Tag Archives: froth

From Kitchen to Culture

A sociohistorical analysis of ancient Mayan chocolate recipes

Food and recipes are a glimpse into the intimate cultural customs and beliefs of a civilization. Chocolate, the ever-popular sweet treat, beverage, and flavor, has a culinary history that is as rich and complex as the food itself. The ancient Maya and their Olmec ancestors introduced drinking chocolate to Mesoamerica, and later to the entire Old World (Coe Kindle loc. 914). Historians have deduced recipes of these original beverages, which enhanced cacao with indigenous flavorings, additives, and techniques. These ingredients, methods of preparation, and contexts of consumption reflect not only Mayan culinary tastes, but also the cultural and social customs and beliefs of the time. Through the analysis of two particular recipes from the Lacandón Maya, this work will examine the connections between the culinary, cultural, and historical aspects of cacao in Mesoamerica.

Geographic region of Lacandón civilization in Chiapas and Petén

The Lacandón Maya lived in the cacao-cultivating regions of Chiapas, Mexico and Petén, Guatemala. The Lacandón were not direct descendants of the Classic Maya; but rather, developed from inter-indigenous interactions between Classic Maya and other cultures (Cecil 261). Despite their dwindling numbers, the Lacandón have maintained many traditions, particularly culinary practices, from their original Classic Mayan roots. This is especially significant considering the lack of written documentation of Classic Maya chocolate recipes. Any references to cacao preparation were typically illustrations and scenes of cacao consumption or social use. Despite their artistic value, these hieroglyphs lacked culinary detail, as they translated simply to “cacao,” only indicating the purpose of the vessel (Coe Kindle loc. 608). The subsequent work of anthropologists and historians have uncovered two Lacandón recipes for chocolate beverages, demonstrating the various uses, additives, and social contexts of chocolate.

Classic Mayan glyph for “cacao”
Cacao vessel, as indicated by the hieroglyphs around the rim

Secular cacao recipes and uses

One of the most significant aspects of chocolate in Maya culture was its versatility and ubiquity in a variety of different social contexts. Cacao-based beverages were enjoyed regularly as an everyday drink, in secular settings or for practical purposes. The Maya termed this chacau haa, meaning “hot water” or “hot chocolate.” Another type of common beverage was saca, which evolved from the traditional sak ha drink made of corn gruel (Coe Kindle loc. 875). Saca incorporated cacao with the traditional cooked maize and water, providing body and substance to the otherwise watery chocolate drink. Combined with cacao’s caffeine, this chocolate maize drink served as an excellent source of fuel and calories. Mayan warriors were also depicted with cacao pods, referencing the invigorating, sustaining properties of such cacao beverages (Martin slide 52).

The first Lacandón recipe presented by Sophie and Michael Coe was claimed to be for “ordinary consumption” (Kindle loc. 885). The basic ingredients and techniques of this secular recipe were the foundation from which more culinarily complex and socially meaningful recipes were developed. The main components were cacao beans, maize, and suqir. The preparation involved first grinding the cacao beans with a metate, mixing the grounds with water to form a paste, straining the mixture, and finally adding more water while heating and beating to produce foam (Coe Kindle loc. 896). The addition of maize mirrors the basic saca recipe, using corn to increase the beverage’s value as caloric fuel. Despite the practical aspects of chocolate consumption, the Maya most highly valued the delicious taste and sensation of the foam. This was created with the addition of suqir, a vine that acted as a foaming agent, and the technique of beating the hot chocolate (Cook 257). This preparation would have taken a significant amount of time and effort, especially in comparison to the modern-day electric tools developed for the same purpose of foaming beverages. Thus, it is evident that the Maya valued even their ordinary chocolate drinking enough to put forth the effort in its foaming and preparation.

72% Ecuador Hot Chocolate - Monsieur Truffe AUD5
The prized foam atop hot chocolate beverages

Sacred cacao recipes and rituals

Despite its widespread consumption among the Maya and their descendants, cacao was also a culturally sacred, ritualistic comestible. The second Lacandón recipe was intended for sacred purposes, as seen in the additives and special techniques that carried religious significance. The ritual sponsor’s wife prepared the drink “in a special cooking hut next to the ‘god house’ where the clay effigy ‘god pots’ are kept” (Coe Kindle loc. 896). These god pots were essential in Lacandón spiritual practices. They were called ol, translating to “center” or “heart of,” presumably because they served as otherworldly portals (Dreiss 57). This corresponds to the Mayan belief that the cacao tree was the center of the universe and source of all life, connecting the Sky, Earth, and Underworld (Martin slide 44). These god pots were sculpted with the likenesses of cacao gods and were used as vessels to transmit the Lacandón spiritual offerings.

Vessels for cocoa / Съдове за какао
Cacao vessels and god pots

Before the ceremonial offering and “feeding” of the cacao to the god pots, there were several other critical components distinguishing the sacred cacao from the secular. Aak’, a soft grass, was added to enhance the frothing process while beating the liquid. Additionally, to ensure that the beverage had sufficient foam to please the gods, the women preparers would simultaneously sing a special frothing song (Dreiss 58). The frothed cacao would then be poured into the god pots, which contained either sak ha, the aforementioned corn gruel, or balché, another ceremonial drink. In a ritualistic context, the Maya offered sak ha to the gods of various crops, to protect them from plagues and ensure a substantial harvest. Balché was made from water fermented with the bark of the balché tree, which was supposed to impart sanctity and protection against evil, as well as provide hallucinogenic effects to the drinkers (Cano 4). The addition of these two beverages for ritual offerings reflects the Classic Maya belief in cacao’s role in fertility. As another example, the Madrid Codex depicts the Mayan moon goddess and rain god exchanging cacao to maintain the earth’s fertility (Martin slide 38). This combination of sacred beverages highlights the importance of cacao in Maya rituals and the inherent assumption that gods too, love chocolate.

The juxtaposition of the secular and sacred Maya chocolate recipes reveals the stark differences in cacao consumption based on social context. The addition of corn as maize may be interpreted as a caloric enhancement when cacao was consumed as fuel. In a sacred preparation, this maize could also serve as a godly offering to protect the cacao crops. The consistent practice of beating the liquid and adding frothing agents was also a vital technique to please both human imbibers and gods. These recipes demonstrate the versatility of cacao and its ability to embody different cultural meanings through its preparation, method of serving or consuming, and its spiritual synergy with additional ingredients. Cacao was a delicious foundation that could be adapted to fulfill both humans’ gastronomic and spiritual appetites, contributing to its persistent popularity throughout history.

Works Cited: Scholarly Sources

  1. Cano, Mirtha. Sacred Food and Drinks. FLAAR Network, 2008.
  2. Cecil, Leslie G., and Timothy W. Pugh. Maya Worldviews at Conquest. University Press of Colorado, 2009.
  3. Coe, Sophie D and Michael D., Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson. Kindle Edition.
  4. Cook, Suzanne. The Forest of the Lacandon Maya: An Ethnobotanical Guide. Springer US, 2016.
  5. Dreiss, Meredith L., and Greenhill, Sharon. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. University of Arizona Press, 2008.
  6. Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” AAAS 119X, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University. 6 Feb. 2019.

Works Cited: Multimedia Sources

  1. Alpha. 72% Ecuador Hot Chocolate – Monsieur Truffe AUD5. 5 Mar 2011. Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/9prH1J. Accessed 10 Mar 2019.
  2. Burchell, Simon. Maya civilization location map. Wikimedia Commons, 26 May 2015, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maya_civilization_location_map_-_geography.svg. Accessed 10 Mar 2019.
  3. Maya. Vessel with Battle Scene. 600. John L. Severance Fund, Cleveland Museum of Art. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Clevelandart_2012.32.jpg. Accessed 10 Mar 2019.
  4. Mitko_denev. Vessels for cocoa. 6 Jan 2008. Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/4nzkzY. Accessed 10 Mar 2019.
  5. Soparamens. Cacao-glyph. Wikimedia Commons, 29 Mar 2017, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cacao-glyph_vectorized.png. Accessed 10 Mar 2019.

The Molinillo: a Hybrid of Many Cultures, Not Just a “Mexican” Tool

Chocolate has a rich history in Mesoamerica, dating back to the Olmecs in 1500 BCE. However, it was not until after the Spanish invasion in the 16thcentury that chocolate traveled outside of Central America. Chocolate’s interaction with many different cultures and societies resulted in a hybridization process that spanned multiple generations, transforming it from the bitter drink consumed by the Maya and Aztecs to the sweet, sugary chocolate that dominates the world market today. Going through a similar hybridization process was the molinillo, a wooden tool used to produce froth during the chocolate-making process. A Spanish invention, the molinillo quickly became adopted in both Mesoamerica and Europe. However, today the molinillo is depicted in mass media as a distinctly Mesoamerican or Mexican tool, its Spanish and European past minimized and sometimes even neglected all together. This phenomenon can be explained by the difference in meaning attributed to the molinillo in Mesoamerican and European cultures. However, the contemporary characterization of the molinillo as solely Mexican undercuts its historical impact and significance; consequently, it is important to acknowledge the tool as a hybrid of many different cultures, not just one.

Although the molinillo was important in the chocolate making process, an entirely different method was used for hundreds of years before its introduction. The earliest known depiction of the original froth making process is the Princeton vase of the Maya, dating back to the late Classic period.

Woman creating froth by pouring chocolate from one cup to another
Princeton vase (AD 670-750)

As shown, the Maya poured chocolate from one cup to another, the height helping to froth the liquid. This was the “exclusive method” of pre-conquest Mesoamerica, as evidenced by the Codex Tudela, which depicts a similar image only eight centuries later and on an Aztec artifact rather than Mayan (Coe and Coe, 85).

It was not until the late 16thcentury that the introduction of the molinillo greatly altered this process. The molinillo, thought to be derived from the Spanish word “molino”, or little mill[1], is a wooden, grooved beater invented by the Spaniards. 

A typical molinillo

The Spaniards found that twirling a molinillo through an opening of a covered cup was a better way to produce foam. It was quickly adopted in Mesoamerica, and by the time Francesco d’Antonio Carletti, a Florentine businessman who traveled to Guatemala to observe the chocolate process, printed his official report in 1701, the molinillo was being widely used (Coe and Coe, 139). By 1780, the molinillo supplanted the former foam-making process completely, as evidenced by Francesco Saverio Claviergero’s published report on native Mexican life that describes the use of the molinillo but “totally omits the pouring from one vessel to another to produce a good head on the drink” (Coe and Coe, 85).  Clearly, the molinillo quickly became an essential part of Mesoamerican life.

At the same time the molinillo was being adopted in Central America, it was also gaining popularity in Spain and other European countries. The importance of the molinillo can be seen in a recipe published by the Spaniard Antonio Comenero de Ledesma in 1644, which stated that chocolate is best prepared with a molinillo (Coe and Coe, 133). However, the use of the molinillo was not isolated to Spain. Other European countries adapted the tool to fit their own unique ways of preparing and serving chocolate. For example, the French prepared chocolate in ornate, silver chocolatiers and the molinillo was altered to match these vessels and fit their lids. The molinillo was so widely used it was even depicted in the art of the time, as shown below (Coe and Coe, 222).

A woman reaching for a molinillo sitting atop a silver chocolatier.
“La Crainte” by Noël Le Mire (1724-1830)

Yet in contemporary media, there is little mention of the molinillo’s Spanish influences or its widespread use in Europe. Instead, it is identified as a Mexican artifact. For example, the first link that shows up after a simple Google search is a Wikipedia article that states that a molinillo is a “Mesoamerican tool”, and the only country mentioned in the article is Mexico. Although Wikipedia is not an academic source by any means, in today’s Internet age it is where most people get their information due to its convenience. Even an article that pops up from the Smithsonian magazine, the reputable written resource of the Smithsonian museum, describes the significance of the molinillo with no mention of its use in Europe. It even emphasizes that Spain contributed greatly to the chocolate process, but only in its introduction of sugar, not in its invention of the very artifact the article is about. This begs the question, why has contemporary culture diminished the importance of the Spanish and European past of the molinillo and augmented its Mexican one? Using the framework with which Sydney Mitz evaluates the spread of sugar in Great Britain in his book “Sweetness and Power” can elucidate the answer. According to Mintz, when studying food and the objects used to prepare food, it is essential to examine the meaning ascribed to them because meaning can differ substantially over time and across cultures.

For Mesoamerican civilizations, chocolate had a ritual significance. In Maya civilization, Gods were connected to cacao trees, often born of them. For the Aztecs, cacao trees were considered the center of the universe, or an axis mundil, that connected the “supernatural spheres and human spheres” (Carrasco, 92).  As such, chocolate came to have strong religious connotations, and foam was seen as an essential and sacred part of the ritual drink, or as Meredith Dreiss comments, “chocolate is for the body, but foam is for the soul” (Dreiss). Because of this, the molinillo became an essential and incredibly meaningful part of life, as the same religious and cultural emphasis that was put on foam became associated with the tool that made the foam. Yet for the Spaniards and other European countries, this ritual aspect was lacking. When chocolate traveled across the ocean, it lost some of its former meaning while simultaneously gaining new meaning. This is because the meanings associated with symbols are “historically acquired- they arise, grow, change, and die- and they are culture-specific… they have no universal meaning; they ‘mean’ because they occur in specific cultural and historical contexts” (Mintz, 153).  Once chocolate became situated in new cultures, it grew to have different contextual meaning, and none of the new meanings that Spaniards and Europeans associated with chocolate was as heavily focused on foam as it was in Mesoamerica. Consequently, to the Europeans the molinillo was simply a tool to make chocolate rather than a symbol. 

In this context, it can be argued that the cultural meaning that Mesoamerica ascribed to the molinillo is what contributes to its identification today as a distinctly Mexican tool. This is because although a Spanish invention and widely used, the molinillo did not have a significant cultural meaning like it did in Mesoamerica, and therefore it’s European past is easily disassociated. However, when analyzing the significance of the molinillo, it is important to recognize its entire historical past, rather than just its Mexican one, as its hybridization is an essential part of its identity, just as hybridization is an essential part of chocolate’s identity. 

Multimedia Sources





Works Cited

Carrasco, Davíd. Religions of Mesoamerica. Waveland Press, 1990.

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 2013. 

Dreiss, Meredith L. and Sharon Edgar Greenhill. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. University of Arizona Press, 2008.

Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, 1986. 

[1]There are alternative theories, such as Dr. León-Portilla’s belief that molinillo is a Spanish derivation of the Nahuatl world molinia, meaning to “shake, waggle, or move” (Coe and Coe, 120 )

Let Us Raise a Vessel to Cacao… Mayan Style!

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.

The Kakaw Glyph
Figure 1. The kakaw glyph (ka-ka-wa) in the Dresden Codex. a. The individual syllables of ka-ka-wa. b. The representation of the God of Death holding an offering of a bowl of cacao. Drawings by Carlos Villacorta from the Dresden Codex (1976).

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.

A Late Classic Maya Vase
Figure 2. A Late Classic Maya period polychrome vase for serving chocolate beverages and giving as gifts during elite feasts. Collections of the New Orleans Museum of Art. Photograph copyright Justin Kerr (K2800).

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.

Depiction of a Cacao Beverage Being Frothed
Figure 3. Classic Maya period depicting the aerating of a kakaw beverage by pouring the liquid from one jar to another placed on the floor. Collections from the Princeton Art Museum (acc. no. 75-17, the Hans and Dorthy Widenmann Foundation). Photograph copyright Justin Kerr (K511).

References Cited:

Martin, Carla D. Mesoamerica and the “food gods.” Harvard University, Jan. 2018, https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1XF-lM9Z9iks0cVhUFRJ1QWBokKTRrdvZISwAJVSe_Ag/edit#slide=id.gef490479d_2_18

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

Reents-Budet, Dorie. “The Social Context of Kakaw Drinking among the Ancient Maya.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, edited by Cameron L. McNeil, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. 202-223.

Stuart, David. “The Language of Chocolate References to Cacao on Classic Maya Drinking Vessels.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, edited by Cameron L. McNeil, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. 184-201.

Dumbledore Loves Chocolate
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Dir. Chris Columbus. Warner Bros., 2001. DVD.


A Royal Indulgence: The Elite Origins and Introductions of Chocolate

Hundreds of years before Cadbury, Hershey and the like transformed chocolate into a mass-produced and affordable dietary staple, chocolate was a royal indulgence. Reserved for the most prestigious social classes in Mesoamerica, sumptuary laws in New World governed who was able to consume it and, according to some accounts, consumption of chocolate without sanction by commoners was punishable by death (Presilla, 18). The value and reverence the Aztecs had for chocolate made a strong impression on early travelers, who readily shared the frothed-beverage with their commissioners in the Old World, making the ruling elite of the 16th century among the first Europeans to regularly imbibe.

Elite Origins in Mesoamerica

Chemical analysis has allowed researchers to place chocolate over 38 centuries back, although not much is known about the drinking habits of early cultures such as the Olmecs and Mayans (Coe, location 464-578). The only surviving written evidence for classic Mayan use of cacao has been found on elegantly painted and carved cylindrical vases and vessels in the tombs and graves of the elite (Coe, location 578). Some of these excavated vases are externally marked with Mayan hieroglyphs denoting cacao, and internally bear chemical traces of alkaloids found in cacao and dark rims on the interior that suggest the contents were once liquid (Coe, location 625). There is not enough evidence to concretely conclude that chocolate was chiefly drunken by the ruling class, but the inclusion of chocolate provisions for the afterlife of the elite suggests Mayans placed a high level importance on the drink.

A Mayan lord sits raised above a servant on a platform next to a frothing pot of chocolate, forbidding the servant from touching the container. (Mayan Civilisation)

Much more is known of the chocolate consumption habits of the Aztecs than the Mayans. Aztec emperor Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina (c. 1398-1469 AD) issued a series of laws stating that “he who does not go to war, be he son of a king, may not wear cotton, feathers or flowers, nor may he smoke, or drink cacao” (Coe, location 1372). Only members of the royal house, the lords and nobility, long-distance merchants who endured dangerous lands and battles with foreign groups, and warriors were allowed to drink chocolate in Aztec society (Coe, location 1324). In Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, Sahagún describes how stringently this hierarchical framework for chocolate consumption was followed by the Aztecs; cacao was very valuable and rare, and was proverbially referred to as “Yollotli eztli”, or the “price of blood and of heart”, because if people of the working class drank it without permit, it would cost them their life (“si alguno de los populares lo bebía, costábale la vide si sin licencia lo bebían”) (Moreno, 500).

Chocolate’s link to luxury and power in Aztec culture is further enforced with the cacao bean’s role in the economy. The Aztecs used cacao beans as currency: a rabbit cost about ten beans (Coe, location 832). When the elite drank chocolate, they were quite literally drinking money. This did not go unacknowledged by the Europeans, who quickly realized that cacao was as valuable to this group of people as gold and gems (Presilla, 18). Watch this video to learn a little more about cacao beans in Aztec culture and the introduction of chocolate to Europeans (Youtube).

Royal Introductions in Europe

In 1544, chocolate made its first documented European appearance in Spain. Dominican friars brought Mayan nobles to the courts of Prince Philip, who presented some of the wonders of the New World to the king: quetzal feathers, painted gourds, and containers of beaten chocolate (Presilla, 24). Forty years later in 1585, the first official cacao bean shipment reached Seville from Veracruz (Coe, location 1848).

A Spanish mancerina with a metal tray. Mancerinas were also made with porcelain trays to match the cup. (Tamorlan)

The Spanish altered the chocolate recipe slightly – preferring it hot as opposed to cold, as the Aztecs had taken it. The Aztecs would add ingredients they were familiar with such as vanilla, herbs, flower petals, and honey, and the Spanish did the same with sugar, cinnamon, hazelnut, anise, and almonds (Presilla). The Spanish sipped it out of mancerinas, a plate or saucer with a ring in the middle to hold a small cup and prevent it from slipping, rather than jícaras. One thing that didn’t change, however, was the elite ties of chocolate; making and drinking chocolate “involved special pains and paraphernalia” (Presilla, 25).

During the 17th century, chocolate spread throughout Europe. It was highly valued as an exotic, tasty alternative as well as a health-promoting drug and was treated differently than other foods. During the reign of Charles III of Spain, chocolate was sent directly to the “royal keeper of jewels” rather than the kitchen (Presilla, 32). France mimicked Spain’s royal consumption of chocolate, reserving it strictly for the aristocracy while England allowed it to hit the free market (Coe, location 2412). Any Englishman or woman was able to consume it so long as they had enough money to pay for it.

A woman drinks chocolate. Notice her elegant clothing and the chocolate paraphernalia on the tray next to her. (Raimundo)


Castriocto, Alessandro. “File:João V – Duque de Lafões.Jpg – Wikimedia Commons”. 1720. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

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

Mayan civilisation. “File:Mayan People and Chocolate.Jpg – Wikimedia Commons”. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

Moreno, Wigberto Jiménez and Sahagún, Bernardino de. Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España: Libros I, II, III, y IV. Linkgua digital, 1938. Online.

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

Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta. “File:Raimundo Madrazo – Hot Chocolate.jpg – Wikimedia Commons”. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

Salvor. “File:Chocolate-house-london-c1708.jph – Wikimedia Commons”. 2006. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

Tamorlan. “File:Macerina-Barcelona-03.Jpg – Wikimedia Commons”. 2010. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

YouTube. “This Is México – Cacao”. Royal Channel Cancun, 2009. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.

To Froth or Not to Froth?

From its early uses in Mesoamerica to its heightened popularity today, cacao – or chocolate, as it has come to be known – consumption has undergone several changes.  Once enjoyed solely by the elites of society as a beverage, chocolate is now a staple food consumed in many forms, from beverage to powder to candy bar, by the masses.  One aspect of the consumption of chocolate that has remained stable through the eras, however, is the frothy head that accompanies chocolate beverages.  Despite the changes in consumption and creation of these chocolate beverages from the Mayans and the Aztecs to the Spanish and the French and through to modern culture, the frothiness of these beverages has been an ever present aspect of their consumption.

Depiction of an Aztec woman undertaking the chocolate frothing process from the 16th century Codex Tudela.

The froth of these chocolate beverages was an important aspect of their consumption as early as the Classic Mayan era.  Though little is known of exactly why the foam was so important, it can be hypothesized that it is a case of the natural human preference for frothy, aerated beverages (Martin).  On the other hand, much has been discovered as to how the foam was created.  According to Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, depictions of the frothing process were found that date back to approximately 750AD.  After mixing the beverage, the creator poured it from shoulder height into another vessel repeatedly until a frothy head was formed (48).  The work involved in both creating the proper mixture for the drink and producing the proper foam may reveal why chocolate remained a beverage for the elite during this era.  Coe and Coe further explain that near the end of the Classic Mayan era, the Lacandóns, a Mayan subgroup, developed another method for producing the much desired froth.  Rather than creating it mechanically through pouring, they added additional ingredients to the chocolate mixture, such as suqir vine or aak (a grass), to produce the froth chemically with minor stirring (62-63). As depicted on the left, little change to the frothing process occurred as the Aztec era began; however, an additional reason for why the froth’s importance was discovered.  In his Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España, Bernardino de Sahagún explains that if the concoctors “add a little [water,] they have beautiful cacao; if they add a lot it will not produce a froth” (qtd. in Presilla 20).  The ability for the mixture to form a frothy head helped the consumers to judge the quality of the beverage they were presented (Presilla 20).  If the beverage had a weak or non-existent froth, one knew it was poorly crafted and would not be especially enjoyable.  The arrival of the Spaniards from the Old World brought a drastic change to the frothing process.

Example of a French chocolate pot.

When the Spanish began developing their own chocolate beverage concoctions, they replaced the pouring method of frothing the drinks with a whisking process using molinillos.  A molinillo, or chocolate mill, is a wooden device with a wide, notched head, sometimes surrounded by wooden rings, that is spun between one’s palms (Presilla 26, 28).  When used in conjunction with tall cylindrical vases, the rapid movement of the device and any surrounding rings aerated the drink and produced the desired frothiness.  Through the shift from the Aztec era, the importance of the froth likely remained both a matter of preference and a measure of quality.  As chocolate began to make its way across Europe, the French adapted the Spanish technique and crafted a device suited to their culture, adding a level of elegance to the chocolate making and frothing process.  As illustrated in the example above to the right, the French crafted stylish these chocolatières from silver or other precious metals.  These vessels completely encapsulated the moussoir, as the French called the molinillo, except for the very tip of the handle that protruded through an otherwise covered hold in the center of the lid (Coe and Coe 157).  The moussoir could be left in the vessel for repeated stirring and re-frothing of the beverage during its consumption, giving the consumer the ability to control the level of froth produced.  The wooden handle along the side of the vessel allowed for easy pouring for consumption (Coe and Coe 157).  The ease of frothing through the European whisking methods allowed for the beverage to move through the ranks of society and become the mass consumed commodity it is today.

In modern society, although chocolate is consumed in many forms and is no longer a creation reserved for the upper class, it remains a popular beverage option.  While traditional recipes for the beverage are still used, especially in Central and South America where the recipes originated, much change has undergone the beverage now served en masse to the public.  More often than not, the drinks are crafted through the combination of a powdered mixture and hot water or milk, rather than through melted chocolate and water.  This new mixture does not produce froth as well as the traditional recipes.  To counteract this and to continue the frothing tradition, consumers now add ingredients, such as whipped cream or marshmallows, to their beverages as pictured below (Coe and Coe 48). The foamy head no longer serves as a measure of quality as it is not produced by the concoction itself but retains its preferential status.

A chocolate beverage that could be consumed today.

Several changes have undergone the chocolate creation and consumption processes through the eras since its introduction.  Once merely a drink prized by the elite, chocolate today is a commodity consumed in several forms by a myriad of individuals.  One aspect that has remained static through its transformation, however, is the presence of and preference for a frothy head on each drink consumed.  From the pouring and stirring methods of the Mayans and Aztecs to the whisking methods of the Spanish and French to the ingredient-addition methods of modern culture, the importance of the froth has held fast through the eras, likely as a result of the human preference for aerated, foamy beverages.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013. Print.

Martin, Carla D. “Introduction to Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.” Harvard Extension School. Cambridge, MA.  27 Jan. 2016. Lecture.

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

Image Sources

Hot chocolate (2). 11 Mar. 2010. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons, 2014. Web. 18, Feb. 2016.

Mujer vertiendo chocolate – Codex Tudela. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons, 2015. Web. 18 Feb. 2016.

Van Cauwenbergh, Joseph-Théodore. Chocolate Pot. 1774. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons, 2015. Web. 18 Feb. 2016.



Cacao & Chocolate as a symbol of wealth

Cacao is a very demanding crop: among others, it needs a canopy of shade trees, an optimal climate, permeable soil, and protection from the wind. These exact requirements designate cacao to only certain growing regions and for centuries confined pre-Mayan, Mayan, Aztecs and colonial civilizations to characterize cacao as an “exotic import” (Coe & Coe, 38). But despite its difficulties, cacao thrived in South America and later, Central America, projecting itself as a symbol of wealth for many centuries. The wealthy, powerful and worthy noble thus associated themselves to cacao through civilizations. As such, cacao stayed a significant commercial crop that is still cultivated today.

The very first examples of Theobroma cacao literally meaning, “food of the Gods” can be seen with the Olmecs. Evidence that dates back to 1800-1400 BC portrays the use of very delicate pottery called “Barra” for holding and drinking chocolate. These innovative and exquisite vessels could only have been associated with the elites. Vessel shards found at San Lorenzo link cacao with human sacrifice and wealth destruction, placing it as a central element in the Olmec Empire. The picture below gives us a glimpse of Barra, the first non-written evidence of cacao’s association with wealth.

Vessels used for storing and consuming chocolate during San Lorenzo Olmec period

Building on Olmec’s traditions, the Mayans did not ignore the power held by cacao, and so they developed skills and knowledge to expand its prestige. This became evident with the appearance of cacao glyphs on vessels and “recipes” which were created for exclusive consumption by kings and nobles. To symbolize their wealth, the Mayan nobility assured cacao’s presence in special feasts and celebrations. Bishop Landa mentions “cacao as among the requirements of a noble feast, and states that hosts were obliged to present the guests with such gifts as cups or vases, “ as fine as the host can afford”” (Presilla, 12). Such opulent feasts with abundance of cacao gave the nobility a higher status in society.

The Mayan high nobles built burial chambers that further illuminates cacao’s power and its status in the Mayan society. Dozens of exquisite pottery made exclusively for holding drinks made of cacao were found in the tombs of the elites. Cacao was the supreme offering which accompanied only the lords to ease their passage to the underworld. The intricate designs and paintings with hieroglyphs of cacao on these vessels reveal to us the esteem and high regard to which cacao was held by the Mayans.

The preparation of the cacao drink itself was that of a prestigious matter. Repeatedly, we can see in many pieces of evidence where lords, nobility and government elites are consuming a “foamy” drink. Presilla says “foamy cacao [and] foamy toppings eventually came to be one of the glories of chocolate drinking among the Maya” (Presilla 12). This foam, which the Mayan women went through great pains to achieve, is what defined the quality of the served drink, increasing its value and the social status of the host. In a way, it showcased the high taste preferences of the elite and its continued symbolism of wealth.

This foamy drink appeared in celebrations particularly in marriage ceremonies between nobility. Within the upper classes and elites, the groom offered the chocolate drink to the prospective bride. This ensured the wealth and prosperity of the groom and provided an assurance to the bride’s parents. Merchants, in order to showcase their status and power, held large banquets where the elite chocolate drink was offered: “And often they spent on one banquet what they earned by trading and bargaining many days. (…) And to each guest they give a roasted fowl, bread, and drinks of cacao in abundance” (Coe & Coe, 60). This was customary in Mayan tradition and to showcase “lavish hospitality” (Coe &Coe, 59) in the society was a requirement to maintain relationships with nobility.

The wealthy’s association with Cacao to show off their status and their power helped shape its significance in Mayan culture. It is no wonder that the Aztecs and later the colonials not only were introduced to but revered this exotic drink. The introduction of this crop to the rest of the world eventually changed the way it was consumed, making it an everyday commonplace food. But for the longest time a sip of it was like “drinking real money” (Coe & Coe 100), and this early image of cacao helped segment its place in history to be used in special occasions much like we have Valentine’s day to our day.


Powis, TG, Cyphers, A, Gaikwad, NW, Grivetti, L, & Cheong, K 2011, ‘Cacao Use and the San Lorenzo Olmec’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 108, no. 21, pp. 8595-8600.

Xian, M 2012a, The “Dazzler Vase” from the royal ‘Margarita Tomb’ in Copán, Honduras, image, C-Spot, viewed 14 May 2012, http://www.c-spot.com/atlas/historical-timeline/

Moreiras, DK 2010, ‘Thinking and Drinking Chocolate: The Origins, Distribution, and

Significance of Cacao in Mesoamerica’, Honours thesis, University of British Columbia.

Vail, Gabrielle, and Christine Hernández
2013 The Maya Codices Database, Version 4.1. A website and database available at http://www.mayacodices.org/images/m52c1.jpg

Martin, Carla. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food Lecture Slides 2016.” 2016

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000. Print.

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


Fine Froth

Chocolate is available to hungry consumers in a variety of tantalizing culinary mediums. It is prepared in bars and disks, as a dusting on nuts, or poured as a silky sauce over creamy desserts. Although innovative chefs will continue to produce chocolate in a myriad of traditional and unorthodox ways, chocolate in liquid form will likely remain the most cherished mode of consumption.

This begs the question, what makes liquid chocolate special? To be sure, creaminess and thickness make the drink seem especially delightful. Flavor through added ingredients plays an important factor as well. For the Aztec and Maya civilizations, and even the early European culture, what made drinking chocolate a true indulgence was its froth and foam.

According to the records of Berdardino de Sahagún, a Fransciscan friar whose written records provide first-hand insight to Aztec culture and customs, “cacao well made and beautiful” was “smooth, frothy, vermilion, red, and pure, without much corn masa” (Presilla 20).

Before the frothing process can begin, a mixture of ground cacao beans, corn “flour,” and water must be combined to create a patty-like substance. Then, water is added slowly and carefully until the chocolate is a liquid. At this point, froth is brought forth by transferring the drink from one vessel to another, usually from great heights. It is assumed that “during the pre-Conquest past, this was the exclusive method, all over Mesoamerica” (Coe & Coe 85). Below is an image of a woman engaged in such a process.

Aztec Woman

To better understand how the Mesoamericans drank their chocolate, and more specifically, to better appreciate the effort required to transform cacao from a gruel-like drink to a cherished elixir, I attempted the ancient preparation. Using a Taza Chocolate disc (vanilla flavor), Maseca Corn “Flour,” and a little bit of milk, I made a mixture that filled three-quarters of a small mug.


I collected the ingredients, chopped the chocolate and made a corn flour paste, keeping in mind that the Aztecs believed, “the effort would go for naught if the mixture had been cheapened by too much corn or thinned with too much water.” (Presilla 20)

After the ingredients were well combined, I poured the mixture from mug to mug.

The height from which the chocolate was poured in the video above is likely not the most authentic representation of how the Maya and Aztec created froth. According to the records of Sahagún, “after straining, it is lifted up high so that it will pour in a good stream, and this is what raises the froth” (Presilla 20). This type of shoulder-height, floor-to-ceiling pouring is a difficult process. In my preliminary frothing attempts, I found that as the height from which I poured the chocolate increased, the difficulty and associated mess did also.

Ultimately, a small froth rose in the chocolate.


The finished product confirmed the Aztec penchant for froth and validated the effort expended to produce it. The richness and thickness of the chocolate contrasted with the lightness of the froth, suggests that truly, liquid chocolate was then (and now) a beverage fit for “lords [to] drink” (Presilla 20).


Works Cited:

The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. 85.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009. 20.

Image source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_chocolate (labeled for non-commercial re-use.)

The Silver Chocolatière: a 1500-year collaboration between the Mayan, Aztec, Spanish, and French people

A silver chocolate pot created in 1774 in Paris, France by Joseph-Théodore Van Cauwenbergh

The Silver chocolatière pictured above, which features a hinged lid with hole in which a wooden stirrer, a moussoir, could be inserted, was designed to create and hold a frothy chocolate beverage. With its long wooden handle, the pot allowed not only for ease of pouring, but also protected the pourer from the heat of the chocolate that would likely permeate the metal surrounding it. Silver chocolate pots designed in this fashion are widely credited to have been invented by the French in the 17th century; however, such accreditation provides only a small portion of the story behind these devices (Coe and Coe 158-160). The so-called French chocolatière of baroque Europe was actually developed over 1500 years, constructed not only with the ideas and traditions of the French, but also with those of the Mayan, Aztec, and Spanish people.

The Mayan civilization, which thrived in its’ Classic Period on the Yucatan Peninsula of present-day Mexico from around 250CE-900CE, both cultivated cacao and consumed it – primarily as a hot beverage. Contrastingly, in the Aztec society that chronologically followed the Mayan, cacao was consumed as a cold beverage (Coe and Coe 114-115). When the Spanish conquistadors reached the shores of Mesoamerica in the 16th century, their main interactions were with the Aztec civilization; however, in 1519 Hernan Cortes led a band of conquistadors into the Yucatan Peninsula, where they encountered remaining bands of Mayan people (“The Spanish Conquest”). It is likely that these Yucatec Mayans passed their tradition of consuming chocolate hot onto the Spanish, who then brought that tradition back to Europe where it spread to France, necessitating chocolate vessels, like the silver chocolatière, that could withstand heat (Coe and Coe 115).

While the Aztec tradition of consuming chocolate as a cold beverage was passed over by the conquistadors in favor of the Mayan practice of taking it hot, another Aztec chocolate tradition – the desire for chocolate drinks that had foam on the top – was something the Spanish took from the New World back to Europe. In order to create foam, or froth, on the chocolate they were preparing for their masters, Aztec servants would pour chocolate from a raised vessel into a receptacle placed on the floor, and repeat this several times – a process that is depicted in the picture below (Coe and Coe 86).

An Illustration from the 16th century Aztec Codex Tudela

If the chocolate was of good quality, according to Aztec standards, froth would develop on the top when it was poured from vessel to vessel, and this would signal a highly desirable drink. The Spanish accepted and adopted this standard, transmitting the desire for a frothy chocolate beverage back to Europe, while at the same time developing their own means with which to achieve the desired foam (Presilla 20).

The Spanish conquistadors developed themolinillo, pictured below, which allowed them to achieve the Aztec ideal of chocolate with foam, in a more compact and less labor-intensive fashion.


The molinillo is a wooden device comprised of a long stick with rings that rattle when the stick is turned back and forth in the hands. When the rings are inserted into a chocolate beverage and the molinillo is rotated, foam will form on top of the chocolate (Presilla 26). It was the molinillo, a Spanish invention, that formed the basis for the French moussoir, the wooden stirrer that would be inserted through the lids of silver chocolatières, in order to create a frothy chocolate beverage (Coe and Coe 115).

Thus, the French combined the Mayan tradition of serving chocolate hot, the Aztec desire for foam in chocolate beverages, and the Spanish method of producing that foam, into a silver chocolatière. The French were the first in Europe to add a long handle to the chocolate serving device, and were perhaps the first to produce such devices in silver; however, these were small alterations to the larger concept about the proper way to prepare and serve chocolate, a concept that had been building for more than a millennium, first in Mesoamerica and then in Europe (Coe and Coe 158). While traditions and ideas about chocolate and the correct way to serve it altered as they traveled from civilization to civilization, the Mayan, Aztec, and Spanish people all left a heavy mark on the way the wealthy baroque French took their chocolate

Works Cited

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

Joseph-Théodore Van Cauwenbergh – Chocolate Pot. N.d. Walters Art Museum. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.

Molinillos. 2008. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.

Mujer Vertiendo Chocolate. N.d. Museo De América. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.

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

“The Spanish Conquest and Its Aftermath – National Institute of Culture and History.” Institute of Archeology. The National Institute of Culture and History, n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.

Oh, How Divine!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Molinillo: A case study in cultural diffusion

To purchase a molinillo in this day and age requires scouring gourmet and artisanal shops, such as the high-end retailer Dean and Deluca, specialty chocolate shops like Taza Chocolate, or — to perfectly underscore my point — a novelty website called “Uncommon Goods.” But there was once a point in time when the molinillo was in fact very common, and was the primary tool used to create the coveted frothy foam in a chocolate beverage. The molinillo is a perfect example of cultural hybridization and how all technological inventions and cultural practices are socially-embedded.

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Figure 1. A modern molinillo, sold by the specialty store Dean and Deluca.

For the Aztecs, the foam was thought to be nourishing and representative of the soul, and therefore was considered the most important component of the drink. The foam thus became ritualistically significant and sacred, and was incorporated into Mesoamerican rites during weddings, burials, and celebrations. The molinillo is a prime example of cultural hybridization upon the meeting of the Old and New Worlds: the Spanish invented the molinillo to recreate the aromatic, frothy texture in the chocolate beverages of the Aztecs, who achieved this consistency through a laborious pouring process. Thus, the preference for the taste and texture was acquired through cultural diffusion, but the mechanism, tool, and process for achieving the effect was completely reinvented, in accordance with the capacity and culture of the Spanish.

This diffusion is not one-sided – while the Spanish inherited the preference for a frothy chocolate beverage, some in the New World also adopt the practice of creating it with a molinillo tool. Sophie Coe quotes Francesco Carletti (1701), an Italian explorer credited with bringing chocolate back to Italy for the first time and breaking the Spanish monopoly, describing the preparation practices of people in the New World: “They drink the chocolate in these [vessels], mixing with a stick which they spin with the palms of their hands, it makes a red foam, and as soon as made they put it in their mouths and swallow it in one gulp with great pleasure and satisfaction” (p. 91).

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Figure 2. “Old drawing of an American Indian: At his feet a chocolate-cup, chocolate-pot, and chocolate whisk or ‘molinet’ (From Traitez Nouveaux et Curieux du Café, du The, et du Chocolate. Dufour, 1693)” (Knapp, 2006).

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Figure 3. “Native American Indians roasting and grinding the beans, and mixing the chocolate in a jug with a whisk (From Ogilvy’s America, 1671)” (Knapp, 2006).

These old drawings of American Indians show the utilization of this Spanish technology. The use of the molinillo became widespread among the people of the New World, to the point that Spanish physician and author Bartolome Marradon, in a visit to Mexico, wrote: “The usage of chocolate is so familiar and so frequent among all of the Indians, that there is not a square or market where there isn’t a black woman or an Indian woman with her aunt, her Apstlet (which is a clay vessel), and her molinillo” (Marradon, 1618, p. 431-433).

Ultimately, what we can take away from this exchange of ideas and culture – the Spanish acquiring a taste for a Mesoamerican frothy chocolate beverage, and the indigenous people of the New World adopting Spanish technology to create that same frothy beverage – is that our societal preferences and tastes are ultimately quite dynamic. The diffusion of culture illustrates how culture is not simply a static end product, nor is it a linear narrative of changes permeating in one direction, but is instead a constantly evolving and recursive process of diffusion, production, and adoption.



Carletti, Francesco (1701). Ragionamenti di Francesco Carletti Fiorentino Sopra le

Cose da lui Vedute ne suoi viaggi. Florence: Stamperia Giuseppe Manni.

Coe, Sophie D. (1989). The Maya Chocolate Pot and its Descendants. In Jaine, Tom

(Ed.), The Cooking Pot: Proceedings (pp. 15-21). London: Prospect Book Ltd.

Knapp, Arthur (2006). Cocoa and Chocolate Their History from Plantation to

Consumer. eBook.

Marradon, Bartolome (1618). Dialogo del uso del Tabaco… y de chocolate y otras

bebidas. Sevilla.

Norton, Marcy (2006). Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization

of Mesoamerican Aesthetics. The American Historical