distance trade, ceremony, and food. Their connection to cacao and chocolate is well-documented via burial chambers, pottery (including pottery from Chaco Canyon in the southwest U.S.), glyphs, and stories that survived European invasion and colonialism. (Presilla, Fash)
The Aztecs (more accurately known as the Triple Alliance) who politically and militarily dominated much of present-day Mexico at the time of Spanish arrival, intensified the reliance on cacao as an economy, using it for actual currency and building a highly stratified system wealth around cacao. The evidence is clear: cacao and chocolate predates European contact with the America, and was deeply embedded in the lives of Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas for their consumption, economies, and ceremonies.
When the Spanish arrived, they quickly gleaned that cacao was highly valued within Indigenous society. Ever interested in political, religious, and economic dominance, Europeans quickly organized to control over the region and, in particular, cacao. In Bernardino de Sahagun’s “Historia general de las cosas de nueva España,” chocolate was observed to be grown at a large scale, used as money, and, under Aztec leadership, was limited for consumption by only nobility and those who were granted permission. (Presilla)
More accounts would be written and documented: the 1544 presentation of chocolate to Prince Phillip by a delegation of Kekchi Maya nobles; the first large shipment of cacao from Veracruz to Seville in 1585; an English traveler, E. Veryard, and his account of the production of chocolate; and the general, widespread European fascination and inclusion of chocolate across its courts, medicine, art, and social settings. (Coe and Coe) Europeans encountered chocolate in a big way; they fell hard for chocolate and “sought to re-create the Indigenous chocolate experience.” (Norton 1) In fact, Presilla writes that “within fifty or sixty years, the [habit of drinking chocolate] had spread to France, Italy, England, and most parts of Europe.” (24) Of course, this intense spread of chocolate was powered by the trading and brutalization of Indigenous and African peoples in the transatlantic slave trade. (Mintz) Although the chapter on slavery and colonization in chocolate’s history is critical, I have previously written on it and will continue to focus this paper on the exploration of appropriation.
Chocolate, like any other food, is an edible heritage, a tangible thing that we can savor, smell, bond over, learn from, and have deep feelings about. (Mintz) It is a vehicle through which we can remember the past and create a future. People all over the world have tied their well-being, income, and sense of community to it. Today, the craft chocolate industry has seemingly awakened from a long history of unethical practices, and is creating space within the industry to produce goods in a sustainable way and to employ fair labor practices. While this is a welcome shift in paradigm, this ethical or fair trade and organic chocolate movement has brought with it an inclination toward “Aztec” or “Mayan” chocolate making. At best, chocolate makers are paying homage to Indigenous traditions, and, at worst, they are appropriating Indigenous culture for capital, as has been common practice since Europe encountered the Americas. To explore this problem of appropriation, I conducted a chocolate tasting with some friends. The following chocolates were sampled:
Cadbury’s Royal Dark;
Nirvana’s Aztec Chocolate;
Hershey’s Milk Chocolate;
Ritter Sport Milk Chocolate with Hazelnuts;
Chuao’s Spicy Mayan Chocolate;
Three Taza Chocolates from their Chocolate Mexicano sampler pack (specifically, Pura Cacao, Cinnamon, and Guajillo Chili).
The four people surveyed covered a range of tastes and habits around the consumption of chocolate:
Person 1 stated that they did not care for chocolate;
Person 2 said they prefer 80% dark and fair trade chocolates;
Person 3 said they love chocolate and crave it often;
Person 4 consumes chocolate a few times a week, mostly as the sweetener to their coffee.
Each person saw the chocolate and the packaging before sampling. As they ate, I asked them to be cognizant of the feel or snap of the chocolate, the smell, the texture, the taste, and after taste of the chocolates.
Though they had clear instructions to analyze the flavors, textures, and smells they experienced, my tasters were more eager to talk about how the chocolate made them feel. Amidst all of the mmm’s and ew’s, one of the more interesting responses was from a Native American female from White Earth, Minnesota, whose favorite chocolates were the Ritter Sport and the Nirvana. Here is her response:
“[The Ritter Sport] reminds me of home, and growing up on my father’s reservation, harvesting hazelnuts. I didn’t realize how expensive they were until I arrived here [Cambridge] and had to buy them for the first time. They grow naturally in White Earth, and in where I went to high school on the Lac du Flambeau reservation. Every August, usually in the second week, the hazelnut trees (which look more like overgrown bushes) start getting ready to drop the clusters. That’s when you want to grab them, when the leaves covering them have turned from green to brown, but before they drop to the ground. My father and I would take these giant burlap sacs and go and fill them up; my favorite spot by the refuge has almost an entire acre of them. It’s a hassle to harvest them, and most of the time we leave them raw in their shells in order to savor them until next year’s harvest.
I also liked the Mayan chocolate for much the same reason–I grew up with the flavors. My mom is a spice nut, so if something isn’t spicy it’s not in our house. She says it’s from going to boarding school in New Mexico and having to learn how to cook with what you’re given out there. We still have relatives who live in the Southwest and ship us ingredients on the regular.”
When prompted to comment on the fact that the spicy Mayan chocolates were not, in fact, made by Mayans, a chorus of “UGH” ensued. One Native American male commented that hearing that didn’t surprise him and that the clothing industry appropriates Native American culture often. Another taster, a Mexican-Native American female said, “I love the flavor of this chocolate, and that I can go buy this whenever I’m in the mood for spicy chocolate, but I do wish that it was actually Mayan chocolate.” I mentioned that Taza chocolates are also not Mexican made and that the factory is right down the street. The fourth taster responded, “It doesn’t bother me that they are White-owned, but I do wish they gave back to community that they got this product, or method of chocolate making, from. Like, don’t appropriate, please. Native people are still around.”
While I didn’t observe the overwhelming negative reactions to instances of appropriation as I expected, I did observe how ingrained issues of identity are in our every lives. They may not be explicit in their connection, from a broader perspective, but these instances reveal some of the long-standing effects of interactions between communities and their cultures. For instance, the woman from White Earth preferred, over all others, the chocolate with hazelnuts, as it took her home, in her mind, to a place that is deeply involved with long-standing traditions around harvesting nuts. Maybe my findings point more to issues of being directly involved with one’s culture versus being a product of a multicultural environment. Or perhaps at this day and age, we’ve become so comfortable with cross-cultural exchange that we are not always mindful of which products are Indigenous modeled instead of Indigenous made. We might also be so inundated with examples of cultural appropriation, that having to identify whether or not our foods are examples of appropriation would make it impossible to feel comfortable or at ease in our own neighborhoods. Either way, in my ideal world, the craft chocolate or bean-to-bar companies would do more to serve the Indigenous communities that remain connected to this delectable food and culture that we seem to love.
Author’s note: If I were to do this again, I would want to shift perspective and explore the preconceptions and misconceptions of chocolate in connection to Indigenous roots and Latin-American usage. I would also use more than just chocolate bars, and incorporate foods like traditionally made mole and pozol!
Fash, William. Entry on the Maya. Moctezuma’s Mexico: Then and Now Course Reader.
Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books, 1986. Kindle Version
Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics” American Historical Review: The Oxford Journal, 2006. Online. Accessed March 17, 2014
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised: A cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print
There is a common chef’s maxim that states: people first eat with their eyes. The visual aspects of experiencing, tasting, and consuming food have been an important consideration of food culture for centuries. Within this landscape, chocolate and desserts have played a significant role in the evolution of the visualization of indulgence. From the laborious construction of marzipan hedgehogs and elaborate sugar structures of the 16th century to the highly technical making of contemporary chocolate commercials, the emphasis on the importance of visual perfection has remained constant, though motivations and meanings have evolved and expanded alongside technology.
Today, the term “food porn” has emerged as a way to describe the pervasiveness of images of food in media and the fascination with capturing images of what we eat. The Urban Dictionary entry for “food porn,” created in April 2005 defines the term as: “Close-up images of delicious, juicy food in advertisements” (Urban Dictionary). The term, first coined in feminist writer Rosalind Cowards’s 1984 book Female Desire, was vastly ignored until the early 2000s when it exploded in the media with Flickr’s “Food Porn” category in September of 2004 (Atlantic). Since then, food blogs, Pinterest boards, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages have more frequently been including pictures of food. Within these pages, chocolate and chocolate desserts capture special attention as objects of indulgence that play on historical associations with lust, sex, and romance (Robertson, 30). Even the very name, “food porn,” has obvious connotations and references to the satisfaction of one’s desires through a visual outlet. But why do people enjoy viewing and sharing mere images of food? Do these mouthwatering images induce cravings or, rather, act as a substitute for the actual experience of eating?
Unfortunately, when one looks to science for an explanation of this visual phenomenon, the research can be contradicting. Some studies, such as this one published in 2012, found that just looking at images of food could be enough to trigger an increase in the hunger-hormone ghrelin (Schussler et al., 2012). Other studies, including this 2013 study out of Nature Neuroscience, suggest the brain’s reward centers may not respond as much to visual “food cues” when the brain signals the stomach is full (Labouebe et al., 2013). Clearly, more research needs to be done in this complex arena to fully understand the visual, psychological, and neurological underpinnings of taste and food. Thus, in my opinion, a more interesting and ripe avenue for analysis lies in the social and historical influences that have shaped the pursuit of food’s visual perfection. By first tracing the history of displaying lavish desserts as a marker of social status and power through the contemporary phenomenon of televised, dessert-centered competitions, food blogs dedicated to chocolate, and finally the influence of social media, I hope to illustrate a common thread of food as an important part of the culture of social currency, as well as an evolving motivation for the visual perception of food as whole through the lens of chocolate and other examples of indulgence.
Today, we can share food with the snap of an iPhone and a few clicks. However, food sharing and the pursuit of visual perfection was historically a much more physical undertaking motivated by the desire to exhibit class, wealth, and power. In the introductory chapters of Sweetness and Power, Sidney Mintz describes the connection between food and sociality as, “food and eating have not lost their affective significance, though as a means for validating existing social relations their importance and their form are almost unrecognizably different” (Mintz, 5). However, a historical analysis confirms a great amount of care has always been paid to the visual perception of food.
For example, Mintz identifies several examples of significant effort put into perfecting the visual appeal of desserts. During the height of the 17th century, marzipan confections were meant to be admired before eaten and often molded into animal-like forms to adorn the tables of the wealthy (Mintz, 93). Cookbooks from the eighteenth century included instructions for elaborate displays, “graced with as many as ten different dessert items,” to transform sweet delicacies into a form of bourgeois entertainment (Mintz, 94). The video below illustrates how elaborate structures of sugar, spices, and even gold were transformed into symbols of power and privilege. In the nineteenth century, however, these grand confections lost their association with the high-class, because sugar as a commodity had permeated to the lower classes. While these examples may seem extreme, the historical motivations of food sharing and the importance of visual perfection serve to illustrate the origin of more contemporary meanings, and can help explain why the way food looks remains a primary concern in contemporary culture.
Fast-forward to recent years and the obsession over making indulgences appeal to a visual appetite has evolved. However, the cultural capital and social currency that is gained through the exhibition of visually astounding sweets remains. For example, the spirit of competition is embodied in the various cooking competitions aired on television that are for dessert commodities. Ace of Cakes, Baker’s Dozen, Chocolate with Jacques Torres, Cupcake Wars, DC Cupcakes, Dessert First, The Dessert Show, Kid in a Candy Store, Last Cake Standing, Passion for Dessert, Sugar Rush, and Sweet Genius, are a handful of The Food Network’s television offerings, and all of them are exclusively focused on desserts or sweets. Even Top Chef has created its own sweet division, Top Chef: Just Desserts. Clearly, America enjoys visually indulging. Sugar, chocolate, and even buttercream frosting are ingredients available to the vast majority of Americans; thus the thrill of watching these competitions focuses more so on the talent and attention to detail exhibited through the construction of such elaborate desserts. Though the on screen judges obviously taste the desserts prior to voting on the winner, I would argue that the visual perception and attractiveness of the desserts is much more important, as the show is designed primarily for the distant audience at home. They must be able to “taste” with their eyes.
Another example of conveying taste through visualization is illustrated in the design and production of commercials for chocolate and other desserts. Gü Puds is a British brand of desserts introduced in the early 2000s, and they sell a wide variety of chocolate and fruit desserts in small, single-serving “puds.” The video above details the highly technical labor that goes into the making of their commercials and illustrates the importance of creating exactly the right visual effect. The directors and producers used a Photron BC2 High Speed camera recording at nearly 2000 frames per second in high definition to capture the slow motion image. The time, resources, manpower, and technology involved in the creation of this commercial (lasting less than a minute!) clearly exemplify the importance of the visual identity of foods, and more specifically, desserts. When customers feed their cravings to indulge, they value the visual appeal as an insight to how the product may taste, and therefore marketing campaigns use this association to their advantage.
In addition to commercialized exploitations of the visual appetite with profit and sales in mind, food blogs have also become an interesting component of food culture from a different sector of the popular. Rather than relying on the published food critics in the New York Times, people looking for an excellent dining experience can check one of a plethora of blogs online. This article illustrates how the restaurant experience is being shaped by these food bloggers, armed with iPhones and not afraid to kneel on the ground to find the best angle from which to snap a shot of an orange infused chocolate soufflé. Mark Jahnke, who, along with his wife, started the food and wine blog, F. Scott and Zelda says, “A lot of our friends are foodies, and we just wanted to let people know what we had tried over the weekend and whether it was good” (La Gorce, 2010). While food is typically the highlight, the restaurant atmosphere is often communicated through the images, and illustrates the importance of context within food blogs. In addition to restaurant recommendations, most food and dessert blogs also highlight recipes and at-home suggests via posted images. For example, the Tumblr “Mostly About Chocolate” features recipes, restaurant recommendations, and newsworthy links to articles about chocolate related topics. While scrolling through the blog one can find two adjacent entries, one of an image of a freshly baked dessert and the other of a freshly purchased chocolate croissant (images below). This comparison illustrates the value of both types of visual representations and social currency that can be gained by sharing images of our food. On one hand, the blogger has asserted his or her culinary expertise, and on the other, a well-rounded knowledge of the best bakeries.
This clearly “homemade” dessert (Curly Wurly brownies) reflects the talent and ability of the baker. The blogger also noted she needed to “let them cool down before cutting then I’ll take proper pictures that look decent.”
In this post, the blogger gave a shout out to a local bakery. Compared to the homemade dessert, this image represents a refined taste and a well-traveled consumer offering expert selections from only the best.
Beyond televised cooking shows, visual marketing campaigns, and structured food blogs however, the culture of the visual appetite has permeated even deeper into the facets of society through a contemporary culture centered on technology used for every day tasks, especially through social media. Because social media is a ubiquitous platform for sharing content, the meaning of sharing food has drastically expanded to encompass the casual sharing and the capacity to do so extends to anyone with an iPhone. Most individuals have the technological capacity to snap a photo of a mouthwatering chocolate torte and share it via Instagram, Pinterest, or simple as a picture message to a friend. Rather than physically sharing a meal over a table, people can share their thoughts and experiences regarding food to anyone in the world, in seconds. This brings a new dimension of the capacity of food to unite people.
Today, the meaning of sharing visual representations of food has clearly expanded. Rather than an indication of class and power exclusively, as was common in earlier centuries, visual representations of food now represent a social currency of taste in many forms. From Food Network episodes, to million-dollar Super Bowl commercials that make our mouths water, to the picture posted on Facebook of the chocolate birthday cake baked for a friend, capturing and consuming images of food marks us as highly visual consumers and illustrates the importance food has beyond simply feeding our bodies, that of cultural connections and multi-faceted social currency.