When an aptly named German chocolate brand “Super Dickmann’s” posted this image of Meghan Markle, some people got upset while others laughed at their sensitivity.
The German employee in charge of the corporate Facebook account was likely not aware that the comparison between African women and chocolate is imbued with historical misogynoir. Misogynoir, a term coined by black feminist Moya Bailey (Anyangwe, 2015), is double discrimination faced by black women where bias is both race and gender-based (Verve Team, 2018).
While women have long been seen as buyers, preparers and religious devotees of chocolate, the earliest depictions associated with chocolate were those of infants such as cupids or angels (Martin, 2020). Later, chocolate became associated with an idealized image of white womanhood, as society women became an important consumer demographic. An 1874 New York Times issue announced that wealthy women were the biggest purchasers of an “elaborate style of French candies.” New ads featured elegant white women and were meant to appeal to both the tastes of upper-class consumers and the aspirations of lower-class ones (Robertson, 2010).
Such ads put white consumers at the forefront and minimized chocolate’s roots in West African agriculture. Romanticized images of white agricultural workers such as of this milkmaid carrying pails attempted to further erase chocolates’ African origins (Robertson, 2010).
These fictionalized images associated the labor required to produce chocolate with “wholesome whiteness” in the minds of consumers (Robertson, 2010). Notably, a 1930 Cadbury ad that does feature African women, shows them as faceless silhouettes balancing baskets brimming with cocoa pods on their heads (Robertson, 2010). While white women associated with chocolate were bestowed with good taste and wholesomeness, black women were dehumanized and fetishized through racist depictions.
In 1947 a new character “Honeybunch” was created to advertise Rowntree’s Cocoa (Robertson, 2010). Honeybunch looked infantile – barefoot and with bows in her hair. In this ad, she is dehumanized through the juxtaposition of her “imagined” character to “real” white people in the ad (Robertson, 2010).
A 1950 ad goes further to depict Honeybunch as a spring bouncing out of tin of cocoa – an example of a common trope of Africans drawn as actual cocoa (Robertson, 2010) This association of a person with an edible object further solidifies the idea that black people are false commodities (Polanyi, 2001). According to Polanyi, labor is one of those fictitious commodities to which the market mechanisms should not apply (2001). According to Polanyi, not only labor but also the laborer can become commodities for sale if the commodity function of labor is prioritized (2001). Commodity function of labor is the low labor cost for the sake of lower prices, and in the case of chocolate, low labor costs help support higher remuneration for cocoa processors and chocolate producers instead of African workers. This problem persists into modernity: according to the Cocoa Barometer, cocoa farmer households earn merely 37% of living income in Côte d’Ivoire, the leader in cocoa bean production supplying 40% of world’s cocoa (2018).
Blackness is also objectified and commodified through the association between black skin and chocolate – a trope that still pervades today. Food-related descriptions have long been used to describe dark skin. While light foundation shades are often called “nude” or “fair,” darker shades are often named after commodities such as cocoa or coffee. This further solidifies the toxic idea that white womanhood is the default, and objectifies black womanhood through comparisons with edible objects.
Even black women of the same status as the white women in chocolate ads are not immune to dehumanizing fetishization. In 1976, a magazine editor described supermodel Iman as “a white woman dipped in chocolate,” (Oliver, 2015). The editor’s baffling comment is akin to Charlie’s question about whether the Oompa Loompas, which were distinctly African in the original book, are made out of chocolate (Robertson, 2010).
The fact that class cannot protect black women from misogynoir sheds critical light on “respectability politics,” an ideology that emphasizes the need for black people to gain respect and “uplift the race” by correcting ‘undesirable” characteristics and embodying desirable ones (Harris, 2014). Racist treatment of Iman despite her social prominence parallels the way companies such as Rowntree or Cadbury used depictions of black girls and women like Honeybunch for their “distinct difference” while dehumanizing them.
Pat McGrath, one of the most prominent makeup artists of the century, also had a cocoa related story that shed light on how designers who hire black models failed to provide them with equal supplies. McGrath often had to use cocoa powder on set because she wasn’t provided with darker makeup shades (Prinzivalli, 2019).
A group of black women has found a way to use the association between dark skin and chocolate for their benefit, creating a food-inspired makeup brand “Beauty Bakerie,” which counts cocoa-flavored powder among its products.
And what about Pat McGrath who had to use food instead of makeup? Her beauty empire is now worth almost a billion dollars – and her dark foundation colors are named Medium Deep and Deep instead of cocoa and chocolate (Mpinja, 2018).
Art reflects the values and mores of a society. By analyzing ancient artworks, we can learn much about a culture. Art from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, for example, reflect the important role of wine in ceremonial life. These ancient artworks depict wine gods, royal feasts, wedding celebrations, and funeral rites with wine vessels prominently displayed. An analysis of artwork from ancient Mayan society reveals that, rather than wine, the Mayan people prized chocolate. Indeed, chocolate appears to function in an almost identical role as wine did in those other ancient societies, taking on significant roles in religion, celebrations, court life, and even funeral processions. Dating from 670 to 750 CE, the Princeton Vase subtly communicates the sacred and all-encompassing nature of cacao in the Maya civilization.
The Princeton Vase
The Princeton Vase features several scenes, including a representation of royal life, one of chocolate beverage-making, and one mythological proportions. On one side of the vase, an elderly god without any teeth sits on a throne within a palace, which is represented by the cornice above him and the pier behind him. Curtains, which were used as doors in the ancient Mayan society, are pulled up to display the scene. Known as God L among scholars, this figure wears a shawl and a hat ornamented with owl feathers and an owl. God L ruled the underworld and was also a patron god of tobacco and merchants (Princeton). Five female figures, who may be concubines, surround him, and a rabbit scribe sits below him, writing in a book.
To the right of the king, a woman stands bent over with a vessel like the Princeton Vase in both size and shape, pouring a liquid down into what is probably another vessel – unfortunately, that part of the vase has been eroded. This scene likely depicts the common method of preparing the chocolate beverage that this vessel served at the time. This is the first known picture of a chocolate beverage being made, showing the pouring back and forth between vessels that was used to create a prized foam (Coe).
The next scene is that of two men wearing detailed masks and holding axes decapitating an unclothed bound figure, who has a serpent coming out of him to bite one of the executioners. This scene resembles a section of the Popol Vuh, a Mayan mythological text written in the 1500s about the Hero Twins who trick the gods of the underworld into requesting their own decapitations (Princeton). The text at the upper edge of the vessel consecrated it and specified that the vase was intended for drinking “maize tree” chocolate, in addition to naming its owner (a lord called MuWaan K’uk’). The vase would have been used in “courtly feasts” like the one displayed on it (Princeton).
The significance of cacao
As depicted on the vase, chocolate served a social function in Mayan society. Converting the cacao pod to a chocolate beverage was a time-consuming and laborious process that brought people together. While co-directing an archeological project in Mexico, anthropologist Joel Palka, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, still meets people who create chocolate as a family tradition and cultural practice. This custom, he says, is “part of their identity” (qtd. in Garthwaite). Cacao drinks in Mayan society were associated with high status and special events, including many rituals (Garthwaite). These beverages were even involved in marriage, both in dowries and the ceremony itself (Martin). In Guatemala, early records of Mayan marriages show that sometimes a woman would have to make a cacao beverage to prove that she was capable of making it with the proper froth (Garthwaite). Cacao also became integrated into religion and law, with recovered paintings from the time showcasing its use in mythological scenes and court proceedings (Garthwaite). The beans were also used as a form of currency, based on archaeologist Joanne Baron’s analysis of Mayan artwork from about 691 CE to 900 CE (Learn). Lastly, cacao was considered important enough that it even traveled to the underworld, with the deceased’s body surrounded by pottery dishes, vases, and bowls, of which the latter two often contained several different types of chocolate beverages (Coe). Cacao was a constant in Mayan society, present for all major milestones, special occasions, and transactions, even in death.
The revealing nature of the Princeton Vase
The Princeton Vase informs us of the centrality of chocolate to Mayan life. By including a woman making a chocolate beverage with a tall cylindrical vessel just like the Princeton Vase alongside scenes of death, heroism, godliness, and court life, the vase’s creator emphasizes the lofty level at which Mayans regarded chocolate. Moreover, a post-Conquest source attributes the invention of the processing of cacao to someone named Hunahpú (Coe), which just so happens to be the name of one of the Hero Twins from the Popol Vuh who is thought to be depicted on the vase. In a subtle, understated fashion, this vase pays homage to the mythological creation of chocolate, and tells of the earthly ways chocolate presented itself in the life and death of royals and gods.
Today, cacao is prominent in Western society, but it is an everyday treat for all, from children to adults and the poor to the wealthy. While enjoyed by many, it is not elevated in contemporary society. For the Mayans, however, it was sacrosanct and vital to religious rituals, feasts for royalty, weddings, funeral offerings, and economic currency. This crucial role of cacao is depicted in Mayan art, which reflects the values and customs of Mayan society. The Princeton Vase exemplifies this phenomenon by linking the act of creating a chocolate beverage to gods, heroes, feasting, and death, showcasing the enormous cultural significance of cacao.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed., Thames and Hudson, 2013.
The significance of chocolate holds a profound and broad importance in our modern day American society. Chocolate has been incorporated in our everyday life as an indulgence.The commonly found sweet treat melts in one’s mouth, and in American culture, is used to melt one’s heart! However, chocolate is not bound by its asset of sweetness, as that asset was incorporated into chocolate fairly recently; chocolate can be bitter and brittle, and can even be featured as a drink! There are many types of chocolate varying by texture and taste, and the good has evolved over the ages, and so has its pairwise culture as it has moved from society to society, but all types stem from cacao. The original chocolate/cacao and its production can be traced all the way back to Pre-Columbian civilizations where it was valued highly and reserved for nobility and important people. In that time, Cacao was much more than a sweet, refreshing treat: it was a vital and versatile part in Pre-Columbian traditions including religion, status, and health. These traditions are portrayed in several interesting artifacts allowing us to better understand cacao’s significance in the Aztec, Mayan, Olmec and other Mesoamerican societies. Analysis of these artifacts allows us to discern that the culture of cacao has been distorted and watered down over the ages, and this can be seen in a comparison of modern day chocolate related activities to its ancient roots.
Modern day practices with chocolate primarily involve mass production and consumption of chocolate. Because of the bustling chocolate industry, people from all over the world are able to experience and indulge in a version of cacao, thus somewhat honoring the importance of cacao through enjoying its consumption. However, historical companies like Cadbury and others have significantly watered down the original culture of the product in order to capture a larger target market. The process of making chocolate used to be a niche and special thing and rarely resulted in the type of sugar-infused chocolate bars that we love today. There were various unique recipes and methods of production for the cacao beans. In cacao’s historical roots, every part of production was done by hand. Cacao beans were obtained from open cacao pods and were fermented, then dried, then roasted and winnowed, and then finally ground into the “chocolate liquor” paste.
Once this product was created, there were various ways to proceed in the making of the final product. Popular preparations of the time included fresh cacao pulp batidos, cacao and chile balls, and cacao and corn based beverages.
However, as the world became more interconnected over time, cacao production was adopted and altered primarily by Europeans in the mid to late 1600’s. “Europe is the biggest processor of cacao as well as the largest per-capita consumer of cacao” (Martin & Sampeck 2016, 37). Thus, Europeans altered cacao recipes to better suit their taste and culture. “The industrial chocolate that they produced was higher in sugar and less complex in taste compared to the variety of local chocolate makers” (Martin & Sampeck 2016, 37). So as the primary production center of cacao shifted from Mesoamerica to Europe, variety and quality of the product mattered less to the masses, and cacao’s original tastes were neglected. The driving force for this change in chocolate production was the introduction of chocolate to the world, and the resulting different chocolate consumption.
Cacao consumption was extremely significant in Mesoamerican culture. There weren’t many who were able to consume it every day, especially because of its cultural importance, not just because of its scarcity. “People in Central America and Mexico linked cacao and vital cosmological forces. These associations made cacao the proper offering in rituals related to fertility, health and travel as well as consecrating social unions such as marriage” (Sampeck & Schwartzkopf 2017, 74). Cacao was held in high regard in its original culture and we can confirm this through the analysis of Mesoamerican artifacts. Inscriptions on “monogrammed vases”, such as the one presented, reflect how the Mesoamericans “invested meaning in cacao” through their consumption and production (Martin & Sampeck 39). Analyzing a variety of inscriptions allows us to further understand the presence of cacao and chocolate in one’s life, and we can discern that cacao was pivotal during major social events such as religious practices, marriage rituals and funerals. In marriage ceremonies, cacao beverages were shared between the groom and the bride’s father during a pre-martial discussion. Cacao was dried and dyed red during funeral procession and was believed to ease the soul into the afterlife.
These cacao beverages were prepared in a very sacred practice in ancient Mesoamerica. The primary ingredients were corn and cacao. In the making and drinking of the beverage, it was crucial that it had a frothy foam on top as it was believed that it “satisfies the soul.”
On the contrary, once the primary consumption and production of cacao shifted away from Mesoamerica, chocolate lost a little part of its identity. All of the tangible practices of production and consumption of cacao were stolen – the Europeans even crafted their own chocolate consumption drinking vessels – and barely any of the cultural practices that made cacao so special in its original culture were adopted. Instead, Europeans looked to make cacao production the most efficient. They imposed on Africa and coerced African labor for cacao production. And those historical shifts have had lasting impacts today. The ones on the frontline – the farmers – who wether the hot sun and the excruciating physical labor to harvest cacao beans have almost no power in the supply chain of chocolate. According to the “Cocoa Barometer 2018” smallholder cocoa farmers in Cote d’lvoire, already struggling with poverty, have seen their income from cocoa decline by as much as 30-40% from one year to the next”(Fountain & Huetz-Adams 2018, 10), and this is just on example of the perpetuated injustice that grips the chocolate industry. Although Europeans found a way to globalize chocolate for the taste buds of all, the sacrifice of culture and humanity is too monumental.
In conclusion, traditional ways of producing and consuming cacao have been neglected in exchange for the health of an industry that was built upon the tired backs of Africans and South Americans. The significance of cacao in the Pre-Columbian era can be examined in artifacts and documents dating back to the 15th century, and we can learn a lot from them about this faded culture. We can see through these artifacts that their beliefs and culture revolved around these special Theobroma trees, and it is quite fascinating to see how the ancients interacted with cacao.
Connecting the establishment of chattel slavery in the Americas to the development of the culture of taste begins with the historical analysis of both commodity crops and chattel slavery as fundamental to the development of capitalism. Crops such as cacao, sugar, rum, tobacco, and coffee, were introduced to and commodified by Europeans in the span of over 400 years. As the economic value of these crops rose within European society, so did the demand for them. Chattel slavery was a direct response to this demand. From 1500-1900 approximately 15 million Africans were forcibly transported across the Atlantic Ocean and enslaved in the Americas. Enslaved Africans were treated as the “chattel” or personal property of an owner and were therefore bought and sold as commodities. Owners forced enslaved Africans to work on highly surveilled plantations, producing commodity crops. Sugar produced a greater influx of slaves than the other crops and the labor of fifty-thousand enslaved Africans was required to produce 20,000 tons of sugar a year for English consumers. Chattel slavery became fundamental to economic gain for Europeans because of the demand for commodity crops.
Over time slavery became a key element of white self-fashioning identity and therefore slavery became entangled with the culture of taste. In Slavery and the Culture of Taste, Simon Gikandi defines the culture of taste as “the world of politeness, manners, and aesthetics” (Gikandi 2011, x). Slavery, especially the cruelties of slavery, was seen as a taint to good taste and therefore left out of the narrative high culture. Gikandi explains this as having to do with the Western world’s culture of modernity with defined itself by human values that were contrary to the establishment of slavery (Gikandi 2011, 4). Despite the rejection of slavery from the narrative of high culture, ownership of slaves remained a symbol of status and wealth. One of the most popular mediums for flaunting good “taste” was displaying enslaved black people in portraits. Medieval and Renaissance Era art featured black servants and slaves as “accessories” to the high culture white bourgeois. Additionally, in these depictions of black people, their facial features were exaggerated and are presently deemed as racist caricatures. The caricatured aspect of these portraits also demonstrates how the rise of racism derived from slavery and is also very much entangled with the culture of taste.
So, how does all of this connect to chocolate? In addition to slavery being a direct response to the growing popularity of commodity crops, enslaved black people were often depicted on advertisements for food regarded as high culture such as chocolate. As enslaved black people featured in portraits became a symbol of wealth became popularized, chocolate manufacturers capitalized and began advertising using racist caricatures to establish their product as tasteful. In this vein, the word “taste” in the culture of taste holds a dual meaning.
As an early form of advertising, trade emerged in the late 1860s. These trade cards were produced at a relatively low cost and were slipped into shopping bags and used for product packaging. In Racial Indigestion, Kyla Wazana Tompkins explains the importance of these trade cards,
“The effective excess and semiotic overload of these images encode the use of disgust to facilitate and accompany the white bourgeois consumer’s disavow and enjoyment of commodity pleasure. Here I am understanding disgust as the form of pleasure-in-excess that often accompanies comedy. Disgust here is married not only to the disavowal of big affect—joy, pain, desire, pleasure—away from the white, Protestant, middle-class body and onto black, Asian, and ethnic white bodies; it is also, seemingly inversely, married to envy and desire. Disgust is thus born of the everyday public encounter with bodies that seem to enjoy what whiteness is meant to disavow” (Tompkins 2012, 150).
In both using black bodies as a means to demonstrate good taste, and by using racist misrepresentations of black bodies, the white public sphere dehumanizes enslaved black people in order to justify slavery and the exclusion of slavery from the narrative of high culture.
Depictions of enslaved black people in art and advertising regarded as high culture and tasteful exemplify how the display of black bodies became a symbol of status and taste for the white bourgeois. The development of the culture of taste is inextricable from the establishment of chattel slavery and “tasteful” foods. The enslavement of Africans and the economic system employed from this exploitation led to the culture of taste that depended on overlooking the antithetical nature of slavery to the Western World’s culture of modernity for economic gain and good taste.
Gikandi, Simon. Slavery and the Culture of Taste. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.
Today, if you ask the average American to describe the use of chocolate in their society, they will likely regale you with happy stories of enjoying chocolate rabbits on Easter morning or giving heart-shaped boxes of chocolate to a loved one on Valentine’s Day. Chocolate is beloved for the role that it plays in many western rituals, including Halloween, Christmas, and others, but few would venture that chocolate holds a deeply important place in American society. Similarly, while chocolate is a multi-billion-dollar industry in the United States, few would advance that the chocolate industry is a pillar upon which the economy rests (Professor Martin, “Introduction”). Chocolate is considered a sweet treat or an indulgence, but not an object of tremendous religious or economic significance in modern American society.
However, in the Pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica, where the cultivation and consumption of cacao originated, cacao was of the utmost religious, economic, and cultural importance. To prove this point, I will describe in detail many of the uses of cacao in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica to illustrate the important role that cacao played in the religion, economy, and culture of these magnificent societies.
The importance of cacao to the religion of the Pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica is exemplified by the Dresden Codex of the Maya civilization. The Dresden Codex, the oldest surviving book from the Americas, is believed to be dated to the 13th or 14th century and describes the association between cacao and religion. Cacao is featured throughout the document, which even describes the Mayan gods consuming cacao. The gods are portrayed as seated and enjoying delicious dishes of cacao beans, above which is written the label “his cacao.” Furthermore, the below image from the Dresden Codex presents the Opossum God carrying the Rain God on his back and reads: “Cacao is his food” (Coe and Coe, 2013). In this way, cacao is represented as a food of the Gods and is therefore very closely associated with the religion of the Maya civilization.
Below: An illustration from the Dresden Codex (Professor Martin).
Similarly, in the Aztec civilization, cacao and the cacao tree form an important part of religious understanding and the civilization’s relationship with the divine. This is revealed by the Codex Féjévary-Mayer, a document believed to depict the Aztec civilization in the 14th through 16th centuries. The Codex Féjévary-Mayer depicts four trees dividing the world up by the cardinal directions (“The Codex Féjévary-Mayer”). As can be seen in the image below, the tree on the right side of the codex, the Tree of the South, is a cacao tree emerging from the jaws of the Underworld serpent. The tree is flanked by the Cinteotl, the Aztec god of maize, on one side, and Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of death, on the other (Coe and Coe, 2013). The cacao tree is closely associated with the Underworld, Cinteotl, and Mictlantecuhtli in the Codex Féjévary-Mayer, displaying the religious importance of cacao in the Aztec society. These examples, from both the Maya and Aztec civilizations, illustrate the important role that cacao played in the religious thought of the Pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica.
Below: An illustration from the Codex Féjévary-Mayer (Wikipedia Commons).
Cacao was also tremendously important to the economic functioning of the Pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica. The Maya civilization never used fiat currency, opting instead to rely on systems of bartering and trading. The work of archaeologist Joanne Baron has revealed that by the 8th century, the Maya civilization developed beyond one-off bartering and began using cacao beans as a form of currency. As part of her research, Baron documented over 150 different scenes on Maya ceramics and murals, dating from between 700-600 C.E. These scenes depict goods being delivered to Mayan leaders as a form of tax. The most frequently-occurring such good is cacao beans, delivered in bulk in woven bags (Learn, 2018). Literature reveals that in the Aztec civilization, like the Maya, collected cacao as a form of tax from the population (“Chocolate Use in Early Aztec Cultures”).
Additionally, in The True History of Chocolate, it is revealed how in both the Maya and Aztec civilizations, many different types of laborers working for the state would be paid cacao beans as their daily wage (Coe and Coe, 2013). In this way, the use of cacao as a currency was tremendously important to the functioning of the state in both the Maya and Aztec civilizations, as cacao beans were used to levy taxes to fund the state and to pay laborers working for the state. Therefore, cacao was deeply important to the economy and state-functioning of the Pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica.
Cacao was also used in the Pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica in various cultural rituals, making it an integral element of the cultural cohesion and unity of these remarkable civilizations. For the Maya civilization, cacao was both a sign of social prestige and a social centerpiece. Anthropologist Joel Palka describes how the process of preparing cacao was grounded in social relations in the Maya civilization, as it brought many people together. Palka argues that cacao production was more than the mere production of a good, rather, it was an important tradition and cultural practice, making cacao deeply significant to the cultural identity of the Maya civilization (Garthwaite, 2015). Cacao, because it was difficult to grow and produce, became associated with high status and special occasions. For example, cacao was tremendously important in Mayan marriage rituals, known as “tac haa,” which translates to “the serving of chocolate.” Cacao was commonly given by a suitor to the father of a potential-bride in order to begin the marriage negotiations. Furthermore, cacao was used in Mayan funerary rituals, as it was believed that the stimulant properties of cacao would aid the soul on its journey to the underworld (Professor Martin, “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods’”).
Similarly, in the Aztec civilization, cacao was associated with high status and special occasions, and therefore held a position of great cultural significance. Most interestingly, many uses of cacao in the Aztec society are revealed in the Florentine Codex, an ethnographic study conducted by Spanish Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún in the 16th century. Sahagún interviewed hundreds of individuals in the Aztec civilization and gathered a wealth of information about the lives of Aztec royals, the customs of the Aztec society, and the cultural and ritual significance of cacao (Professor Martin, “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods’”). The document includes an exhaustive list of medical uses for cacao, revealing the important role that cacao played in Aztec healing rituals. Cacao was believed to help reduce fever, relieve respiratory issues, and improve energy and sexual appetite (Jean, 2020). These examples, from both the Maya and Aztec Civilizations, illustrate the important role that cacao played in the culture of the Pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica.
Below: The Florentine Codex depicting the production of cacao (Cacaosophy).
In conclusion, in the Pre-Columbian societies of Mesoamerica, where the cultivation and consumption of cacao originated, cacao was of the utmost religious, economic, and cultural importance. Cacao was closely associated with the Gods in both the Maya and Aztec civilizations, as revealed by the Dresden Codex and the Codex Féjévary-Mayer. Cacao was also tremendously important to the economic functioning of the Maya and Aztec states, as cacao was paid to the state as a form of taxes, and in turn, used to pay state workers. Lastly, cacao was an integral element of the cultural cohesion of these civilizations. For the Maya and Aztec, cacao was associated with high status and special occasions and rituals, and therefore held a position of great cultural significance.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 2013.
Garthwaite, Josie. “What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate.” Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Institution, 12 Feb. 2015.
Jean, Julie. “Medicinal and Ritualistic Uses for Chocolate in Mesoamerica .” HeritageDaily Journal, HeritageDaily, 6 Jan. 2020.
Learn, Joshua Rapp. “The Maya Civilization Used Chocolate as Money.” Science Magazine, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 28 June 2018.
Cacao, cocoa, and chocolate can be found throughout the world. Traces of cacao can be dated all the way back to the Olmec Civilization in 1500 BCE. Cacao was formerly known as kakawa, and it was a cultural delicacy that spread throughout Central America before spreading to Europe. Their products are enjoyed widespread and have been adopted into many different ethnic dishes. Even though chocolate today is very prevalent in numerous cultures, cacao emerged as a foreign commodity entering Europe which resulted in the Catholic Church being skeptical of its nature.
In 1735, a greek man named Carolus Linneaus came up with the name for the plant that chocolate is derived from; he called it Theobroma Cacao, which also meant, “Food of the Gods”. The early harvesters of cacao were the Mayans and the Aztecs, and these two cultures prepared cacao in a variety of drinks and dishes. These edible preparations of cacao can be linked to religious activities. The Aztecs believed that cacao was a link between the gods and earth; the uses of cacao included learning, death rites, and coming of age rituals. The Mayans prepared a cacao drink called xocolatl which was consumed formally and for daily pleasure. At Mayan festivals blood sacrifice, offerings, and ritual dancing took place xocolatl was used to honor Ek Chauh the cacao god; xocolatl in this context was believed to allow the consumer to engage in the spirit realm. The function of cacao as a ritual device that was connected to pagan gods adds to its perception as a foreign commodity.
As the Spaniards advanced to Mexico with plans to colonize the indegenous people, they encountered the various customs that pertained to the natives living there. One of the main methods of colonization was converting the natives to Catholicism. Converting the natives meant that the Spaniards had to remove the traces of the pagan religions that they found in Mexico. Despite the efforts to convert the natives,”the Aztec drink chocolatl was taken from its Aztec ceremonial use and retained by the Spanish as a tasty beverage and as a medicine”. Within the Bible, there are many passages that forbid the connection to idols and Acts of the Apostles Chapter 15 Verse 29 says, “You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.” As cocoa began to spread from the New World, the question arises, “is cocoa palimpsest of the pagan traditions that used it for ceremonial use?”
Towards the end of the 1600s, cocoa was integrated into Europe. It was primarily mixed with water or milk, and it was a drink of the elite. Unlike the Aztecs, in Europe cocoa was not used for formal religious practices; however, the Europeans did experience the great pleasure that cocoa consumption brought. The consumption of cocoa brought them so much pleasure that consumers justified its consumption by saying that it was medicinal. A specific example of use of cocoa being medicinal was in the church. Ladies in church would claim, “ it prevented fainting and “weakness” during the long ceremonies”, in order to justify its consumption. In one church a bishop claimed that the consumption of cocoa was an abuse, saying that it broke the fast; this prompted the ladies to find a new congregation to worship in. The pleasure that this foreign commodity was providing on top of the breaking of fast was so much an issue that Pope Alexander VII declared,”Liquidum non frangit jejunum”. Liquidum non frangit jejunum, when translated to English means “liquids do not break the fast”. For the Aztecs, xocolatl linked them to the spirit world during ritual, and for the ladies in the church, cocoa consumption was a way to keep them engaged during church service. Despite the skepticism that followed cacao from the New World, there were similarities in both its uses and its appreciation.
Today chocolate can be associated with words like pleasure, love, and comfort. The shift from skepticism to acceptance followed the technological advances such as the hydraulic press that allowed for the accessibility of chocolate to increase. Hopefully continuing to move forward the only skepticism that is associated with chocolate deals with what is actually inside of the chocolate instead of the culture that the chocolate came from.
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.
Molded by years of exposure to masterfully crafted marketing campaigns, average consumer knowledge of cacao [or cocoa] is limited to its function as an ingredient and source from which their beloved chocolate is derived. There is much more to the birth, rise, and spread of Theobroma cacao.
The following seeks to explain how a culturally significant crop among early civilizations dating back to 1500 BCE (Coe and Coe, 2013) transformed from a highly treasured ingredient and social currency cultivated within a fairly limited zone to a globally produced and traded commodity: a highly reformulated, mass-produced, and readily available confectionery product.
This journey traces cacao back to its genetic and cultural beginnings where it was religious and cultural fixture among early civilizations; how exploration and migration played into the geographical expansion of its cultivation and rise in popularity as a food; role in accelerating industrialization; and transformation from a social currency and treasured ingredient to a heavily traded commodity and mass manufactured consumer product.
Genetic and Cultural Beginnings
From births and burials, recipes and rituals, cacao’s cultural origins are linked to Mesoamerica (present day Mexico through Central America), where its social and religious significance among the Olmec dates back to 1500 to 400 BCE (Coe and Coe, 2013). The rise of Maya and Aztec civilizations gave way for cacao’s evolution utility and proliferation as a consumable.
Cacao’s Role in Society and Religion
Evidenced by archeologic discoveries, translated texts, and scientific testing, several vessels and writings have been unearthed, clarifying and validating cacao’s significance, religious ties, and early application as a currency.
Mayan and Aztec civilization associated cacao with the gods. As such, they were believed to enrich and afford protections during and after life, playing a central role in offerings and rituals (Coe and Coe, 2013).
Ceramic vessels similar to those pictured here which date back to 455 to 465 CE were found in burial tombs at Río Azul (Martin, 2019). Further testing confirmed positive traces of caffeine and theobromine—two of cacao’s alkaloid signatures (Martin, 2019).
Dating back to 455 to 465 CE, “funerary vessels” similar to those pictured here were discovered in tombs at Río Azul. As testing revealed traces of caffeine and theobromine, two of cacao’s signature alkaloids, this further supported evidence of cacao’s religious significance (Martin, 2019).
As a food or drink, cacao took many forms. Popular among the Maya and Aztec, “cacahuatl” was a frothy preparation often transferred from one vessel to another and served cold (Coe and Coe, 2013).
Exploration and Migration: Changes in Cultivation and Consumption
By definition, explorers were bound to make new discoveries and learn from their experience. Capturing the innocent confusion and eye-opening experience (only to be realized years later), the following briefly details just how one explorer mistakenly thought that cacao beans were almonds.”
Mistaken for Almonds: When recounting observations from his 1502 landing at Guanaja, one of many landmasses that make up the Bay Islands archipelago, Ferdinand Columbus, one of Christopher Columbus’ sons wrote about cherished “almonds” that traded hands similarly to how currency would pass between customers and merchants (Coe and Coe, 2013). It was not until years later after multiple interpretations and sources concluded that what he presumed to be almonds were in fact cacao beans.
As it came to be more widely known, not far from where Ferdidnad landed, throughout the Rio Ceniza Valley (present day coast of El Salvador), cacao was an increasingly popular form of currency being produced and traded in record volume—something . In time, this led to further learnings about the “Nahua counting system” and subsequent adoption of cacao as payment for “protection” by Spanish conquistadors.
Generally relegated to tropical climates falling 10-15 degrees north and south of equator, is was inevitable that cacao would make its way around the world. So as people moved, and culture spread, so too did the cacao, as a crop, currency, and curiosity, ultimately leading to its introduction to new geographies, and paving the way for new industries and traditions around the world (Martin, 2019).
New Formulations and Complementary Ingredients
As ingredients such as vanilla, chili, and many others traveled around the world, pairings and formulations rapidly evolved. Marking a major development and informing direction for the confectionery side as we know it today, sugar was introduced to Europe around 1100 CE and chocolate followed shortly thereafter in 1500 CE (Martin, 2019).
Cacao’s Role in Accelerating Industrialization and Expanding its Place in Society
While cacao consumption continued to be reserved for certain classes during its journey around the world, increasingly sophisticated processing methods streamlined productions, regulation eventually brought its price down, and despite medical and religious challenges to its place in society, cacao products were increasingly available to a grander population.
By the 1600 and 1700s, advances in processing continued to align with rising and more diverse consumption habits. Of course, by this time, the separation between “producing” and “processing” countries (read: colonies vs. industrialized nations) was increasingly clear.
So while cultivation and production spread across Central and South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa to meet demand, industry began to take shape on the consumer side as well with the emergence of social gathering halls or “Chocolate Houses” in Britain, France, Spain, the United States, and other “industrialized” nations who had transitioned to managing the cacao’s trade as a commodity and processing for various food and beverage applications. It was not until Rudolphe Lindt’s invention of the conche in 1879, an advancement that bolstered flavor and feel (among other things), and set the stage for quality, processing, and mass production to take off (Coe and Coe, 2013).
Illustrated above, the matete, grinder, and conche are examples of what cacao processing tools were used by early civilizations (and are still used in the same or similar forms today) and evolved or industrialized processing equipment employed today (Martin, 2019).
From early civilizations to present day, cacao’s role in society, cultural significance, availability and consumption have evolved tremendously. However, its mystique and association as something special are still true to this day—just as they were in different and more elaborate forms among early civilizations. Perhaps this condensed history will give pause and reason for the average consumer to think beyond commercialization of cacao, cocoa, or chocolate, and value and validate its history and claims made by brands to improve global understanding, perception, and consumer habits.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd Edition, Thames & Hudson, 2013.
Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.Hu, Vol. 3, 2015, pp. 37–60.
Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, 1986.
Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies. “Map of Mesoamerica.” Accessed February 17, 2019. http://www.famsi.org/maps/.
Río Azul [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
Matete [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
Grinder [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
Conche [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Expansion”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. February 13, 2019. Lecture.
Martin, Carla D. “Sugar and Cacao”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. February 20, 2019. Lecture.
Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
It was just a game of ball – an innocent game in which the Mayan Maize God and his brother were participating. But this rowdy game angered the lords of Xibalbá, the Maya underworld. So as a punishment, the Maize God and his brother were cast down to Xibalbá (meaning ‘place of fright’), where they were beheaded. However, the story takes an unexpected turn when the Maize God’s head is placed in what is pictured as a cacao tree. His head, now representing a cacao pod, attracts the daughter of one of the underworld lords — she had heard that the fruit of the tree was sweet. Upon interacting with the Maize God’s head, she somehow becomes impregnated and eventually gives birth to his two children, the Hero Twins.
The Hero Twins’ subsequent adventure in the underworld, some argue, is a metaphor possibly corresponding to the steps in processing cacao. For example, in The Recipe for Rebirth: Cacao as Fish in the Mythology and Symbolism of the Ancient Maya, Grofe claims that their entrance into the underworld represents the burial and fermentation stages in making chocolate. He then describes that they go through burning (representing the roasting of the beans), before having their bones ground on a metate and then poured into water. All of these events in the lives of the Hero Twins seem to parallel those of turning cacao into chocolate. Grofe concludes from this that cacao must represent a powerful symbol of rebirth (1).
We might think of this story as simply another example of a myth — a unique creation that reflects beliefs and values that may seem alien to us. But this myth comes from the Popol Vuh, a book that was sacred to the Maya (Coe & Coe, 38). What was so special about cacao that it was considered to have religious importance? That it represented blood, death, rebirth and that it was reserved for the elite? Were the Maya just arbitrarily fixated on cacao, or does it actually have some deeper uniqueness? And what could we gain by studying other cultures’ fixations on something so common and “normal” to us?
Below is an advertisement for a chocolate candy which emphasizes just how universal and accessible chocolate has become; this candy is a stark contrast to the reverently prepared chocolate drinks that the elite Mayans drank. We see that there is an extraordinary difference between the chocolate that seems so normal to us today and the sacred cacao that the Mayans valued. We will now examine why it may have been so special to them.
Is cacao actually special?
It seems possible that the specialness of cacao was just the Mayans’ imagination — that they randomly chose to elevate cacao for the sake of elevating something, and that the myths are based upon this random decision. But it seems unlikely that so many Mayans would share this same attraction, and to such an extent that their sacred books (like the Popol Vuh) highlight it. Furthermore, the globalization of cacao tells us that there must be something special about cacao — at least, it must be good enough to spread and keep spreading.
What specifically, then, makes cacao special? It does make some sense that the Mayans would be fascinated by cacao upon seeing a cacao tree. The pods look at once unnatural and beautiful: hanging directly from the trunk of the tree, they are bumpy and elongated fruits of vibrant hues. But aside from this, the Mayans’ fascination with cacao most likely had to do with its rich and multi-dimensional taste. In fact, from a scientific standpoint, chocolate has many chemical properties that are so complexly intertwined that flavorists have never been able to synthesize it (Brenner, 2000). So cacao is indeed a unique flavor in nature. This explains why cacao had such significance to people such as the Aztecs and Mayans; it also explains why cacao has not gone out of style since then, but has instead spread across the world.
What is the importance of this significance?
There are several reasons why we might want to care about the significance of cacao to cultures of the past. For one, the respect with which they handled cacao caught the attention of Europeans, urging the globalization of cacao: Europeans did not at first have relevant knowledge to help them understand the fruit, but perhaps they just knew that it had religious significance (Cocoa, 28). But aside from helping to globalize it, the significance of cacao teaches us about the culture in which it is significant.
For example, one significant group that also valued cacao highly were the Aztecs. A large amount of the information that we know about the Aztecs comes from what we hear about their culture from other sources — for example, from Spanish conquistadors and their apologists (Coe & Coe, 65). This results in a one-dimensional stereotype of Aztecs being bloodthirsty savages.
But often times, it turns out we can learn a lot about a people by observing what is important to them, and how they convey this importance. For example, we look at the way the Aztecs prepared chocolate drinks: they are healthy and with the “greatest sustenance,” with particular instructions for how to drink the chocolate and the foam (Coe & Coe, 84). To create a more sophisticated flavor, they added maize, chili, flowers, or vanilla. The Aztecs, then, were more than just violence: they also had custom and science and art. In learning about how cacao fits into their culture, we can have a deeper understanding of it and also become more open to learning about other aspects of their culture in general.
We have seen through mythology that cacao has a rare significance compared to other flavors. We also saw this scientifically, but additionally there is something remarkable about an entire culture (such as the Mayans and Aztecs) becoming fascinated with a flavor — to the point where they believe it comes from the gods. It turns out that there is worth in studying something so innocent and common as cacao, and in studying its significance to others. Examining the significance of cacao to certain cultures gives us a different perspective on that culture, which might help clear previous misconceptions about it. Perhaps if we avoid viewing such cultures in such dramatized ways as we are used to, we can see that we have much to gain from them even today.
Brenner, Joël Glenn. The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars. Broadway Books, 2000.
Cartwright, Mark. “Xibalba.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 15 Mar. 2019, www.ancient.eu/Xibalba/.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed., Thames & Hudson, 2013.
Grofe, Michael J. “The Recipe for Rebirth: Cacao as Fish in the Mythology and Symbolism of the Ancient Maya.” 15 Mar. 2019.
There has always been a deep intersection between food and culture. Food is often at the center of many significant cultural traditions, rituals, and experiences. We have even learned to associate certain flavor profiles, ingredients, and methods of preparation with specific regions, countries, and even ethnicities. In fact, food seems to occupy a unique space in the scope of cultural appropriation, to the extent that many of us find it largely unproblematic to cook or eat the traditional food of another person’s culture, where we may object to wearing the traditional clothing of another’s culture. For example, it seems totally acceptable for a person of any culture to eat these ethnic dishes, regardless of the context:
However, it would seem offensive and distasteful for a person who is not part of Native American culture to wear this traditional Native American outfit:
So why are we so comfortable enjoying the food of other cultures? Furthermore, when we replicate traditional cultural cuisine in the context of our own cultures, are we even experiencing something that represents the authentic culture and tradition? Taking a closer look at the history of chocolate and specifically the ways in which early Europeans engaged with and altered Pre-Colombian or Mesoamerican cacao recipes and customs can provide us with a useful framework for looking at these questions.
Cacao in Mesoamerican culture
Chocolate and other products made from cacao were in many ways at the heart of Mesoamerican culture. Cacao was simultaneously, a ritual offering, currency, flavoring, and beverage (Sampeck, Translating Tastes). It was used in marriage alliances and healing ceremonies. “Chocolate”, contrary to popular belief, is just one of several recipes that the Mesoamericans made from Cacao. The process of creating and consuming Cacao beverages often involved specialized tools such as the molinillo (stirring or frothing stick), the steep sided cup, and the spouted pot. (Sampeck, Translating Tastes)
The process of manufacturing cacao was even associated with having a higher statue in society. The exact recipe for pre-Columbian cacao beverages varied by region, but it can be essentially understood as some combination of cacao and achiote. And so, it is important to keep in mind that when we consider cacao and chocolate as used by the Mesoamerican people, we are referring to products with social, cultural, political, and economic implications. (Martin, The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe)
The European impact on cacao
The early Europeans who first encountered chocolate found the beverage distasteful, due to its thick consistency and bitterness. However they quickly adopted the system for using cacao as currency, making it a legal item for various transactions (Martin, The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe).But it was not long before the Europeans began to alter the taste of chocolate. Early colonial cacao beverage recipes contained many additional ingredients to make the drink sweeter and more palatable for European taste, such as vanilla, honey, almond, and sugar. A similar process went into the creation of early colonial chocolate recipes: by adding flavors that were more familiar to Europeans such as cinnamon and pepper, the Europeans were able to appropriate the experience of enjoying chocolate. (Martin 2016)
Even the tools used for cacao beverage making were appropriated to become more European, as European molinillos, spouted pots, and cups were made out of metal or porcelain, rather than gourds, as the Mesoamericans may have used. (Martin 2016)
So in many ways, the taste of chocolate was translated for the European palate, which in effect shifted chocolate flavor away from the Mesoamerican tradition to a hybridized food. Chocolate became a truly colonized product, quite obviously in terms of its production and distribution, but even more deeply in terms of its composition. (Coe 1997)
The history of chocolate highlights the ways in which food from one culture can be appropriated to fit the customs and palate of another culture. The chocolate that we enjoy today tastes the way it does due to colonization and hybridization of the original cacao recipes of the Mesoamerican people, and it is important that we acknowledge the aspects of the culture, taste, and customs that were lost due to colonization, even if we enjoy the product that chocolate has become today. I believe that sharing ideas, customs, and cuisines across cultures can often increase our ability to connect with people from different cultures and can enrich our lives in many ways, but that we must also respect the traditions from which these cultural aspects originate. Perhaps it feels more acceptable for us to enjoy the foods of other cultures because groups such as the early European settlers have historically appropriated the cuisines that they encountered, which makes it easy for us to disassociate the food from its cultural significance or origin. But I feel that it is important to understand the lineage of the products that we enjoy today and to try to expand our own palates, rather than making the food from other cultures conform to us, because we run the risk of erasing important traditions and tastes in the pursuit of what is familiar.
Sampeck, Kathryn, and Jonathan Thayn. 2017. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.”
Martin, Carla and Sampeck, Kathryn. 2016. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.”
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013 . The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson.