Tag Archives: chocolate houses

Chocolate, Hybridization, and Forgetting Our Colonial Past

The mainstream and commercial accounts of the European – Mayan encounter, beginning with Columbus’ “discovery” of chocolate in America and ending with its hybrid forms in Europe, have a tendency to misrepresent the story’s imbalances in power and knowledge and the ever-present legacy of colonial exploitation that the incidence of chocolate in Western culture represents.


A depiction of Christopher Columbus’ heroic arrival the New World: http://toriavey.com/images/2012/10/Landing-of-Christopher-Columbus-in-America-at-San-Salvador-October-12th-A.D-640×479.jpg

Cadbury, the second largest confectionary brand in the world, and the US’s National Confectioners Association both erroneously support a narrative of chocolate’s discovery that suggests that it was a long process of European improvements to an ancient people’s exotic dietary habit (Cadbury, “The Great Chocolate Discovery;” National Confectioners Association, “The Story of Chocolate”). Cadbury explains that Christopher Columbus brought the “first cocoa beans back to Europe” from his fourth visit to the ‘New World’ but that “far more exciting treasures on board his galleons” distracted the Spanish from chocolate until Hernan Cortes recognized the beans’ commercial value in 1528. Additionally, Cadbury describes how “once Don Cortes had provided the Spanish with a supply of cocoa beans and the equipment to make the chocolate drink,” the Spanish used a series of experiments and “pharmaceutical skills” to adjust the drink with their spices and replace unfamiliar Mesoamerican flavors like chili pepper. Examples of adjustments include the alleged Spanish discovery that “chocolate tasted even better served hot” and an assertion that the English “improved the drink by adding milk.” The Confectioners Association makes a similar claim: they contend that, “unlike the Mesoamericans, the Spaniards kept their discovery on the hush. For nearly 100 years, Spanish aristocrats secretly sipped this new delicacy. They also continued to experiment, adding cinnamon and vanilla to the sugar and serving it steaming hot.”


An English chocolate house: http://www.thestoryofchocolate.com/Who/content.cfm?ItemNumber=3446

In their descriptions of hybridization, Cadbury and the Association demarcate between the inferior tastes and capacities of the Aztec and Maya and the enhancements and amendments made by Europeans. They suggest that the Mesoamericans failed, first in keeping chocolate a “secret” and second, by being unable to fully innovate. Such claims support a narrative in which unknowing natives are rescued and improved by civilized and enterprising Europeans. Their story is one in which whites use their skills to take and instantaneously improve – ignoring not only the native peoples’ involvement in chocolate’s transmutations, but also erasing the Europeans’ own fumbles and failures throughout.

As Sophie and Michael Coe recount in The True History of Chocolate and Dr. Robert Temple argues in his article “Columbus Meets the Maya and Chocolate,” the context leading to chocolate’s hybridization is much more complex and confusing than a tale of European rescue and improvement. Christopher Columbus’ voyage to Guanaja was a desperate one – after being removed from his post in the Indies, stripped of his titles by the Spanish court, and defeated by the Portuguese in a race to the East Indies, Columbus’ final trip was an attempt to save his image. When he met the Mayan people, it was not encounter telling of European expertise. As Coe and Coe describe, Columbus and his crew overtook a Mayan vessel of goods without resistance only to misjudge its most valuable product (cocoa) for almonds. Despite noting that the “almonds” were so revered that Mayans would stoop to pick them up as though an “eye had fallen,” Columbus failed to investigate their worth (Coe and Coe). Instead, he was eventually duped by the local people into continuing his unsuccessful journeys elsewhere (Temple).

 The film 1492, as shown in class. This cinematic reproduction of Columbus’ discovery of Guanaja is almost comical in light of Temple and Coe & Coe’s accounts.

The rest of the encounter and transformations of chocolate is equally as convoluted. Coe and Coe maintain that the creation of a “creolized culture” of mixed local and European people was crucial to introducing chocolate into the diets of Europeans, who were otherwise staunchly averse to the drink. Even after the hybridizations of the product and its tools began, the process was still not one of European “finding” and “improving.” Many of the ascribed European improvements had Mesoamerican roots. Coe and Coe refute the claim that whites were the first to decide to drink it hot, noting that the practice “[had] been adapted from the usage of the Yucatec Maya.” Further, they note that the manufacture of the drink to a wafer was a practice used by Aztec warriors and that “the Spaniards merely seized on these wafers as a convenient way to store and ship” cocoa.

Therefore, Cadbury and the Association’s narratives of chocolate discovery perform a sort of epistemic violence that erases the contributions and value of native people from the final global chocolate product. Jill Lane’s “Becoming Chocolate, a Tale of Racial Translation,” contains commentary that lends insight to this culture of false histories. She says such an insistence “it seems to me, is a way of disavowing, hiding, or forgetting [one’s] colonial racial past.”

Works Cited

Michael Coe and Sophie Coe, The True History of Chocolate (London: Thames and Hudson, 2013).

Kraft Foods Ltd, “The Great Chocolate Discovery,” Cadbury, https://www.cadbury.com.au/About-Chocolate/Discovering-Chocolate.aspx (accessed February 20, 2014)

Robert Temple, “Columbus Meets the Maya and Chocolate,” The Yucatan Times, April 13, 2014. Accessed on February 20. http://www.theyucatantimes.com/2014/04/columbus-meets-the-maya-and-chocolate/

National Confectioners Association, “The Story of Chocolate: Europeans,” http://www.thestoryofchocolate.com/Who/content.cfm?ItemNumber=3446

Jill Lane, “Becoming Chocolate, a Tale of Racial Translation,” Theatre Journal 59, no. 3 (1997): 382

The Importance of English Chocolate Houses

In the midst of the 16th century, Chocolate arrives in Spain marking the beginning of its introduction to the European countries.  Soon after, the custom of drinking chocolate increases in popularity and spreads across Europe, reaching England specifically in the 1650s.  Soon after, in London the first chocolate house is born in 1657.  A chocolate house can be best described as a club designed to accommodate the chocolate drinking of the wealthy and elite with an atmosphere vaguely similar to modern day coffee houses.  Due to the deluxe and delectable nature of chocolate during this era, chocolate houses were “central to London’s gregarious-all-male-gregarious-social life of the time.”  However, despite the Chocolate Houses’ reputation as being incredibly classist by nature and segregated, in terms of income level and gender, or their depiction as “the most fashionable hell in London” (Green 1), chocolate houses established a market for chocolate consumption and a demand for chocolate as a product that later translated into the highly accessible and highly desired product it is today.

When the custom of drinking chocolate hot started to become popular in England, the country currently had little tradition of drinking hot beverages as coffee had only arrived five years prior.  For this reason, “chocolate was an alien, suspect substance drink associated with popery and idleness.” (Green 1)  Additionally, a form of the chocolate drink was currently sold at the already much more established coffee houses, however; the drink was not popular among this crowd since the beverage cost more due to its rare and luxurious demeanor and the caffeine content was much lower than that of either coffee or tea.  Coffee shop customers wanted much more “bang” (caffeine) for their buck, and for this reason, hot chocolate did not gain popularity in the coffee houses and was a secondary, less popular option in addition to coffee or tea.  The establishment of chocolate houses is crucial as these locations created an environment in which chocolate was sought out and was the only product being sold.

Cadbury_and_chocolate_history_of_chocolate_a_new_ingredient.jpg (500×363)
Chocolate advertisement for a Cadbury’s product.

As mentioned above, the first English chocolate house opened in London in 1657 and chocolate houses in Florence and Venice started to gain notoriety in the early 1700s.   Of one of the first documented advertisements for the chocolate houses declared that: “In Bishopgate St., in Queen’s Head Alley, at a Frenchman’s house, is an excellent West Indian drink called Chocolate to be sold, where you may have it ready at any time and also unmade at reasonable rates” (Cadbury.com 1) (the chocolate houses also sold premade samples of the chocolate drink to be later made at home) thus creating an exciting new market full of mystery and wonder.  One of the most notable chocolate houses, White’s Chocolate House, opened its shop in the fashionable St. James street neighborhood in 1693 by Frances White, an Italian immigrant.  St. James Square was a self-contained (and self-segregated) aristocratic neighborhood full of the homes of nobles and gentry in close locational proximity to Charles II’s (a huge proponent of the chocolate houses who often brought a subset of his many mistress to fraternize with while enjoying his chocolate) favorite palace, thus making it the perfect region and allowing chocolate to be “consumed in one of the most exclusive addresses in Europe by the crème de la crème of British society, cementing chocolate’s association with decadence and luxury in the popular imagination.” (Green 1)  Two other important chocolate houses are that of Ozinda’s, which was also located in the St. James Street region, and the Cocoa Tree, which was located in the Pall Mall region and thus served as the more respectable, informal headquarters of the Tory party where policy and parliamentary strategy were conducted over chocolate. (Green 1)  In modern day, the club that formerly housed White’s Chocolate House remains to be an exclusive gentlemen’s club with current notable members such as Charles, Prince of Wales; Prince William, Duke of Cambridge; Conrad Black and Tom Stacey.  The luxurious and trendy neighborhoods that housed the chocolate houses as well as the notable and elite clientele further supported an environment that thus led to the current modern depiction of chocolate as being a luxurious and decadent product that couldn’t be more different from the powdery, watery froth that is known as hot chocolate in modern day. (sci-news.com, see recipe).

300px-White's_Club_St_James's_Street_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1375768.jpg (300×225)
Building that housed the chocolate house formerly known as White’s Chocolate House

The chocolate houses of London’s Georgian times provide an establishment in which the wealthy and elite could meet their peers to enjoy various rich chocolate drinks meanwhile discussing the pressing topics in politics or high-society gossip.  Although the exclusivity of the clubs and the high prices of enjoying chocolate at these establishments (patrons paid not only for the expensive beverage but often times, an admittance fee) was incredibly classist and did not contribute in making chocolate the economically accessible product it is now today.  The environment portrayed in the chocolate houses, the status of the patrons of these clubs, and the luxurious demeanor of the neighborhoods hosting these locations were crucial in creating a purpose and demand for chocolate, thus contributing to the establishment of chocolate as a luxurious and decadent product in current times.

Works Cited:

“Discovering Chocolate.” Discovering Chocolate. Cadbury.com.au, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.


“Europeans.” – The Story of Chocolate. Thestoryofchocolate.com, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.


Green, Matthew. “The Surprising History of London’s Lost Chocolate Houses.” The Telegraph.

Telegraph Media Group, 13 Dec. 2013. Web. 20 Feb. 2014. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/uk/london/10515620/The-surprising-history-of-Londons-lost-chocolate-houses.html&gt;.

Morton, Marcia, and Sidney Morton. “London’s Chocolate Houses.” Chocolate: An Illustrated

History. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 21-23. Herb Museum. Web. 20 Feb. 2014. <http://www.herbmuseum.ca/content/londons-chocolate-houses&gt;.

“Scientist Finds Manuscript with First English Recipes for Iced Chocolate Desserts.” Breaking

Science News SciNewscom. Sci-News.com, 4 Sept. 2013. Web. 20 Feb. 2014. <http://www.sci-news.com/archaeology/science-recipes-iced-chocolate-desserts-01354.html&gt;.