Tag Archives: Chocolate Drinks

Examining Community Preferences Through Supermarket Chocolate Aisles

Jamaica Plain and Roxbury, two of Boston’s twenty-three neighborhoods, have held historical significance since the seventeenth century and today serve as the home toBoston Neighborhoods more than 55,000 Bostonians (Boston Redevelopment Authority). There is a high level of racial and socioeconomic diversity within the two neighborhoods, and resultantly there are a wide variety of grocery stores and supermarkets that cater to many types of customers in the distinct surrounding communities. We can see examples of the neighborhoods’ socioeconomic and culture compositions by examining the dissimilar chocolate selections available in three major grocery stores that cater to parts of the community operating less than two miles away from each other, specifically Whole Foods Market in Jamaica Plain’s Hyde Square, Super Stop & Shop  in Jamaica Plain’s Jackson Square, and Tropical Foods in Roxbury’s Dudley Square.

Neighborhood Demographics and Store Locations

In Jamaica Plain, 25.3% of the population is Hispanic or Latinx (many of whom live in the Latin Quarter area near the Jackson Square MBTA station), and 13.4% of the population is Black or African American. 24% of the population was born outside of the United States, and roughly 18.6% of the population has a household income below the poverty line (Boston Redevelopment Authority). Within Jamaica Plain, however, there exist sub-neighborhoods with notably homogenous racialJP and Roxbury Stores composition (Kent). The population of Jamaica Plain that lives in the census tract containing the Latin Quarter and Super Stop & Shop (census tract 812) has a population that is (as the name “Latin Quarter” implies) 53% Hispanic and 29% Black. A large portion of that census tract is comprised of the Mildred C. Hailey apartments, a low-income public housing development. The Super Stop & Shop is located directly across the street from the edge of the Mildred C. Hailey complex.

The adjoining Jamaica Plain census tract (tract 1204), however, which abuts Jamaica Pond and contains Whole Foods Market, has a population that is 76% white (Bloch). The Hyde Square area is a district filled with small-businesses that appear to be thriving despite rising commercial and residential rents. The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council has expressed concern over the gentrification of the area, noting that the Latinx and Hispanic community and culture that was once so central to Jamaica Plain is being pushed further and further away from the Hyde Square area towards Jackson Square (Ad-hoc Whole Foods Committee: Report to Full JPNC). As a result, although the Jamaica Plain Whole Foods Market and Super Stop & Shop are about half a mile apart, they are located in and serve disparate communities.

Within Roxbury the distribution of race and socioeconomic statuses is more even than within Jamaica Plain – there is not the same significant difference in racial composition from census tract to census tract (Kent). Throughout Roxbury, 27.5% of the population is Hispanic or Latinx and 51.8% of the population is Black or African American. Almost a quarter (23.6%) of the population was born outside of the United States, and roughly 36.1% of the population has a household income below the poverty line (Boston Redevelopment Authority). Graphical representations of racial densities in Boston and in the United States at large can be further explored with this New York Times tool.

Store Histories

The Jamaica Plain Super Stop & Shop first opened in 1996 in the Latinx neighborhood of Jamaica Plain near the Jackson Square MBTA station next to what was then the Bromley-Heath Complex (now called the Mildred C. Hailey Apartments), a large low-income public housing development. The store was initially met with resistance from local businesses (particularly small bodega owners) for fear of the economic repercussions of a national chain monopolizing food sales. To quell the controversy, Stop & Shop created a $500,000 fund to support any local businesses hurt by their arrival in the neighborhood, but not a single store applied for funding through this project. Two decades later, those fears appear to have been unfounded; indeed, the introduction of Stop & Shop appears to have improved business for many local bodegas carrying specialty Latinx foods (Ruch). The Super Stop & Shop filled the community’s need to have a large selection of affordable food for the residents in the surrounding area after a large number of national grocery chains had migrated to the Boston suburbs for cheaper rents and on-average wealthier customers (Anguelovski).

The introduction of Whole Foods Market into the Hyde Square area in 2011 was more controversial than the introduction of Super Stop & Shop into the Jackson Square area because Whole Foods Market was replacing Hi-Lo, an affordable Latinx grocery store that had become a community fixture after forty-seven years in business. Super Stop & Shop, however, had been built on an unused lot (Anguelovski). After much discussion in the community, the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council chose to formally oppose Whole Food Market’s arrival; they did, however, acknowledge that Whole Foods Market was likely to arrive regardless of community sentiments, and as a result they chose to propose recommendations for a better integration into the community, which Whole Foods Market publically committed to honoring (Ad-hoc Whole Foods Committee: Report to Full JPNC). Regardless, many bemoaned the transformation from an affordable, food-just, accessible community under Hi-Lo to a white, exclusive, upper-class community under Whole Foods Market (Anguelovski).

Standing apart from the other two stores in this study, Tropical Foods (formerly El Platanero, or The Banana Man) has been welcomed and supported by the community since its inception in 1974 as a corner store that exclusively sold plantains. The store has been passed through many hands in the same family and expanded from a plantain store to a bustling corner grocery store to, in early 2015, a brand new 27,000 square foot superstore (Tropical Foods). The store describes itself as follows:

Since 1974, Tropical Foods/(El Platanero) has been the supermarket of Roxbury. Always adapting to meet its customers’ needs, Tropical Foods has earned the reputation of: having unique/hard-to-find product from the Caribbean, Central & South America, and Africa; while also meeting Roxbury’s every day grocery needs. No wonder Tropical Foods/(El Platanero) is called ‘The Supermarket for Everyone!’ (Tropical Foods).

Tropical Foods continues to be a major supermarket in Dudley Square, the business district of Roxbury. It carries brands from a wide variety of countries, including the United States, Caribbean nations, African nations, and South American nations, and it is widely revered as a pillar in the Dudley Square community (Luna).

Chocolate Selections

The chocolate offerings at the Jamaica Plains Whole Foods Market are broken into four distinct displays in addition to small candies available near the registers. Although allWhole Foods 4.JPGdisplays are within a few steps of one another, the layout makes it feel as though chocolate is spread throughout the store as opposed to grouped together into a specific candy aisle. Whole Foods Market carries a variety of craft chocolate brands at high price points, and the displays draw attention to chocolates that are produced locally through brightly colored tags next to the prices. A picture of a featured local chocolate is included to the left.

In this case, Whole Foods Market is featuring Pure 7 chocolate, a brand based in Lynn, Massachusetts (about 16 miles away from this store) that produces sugar-free, dairy-free, and gluten-free chocolate sweetened with honey. The Pure 7 website explains, “of course we assure that all of our ingredients are non- GMO, fair trade and organically produced… [Our] chocolate is Paleo compliant and Paleo certified. It also means you can enjoy it without worrying about ingesting refined sugar which causes a host of health issues in a large number of people” (About Our Company). At Whole Foods Market, Pure 7 is sold for $6.99, which is well within the store’s normal chocolate price range (although charging that price for a chocolate bar would raise eyebrows outside of Whole Foods).

Super Stop & Shop, half a mile away from Whole Foods Market, has a very different chocolate selection from Whole Foods Market. The Jackson Square store has a full,Stop and Shop 5 dedicated snack and candy aisle that extends the length of the store, and it had the largest chocolate selection of the three stores examined in this paper (pictured to the right). The Jamaica Plains Super Stop & Shop carries large, national brands, including Hershey’s, Dove, Cadbury, Lindt, Nestlé, and Ghirardelli at a much lower price-point than the chocolate carried at Whole Foods Market. The two Jamaica Plain stores do not carry any overlapping brands; while Whole Foods carries craft chocolate made in small batches at a high price that might inhibit regular consumption for many people, Stop & Shop carries widely recognized brands at a price that is more accessible for the average consumer. The most expensive unit price available at Stop & Shop was for Ghirardelli 86% Cacao Intense Dark Chocolate at $18.60 per pound. By contrast, the most expensive unit price observed at Whole Foods for traditional chocolate was $62.13 per pound for Raaka Virgin Chocolate’s Yacón Root chocolate.

Finally, the chocolate selection at Tropical Foods is distinct from the other two stores in its emphasis on chocolate products to drink. The chocolate selection at Tropical Foods  Tropical Foods 3.JPGwas the smallest of the three stores. It was divided into three sections: chocolate with which to bake; mixes to make chocolate milk, hot chocolate, and other chocolate beverages; and a small selection of chocolate bars produced by large American companies near the register. Unlike Whole Foods Market and Super Stop & Shop, Tropical Foods did not have a dedicated spot in the store for chocolate bars. A significant section of the store is dedicated to chocolate drinks (as pictured to the right). In particular, Tropical Foods carries the Mexican brand Maizena, a maize-based drink, in four varieties: chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and coconut, which neither Stop & Shop nor Whole Foods carried.


Whole Foods sells chocolate at the highest price point of the three stores examined here, and its chocolate selection is the only one to emphasize organic, free trade products. Additionally, most chocolate sold at Whole Foods Market is dark chocolate combined with other unique flavors and ingredients. Its focus on expensive, ethically produced craft chocolate might reflect Whole Foods customers’ preferences. Indeed, dark chocolate has been consistently marketed as a luxury good to be consumed by those with so-called “refined” taste, which some argue is the same demographic targeted by Whole Foods Market in their emphasis on healthy, organic foods (Anguelovski).

The chocolate selection at Super Stop & Shop appeared to be tailored to its target demographic; the community surrounding Stop & Shop is made up primarily of middle- to lower-income people for whom the Whole Foods chocolate prices would be prohibitive, whereas the prices at Stop & Shop are more reasonable for regular consumption. The way that chocolate is sold at the Jackson Square Super Stop & Shop makes it a regular food item that can be purchased regularly instead of a luxury item. The lack of emphasis on organic and fair trade chocolate might mean that the consumers who shop at Stop & Shop are unable or unwilling to pay a premium for those benefits, which contrasts with the Whole Foods Market customers who are willing to spend more for these unseen benefits.

Finally at Tropical Foods, the emphasis on drinkable chocolate seems notable especially when compared to the other stores. It seems as though a number of patrons of this store might prefer to consume chocolate in liquid form, which might not be surprising given the historical consumption pattern of drinking chocolate in Mesoamerica, a region from which many of Tropical Foods’ targeted demographics’ ancestors come. Tropical Foods’ mission includes carrying brands that are traditionally hard-to-find in the United States, so carrying Maizena fits in well with their mission of serving the needs of the community in which they are located.


Despite the fact that these three stores operate within two miles of one another, their target demographics and immediately surrounding communities are markedly different. The chocolate selection carried at these three stores can be used a lens through which to examine the general offerings of these stores and the consumption preferences of some of their patrons. The chocolate offerings range from expensive, craft chocolate at Whole Foods Market in Hyde Square, to more affordable, national brands at Super Stop & Shop in Jackson Square, to chocolate products meant to be consumed as a beverage at Tropical Foods in Dudley Square. These three stores cater to specific communities prominent in their areas, and their chocolate offerings are strong examples of this fact.




Works Cited

“About Our Company.” Pure7 Chocolate. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 May 2017. <https://pure7chocolate.com/about-our-company/&gt;.

Ad-hoc Whole Foods Committee: Report to Full JPNC. Rep. Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council, 28 June 2011. Web. 1 May 2017. <http://www.jpnc.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Ad-Hoc-WF-Committee-Report-June-28-2011.pdf&gt;.

Anguelovski, Isabelle. “Alternative Food Provision Conflicts in Cities: Contesting Food Privilege, Injustice, and Whiteness in Jamaica Plain, Boston.” Geoforum, vol. 58, 2015, pp. 184–194.

Bloch, Matthew, Amanda Cox, and Tom Giratikanon. “Mapping Segregation.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 08 July 2015. Web. 01 May 2017. <https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/07/08/us/census-race-map.html&gt;.

Boston Redevelopment Authority. Boston in Context: Neighborhoods. Publication. 2009-2013 American Community Survey. Aug. 2015. Web. 1 May 2017. <https://www.bostonplans.org/getattachment/290cae05-72b0-47ba-a214-4a6645d43b01&gt;.

Heath, Richard. “Bromley Heath Homes Renamed for Longtime Housing Leader Mildred Hailey.” Jamaica Plain News. N.p., 19 May 2016. Web. 2 May 2017. <http://www.jamaicaplainnews.com/2016/05/19/bromley-heath-homes-named-after-longtime-housing-leader-mildred-hailey/19555&gt;.

Kent, Alexander, and Thomas C. Frohlich (24/7 Wall St). “The 9 Most Segregated Cities In America.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 27 Aug. 2015. Web. 01 May 2017. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-9-most-segregated-cities-in-america_us_55df53e9e4b0e7117ba92d7f&gt;.

Luna, Taryn. “Tropical Foods to Open Store in Dudley Square – The Boston Globe.” BostonGlobe.com. N.p., 04 Feb. 2015. Web. 02 May 2017. <https://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2015/02/04/tropical/JBh1Ed1GK0dhdDLZG9oeYJ/story.html&gt;.

Ruch, John. “JP’s Last Supermarket War.” Jamaica Plain Gazette, 29 Apr. 2011. Web. 01 May 2017. <http://jamaicaplaingazette.com/2011/04/29/jp%E2%80%99s_last_supermarket_war/&gt;.

Tropical Foods (El Platanero): The Supermarket for Everyone. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 May 2017. <http://tropicalfoods.net/&gt;.



The Evolution of Cacao-Based Drinks in Mexico

Millions of tons of chocolate are produced each year, yet few today would guess that this sugary treat had its origins in frothy, semi-sweet cacao drinks prepared for Maya and Aztec royalty. Chocolate bars, candies, cakes, and pastries are the most popular forms of the food in most of the US and Europe today. Chocolate milk and hot chocolate retain some basic similarity with the cacao drinks of thousands of years ago, yet they combine the chocolate with milk, sugar, and other ingredients that would have been foreign to the Maya and Aztecs. Yet, in Mexico, a tradition of cacao beverages has been preserved from the fall of the Aztec empire to the present day. In this paper, I investigate modern cacao drinks and argue that though they are often marketed with references to the Maya and Aztecs, modern drinks represent a unique hybridity of ancient traditions and European ingredients and styles of preparation.

Chemical analysis has shown that cacao beverages were produced in Mesoamerica as early as 1100 BCE.[1] Cacao beverages were prepared by both the Maya and Aztec, and were considered very precious because cacao beans were used as a form of currency.[2] Maya drinks, especially those produced in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, were known for being prepared hot, while Aztec cacao drinks were generally cold.[3] In Aztec times, cacao beverages were often prepared in different ways depending on the quality of the cacao. High quality cacao was combined with water and frothed, while lower-quality cacao was often combined with other ingredients, including corn, seeds, chili peppers, vanilla, and other flowers.[4] By the time the Spanish arrived in the 1600’s, cacao beverages were sold in markets across Mexico, though cacao remained expensive and had high social significance.[5] Because of the wide range of different flavorings combined with cacao drinks, different regions of present-day Mexico each had unique interpretations of cacao beverages during Aztec times.[6]

Today, Mexico still has a wide range of cacao-based drinks available in different regions of the country. During lecture on February 1st, we watched a video detailing the preparation of Champurrado, a popular chocolate beverage in Mexico today.[7] In this video, the drink is prepared using pre-processed bars of dark chocolate, rather than the raw cacao that would have been used in ancient beverages. Additionally, the Champurrado is mixed with sugar, milk, cinnamon, and star anise – additions that are distinctively European. However, Champurrado also contains masa harina (a form of corn flour) and water, and makes use of a traditional molinillo (an item introduced to Mesoamerica by the Spanish[8]) to mix the ingredients and create a froth. Though the mixture of cacao and water is distinctively Mesoamerican, the additional ingredients and use of a molinillo reflect the influence of Spanish colonialism.

However, Champurrado is just one of many popular cacao drinks in Mexico today – and just one of many unique combinations of ancient recipes and European influences. Today there are a variety of different cacao drinks made in different regions of Mexico, for example bu’pu in Tehuantepec, chorote in Tabasco, tascalate in Chiapas, and tejate in Oaxaca.[9]

Tejate is perhaps the most authentic, as archaeological research has shown that many of its ingredients, as well as the vessels it is served in, reflect the style of cacao beverages produced in Oaxaca for thousands of years.[10] According to a 2009 article from The Atlantic, in tejate’s recipe “you’ll almost always find a blend of nixtamal corn, cacao beans, mamey seed, and rosita de cacao–the secret ingredient that makes tejate truly special. Rosita de cacao is the flower of the funeral tree (Quararibea funebris).”[11] Once the ingredients are combined, tejate is served combined with water and topped with a pile of frothy foam.[12] Similar cacao-foam-based drinks can be found passed-down from generation to generation in Cholula, Puebla, and other regions of Mexico.[13] Though tejate combines cacao, corn, flowers, and abundant foam, much like ancient drinks, it also includes modern influences. Today, tejate is served with a sugar-based syrup, and some have experimented with serving tejate paste “in cookies, cake, ice, powder,” and other forms that stray away from the traditional liquid.[14] Though tejate recipes have been passed down for generations and represent a unique cultural inheritance, they have not been immune to the ingredients and new tastes imported by Spanish colonizers.

The video below describes a drink that can be found in Mexico City, Espuma de Cacao[15] – a beverage very similar to the tejate prepared across Oaxaca. However, it is notable that this version of the drink specifically calls it “El elixir de los Dioses” – the elixir of the Gods – a direct reference to the elite pedigree of cacao beverages in Maya and Aztec times. The video does not reference the influence of Spanish colonialism, yet the inclusion of sugar in the recipe reflects the changes to traditional recipes that occurred under Spanish rule.

Video is from OZY travel blog article.[16]

Besides the recipes for cacao-foam drinks passed down in communities across Mexico, there are also recipes that have been created specifically to recreate the cacao-drinking experience of the Aztecs and Mayans. Munchies documents some such recipes made by Fernando Rodriguez, a businessman in Teotihuacan.[17] Rodriguez uses recipes for ancient drinks, found in such sources as the Popul Vuh and Florentine Codex, to design modern drinks that rely on the same key spices, flavors, flowers, and production methods.[18] Though Rodriguez bases most of his drinks on the historical clues he finds from ancient writings, he still makes some blends that introduce cinnamon, ginger, and other spices that were first introduced to Mesoamerica by Spanish colonizers.[19]

Though different areas of Mexico each have their own variations on how to prepare and serve cacao-based drinks, there are common threads that connect all these beverages. In all areas, modern Mexicans are proud of their unique cultural heritage stemming from Aztec and Maya civilization, and market modern cacao drinks for the ancient wisdom and tradition that they perpetuate. Many of the ancient drink-making customs remain the same – corn, flowers, and water are often added, and foam is still often considered a desirable element to top the beverage. Yet, Spanish and European taste and colonial influence can also be seen in many variations of these drinks. The most common manifestation of this is the addition of sugar, though cinnamon, ginger, star anise, other spices, and milk also reflect the influx of European ingredients and taste preferences. The cacao beverages produced across Mexico today are unique, with no clear counterpart in most other countries, yet they represent both the heritage of ancient civilizations and, more subtly, the complex and difficult legacy of Spanish colonialism.


[1] John S. Henderson, Rosemary A. Joyce, Gretchen R. Hall, W. Jeffrey Hurst, and Patrick E. Mcgovern, “Chemical and Archaeological Evidence for the Earliest Cacao Beverages,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, no. 48 (2007): 18937. http://www.pnas.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/content/104/48/18937.full

[2] Sophie D. Coe, and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 3rd ed. (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013), 81-84.

[3] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 83-84.

[4] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 86-94.

[5] Daniela Soleri, Marcus Winter, Steven R. Bozarth, and W. Jeffrey Hurst, “Archaeological Residues and Recipes: Exploratory Testing for Evidence of Maize and Cacao Beverages in Postclassic Vessels from the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico,” Latin American Antiquity 24, no. 03 (2013): 345-62, 345-347, accessed via Hollis, http://www.jstor.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/stable/23645680?seq=3#page_scan_tab_contents

[6] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 94.

[7] Dr. Carla Martin, “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods,’” February 1, 2017, slide 82, https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1FzrAQvjXJZnu7lTixblZ1FsyfDjnXtQ-8JyXd2uq5ZM/edit#slide=id.gef490479d_4_279

[8] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 83-85.

[9] Soleri, et al, “Archaeological Residues and Recipes,” 347.

[10] Soleri, et al, “Archaeological Residues and Recipes.”

[11] Alex Whitmore, “Cacao Tejate: Ancient Chocolate Drink,” The Atlantic, April 28, 2009, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/04/cacao-tejate-ancient-chocolate-drink/16609/

[12] Whitmore, “Cacao Tejate.”

[13] Margot Castaneda, “How Mexico Is Rediscovering (and Reinventing) Ancient Cacao Drinks,” Munchies (a branch of Vice News), January 7, 2017, https://munchies.vice.com/en_us/article/how-mexico-is-rediscovering-ancient-cacao-drinks

[14] Castaneda, “How Mexico Is Rediscovering (and Reinventing) Ancient Cacao Drinks.”

[15] Libby Coleman, “This Chocolatey Mexican Drink Will Get You Foaming at the Mouth,” OZY, January 24, 2017, http://www.ozy.com/good-sht/this-chocolatey-mexican-drink-will-get-you-foaming-at-the-mouth/75134

[16] Coleman, “This Chocolatey Mexican Drink.”

[17] Castaneda, “How Mexico Is Rediscovering (and Reinventing) Ancient Cacao Drinks.”

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.



Multimedia Sources 

Castaneda, Margot. “How Mexico Is Rediscovering (and Reinventing) Ancient Cacao Drinks.” Munchies (a branch of Vice News). January 7, 2017. https://munchies.vice.com/en_us/article/how-mexico-is-rediscovering-ancient-cacao-drinks

Coleman, Libby. “This Chocolatey Mexican Drink Will Get You Foaming at the Mouth.” OZY. January 24, 2017. http://www.ozy.com/good-sht/this-chocolatey-mexican-drink-will-get-you-foaming-at-the-mouth/75134

Whitmore, Alex. “Cacao Tejate: Ancient Chocolate Drink.” The Atlantic. April 28, 2009. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/04/cacao-tejate-ancient-chocolate-drink/16609/


Academic Sources 

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

Henderson, John S., Rosemary A. Joyce, Gretchen R. Hall, W. Jeffrey Hurst, and Patrick E. Mcgovern. “Chemical and Archaeological Evidence for the Earliest Cacao Beverages.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, no. 48 (2007): 18937. Accessed via Hollis. http://www.pnas.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/content/104/48/18937.full

Martin, Carla. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” February 1, 2017. https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1FzrAQvjXJZnu7lTixblZ1FsyfDjnXtQ-8JyXd2uq5ZM/edit#slide=id.gef490479d_4_279

Soleri, Daniela, Marcus Winter, Steven R. Bozarth, and W. Jeffrey Hurst. “Archaeological Residues and Recipes: Exploratory Testing for Evidence of Maize and Cacao Beverages in Postclassic Vessels from the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico.” Latin American Antiquity 24, no. 03 (2013): 345-62. accessed via Hollis. http://www.jstor.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/stable/23645680?seq=3#page_scan_tab_contents

The Sacred, Ancient History of Chocolate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mayan marriage traditions around cacao and chocolate

Chocolate and cacao was imbued with religious meaning and incorporated into ceremonies in unique ways that still carry over to today. Particularly poignant examples can be found in the context of the marriage traditions of the Maya. Chocolate was used by the Maya to seal marriage negotiations and ceremonies. Coe and Coe illustrate how special a role cocoa played in Mayan wedding explaining how brides and grooms would each exchange five cacao beans along with their vows  to execute the contract of marriage. (Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 2013, Kindle Locations 868-870.)

Such an important role cacao and chocolate played in marriage traditions that it too was represented in important historical artifacts of the Maya.

Image 1. A depiction of an exchange of cacao beans during a marriage ceremony.

This post classic Maya picture comes from the Codex Nuttall and shows a Mayan wedding scene in which chocolate is being exchanged by the bride, Lady 13 Snake, and groom, Mixtec king 8 Deer “Tiger Claw” of Tilantongo. (Mixtec)

The longevity of this tradition is apparent in many Mayan wedding traditions even today. For example, the Awakateko are a Mayan ethnic group from the that reside in the Aguacatan municipality located in the northwestern highlands of modern-day Guatemala. Mayan marriage traditions practiced today by this people still feature cacao quite prominently. For example,  after marriage negotiation between families, a marriage ceremony is performed which is  known as a quicyuj. The quicyuj means “cacao beans” and referential to the Mayan custom of using cacao beans to pay bride-prices/dowries to cement the contract to marry between the groom and bride. (Brintnall, 1979, pp. 82-84) 

Final Mayan Chocolate vessel Illustration
Image 2. A depiction of a premarital bride-price negotiation and exchange.

A modern example of  a traditional Mayan wedding ceremony showcasing the role of cacao beans may be viewed here.

The relationship between chocolate and marriages would extend beyond the ceremony and negotiations; chocolate was used as a tie that could bind people and families together but it was also used to keep them together, particularly by women. Typically, chocolate  drinks were made by women rather than men and so that role was unique. An example of a woman making chocolate in the traditional Mayan fashion may be viewed here.  

After the Spanish conquest, chocolate continued to be used to treat marital difficulties by women who learned from the indigenous women of the area. For instance, in Guatemala during the 16th century when experiencing marital difficulties, like infidelity or spousal abuse, women would often turn to serving bewitched  or “doctored” chocolate drinks to their partners.(Few, 2005, pp. 673-687) These specially prepared chocolate drinks were thought to imbue women with powers over men, and so offered women who prepared this drink a certain amount of agency, particularly significant for indigenous women and African/Mulatto women that often worked as domestics or slaves in  during the Spanish colonial period of Guatemala, around the 16th century.

Understanding more about how cacao and chocolate was incorporated into rituals around marriage, both in the pre-Columbian and colonial periods, is fascinating. it is interesting to briefly explore how Mayan traditions surrounding cocoa, chocolate and marriage related to today’s customs and to women. From the exchange of cacao beans to execute a marriage contract to the preparation of bewitched chocolate drinks to preserve a marriage, chocolate and cacao played a pivotal role.


Brintnall, D E. 1979. Revolt Against the Dead: The Modernization of a Mayan Community in the Highlands of Guatemala. Library of Anthropology. Gordon and Breach. https://books.google.com/books?id=-Merrz3IoqUC. (82-84)

Coe, Sophie D.; Coe, Michael D. (2013-06-28). The True History of Chocolate (Kindle Locations 868-870). Thames & Hudson. Kindle Edition.

Few, M. (2005). Chocolate, sex, and disorderly women in late-seventeenth-and early-eighteenth-century Guatemala. Ethnohistory, 52(4), 673-687

Mixtec. (n.d.). Retrieved February 18, 2016, from http://www.ancientscripts.com/mixtec.html

Restall, M. (2009). The Black middle: Africans, Mayas, and Spaniards in colonial Yucatan. CA: Stanford University Press. (271-272)


  1. A depiction of an exchange of cacao beans during a marriage ceremony[Photograph found in Codex Zouche-Nuttall, ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria]. (2015, December 4). Retrieved February 16, 2016, from http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/images-ans/ans_21_06_2.jpg
  2. Mayan Chocolate vessel Illustration [Photograph found in Denver Art Museum, Denver]. (2012, November). Retrieved February 16, 2016, from http://creativity.denverartmuseum.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Final-Mayan-Chocolate-vessel-Illustration.jpg

Multimedia Sources

Spirituality Riviera Maya: Traditional Mayan Wedding Spirituality Riviera Maya [Video file]. (2013, October 25). Retrieved February 16, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xosdr-Tj_nI (Marriage ceremony showcasing the Mayan tradition of exchanging cocoa beans)

Toledo Ecotourism Association – making a chocolate drink [Video file]. (2008, May 10). Retrieved February 16, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vC4dq69rqE (Mayan woman making a traditional chocolate drink of chocolate and maize)

The Evolution of Drinking Chocolate

In modern times, hot chocolate is enjoyed by people around the world.  The most familiar types found in the grocery store are made up of a pre-sweetened powder that comes in a small package and may or may not contain 15% cocoa depending on the type of drink.  Other types of drinking chocolate, such as Abuelita, come in pressed chocolate bars that are then dissolved in milk.  Today, hot cocoa is available to people of every social and economic class.  However, historically chocolate drinks were made in a very different manner, and they were most often only available to the elites.


The cultivation of cacao began as early as 1900 BC with the Olmec civilization (Presilla, 2001, p.10), but the oldest known cacao recipes come from the Maya and the Aztec civilizations.  For the Maya civilization, cacao was available to people of every social and economic class, although little evidence remains of the drinking vessels used by the less affluent members of society (Presilla, 2001, p. 12)  As cacao is difficult to grow, it is likely that the more affluent members of society had easier access to drinking cacao due to its rarity.  Maya drinking chocolate was often made from water that contained the starch of lime-treated corn mixed with the cacao beans that had been ground into a paste.  Mayan cacao was also flavored with ear flower, vanilla, honey, allspice, and chiles (Presilla, 2001, p. 13, 14).  Frothy chocolate was favored by the Maya, and it would later also be favored by the Aztecs and the Spaniards.

Unlike the Maya, the Aztecs limited cacao consumption to the elites and the warrior class.  Aztec cacao drinks were available (to the members of these social classes) in the market, and the makers of these drinks were considered true artisans, as:

“She who sells remade cacao for drinking first grinds it in this fashion:  At the first [grinding] she breaks or crushes the beans; at the second they are slightly more ground; at the third and last they are very well ground, being mixed with boiled and rinsed corn kernels; and being thus ground and mixed, they add water [to the mixture] in any sort of vessel [vaso].  If they add little [water] they have beautiful cacao; if they add a lot, it will not produce froth.” (Saghagun, Historia General)

Frothy cacao was considered to be the very best of the Aztec cacao drinks, and all other cacao drinks were considered inferior (Presilla, 2001, p.19-20).  Today, cacao is drunk throughout the day or as a nightcap, but the Aztec elites drank their cacao at the end of meals (Coe, 2013, Kindle location 1330).  The Aztecs, much like the Maya, used locally available ingredients to flavor their cacao.  These ingredients included honey, ear flower, vanilla, string flower, magnolia, piper sanctum ( pepper flower), heart flower, chiles, and allspice.  According to Coe in The True History of Chocolate, Aztec cacao was made with roasted ground cacao beans and sopata seeds that were mixed with ground corn and spices (Coe, 2013, Kindle location 1314).

Aztec Woman

The Spanish assimilated their own flavors when they brought chocolate over from Mesoamerica, including: cinnamon, sugar, and black pepper (Coe, 2013, Kindle Location 1599).  The Spanish also began mixing cacao with cow’s milk.  In order to grind the beans, a heated metate was used, and the precious and sought after froth was obtained using a molinillo stirring stick (Coe, 2013, Kindle Location 1599-1614).

While the historical flavors of drinking chocolate remain, cacao has become a much sweeter drink in modern times, and flavorings have continuously expanded.  With the current trend towards a diet low in refined sugars, I wonder if the Maya and Aztec way of drinking unsweetened cacao might make a comeback.


Coe, Sophie D.; Coe, Michael D. (2013-06-28). The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson. Kindle Edition. 

Presilla, Maricel. (2001).  The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ten Speed Press.

Image 1:  Swiss Miss Cocoa Collection, from the Swiss Miss website

Image 2:  Abuelita Cocoa, from the Abuelita website

Image 3:  Maya cocoa frothing, from the course slides

Customs & Convictions Concerning Chocolate

There are few things in this world that nearly all people, regardless of one’s personal background or cultural heritage, ubiquitously enjoy like chocolate.  In the modern world that we live in, there is no place on Earth where one does not have access to a mass produced bar of chocolate at an inexpensive price. Chocolate is a multi-billion dollar industry (Hawkins, 2008), yet it is something that most of the world had no idea existed until the beginning of the sixteenth century. It was one of many discoveries made by Europeans in the newly found American continents. Cacao’s origins are in South America, in the Amazon River basin (Presilla, 2009, p. 8). It had been enjoyed by the native people of the Central American region long before Europeans arrived. Cacao had a greater impact on pre-Columbian, Mesoamerican cultures than it does with other peoples around the world today; It was used in many exotic and unusual ways. Pre-Columbian customs and believes concerning chocolate and cacao were considered unorthodox by western standards. Although the indigenous people of Mesoamerica were the first to cultivate cacao,  few of their habits were adopted by the Europeans.

One of the more unusual customs  of the people of Central America was the use of cacao beans as currency. An early example of the value of cacao beans that Europeans witnessed was during Christopher Columbus’ fourth journey to the New World. In August 1502, Columbus and his crew landed off the coast of what is now today Honduras. His son Ferdinand, along with others, encountered a group of natives in two dug out canoes which were carrying many goods, including cacao beans. In a written account, Ferdinand Columbus described how the Spaniards noticed how the native people seemed to hold cacao beans in high regard. He went on to mention how whenever a bean dropped to the ground, it seemed as though the natives had lost an eye and all stopped to look for it. (Coe & Coe, 2013)  To the Spanish it seemed odd, but to the natives,  it was no different than you or me dropping  dollar bills on the ground today! The idea of using cacao beans as currency was deeply ingrained in the mindset of those who lived in Central America; in fact it was still an acceptable form of payment until 1750 (Presilla, 2009, pp. 17-18). Thankfully, this custom was not adopted by western society. The only real response would be to shake one’s head at the thought of withdrawing cacao beans instead of paper currency at the ATM!

Aztec example of what one could buy with cacao beans in their civilization. Jaguar pelt anyone?
Aztec example of what one could buy with cacao beans in their civilization. Jaguar pelt anyone?

Another suggestion why the indigenous people were upset was because their culture, cacao was an integral part of life. The interaction Columbus’ crew had with the natives was in the year 1502, and they landed close to the area where the Mayan civilization once dominated years earlier. By 1502, the Aztec civilization dominated the region,  which is most likely to whom these people were transporting goods. Both peoples, highly valued cacao (“The History of Chocolate,” n.d.), however both had different views whom exactly had access to it. In Mayan society, everyone had access to cacao. For the most part, it was something everybody used and consumed everyday. Aztecs believed only the elite should have regular access to cacao. Many people were involved in cacao processing, from those who cultivated the plants, to those who took the seeds to Tenochtitlan for the elite to use. Even though many individuals in lower class Aztec society worked with cacao, they were forbidden to consume it.  In fact, one could be killed if found consuming cacao! That might be why that missing bean was important to find; it could have literally been a matter of life or death! Europeans seemed to take a middle approach to who had access to chocolate, although that was not deliberate. If one could afford chocolate, one could have access to it, regardless of status in society. Naturally, the ruling classes had more access to consume chocolate, they had more money to acquire the cacao beans, but there are examples, particularly in the United Kingdom, where people of all classes met at chocolate houses to not only consume chocolate but to do business and catch up on gossip, usually after paying an entrance fee (“The History of Chocolate,” n.d.).

European Sipping Chocolate – A great example of how seventeenth century Europeans consumed chocolate

Although not the case today, one area where Europeans adopted a Mesoamerican custom was how to consume chocolate. Mayans and Aztecs consumed cacao as a beverage, this was also the case in seventeenth century Europe as well (Bensen, 2008). That was as far as adaptations went though, as Mesoamericans mixed bizarre and alien ingredients into cacao, even for today’s standards.  Europeans were keen on adding sugar to their chocolate. Both Aztecs and Mayans would mix things such as maize, chilies, vanilla, and even flowers into their cacao drinks (The Maya and the Ka’kau’, 2005). Mayans preferred their drinks hot, Aztecs preferred cold libations. Both peoples, as well as the Europeans, preferred their beverages to be as frothy as possible and went to great lengths to make sure they were.

Cacao was not the only plant unknown to Europeans when they arrived in Central America. Other crops unfamiliar to Europeans include Maize, Tomatoes, Potatoes, Vanilla, Tobacco, and Rubber.
Cacao was not the only plant unknown to Europeans when they arrived in Central America. Other crops unfamiliar to Europeans include Maize, Tomatoes, Potatoes, Vanilla, Tobacco, and Rubber.

Chocolate attitude and  etiquette has evolved over the last five-hundred years. It is consumed nothing like how it once was. It is truly and international food today, enjoyed in almost every country.  One can imagine how Mayan and Aztec people would feel if they knew how chocolate was used today.

 Work Sited

Bensen, A. (2008, March 1). A Brief History of Chocolate. Retrieved February 14, 2015, from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-brief-history-of-chocolate-21860917/?no-ist

Coe, S., & Coe, M. (2013). Encounter and Transformation. In The true history of chocolate (3rd ed., pp. 108-109). London: Thames and Hudson.

Hawkins, K. (2008). Chocolate! (p. 9). London: New Holland.

The History of Chocolate. (n.d.). Retrieved February 15, 2015, from http://thechocolatereview.com/history-of-chocolate/the-history-of-chocolate.html

The Maya and the Ka’kau‘ (2005). Retrieved February 12, 2015, from http://www.authenticmaya.com/cacao.htm

Presilla, M. (2009). Growing Up With Cacao. In The new taste of chocolate: A cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes (1st ed.). Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.

Multimedia Sources

First photo, using cacao beans as currency to buy a Jaguar pelt: http://exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu/chocolate/moneygrewontrees.php

Video on European Sipping Chocolate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JheYrxfq2BA

Second photo, plants and crops unfamiliar to Europeans: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Globalization#mediaviewer/File:New_World_Domesticated_plants.JPG

Native Cookbook: the Values and Culture of Early Chocolate

The history of chocolate is known to have begun in ancient Central and South America, and the peoples who first cultivated and consumed chocolate did so in diverse ways. While the Maya and Aztec people shared some similar methods in cacao preparation, the differences that do exist are indicative of each peoples’ food culture and tastes. As recipes vary, they reflect the cultural values of those who prepared them and the age and regions in which they were prepared.

During the Classic Maya period between 250 AD and the 9th century, cacao was commonly consumed as a drink (Coe and Coe 37). According to Michael Coe, a professor of anthropology at Yale, cacao was prevalent in the Amazon basin and Maya-occupied regions, allowing for the majority of Maya peoples to consume chocolate (25). Cacao beans were prepared for the drink ground either fresh or roasted, then added to maize or grain to create a gruel. Cacao foam, called “yom cacao”, was known as the “most desirable” of the drink for the soul (Coe and Coe 48). Preparation focused on maximizing foam production, a process displayed on Mayan artifacts such as the Princeton Vase (c. AD 750) (Coe and Coe 48). This diligent focus on raising cacao foam, so connected with the Mayan idea of soul, indicates not only tasting preferences but also an adherence of ritual and values to the food. And while the Maya most appreciated the cacao foam, the importance of the maize gruel is not to be overlooked. Maize, a common staple grain of the Maya diet, mixed with cacao made for a high-calorie, energy sustaining food. The Maya chocolate drink was ideal for sustaining traveling warriors and for acting as a hearty nutrition source without the use of much labor or firewood (Coe and Coe 50). As the Maya era progressed, chocolate preparation changed over time. Still, the basis of their recipe remained about the same, emphasizing the importance of maize and grain in the Maya diet.

Mayan Maize God (as scribe) – Ceramic Codex, Classic Period

The Maya also incorporated other local foodstuffs as flavorings for the chocolate. Native spices such as chiles, “ear flower”, and achiote changed the flavors, textures, and colors of Maya chocolate concoctions (Presilla 12-14). Among the Late Maya, vanilla found its way into the popular flavor repertoire (Coe and Coe 61).

Coe describes recipes used among the late Maya, comparing secular and sacred drinks. Chocolate for men included beans ground on an iron tool, while the beans for a sacred drink would be ground on wood. The secular drink would be combined with suqir vine, water, and corn using a wooden whisk called a molinillo. The Gods’ chocolate would be combined with ‘aak grass to produce a foam, to then be incorporated into either a tree root mead or maize gruel. The secular drink was served in a bowl to be drunk, while the ritual drink was fed into “god pots” (61-63). The importance of differing ingredients and method in each ritual signifies the hierarchy between gods and men, even in food.
The Aztec people, found further north in what is now central Mexico, did not have the same access to the cacao crop as the Maya. Trade was necessary to transport the cacao beans, carried by pochteca merchants over long distances (Coe and Coe 74). Because access to the crop was so limited, cacao was valued more highly among the Aztec. The bean was even used as currency, leaving its consumption only for the most elite and distinguished members of Aztec courts, typically at the end of grand feasts (Priscilla 18, Coe and Coe 98).  According to Coe, the Aztecs shifted preference to drinking chocolate away from a traditional alcoholic drink known as octli, as cacao was considered more luxurious and lacked the intoxicating effects looked down upon by the Aztecs (Coe and Coe 75). By creating a shift in food preferences, chocolate further contributed to food culture by aligning with these values. The preparation of the drink also focused on cacao foam, but was more typically drunk alone or with “gold or silver or wood” mixed into it, lacking the corn gruel base so popular with the Maya and reemphasizing the elite status of the drink (Coe and Coe 84).

Aztec Woman Pouring Chocolate - Codex Tudela
Aztec Woman Pouring Chocolate – Codex Tudela

Chocolate was also given to Aztec warriors as nutrient-dense rations, usually in the form of pellets and wafers. Aztecs preferred the pleasant afterburn of chile flavors with their chocolate, but also incorporated other local spices, including cinnamon, anis, and green vanilla (Coe and Coe 49, 87). While the Maya and Aztecs’ chocolate consumption were similar, the distinctions between them signify the contrasting availabilities of cacao, as well as diverse local ingredients.

Even today, some chocolate recipes are notably reminiscent of traditional Aztec and Maya preparation. Contemporary Maya and other Central American people prepare atole or champurrado, a chocolate drink containing corn and whisked with a molinillo; Maricel Prescilla calls the drink “a classic fixture of Mexican cuisine” (14). However, many of the ingredients now consumed with chocolate drinks were introduced by the Spanish to the region in their conquest: cane sugar replaced honey as a sweetener, and rice, cinnamon, and black pepper became more popular than allspice and indigenous chilis as flavorings (Coe and Coe 63). Similarly, a common drink in Guatemala known as Batido, Coe describes, is notably reminiscent of classic Maya preparation while still exhibiting European influences in its flavors. Batido mixes a ground cacao paste into tepid water along with both foreign and native spices. Drinks like Atole and Batido are largely symbolic of modern day Central American culture: they retain traditional and native roots while exhibiting a heavy Spanish influence.

Modern-day Atole – a mixture of corn flour, chocolate, and spices

Humans have been consuming chocolate for thousands of years. Within Central America, chocolate consumption proves to be massively historically significant in understanding indigenous food culture. Whether a recipe was prepared for common people, lords, or gods, the ingredients used and methods of preparation reflect on regional foodstuffs, indigenous value systems, and nutrition.

Works Cited:

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

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


Mayan Maize God: By unknown Maya artist [Public domain],  http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b1/Maya_maize_god.jpg, via Wikimedia Commons

Aztec Woman Pouring Chocolate: Codex Tudela [Public Domain], http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/ff/Mujer_vertiendo_chocolate_-_Codex_Tudela.jpg, via Wikimedia Commons

Modern-Day Atole: By ottmarliebert.com (originally posted to Flickr as Atole) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Oh, How Divine!

Chocolate is a ubiquitous food that has been an instrument or product of companies, commercials, and love worldwide for centuries. It is often depicted as a superfood and even divine food as illustrated below. While its taste alone would likely incline one to highly praise this food for its flavor, the divinity and perfection attributed to chocolate is derived from the cultural and religious history of cacao, its predecessor. Why is divinity and perfection associated with chocolate today? Is it simply a recent marketing ploy to fascinate buyers’ gustatory attentions?

An illustrative advertisement for chocolate bars produced by Divine Chocolate Limited (Founded 1998), a leading global chocolate provider.

The cacao tree and its fruit have been imbued with divinity since the earliest recordings of them. Ancient Mesoamerican peoples including the Mayan and the Aztec credit their culture and their very existence to them. In fact, the cacao tree is considered to be a world tree—a gateway to the divine—for the ancient peoples who inhabited the cacao-growing regions of Mesoamerica (Martin, AAAS 119x Lecture 3). The relationship between the Mayan and cacao are illustrated multiple times throughout the epic found in the Popul Vuh a Maya document, which in particular, contains that people’s creation myth. Though it is referenced multiple times within this text, the exact role of cacao is not clearly defined in the Popul Vuh. However, the pointers to cacao’s divine significance found in the text lie in the narrative facts (a) that a living head of heroic Maize God is depicted fruiting from the cacao tree cacao and (b) that cacao is listed among other staple Mayan foods found on the Mountain of Sustenance with which the gods would create human bodies (Coe, 39). Moreover, Theobroma cacao—the cacao tree’s scientific name given in 1753 by Swedish scientist Carl von Linné—directly references the sacred roots of cacao—“the food of gods” (Coe, 17).

Classic Maya vase located in the Popul Vuh Museum (Guatemala City) depicting the head of the Maize God attached to a cacao tree as if it were a pod. A parallel depiction drawn by Simon Martin accompanies.

Likely originated within Olmec civilization (1500-400 BC), highly developed in 600 BC within the Maya civilization, and transmitted to the Aztec civilization, chocolate bears the divine mark of cacao as it becomes a featured food item for sacred rituals and the consumption of the elite. Archaeological discoveries continuously indicate that, especially in Maya society, the significance and cachet of chocolate (Presilla, 12). As a food item, chocolate maintains a plethora of culinary variations; but most chocolate consumption was experienced as a beverage (Coe, 15). Of all the modes that even chocolate as a beverage possesses, the most illustrious form is a chocolate beverage with a frothy top (Presilla, 13). The coveted foaming, or frothing, chocolate beverage likely occurs as a result of manual continual aeration of the beverage as depicted below. This invention is the crème de la crème of chocolate and was typically reserved for one of two things: the altar of sacrifice to a god or the table of the noble (Presilla, 9). This pouring out of a worthy drink offering, or libation, to a god reinforces the inextricable elements of divinity and perfection found in chocolate. Moreover, the preparation of this frothed beverage for the noble of society also demands a certain benchmark of skill and craftsmanship that is worthy and befitting of elite company.

The Princeton Vase (A.D. 670-750) is a Late Classic Maya vase that interestingly depicts a woman likely preparing a frothy chocolate beverage by pouring the beverage repeatedly from vessel to vessel to create aeration and, thus, foaming.

These ancient customs, beliefs, and rituals surrounding cacao and chocolate fuel today’s portrayal of chocolate as a premier food to be regarded in high esteem. Chocolate’s highly involved and evolved association of divinity and perfection even predates the creation of chocolate itself and originates with cacao. At first, these concepts are not industrially constructed addendums to the story of chocolate to take advantage of the marketing landscape. Rather, this ideology about chocolate has existed for millennia, yet with such status comes indeed marketing and social potential that can be leveraged by chocolate producers and consumers alike.

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

Martin, Carla. AAAS 119x: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Online.

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

The Mystery of the Molinillo

The introduction of chocolate to the New World in the 16-17th century led to multiple transformations and transmutations of the original Old World cacao. When chocolate became commonplace in the Spanish court in the first half of the 1600s, it had changed in name, taste, preparation, believed health properties and even type. However, this hybridization was not restricted to just chocolate, but in fact applied to many objects journeying from one world to the next. Nor was this hybridization a one-sided phenomenon. The molinillo, a whisk-like tool used to froth drinks, is an important artifact in the history of chocolate because it shows that the encounter between the New World and the Old World was mutually influential and, at the time, also mutually beneficial.

During the age of the Aztecs, chocolate, known as cacahuatl in their native Nahuatl language, was primarily served cold (Coe and Coe 114-115), and one Mesoamerican method used to froth the drink was to pour it “back and forth between two vessels” (Presilla 26), like in the image from the Aztec Codex Tedula below.

Aztec woman frothing chocolate by pouring drink from one vessel to another

However, in the mid-16th century, Creole Spaniards introduced the molinillo in Mesoamerica, an innovation in the field of foaming drinks (Coe and Coe, 120). The molinillo, as pictured below, is a wooden instrument, with rings around the center stick that would shake and rattle and also create air bubbles in the chocolate liquid when spun between the hands.

Molinillo from the Hearst Museum

Beyond just acting as a frothing instrument, the molinillo, called molinet in some early English texts (Gage), seemed to also be once used to grind chocolate tablets (or wafers), which may explain the origin of its name, meaning “little mill” (Ledesma). Another potential explanation for the name is that it may have undergone a transmutation in the other direction, deriving itself from the Nahuatl verb molinia, meaning “to shake, waggle, or move” (Coe and Coe 120).

Once introduced, the molinillo quickly became adopted by the native Mesoamericans, as evidenced in this image of an American Indian with a chocolate pot and molinillo next to his feet from 1693. Based on just this drawing, the origin of each of the objects, especially the molinillo seems ambiguous, as the man pictured here may be a Native Aztec or a Creole Spaniard. Thus, this shows the complicated nature of the exchange between the two worlds.

OLD DRAWING OF AN AMERICAN INDIAN; AT HIS FEET A CHOCOLATE-CUP, CHOCOLATE-POT, AND CHOCOLATE WHISK OR “MOLINET.” (From Traitez Nouveaux et Curieux du Café, du Thé, et du Chocolate. Dufour, 1693).

Another highly disputed topic, even today, is the linguistic origin of our word “chocolate”. According to Thomas Gage, an Englishman who travelled the New World, the word chocolate (chocolatte in his text) originated as a hybrid of the Nahuatl word atl, meaning water, and the sound from which the water mixed with chocolate makes when it is stirred to frothing with a molinet (an English word for the molinillo at the time), “choco, choco, choco” (Gage). Because the molinillo was a New World innovation around the 16th century, we can hypothesize that Gage’s retelling doesn’t represent the whole story of how chocolate received its name. Modern scholars in fact tend to agree that the world chocolate was more likely a hybrid between the Maya word “chocol”, cacao and the Aztec word “atl”, water, a hybrid that first occurred in print around 1570 (Coe and Coe 117-119). In this theory, the molinillo may have been just a bystander.

Today, the molinillo is used widely in Mexico and around the world – more evidence that the innovation has crossed cultural borders many times over and has been adopted by many different peoples. The innovation itself, though originally a Creole Spanish creation, was shaped through Aztec linguistic influences and itself shaped Aztec culture and even possibly the linguistic origins of our own “chocolate” word today. By studying artifacts such as this, we can see how complicated the New World – Old World hybridizations can become, and how they can produce mutually influential outcomes.

Multimedia Sources




Works Cited

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

Gage, Thomas. The English-American, His Travail by Sea and Land, Or, A New Survey of the West-India’s. London: R. Cotes, 1648. Early English Books Online. Web. 15 Feb. 2015.

Ledesma, Antonio Colmenero De. A Curious Treatise of the Nature and Quality of Chocolate. Written in Spanish by Antonio Colmenero, Doctor in Physicke and Chirurgery. And Put into English by Don Diego De Vades-forte. London: By I. Okes, Dwelling in Little St. Bartholomewes, 1640. Early English Books Online. Web. 15 Feb. 2015.

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

History Of Chocolate: Establishing Differences Between Mayans and Aztecs

Artifacts from Mesoamerica and journals of Spanish explorers depicting the usage of cacao and chocolate emphasize the differences between the cultures and values of the Mayans and Aztecs. These differences help to distinguish the unique beliefs and traditions which the Mayans and Aztecs had. The multimedia and scholarly examples in this post will help to illustrate them.

Both, Mayans and Aztecs, likely considered chocolate a sacred drink. In this first example, a Research Scholar from the New College of Florida, Dr. Gabrielle Vail gives a detailed description on the Mayans’ usage of Cacao. She explains how Mayans of all classes were able to have chocolate through ceremonies and rituals.


A conclusion can be drawn that the Mayan royals were able to share chocolate with their subjects despite the obvious sacred enigma assigned to the chocolate drink. The Mayans seemed to have believed in the unity of the Mayan commoners and royal people. The portrayal of the cacao tree and chocolate come up in Mayan artifacts and manuscripts which likely depict an important spiritual concept.

This is a Mayan vase from the Guatemala Highlands which depicts a moment from the rare Mayan codex titled Popol Vuh. A Maize God’s head remains suspended from a Cacao tree after the Lords of the dead had slain him. However, the Maize God remains alive throughout the codex (Coe and Coe, 39).

Here in this image is the Maize God’s head hanging from the tree. It looks like he was meant to be a part of it.

This scene and the depiction of the cacao tree can be interpreted as a transformation or a renewal. It seems that the Mayans had beliefs that imply spiritual change in deities. It is likely that the Mayans focused less on human sacrifice and more on the spiritual evolution and rebirth. The cacao plant can be interpreted as a symbol of spiritual growth as well. The cacao pods could symbolize a new life sprouting into the world. Unlike the Mayan royals sharing chocolate and extending their beliefs of rebirth to the commoners, the Aztecs had a different approach to cacao and chocolate.

Maricel Presilla, an expert on Cacao and chocolate, describes the Historia General written by Bernardino De Sagahun, a Franciscan Friar. She discusses and quotes Sagahun’s work which describes the Aztecs’ strict rules on who was allowed to drink chocolate. “Cacao’s importance can be glimpsed when Sagahun explains proverbially called ‘heart and blood’ – a treasured substance drunk by lords and distinguished persons ‘because it was worth much and there was very little of it. If one of the common people drank it, if they drank it without sanction, it would cost them their life. For this reason it was called Yollotli eztli: the price of blood and heart” (Presilla, 19). From this, it appears likely that the Aztecs had a strong hierarchy. It seems that Aztec Royals believed that this sacred drink should be exclusively in their possession. They would not allow access to chocolate for the common people, unless the latter were warriors (Coe & Coe, 98). Alike their punishments for commoners who dared to taste chocolate, the Aztecs’ beliefs on what chocolate symbolizes are more graphic.

This is the Codex Fejervary Mayer. It is an ancient pre-Columbian manuscript created by the Aztecs which portrays the cacao tree in one section of it. It is in “the direction of The Land of the Dead, associated with the color red, the color of blood” (Coe & Coe, 101).

The Cacao tree on this part of the codex can be seen on the right in between two Aztec Gods.

The Aztecs seem to have beliefs based on human sacrifices. The Aztecs’ depiction of their religious beliefs was more dismal and atrocious comparing to the Mayans’. The scene from this codex could be interpreted as a warning. Perhaps this scene represents people paying for their sins through sacrifice and confinement to the Underworld.

To conclude, the history of chocolate in Mesoamerica exposes the differences in culture and beliefs between Mayans and Aztecs.

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

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