Chocolate, more so than most foods, carries a sentiment of love and affection when shared with and given to other people, driven by the notion that it can be a luxury. Today, about 83% of people are likely to share candy or chocolate on Valentine’s day, and chocolate sales compile 75% of Valentine’s Day candy purchases (NCA). While it is believed that known chocolate brands (Hershey’s, Dove, etc.) influence our association of chocolate with love and affection (they certainly do to a significant extent), closer analysis suggests that usage of chocolate as a vessel for love and affection may stem from the luxurious nature of cacao in ancient Mesoamerica and chocolate in 17th-18th century Europe and the methods by which these commodities were consumed.
Chocolate as an Affectionate Gift Today
A significant amount of advertisement by chocolate companies frame chocolate as a luxury good that can be given as a gift to show affection towards another person. This advertisement by Perugina (owned by Nestle) highlights the symbol of chocolate as an expression of love for a family member, friend, and partner. The chocolate product advertised in this instance, as in many other, does not even appear until the final few seconds. And, when it does appear, it is given from a man to a woman and eaten in a substantially delicate fashion- the way one would treat anything opulent. This sumptuous branding of chocolate as a delicacy inherently labels it as a worthy gift that shos fondness towards someone. If that aspect is not enough to influence people to think of chocolate as a luxury gift that shows affection to someone, the quote from the advertisement, “The Italian way to say, ‘I love you’” lays out the message pretty clearly, and can be found in many similar messages throughout world chocolate marketing- one needs to only look as far as the product of a Hershey’s ‘Kiss’ or a heart-shaped dove.
Chocolate as a Social Enabler in Ancient Mesoamerica
Today’s notion of chocolate as a luxury to be shared with others is not new by any means. Ancient Mayans can be seen using cacao in the context of love through marriage rituals. The Mayans associated cacao with their gods and religion- shown in colonial documents such as the Popul Vuh and the Dresden Codex, in which the Opposum God carries the Rain God on its back with the hieroglyphic caption “cacao is his food” (pictured above)(Martin, 2018). The glorification of cacao in these sacred contexts can be seen as the first notion of chocolate, or its origin cacao in this instance, as a luxurious commodity consumed by the powerful. Moreover, it appears as though the depiction of the God’s usage of cacao trickles down to carry social significance for the actual Mayan people. The image above shows their marriage ritual of the father of the groom offering cacao to the father of the bride to invite him to discuss the marriage, providing one of (if not the earliest) known examples connecting chocolate to fostering relationships.
Chocolate as a Luxury in 17th-18th Century Europe
The tradition of chocolate as a meaningful ritual via its opulence continued quickly into the assimilation of chocolate consumption in European culture in the 17th and 18th centuries. Specifically, the development of chocolate pots in Europe and their migration to Boston added to chocolate’s luxurious allure in both places: “fashioned for an elite clientele to serve imported luxury foodstuffs…chocolate pots were among the rarest silver forms in the early eighteenth century) (Falino, 2008). The creation of these pots initially may have been motivated by desire for functionality: “what distinguishes the chocolate pot from the coffee pot is the hole in the top under the swiveling (or hinged) finial that allows for a stirring rod to be inserted and do its work without cooling the drink” (Deitz, 1989). However, the functional appeal does nothing to hide its luxurious nature. In this surviving chocolate pot by Edward Webb, the base and top are decorated with intricate fluted design. These vessels made for the consumption of chocolate were desired only by wealthy merchants and a “succession of royal appointees who had sufficient funds and an appetite for the latest styles” (Deitz, 1989). In a similar fashion to the Mayans, the consumption of Chocolate was ritualized beginning in this rich form with silver pots.
The Consumption in Chocolate Houses by Elite Add to the Allure
The development of chocolate houses in 17th-century Europe add to the history of chocolate as a luxury. These houses fostered political discussion and developed what Loveman calls “a separate identity” from coffee-houses. They soon evolved into the venue for parties with other types of drinks and games mostly for gentlemen, while “respectable ladies could call at a chocolate house” (Loveman, 2013). Furthermore, by 1680, a dialogue began during the making of a new chocolate house in Westminister developing the notion that women loved chocolate in a similar fashion that is advertised today (Loveman, 2013). These chocolate houses allowed for the practice of the consumption of chocolate by elites not only confirmed to the nature of chocolate as a luxury but also brought people together because of its appeal.
When people think about Valentine’s Day, they think about chocolate, specifically heart-shaped chocolate, and love. The association with love and affection is influenced by advertisements by chocolate companies today that convince us that chocolate is a delicacy to be shared with others, and they are able to convince us of this belief because of a deeply rooted history of chocolate as a luxury item. From the ancient Mayans believed that cacao was a food of the Gods, to 17th-century European elites using lavish silver pots to drink it, to the silky smooth texture with which they are created today, chocolate has always carried immensely more meaning than the simple ingredients that have combined to create it, allowing us to use it as a symbol for much more than a bit of food.
Marcy Norton; Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics, The American Historical Review, Volume 111, Issue 3, 1 June 2006, Pages 660–691, https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr.111.3.660
Paula Deitz. (1989, February 19). Chocolate Pots Brewed Ingenuity. New York Times (1923-Current File), p. H38.
Cacao seeds, the source of chocolate, don’t often figure as a divine substance in the modern word. However, cacao holds ancient significance as food of the Gods for the Mayan. The world of the Ancient Maya was in many ways built on chocolate. Today, many understand that chocolate was a drink for kings and nobles. There are dozens of Classic Maya pots and jars that depict chocolate as part of a ritual or feast (Presilla 12). Indeed, the Maya incorporated chocolate into their lives daily. Furthermore, they were among the first people to uncover the intricate process of creating and refining cacao seeds into chocolate drink. However, cacao operated as much more than just a food source; the Mayans used it as currency and wrote it into their creation myth. The Popol Vuh and the Dresden Codex offer a window into the ancient significance of cacao, connecting it to cultural identity. The act of processing cacao beans, roasting and grinding them, is not only a cooking process but also deeply connected to a symbol of re-birth and power, due to its framing within a creation epic. Cacao is thus a spiritual food deeply connected to the identity of the Maya.
Cacao’s origins begin with the Mayan civilization and the creation of chocolate beverages. According to Maricel E. Presilla, the Maya “consumed the pulp itself and juice made from the cacao fruit pulp (Presilla 12). Additionally, inscriptions from drinking vessels outline a clear culture of drinking cacao, as the Mayans used terminology such as ‘tree-fresh cacao’ and ‘green cacao’ in order to describe certain tastes or preferences (Presilla 12). Historians have uncovered many vases and vessels, such as a painted pottery jar from a tomb at Río Azul, Guatemala. The vessel depicts a chocolate drinking being made and further shows the process of pouring the substance from one vessel into another “to raise the foam” (Coe 48). Thus, artifacts reveal the intricate care and use of chocolate; the Mayans were so particular about their chocolate routine that even specific moments in the process feature in art.
In addition to the clear culture of cacao consummation, cacao plays an instrumental within the Maya creation story. The story centers on the journey of the Hero Twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque in a world that precedes the present. Their father, Hun Hunahpu was killed in Xibalba (the underworld) after he and his brother lost to the Lords of the Death in a ball game (Grofe “Xibalba: About”). Hun Hunahpu’s head is placed in a barren tree which magically begins to bear new fruit. According to Michael Grofe, this tree is depicted as a cacao tree, the beans of which make the chocolate drink that the Mayans enjoyed. Ultimately, the Hero Twins fall into a trap from the Lords of the Death who trick them into jumping into fire; they are burned and the Lords dump their bodies into the river. However, the Twins come back within five days as fish. They defeat death and bring about creation (Grofe). Thus, within the story is also the story of cacao. Like the twins returning to Xibalba, chocolate comes from beans which is roasted, refined, and poured into water, only to create something completely new.
The Maya word “kakaw” is spelled with two fish glyphs, further emphasizing the connection between the cacao process and the magical story of the Hero Twins (Grofe “Xibalba: About”). According to the scholar Michael J. Grofe, in the “the famous Rio Azul cacao pot, we find both the two ‘ka’ glyphs together with the reduplication symbol, as well as the final syllable ‘wa’, spelling ‘kakaw’. It therefore seems likely that the story of the Hero Twins transforming into ‘two fish’ derives from a pun on the word ‘kakaw’” (Grofe “Xibalba: About”). Grofe explains the sacrifice of the Twins as parallel to “cacao processing: entrance into the underworld (burial, fermentation), burning (roasting), grinding of their bones on a metate, and pouring them into water” (Grofe “Recipe” 1). Ultimately, Cacao, through symbolic and mythological writing thus serves as a powerful representation of re-birth, underscoring the cultural significance of cacao to the Maya who used it regularly.
The Dresden Codex further illuminates the significance of cacao in literary Mayan culture. The Codex is a “folding-screen book” and in several sections “gods can be seen holding cacao pods, or dishes heaped with cacao beans” (Coe 41). In addition, the Dresden Codex specifically connects gods to cacao; according to Sophie and Michael Coe, “the Opossum God travels a sacred road to the edge of the town carrying the Rain God on his back, while the associated text tells us that ‘cacao is his food [kakaw u hanahl]’” (Coe 42). The Mayan Gods, as depicted in the Dresden Codex, have a clear reverential relationship to cacao. Ultimately, cacao seeds are not merely food, but a divine life source, and connected to the what it means to be Mayan.
Chia seeds, coca, cacao and their derivatives were used by the ancient civilizations of the Mayans, Aztecs, Olmecs and Incans in a variety of ways for a variety of different reasons. They were used as sacrifices, as food, and even as a currency. Chia, coca, and cacao share a lot more in common than these words starting with the same letter; most people, however, do not know that. Exploring the relationships between these substances is vital to understanding how these substances had shaped the civilizations of the past and is still shaping ours today.
Chia seeds were a staple in the diet of Aztec civilizations along with beans, amaranth, and maize.There is ample evidence to suggest that Mayans also consumed chia seeds in their diet due to “chia” translating to “strength”  in Mayan and the region of Chiapas, which comes from Chiapan meaning “river of the chia”. The Aztecs offered these seeds to their gods during religious ceremonies and were consumed with the thought that it had supernatural powers. “Ancient warriors attributed their stamina to this tiny seed.”  It is worth noting that a diet consisting of the four aforementioned crops meet today’s Food and Agricultural Organization diet requirements. Chia seeds, as we now know, are a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and dietary fiber. These supernatural seeds have an extraordinary ability to absorb water and it can be visualized in this video: https://youtu.be/ZyjK3nOxzjs. The reported “increased stamina” after consuming these seeds is because of this high absorption ability of them.
The coca plant is most commonly found on the Andes mountain range in Peru and Bolivia, the home of the ancient Incan civilization. The following excerpt from Sigmund Freud’s “Uber Coca” shows how coca was viewed and used by the indigenous people that cultivated it:
When the Spanish conquerors forced their way into Peru they found that the coca plant was cultivated and was closely connected with the religious customs of the people. Legend held that Manco Capac, the divine son of the Sun, had descended brought them knowledge of the gods, taught them the useful arts, and given them the coca leaf, this divine plant which satiates the hungry, strengthens the weak, and causes them to forget their misfortune. Coca leaves were offered in sacrifice to the gods, were chewed during religious ceremonies, and were even placed in the mouths of the dead in order to assure them of a favorable reception in the beyond.
Like the chia seeds, there is a religious significance embedded in the society’s use of the coca plant. Coca leaves like chia seeds were cited to have supernatural and miraculous powers. Freud points out the story of a sixty two year old man performing “laborious excavation work for five days and nights” all while sleeping no more than two hours and consuming nothing but coca leaves. Nowadays, tourists in the Andes are given a tea made from coca leaves that helps cure altitude sickness. Despite having many other uses, the main use of coca is that of a stimulant that increases the physical capacity of the body. However, nowadays the most common and far deadlier is the coca plant’s addictive derivative: cocaine.
The recipe for chocolate has been around for many centuries with traces going back all the way to the predecessors of the Mayan civilization, the Olmecs. They were thought to be the first to first develop the recipe for “chocolate”. Chocolate and cacao beans were used in a range of different uses from religious ceremonies and medicines just as the coca leaf and chia seeds were also used. It was even thought to be an aphrodisiac. The chemical name given to the cacao tree, theobroma cacao, translates to “food of the gods”. The Mayan hieroglyph below shows just that, as it depicts the God of Maize as a cacao tree. This depiction signifies the importance of cacao as a crop to the Mayan civilization.
Recent studies show that what we know today as “dark chocolate” contains two main alkaloids that are responsible for its stimulant properties, theobromine and caffeine. It is therefore safe to assume that even before the incorporation of sugar into chocolate recipes it had stimulant properties like coca leaves and chia seeds. And while there is no evidence to suggest that chocolate was used to perform “supernatural” and “miraculous” feats, it is not beyond the realm of possibility.
All of chia, coca, and cacao have been used in some sort of way as a drink mixed with other ingredients to release their stimulant properties. Moreover, chia seeds and cacao beans were used as currencies in the Aztec and Mayan civilizations respectively. More recently than the Mayan and Aztec periods, the derivatives of the coca leaf and the cacao beans, cocaine and chocolate respectively, have become highly addictive substances that are widely consumed nowadays. The former is illegal and the latter is not, however, the amount of money in both industries is in the multibillions, with the people at the top of the chain usually the ones to profit the most. Pablo Escobar, the King of Cocaine, reportedly burned two million dollars of cash to keep his daughter warm.
Cocaine’s exploitative and negative history came more recently in the 1900s when after seeing initial success in it being used as an anesthetic, later became thought of as a narcotic like opiates when the number of addicts rose. The War on Drugs by the United States of America on South American countries in the late 20th century saw many people die just as many Africans died during their life tenure as unpaid workers or even before their ship had docked in their forced destination.
WHY NOT CHIA?
Chia seeds and the history of their cultivation and consumption being free of controversy is very possibly the reason it was nearly forgotten and why people are not as aware of it now as they are of chocolate and cocaine. Spanish colonists banned the cultivation of both the coca leaf and chia seeds as they viewed the religious association of these substances as “heathenish and sinful”. Unlike chia, however, the Spanish later allowed coca cultivation as they saw that the Indians were unable to complete their labor without it. A combination of these factors led to chia not being widely present. In addition, there does not exist universally known brand names for a chia seeds product. Coca Cola (although it does not contain cocaine anymore), and Hersheys or Cadbury are synonymous with coca/cocaine and chocolate respectively. Furthermore, there are widely acclaimed and recognized movies about chocolate such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that instantly come to mind and many movies and television shows about drug dealers and the cocaine business like for instance, Narcos. Movies or shows about chia on the other hand, if they even exist, do not even ring a faint bell in one’s memory.
The association of all these substances to some religious deity or ritual, their perceived supernatural powers, and their wide range of uses are what initially elevated these crops to a higher regard in ancient times. What has kept these items in the current conversation though is their stimulant properties and the large amounts of profit associated with their respective industries.
 Amanda Macias, “10 Facts Reveal the Absurdity of Pablo Escobar’s Wealth.”
Kahn, Andrew, and Jamelle Bouie. “This Haunting Animation Maps the Journeys of 15,790 Slave Ships in Two Minutes.”
 Joseph F. Spillane, “Making a Modern Drug: The Manufacture, Sale, and Control of Cocaine in the United States, 1880-1920,” in Cocaine: Global Histories, ed. Paul Gootenberg (London: Routledge, 2006), 22.
Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Expansion.” docs.google.com/presentation/d/1KJFs2ZF_a-yamF8vy-75BrE3itqNR0t1eVIYRO8mgGo. Accessed 7 Feb. 2018.
Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” docs.google.com/presentation/d/1XF-lM9Z9iks0cVhUFRJ1QWBokKTRrdvZISwAJVSe_Ag. Accessed 31 Jan. 2018.
Spillane, Joseph F. “Making a Modern Drug: The Manufacture, Sale, and Control of Cocaine in the United States, 1880-1920 .” In Cocaine: Global Histories, edited by Paul Gootenberg, Routledge, London, 2006, pp. 21.
“The Tree of the Food of The Gods.” in The True History of Chocolate, by Michael D. Coe, Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2013, pp. 31–58.
Depicted in various Mayan artifacts, cacao along with its various forms were interwoven into Mayan society. From rituals to everyday life, cacao seemed to have an immortal presence in Mayan society, so much so that it found its way into Mayan religious paintings that depicted cacao beans or cacao trees intertwined with the Gods. In the picture below, the Maize God, a central deity in the Mayan religion, is seen shaping himself as a cacao tree, and pointing at what seems to be a vessel holding liquid cacao: “His limbs are studded with ripe cacao pods, and his skin is marked with wavy ‘wood’ motifs. Clearly, an anthropomorphic cacao tree is at hand” (Simon Martin 155).
Along with the Maize God, cacao seems to also play a central role in other Godly tales, but why? Why did cacao play such an important part in Mayan theology? The answers lie in the very same picture above. This artifact highlights how the Mayans used the story of the Gods to explain the world around them, and ultimately, how, and why, the Mayans decided to incorporate cacao into their theology.
First, let’s establish the magnitude of how holy the cacao tree is according to the Popol Vuh, “a colonial document from records of Franciscan friar, believed to be the oldest Maya myth documented in its entirety” (Carla Martin 35). According to the Popol Vuh, a central Mayan God, the Maize God, was sacrificed during harvest time in Xibalba, the Underworld, by the Death Gods. He was later buried and somehow was reincarnated as a cacao tree, albeit quite an anthropomorphic one. The picture below depicts how the Maize God supposedly looked after he was slain and reborn as a cacao tree.
The Maize God, as a tree, impregnated an Underworld goddess, who subsequently gave birth to the Hero twins, Xbalanque and Hunahpu. Eventually, the Hero Twins “go on to defeat Xibalba and its ghastly denizens” (Coe and Coe 39). They then “resurrect their slain father, the Maize God…[and] rise to the sky in glory as the sun and the moon” (Coe and Coe 39).
Within this story alone, it’s undeniable that the cacao tree represents the Gods. It has a God-like quality, and is intrinsically connected to the Mayan idea of holiness. The cacao is not only deeply connected to the integrity of the Maize God, but to many others as described in the Dresden Codex, “Pre-Columbian Maya books written in hieroglyphics” (Carla Martin 34). In the Dresden, “seated gods can be seen holding cacao pods, or dishes heaped with cacao beans” (Coe and Coe 42). Cacao is also frequently seen “being consumed by Gods in ritual activities” (Carla Martin 34). Depicted in a section of the Dresden regarding new year celebrations, the Opossum God is seen carrying the Rain God on his back, with caption being “cacao is his food [kakaw u hanal]” (Carla Martin 34).
Whether through the cacao tree or beans, cacao has an incredibly important role in the Mayan religion, as shown by its extensive portrayal in the Popol Vuh and the Dresden. In addition to Gods being portrayed with cacao in some way, the cacao tree is explicitly referred to as the World Tree, which “connects the vertical realms of Sky, Earth, and the Underworld” (Carla Martin 44). This is consistent with how the Maize God was murdered in Xibalba (the Underworld), how he impregnated a woman who escaped into the world’s surface (the Earth), and how the Hero Twins avenged the Maize God’s death and became the sun and the moon (the Sky). The cacao tree is present in nearly all forms of activities of the Gods and of the cycle of nature, of life and death. From the epic of the Maize God to the tales of other Gods, it is obvious that cacao is deeply connected to the Gods.
With all this reverence given to the cacao tree, it’s only natural to ask why did the Mayans choose to akin cacao to the Gods?
Firstly, the Mayans used their religion as a tool to explain the world around them. Having “had an abiding and intimate relationship with the natural world,” (Simon Martin 154) the Mayans wanted to explain why and how the world around them grows the way it does, so it’s only natural for them to create these mythical stories to do just that.
Secondly, because cacao was so integral to the lives of the Mayan and so deeply connected to their way of life, it only makes sense that they so closely kinned the very nature of the cacao to the Gods. Looking closely at the Maize God’s epic death and rebirth, it is clear that the entire story was created to simply explain how their sacred cacao was created, and how it ultimately grows.
The act of the Maize God’s dead body giving rise to trees and edible fruits and seeds (enough to impregnate an Underworld goddess) symbolizes germination in nature: “Cacao, the most coveted product of the mortal orchard, was emblematic of all prized and sustaining vegetal growth—with the exception of maize—and the myth served to explain how it and other foodstuffs came into being” (Simon Martin 178). In other words, “the story, then, basically deals in symbolic form with the burial (that is, the planting of the seed), growth, and fruition of maize [and cacao], the Maya-and Mesoamerican-staff of life” (Coe and Coe 39). Essentially, the Mayans used the Gods to explain how and why the nature around the grows (especially their precious cacao), which was used to ultimately explain the phenomenon of life and death.
While the Mayans certainly had other reasons in creating their religious tales, there is no doubt that a number of myths, including the Popol Vuh, incorporated cacao to help the Mayans understand the world around them. After all, chocolate was, and is considered divine, so why wouldn’t the Mayans place their cacao in the hands of the Gods in their tales?
Coe, Sophie, and Coe, Michael. “The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013.
Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard College: Cambridge, MA. 1 Feb. 2018. Class Lecture. (Images also used from this Lecture as well)
Martin, Simon. “Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and Other Tales from the Underworld.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, University Press of Florida, 2009.
Do you remember the last time you had a cup of hot chocolate? Was it served in a mug, topped with whipped cream? Or maybe you sipped it from a to-go cup from your favorite drive-thru restaurant. Most of the time we don’t fuss with what we’re drinking our hot chocolate from because we’re too busy enjoying the aroma and experience this time honored beverage provides us. Yet, ancient cultures, alike the Mayans, respected their cacao drinking methods and admired the cup they drank from just as much as they prized the drink itself. In many cases, cacao wouldn’t have been drunk if it wasn’t out of an artistically treasured and symbolized vessel… a far cry from how we view and present our version of hot chocolate today. Nevertheless, this customary beverage and the material in which it was once presented in was systematically ritualized throughout the ancient Classic Maya culture, proving a frothy cup of cacao was more than just something to cheers with.
The Classic Maya period (250 A.D. to 900 A.D.) was considered to be the most influential and profound stage of the ancient Mayan civilization. Fabulous accomplishments, such as towering pyramids and vast palaces throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, beautifully decorated ceramics, and a distinguishable writing system flourished during this time. This was also a time when the Maya elite prospered, and their admiration for the finer things in life influenced their daily lives and dietary intake, ritualizing items such as cacao and the vessels they were ingested from. David Stuart, an archaeologist and epigrapher who specializes in Mesoamerican cultures, describes in a chapter within the book, Chocolate in Mesoamerica, the ways in which the Maya civilization upheld the role of cacao within their society. Stuart suggests, “The importance of cacao in Classic Maya society was not widely appreciated until the decipherment of glyphic texts on ceramics in the 1980s, when it became clear that seemingly countless ceramic vessels were inscribed with a dedicatory formula identifying them as drinking vessels for chocolate” (Stuart 184).
Around the same time those descriptive discoveries were uncovered, much excitement arose when two vessels were found in Guatemala containing chemical remains of cacao (Theobromine), a study that was performed by W. Jeffery Hurst, a chemist at the Hershey Foods Technical Center (Carla D. Martin, Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods,” January 31, 2018). By identifying the Maya word and glyph for cacao (ka-ka-wa), including the remains of Theobromine, archaeologists soon realized the extensive amount of Maya vessels which were artistically depicted with the kakaw glyph, symbolizing the importance of cacao within their culture, alongside the vessels in which they were consumed from (Stuart 184). In most early cases, a vessel that depicted the kakaw glyph was considered to be apart of a Maya elites collection, illustrating the consumption of cacao was reserved for those of importance within the community.
Maricel E. Presilla, a cultural historian, chef, and author of the book, The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes, reviews the ways in which the kakaw glyph was depicted on Maya pots and drinking vessels, and goes on to say, “Dozens of Classic Maya pots and jars, included along with other furnishings in burial chambers, depict chocolate as a crucial, central element of opulent feasts” (Presilla 12). Archaeologists have also come to believe that the vessel in which the cacao drink was drunk from had different levels of significance and cultural value, through the means of the artwork depicted on the cup and the individuals utilizing this piece of material culture (Presilla 12). Realizations as such have contributed to many other professionals from a plethora of academic fields, such as anthropologists and art curators, into the mix, creating a vast amount of research conducted around this specific topic. Dr. Dorie Reents-Budet, an Art Curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, describes the functionality of these impressive vessels in a chapter within the book, Chocolate in Mesoamerica, and considers these vessels, “Function as containers for edibles and also as portable props whose myths-political imagery lent power and prestige to their owners and the event during which they were used” (Reents-Budet 210).
As a result, these elaborate cacao drinking vessels served up a frothy-drink of dualism between the vessel itself and the individual enjoying this influential beverage. Illustrations of exclusive banquets held by the Maya elite were plentiful, and according to Reents-Budet, these elite banquets which included fantastic kakaw serving vessels, “Transcended their primary function as food service wares and were transformed into indispensable status markers and essential gifts; that is, they became social currency” (Reents-Budet 213). The aftereffect of these frequent banquets lead to those creative kakaw drinking vessels to be perceived as social currency and a higher status, and soon after, production of cacao drinking vessels by “highly trained artisans and renewed painters” (Reents-Budet 214) was off and running.
As a result of this newfound kakaw drinking vessel popularity, the Maya civilization never looked back, and the ideals around this foamy, ritualized beverage flourished for the rest of their reign. Through mysterious circumstances, the decline of the Maya culture happened sometime between the late eighth and ninth century, creating a sense of wonder around this distinguished ancient civilization. While we may never know what truly happened to the Mayans and their artistic culture, the remnants of their treasured vessels and love for cacao has overcome their deterioration, and continues to thrive in our modern day society through academic means and pure curiosity for what was once a fascinating and complex society.
The purpose of this small-scale ethnography is to examine the social significance of chocolate from a cross-cultural perspective. Through interviewing various members of my local community that were born in different regions of Mexico and Central America, I document here their experiences and observances of chocolate.
Experienced through consumption or non-consumption, and observed through their emic perspective, there are underscoring themes exposed amongst the roles in which chocolate has played throughout each of their own lives. Within the context of those personal relationships with chocolate, an interaction between social and economic functions of their state and country may be contemporaneous to their outlook. Although this simultaneity is not always the circumstance, motifs emerge as their uniqueness transpires. Effectually, their contributed insight has actualized a microcosm of chocolates’ socio-cultural diversity and likenesses.
While conducting the interviews with members of my community, the aim was to first listen to their observances, and to then ask questions of clarification to assist in their thought process. The framework of my Q&A was designed this way to acquire a qualitative study, so that this retelling would reflect the individual perspectives of each subject, synchronously providing a glimpse into the societal experience. To depict those experiences through a cultural historical lens, that of which illustrated itself during most of the interviews already, I asked questions about their culture as a whole and how they thought chocolate was generally regarded in their own communities.
This study is not meant to define those relationships, but to highlight multiplicities within these individual cross- cultural accounts. Over reflections of my own and of the human subjects in this ethnographic study, I hope to provide sufficient imagery of historic milieu within the functional roles chocolate has played in personal experience and in society.
Theobroma Cacao, or the Food-of-the-God’s Cacao, is widely accepted by botanists and scholars as indigenous to Mesoamerica. Evidence of its cultivation is indicative of the role it played in ancient civilizations like the Mixe-Zoquean-speaking Olmecs (1500 BCE – 400 BCE). At the famed Olmec archaeological site in San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, evidence has been found of the term “Kakawa” used by the Olmec as early as 1000 BCE (Coe & Coe, 1996). See on the map below, San Lorenzo is west of present day Guatemala, and north of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico.
We find in the archaeological record, the ways in which early civilizations illustrated cacao, or “Kakawa” on their pottery. This being a significant attribute to understand the role chocolate played in their livelihoods and rituals. According to Maricel Presilla in her book, The New Taste of Chocolate, “it was the Maya who brought chocolate making to a high art… building on the foundation left behind by other Mesoamerican cultures”, like that of the Olmecs and other sibling tribes (2009).
See this Classic Maya vase from the seventh century portraying the Maize God in an “unending dance, symbolizing both the creation of the universe and also his cycle of death and rebirth” (Takushi, Pioneer Press).
Maya Classic period (250 – 900 CE) vessels show quite literally the function of cacao as it was for drinking, as well as the relative role it played in Mayan life though various representations of the divine.
This is one of the many Classic period vessels that was found to contain cacao residues inside. We know it was used to hold chocolate because cacao is the only plant in the region with both the compounds Theobromine and Caffeine, “a unique marker for the presence of cacao in pre-Columbian artifacts” (Cheong, 2011). To verify the vessels were used to hold chocolate was an important piece to the archaeological record. It provided contextual knowledge when deciphering the imagery or glyphs depicted on the vessels.
Affirmed in the glyphs of drinking vessels from this period, there is evidence of “well established cacao-chocolate terminology”. On the Buenavista vase shown above, we see “tree-fresh cacao” inscribed. From the Primary Standard Sequence (PSS) of the glyphs you see banded around the top of the vessel, the characters that make the Maya name for cacao, “Ka-Ka-Wa” were deciphered. What strikes me the most about this piece is the seemingly relative “tree-fresh cacao” to the Maize God’s cyclical existence. (Presilla, 2009)
I particularly find this vessel so interesting when we look at the role of chocolate in culture because it reflects a cyclical ideology of their ecological relationship to their land; in the sustenance it provides, the concept of time through death and rebirth, and their Gods all-encompassing role within those cycles.
A few years ago in 2013 I came to know a few young men and women from the northern Mexican state of Sonora – (follow the link to read a brief history of Seri Indians of Sonora). They were working and studying here on visa’s while we were employed at a busy restaurant in the heart of downtown Boston. What better place than behind the bar to nose around and pick into people’s lives for cultural insights! Just kidding on the nose-picking… but seriously, even minute conversations with guests created thought-provoking observations. During their multiple terms of residency in Boston over the years, these talented intellectual Sonoran natives and I connected on Mexican – American culture alike, and apart. Upon reaching out to ask if anyone would be interested in participating in this modest ethnographic study, my request was received most graciously. They have all elected to omit fully identifying information, so for the purposes of this study, I will refer to them by their first name only. Below I have included their perspectives on the role chocolate has played throughout their lives.
Andrés began by explaining Mexico as a large country where the culture is full of diversity. “Every state has their own culture about everything – food, traditional parties, our dialect and slang”. With that being said, in the state of Sonora where he lives he doesn’t use chocolate and cacao the way he knows it is used in the southern states of the country like Oaxaca, Guerrero, Chiapas, and Tabasco. Andrés has observed the influence of cacao beans in southern Mexico because the cacao growing region produces a lot of recipes that involve cacao and chocolate.
When I asked what he knows about Mesoamerican uses for cacao, he remembers learning from childhood that they used it as currency, and he understood they sometimes would use it in beauty treatments. On that note, I recollect a fortuitous conversation about skin care had between myself and a female of Mexican ancestry I met while servicing wedding hair and makeup to her cousin’s bridal party, circa summer 2015 in East Boston – Indeed, I am not only an aspiring Anthropologist, also a Cosmetologist. My thoughts are usually occupied by anthropological inquiry on a daily basis, which inevitably grants unique opportunity for cultural discussions with the people I meet. Although not a part of this ethnography, she let me know back then about her family recipe for a skin care regimen that contains cacao. Her grandmother and her aunts would grind down cacao beans into a powder, “cocoa powder” minus the hydraulic press. They would mix the antioxidant rich powder with other grinded down local herbs, add water to create a paste-like texture and apply generously to the skin.
“Lather. Dry. Rinse. Repeat.” – she persisted. Yum.
For the purposes of this study, I was curious about chocolate in spa treatments, as I have heard echoes of the luxury before. Take a look at The Spa At The Hotel Hershey or examples of just a few contemporary accommodations created for chocolate in the beauty industry.
Andrés expressed to me that Sonora being just below Arizona, his culture is more- so “American” than the way Mexicans live in the south. It is in his experience and observation the misconception of Mexican culture as being one. I think any educated person understands culture, language, economy, etc. vary across spaces of human population. Yet, for those who generalize a nation’s people by its borders, Andrés and his community experience the bias. He grew up with a collection of influences “by the things Americans do”. For example, one of his earliest memories of eating chocolate was during Halloween. They’re also heavily influenced by “spring break madness”, as he defined the season. He grew up consuming chocolate predominantly made by the big corporations, like Mars. His notable favorites being the Snicker and M&Ms. “In the south they don’t have that influence, they don’t experience American Halloween as we do”.
Carlos V chocolate bars are the Nestlé- proclaimed “# 1 chocolate brand in Mexico with over 70 years in the market!… Because of its unique and mild flavor, it is considered the reference of chocolate for Mexicans.” The Aztec stylized imagery first designed to brand the chocolate before it was bought by Nestlé sometime in the 1980’s was created by Fabrica de Chocolates La Azteca, S.A. de C.V. Jason Liebig on his blog, Collecting Candy chronicles his findings in the L.M. Kallok Confectioners Collection of antique packaging. Most notable about the evolution of the branding is first the Aztec styling alongside the “Imperial Coat of Arms” for “by the grace of God, Carolus V Imperator (emporer)”. Then with the English labeling introduced we see a change in the ingredients as well (which was apparent of each label seen in Leibig’s compilation from the beginning to the end. “A tie-in with the film Toy Story, which tells us La Azteca was still the brand’s sole owner as late as 1995″ is interesting where we see Quaker Oats leaving its insignia on the label by the late 1990’s.
Not one of the Sonoran’s I interviewed has tried a Carlos V chocolate bar but they have all heard of it at some point in their life through advertisements. Eduardo attests to Andrés’ personal account of diversity from the southern regions in Mexico. Dia de los Muertos is “not celebrated as much as the south, but we do things like going to the cemetery”, Andrés says. Eduardo told me that they celebrate Dia de los Muertos on November 2. “We celebrate in memory of the people who are no longer with us and usually at the tombstones we put special things they liked when they were alive. Chocolates is usually one of them”. Both Andrés and Eduardo did not have a definitive sense of the historical reason for chocolate being placed on gravesites, but they both know it as a long- standing tradition and ritual in celebrating their deceased ancestors. Fernanda, another Sonoran native, added some insight to this practice of memorial. She told me that usually the graveyards are managed by local churches or publicly owned so in contrast to the majority of graveyards that are privately owned in the US, the families play a greater role in gravesite maintenance of their deceased. In this way, chocolate serves a social function in their celebrations.
Shown below, Dr. Martin presented in class this semester some of the ways Maya and Mixtec society visually depicted the functions that cacao played within their cultural practices and belief systems. Royal marriages necessitated the use of currency in the negotiation, so we see in the Codex Nuttall how cacao was a part of the price for the bride. Eduardo remembers learning in school that Mayans used to used the cacao “as a coin to buy everything, from goods to wives”. A relative topic for further study would be in the ways chocolate was introduced to the elite. Diffused out of Mesoamerica first by the Spanish, the Europeans assimilated to its royal regard and used chocolate in the women’s dowry through royal inter-marriages – that of which played a great role in spreading chocolate throughout Europe.
Another example (seen below) comes from the Madrid Codex where we see cacao being exchanged, portraying a give-and-take linkage between their concepts of cyclical time (lunar goddess) and their environment (rain god). I find this imagery especially expressive to their belief of the divine relationship to their human existence and sustenance on earth. Lastly, from the Codex Nuttall we see a royal funerary procession in “Twelve Movements”. Within the tomb depicted at the bottom right of the artwork lies a “vessel of foaming cacao beverage… to ease the soul’s journey to the underworld”. (Martin)
Eduardo recounts drinking cups of hot chocolate since he can remember. While traveling south to Puebla state he tried their “typical meal, mole, and it’s made of cacao”. What he knows about the Maya and cacao is how they used to prepare beverages and meals like the Puebla “mole”. “We have different tribes and culture but we learned about it in school and I experiences it myself while traveling south. Cacao is still a huge deal in south Mexico.”
See the dozen or more ingredients to make the traditional “thick, baroque sauce, mole” from Xalapa, Veracruz (Presilla), north of Puebla state in Mexico. Presilla notes that each ingredient is “processed in sequence, each at its own time” (2009).
As the mole is diverse in ingredients, and rich in unique Mesoamerican culture, so too – as these contemporary perspectives have illustrated, are the people of the region diversely interwoven with it’s history and unique place on Earth’s sphere.
Today, due to the commonality of chocolate as an everyday treat, except for the most expensive, finest-quality chocolates consumed by the those with “well-lined pockets,” (Coe 95), it might be difficult to imagine chocolate as “the emperor’s banquet” (Coe 96). However, pre-Columbian customs reflect a history of chocolate as “the drink of the elite” (Coe 95). The history of this truth lies in glyphs and memoirs recounted by sources who bore witness to this luxury. Chocolate held a place in society by which commoners rarely partook. The historical significance of this custom allows one to trace the history of chocolate as it has evolved for today’s culture to appreciate. History often does not offer palatable derivation.
To extrapolate upon this history, one has imagined that the cacao bean is “the bean of the gods.”
The Aztec elite – the royal house, lords and nobility, long-distance merchants, and warriors (Coe 95) imbibed chocolate, adding to the glory of their imperial existence. With exception, soldiers were welcomed to join, but chocolate was mostly confined to the noble class. This distinction also excluded priests. Coe contends that this chocolate ritual might resemble champagne toasts among today’s elite. This insertion might help present-day society understand the importance of the historical feast that these rulers enjoyed: for champagne is not the usual drink of twenty-first century patrons.
One should note that chocolate was served at the end of the meal. Much like tobacco, brandy, and cigars, chocolate was a delicacy to be appreciated at banquet’s end (Coe 95). Every cultural norm deserves study as one envisions the life of those who celebrated these rites. It is purported that Aztec Emperor Montezuma drank more than his fair share of chocolate!
The sources upon which this tradition rests include eye-witness accounts of grandiosity and extravagance. Keep in mind that these centuries-old tales were often passed down by the emperors themselves. One story from Bernal Diaz del Castillo involves a “colossal event” in which “300 dishes were prepared especially for him” (Coe 95). Coe adds that Bernal Diaz was in his eighties when he recollected this celebration. Coe also suggests that the hyperbolic manner in which this tale is presented includes other dubious statements in his testimony. However, other accounts, including one from Fray Bartolome de la Casa, might seem more reliable as he, a Dominican friar, was less removed from this glory (Coe 96). According to Las Casas, chocolate was drank from calabash, painted vessels, from the gourds of the calabash tree (Presilla 12) and not from chalices of gold and silver. Regardless of the storyteller, Aztec artifacts confirm that chocolate was not for mere mortals but rather that of the upper class. These artifacts include glyphs and painted pictures that told a story of chocolate’s history. Vessels have been discovered with these artifacts, proving this legacy.
Many desired this social standing: for the pochteca, long-distance traders, regularly enjoyed chocolate drink (Coe 96). Those merchants who aspired to be among those ranks were obliged to host expensive banquets to prove their ability to maintain this economic status (Coe 97). This obligation deserves attention because it is a reflection of “climbing up the ranks” by which today’s society is held. Chocolate was synonymous with “luxury and status” (Presilla 14), but the costliness of this endeavor is a price that many sacrificed. This membership with its costly expenditures was tied to chocolate etiquette (Coe 98). Without this history, one might not appreciate the value of Aztec goods.
Coe, Sophie D. & Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 2013.
Presilla, Maricel. The New Taste of Chocolate. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2001.
You may be surprised to find out that the chocolate that we know today is a relatively new, tasty discovery- one that came about from the Industrial Age.
When the Industrial Revolution took place, the world revolutionized with it, and industries of all kinds were forever altered. The chocolate industry, still in the Mayan age, sprouted into a new field and its effects can still be traced today. The technology in the Industrial Revolution provided the tools to advance the field of chocolate, which allowed for mass consumption and commercialization, giving way to the “Chocolate Age.”
Chocolate’s “God-Like” Beginnings
Cacao was considered the “food of the gods,” and was treated as such: before the Industrial Age, chocolate was made the traditional way that the Mayans made it with a long, drawn-out process of cracking shells and traditional grinding to create a bitter chocolate drink (unlike the chocolate of today) (Szogyi, 1997).
Modern Mayan woman demonstrating how her ancestors
would grind cacao (Smithsonian)
This treat was considered to be a drink that was both a commodity and spiritual experience; although it was available to the masses, the wealthy certainly had more access to the treat because they could afford it. Cacao was taken as such a serious product that the Mayans used its seeds as currency; further, it was used to promote fertility and life, and cacao pods are found all over elite and ancient artifacts, temples, and palaces. Clearly, these uses and techniques demonstrate how luxurious chocolate was to them; these processes stayed this way even during the era of the Aztec empire and many centuries later (Horn, 2016 & Szogyi).
The Industrial Difference
This process of chocolate was so revered that it essentially did not change until the Industrial Age with a ground-breaking invention for grinding that used the newly-innovated steam and hydraulic process; in 1778, Doret, a Frenchman, invented a hydraulic machine that grinds cocoa beans into a paste (Beckett, Horn). Before then, the process of grinding was long and tedious and this machine allowed the process to become easier to create for the masses. Soon after, more inventions came along for grinding that further made consumption more popular. For instance, Dubuisson invented a steam chocolate grinder in France because it was even cheaper to replicate than Doret’s product, which allowed for an even higher level of mass consumption of chocolate. The Industrial Age created the environment to allow for this change – without steam and hydraulics, and the friendly and booming business atmosphere for support, Doret and Dubuisson would certainly not have been able to create these inventions. Where would be chocolate be today? One could reasonably predict that we could have eventually have had these technologies, but it is safe to assume that it would have taken the chocolate industry much longer to reach its glory.
The steam engine and hydraulic system are considered staples of this Industrial Age with new technologies across the boards for trains, factories, and buildings, but we can also appreciate how these technologies allowed for the advancement of chocolate technology. The value of chocolate significantly decreased because it was accessible to everyone; from here on, it was no longer an “elite” product or just a “food of the gods,” but, rather, a food for everyone. Thus, the Industrial Age that changed the world on so many fronts quickly churned into the “Chocolate Age” as well.
The idea of the mass consumption of chocolate from the Industrial Age can be traced along the later part of the history of chocolate. Quickly after the revelation with the cocoa beans came a new way to make chocolate an even more accessible product with commercialization – via “dutching” (Squiciarinni & Swinnen, 2016). In 1828, Van Houten, a Dutch chemist, invented a method to press cocoa by separating the cocoa butter by pressing it with alkali, making the matter soften up enough to produce cocoa powder, which was light and fluffy; unlike the current chocolate of that time, dutching made chocolate highly digestible, which would attract new consumers and open up a whole new market for chocolate – just like these technologies helped do so in other industries such as the construction field (i.e. making materials more affordable and attractive for building).
Van Houten’s cocoa press (World Standards)
Additionally, cocoa powder was the secret ingredient needed for the chocolate industry and companies to seamlessly make solid chocolate bars and coat them as well as bring in new flavors such as white chocolate. From there, a second wave of the Chocolate Age had been set and was about to take place.
A Second Wave of the Age – Mass Commercialization and the Chocolate Bar
With the mass consumption of chocolate from these new Industrial technologies came mass commercialization. Quite simply, we can see that chocolate companies would not be what they are today without this commercial influence; specifically, the dutching process sparked a spread of commercialization across Europe, which allowed for the worldwide chocolate industry we have come to know and love. For example, Cadbury, one of the largest chocolate companies today, and Joseph Fry (founder of what is known as Mondolez International today) bought the dutching press; these two companies are credited to be the first companies to create and sell the chocolate bar. They also made the chocolate bar a highly accessible treat with aggressive advertising; this marketing scheme raked in millions of dollars for these companies (Beckett, Horn). It was the catalyst behind the beginning of giant factories built to keep up with this demand.
Thus, the chocolate bar became (and still is) a symbol for a quick, delicious treat for everyone and anyone.
Fry’s chocolate bar packaging (Foods of England)
Moreover, the dutching system then inspired the chocolate exportation business that brought chocolate on to an international stage – a few decades after the start of the chocolate bar, the Van Houten presses became powered by steam engines, and, just like with the Dubuisson’s steam engine, came with another Chocolate Revolution. The mass consumption and commercialization of chocolate began in European countries such as Germany and France, which eventually led its way to the United States (Beckett, Szogyi). These countries then started their own chocolate giants such as Hershey’s and Nestlé, which embody the same mass consumption and commercialization ideals that have advanced the history of chocolate along and allowed it to further churn.
Without the Industrial age, chocolate would just not be the same. It is literally unrecognizable from its Olmec and Mayan roots. From the Industrial Age, the Chocolate Age churned on and on – all starting with the advancements in steam and hydraulics.
Beckett, S.T, et al. Industrial Chocolate – Manufacture and Use. Wiley Publishers: Hoboken.
Horn, Jeff. The Industrial Revolution: History, Documents, and Key Questions. (2016). ABC-CLIO: Santa Barbara.
Squicciarini, Mara P & Swinnen, Johan. (2016). The Economics of Chocolate. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Smithsonian. Retrieved from http://newsdesk.si.edu/releases/power-chocolate-reveals-true-roots-celebrated-food
Szogyi, Alex. (1997). Chocolate: Food of the Gods. Greenwood Publishing Group: Westport.
The Foods of England. Retrieved from http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/chocolate.htm
World Standards. Retrieved from http://www.worldstandards.eu/chocolate%20-%20history.html
It can be hard to look back on the thousands of years that chocolate has evolved from a simple Mesoamerican beverage into what it is today, and say that chocolate has devolved in a downward spiral. Today in some forms it is simultaneously a rare and expensive delicacy, and a ubiquitous cheap candy that is readily available at a degraded quality available to even in the most poverty-stricken economies around the world. When chocolate was confined to the Mesoamerica region, it was considered to be food of the gods and was regarded so highly that is was ceremoniously attributed to good health and well-being.
Figure 1: $250 Each. Stuffed with a French Perigord truffle and crafted from 71-percent single-bean Ecuadorean dark-chocolate. Follow link for additional expensive chocolates. Fox News
Has chocolate evolved over time from simple watery cacao drink enjoyed by the historical Olmec culture, into sought after delicacies such as the $250 Knipschildt Chocolatier’s Madeline truffle? (figure 1) Or, has chocolate devolved from a glorious beverage with positive health properties, to an adulterated cacao bi-product lacking purity, and is ever distant from its original roots such as the Hershey’s White Chocolate (figure 2) that contains 0% cacao (Bratskeir)? While the recipes have changed over time, it has remained true that chocolate has been sought after as a comfort food, a medicine, a gift, an offering, or consumed with a greater purpose that to satisfy hunger.
Figure 2: White chocolate: often used as an ingredient for baking in cookies, shown here as Hershey’s Cookies & Crème white chocolate bar. Hershey’s Chocolate bars
Originating in Mesoamerica, the Olmec culture cultivated the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) and declared it “a gift of the gods” (Bruinsma and Taren). Appropriately, the Swedish naturalist Linnaeus (1707-78) gave the scientific name Theobroma cacao. Cacao is Greek and means food of the gods (Coe and Coe, 18). This godly association isn’t too difficult to understand when studying their perceptions of the effects that cacao had on them. This gift from the gods was considered an aphrodisiac and was often associated with medicinal values (Bruinsma and Taren). This belief has more recently been verified by means of Mayan archeology that has proved they were in better health and lived longer than their chocolate deprived subjects (Coe and Coe, 32). There is more recent science published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association that shows chocolate can even satisfy magnesium deficiencies (Bruinsma and Taren). The cacao plant from which chocolate is derived has foliage that is also valuable to many for other products. The leaves of the cacao plant can be used to create a tea used in the treatment of altitude sickness. The leaves are even used in the production of cocaine (Coe and Coe, 19).
A plant with such medicinal value was naturally monetarily valuable as well in the 16th century and therefore associated with social and economic classes, and elite rulers. It was prepared for and consumed at banquets, weddings, and other ceremonies (Coe and Coe, 97). As a valuable commodity, it was often exchanged as currency (figure 3) (Coe and Coe, 99). Despite being a currency that did in fact grow on trees, the beans were even counterfeit by the Aztecs. Such careful attention was given by the Mayan people to this highly regarded commodity that Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus noted when “the [cacao] fell, they all stopped to pick up, as if an eye had fallen” (Coe and Coe, 109). Was Columbus’s fascination with cacao the beginning the degradation of a high regard for chocolate?
Figure 3: A visual depiction of the exchange values cacao beans had in 1541. Photo from Cornell University.
It was with Christopher Columbus’s voyages that chocolate was introduced to European culture. It was at this point, chocolate took a drastic European turn and became more like the chocolate we know today. Would the Olmec people and others from the Mesoamerican era consider our modern chocolate blaspheme as a disgrace to their original food of the gods? (figure 4) Chocolate was originally drunk as a beverage by the Mesoamerican cultures (Coe and Coe, 33). We actually have learned that the transformation began before Columbus. Sophie and Michael Coe demonstrate in the True History of Chocolate that the Spaniards had stripped chocolate of the spiritual meaning and “imbued it with qualities altogether absent among the Aztecs and Maya. It was nothing more than a drug, a medicine in humoral system” (Coe and Coe, 126).
The transformations of the former cacao beverage into what we know today as chocolate continued over the course of the centuries after Columbus introduced cacao to Europe. One of the most historical was the first chocolate bar invented in 1847 by the Fry Brothers in Bristol, England (Coe and Coe, 241). Milk chocolate was first made successfully in 1879, after Daniel Peter, a Swiss chocolate manufacturer, thought to try making it with the powdered milk invented by his neighbor, Henri Nestlé, 30 years earlier (Coe and Coe 247). In his book, The New Taste of Chocolate, Presilla explains that “the practice of adding dried milk to the chocolate mass to make milk chocolate put another layer of distance between the consumer and the direct flavor of good and bad cacao” (Hansen; Presilla, 43). Now under the cheap guise of milk flavor, it was from this point we began to see the adulteration of chocolate, many of which have not improved much.
One such adulteration starts at the source of the cacao. Lead contamination in chocolate was brought to attention when the Food and Drug Administration identified unacceptable levels of lead (Coe and Coe, 32). Although the lead contamination was thought to be related to negligence or accidental contamination, other adulterations have been intentional. The Cadbury company became known in the 19th century for being the reason the government had to implement the Adulteration of Food Act of 1872. At the time, they mixed flour and starch into their product, red ocher (crushed red brick), red lead, and vermilion (Coe and Coe, 244). With the exception of the ocher, and toxic lead and vermilion, the flour and other adulterations have become an acceptable and common pairing with chocolate today. Chocolate is often times paired with nuts, fruits, caramel, and other less expensive fillers to aid in the reduction of cacao necessary to provide a sizable chocolate bar. These cheapened products are consumed in mass quantities by even the most struggling economies.A far progression from the exclusive food of the gods enjoyed by the most elite.
Even with the addition of ingredients, as the quality and recipes have changed over time, one constant about chocolate has remained true throughout the course of history. Chocolate isn’t consumed for nourishment or in admiration of the gift from the gods. It is consumed to alter a spiritual, emotional, or mental state of being. It has been sought after as a comfort food, medicine, a gift, an offering, or consumed with greater purpose than to satisfy hunger. This has been a recorded purpose as earlier on as 3,000 BC and is still true today. Chocolate has not only remained highly regarded by more people than ever before, but the cheap and adulterated chocolate that seeks to imitate the food of the gods is flattery to the delicacy that is high quality chocolate.
Bratskeir, Kate. “What Exactly Is White Chocolate.” Huffington Post 10/28/14. Web.
Bruinsma, Kristen, and Douglas L. Taren. “Chocolate: Food or Drug?” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 99.10 (1999): 1249-56. Print.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third edition. ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013. Print.
Hansen, Kristine. “6 of the World’s Most Expensive Chocolates.” Fox News. 2/6/15. Web.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate : A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. 1st rev. ed. Berkeley Calif.: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.
Chocolate is a favorite treat for many in modern times, but it was also a favorite for the people in ancient Mesoamerica. Today, in the U.S.A., we can easily purchase chocolate from establishments ranging from grocery stores to gas stations, and chocolate is a popular ingredient in foods such as candy and many beverages. We are able to easily purchase our chocolate treats, in all forms, without ever seeing, touching, processing, or preparing our treats from the plant itself. In ancient times the fruit of Theobroma spp. was collected and processed by the inhabitants of many ancient civilizations. When scholars investigate the origins of the use of Theobroma spp. many questions arise such as, “How was this plant used by ancient cultures?” and “Which parts of the plant were consumed?” These questions are answered through the use of many scientific facets such as analyses of ancient writings and the examination of ancient artifacts through chemical analyses. Through these efforts, scientists are able to piece together a timeline detailing the earliest known use of this plant by ancient societies. This post will examine how the discovery of ancient pottery demonstrated that ancient civilizations used the fruits of Theobroma spp. to produce alcoholic beverages, and how this discovery allowed for the incorporation of chocolate into a modern day beer “Theobroma” developed and produced by the company Dogfish Head.
What is Theobroma spp? The genus Theobroma is located in the family Malvaceae and contains ~20 species (“Theobroma” n.d.). The most familiar species within the genus is Theobroma cacao which translates to “food of the gods”. The seeds from this plant are used to make chocolate. This evergreen, shade grown, amazing tree is unique in that the flowers and fruit grow directly on the trunk (cauliflory). The fruit, once ripe, contains the prized seeds which are used for the modern day production of chocolate. It is truly a beautiful plant which has had a tremendous impact on human culture as described by many researchers who have searched for, recorded, and shared their finding detailing the use of this plant ancient times.
When researchers uncovered shards of pottery at the northern Honduran site of Puerto Escondido they were about to redefine the history of chocolate and inspire the creation of a “new to the modern world” chocolate drink. Archeologist identified these vessel shards at the site as having a “long neck” (think “long neck” beer bottles). The presence of the “neck” was an indicator that foam was not a component of the liquid stored within this container (Henderson 3). The process of pouring the cacao mixture between two containers to create foam was previously believed to be the way in which cacao drinks were first consumed (Henderson 3). The sample of a spouted (“long neck”) vessel (4DK-136 – Type name: Barraca Brown), based on radiocarbon dating, showed that the process of consumption involved fermentation to produce an alcoholic beverage (beer). This would now be the earliest known use of cacao from anywhere in the world, and via radiocarbon dating, scientists could now date this vessel to the Ocotillo phase (1400-1100 B.C.) (Henderson 2). Further chemical analysis of this vessel, using chromatographic and mass spectrometric analyses showed the presence if theobromine and caffeine (Henderson 3). These two compounds are found in Theobroma spp. and proved that these vessels once held a drink made from the plant Theobroma. The research conducted by John S. Henderson, Rosemary A. Joyce, Gretchen R. Hall, W. Jeffrey Hurst, and Patrick McGovern not only shifted the date for first cacao consumption (by humans) back 500 years, but they also established that, in all likelihood, that the method for the consumption of cacao began with the fermentation of the pulp to create an alcoholic beverage, and that the use of the cacao seeds, and the method for producing “foam”, did not occur until hundreds of years later.
The invention of a new “ancient beer” could not have happened without the collaboration between Dr. Patrick McGovern (the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, where he is also an Adjunct Professor of Anthropology) and the folks from Dogfish Head Brewery. Dr. McGovern is not only an incredible archeologist, but he is also reproducing drinks of the past for modern day consumption. The collaboration between Dr. McGovern and the brewers from Dogfish Head demonstrates how science and intuition, blended together, can have amazing results.
“Since it proved impossible to transport the fresh fruit without spoilage from Honduras, we did the next best thing. We were able to obtain chocolate nibs and powder from the premier area of Aztec chocolate production, Soconusco, the first such dark chocolate to be imported into the States in centuries (Askinosie Chocolate in Missouri). As you drink this luscious beverage–almost like a fine Scotch or Port–you will pick up the aroma of the cacao and hints of the ancho chili in the aftertaste. Any bitterness of the chocolate is offset by the honey and corn. Achiote colors it red. It was fermented with an American ale yeast.” (Dr. Patrick E. McGovern, “Theobroma”).
Do we now have in our possession the ancient recipe used to brew beer with cacao? The recipe used to create “Theobroma” beer uses the wealth of knowledge gained by understanding and studying ancient artifacts, writings, and through chemical analyses conducted on the pottery uncovered during archeological excavations and historical studies, but even with this wealth of knowledge, we will never know for sure how the drinks prepared by the ancients tasted or the precise measurements and ingredients used to create them. However, with the use of science and craftsmanship we can certainly come close to tasting these “ancient brews”.
Theobroma was a limited release from Dogfish Head, but please enjoy the following video in which Dogfish Head brewer Sam Calagione describes how lovely this ancient brew tastes.
Video 1: Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione on the brewery’s Ancient Ale Theobroma.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
Henderson, John S., et al. “Chemical and Archaeological Evidence for the Earliest Cacao Beverages.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, National Acad Sciences, 16 Nov. 2007 http://www.pnas.org/content/104/48/18937 Accessed on 8 March 2017