Tag Archives: Guatemala

Cacao: Then and Now

The influence of chocolate in Mesoamerica was seen in many aspects of Mesoamerican life prior to the arrival of the Spanish to the Americas: it was present in cultural, religious, and economic areas of life in Mayan communities. In Mayan culture, it is clear that they believed that the “gods provided recipes for making cocoa drinks, which gave those drinks high status and political significance”. 1 It is true that many aspects of Mesoamerican life changed after the arrival of Hernan Cortes and the Spanish in what is modern day Mexico and parts of Central America. The strong influence in Mesoamerican culture was one of the aspects of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican culture that did survive many of the transformations that occurred once the Spanish began to introduce European culture into the way of life of the Mayans. Although chocolate was still a mainstay in Mesoamerican society after the Spanish arrived, there were many aspects of the role of chocolate that did change from the time that chocolate was seen as a sacred item in Mayan society. One clear example is how in “ancient Maya religion cacao was the first food to grow from the body of the maize god.” 2 This shows how cacao was not only used practically in religious rituals, such as during Mayan marriage and baptism rituals 3, but it held a critical role in the sacred texts and stories that served as the foundation of what quotidian Mayan life was like. Similarly, cacao seeds were also seen as important because they were used as currency which you could use to buy food and other items in Mayan society.4 We see traces of the power that had been assigned to chocolate in modern Mesoamerica—which exemplifies the power that the cacao seeds had in Mayan societies since it was able to maintain a role culturally despite the massive cultural changes that were imposed on indigenous people once the colonial period began. The most striking example of how the role of cacao seeds has largely remained unchanged is how it is still used to make chocolate beverages that are still very similar to the recipes that were being used during the colonial period by the indigenous population.5 Although the essence of the chocolate beverage drink has remained the same since the Spanish conquered the Mayan people, there has been a couple of changes to the original chocolate beverage recipe: the indigenous people now use chocolate tablets when they start making the drink instead of starting from scratch with cacao seeds.6 What is most telling of the evolution of this ingredient is the fact that these tablets are usually purchased and they are made in a factory—quite different from the rigorous process of grounding the kernel and beaten with “water, flavorings, and usually maize to make a drink.” 7 Similar to this aforementioned change in chocolate, indigenous people now add sugar to the chocolate beverage recipes—which is different from the classic Maya hot chocolate and a byproduct of the evolution of hot chocolate once there was European influenced involved8, as you can see in the video published by National Geographic (that can be accessed through https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/north-america/guatemala/anitgua-maya-chocolate-making/ ). Yet, if we fast forward to modern day Mesoamerica we do see a more dramatic change in how current-day Mayans use cacao seeds in their culture and in their society. A significant change we can see is that Mayans no longer use cacao seeds as currency as they used to back in Pre-Columbian times since researchers have not been able to find any 20th century ethnographers that have been able to document the use of cacao as money. 9

An explanation for why people may no longer use cacao as currency is because the new generation of indigenous people in Mexico see a tie between chocolate and poverty since it is so laborious to cultivate and not financially sustainable.10 As mentioned in the video below.

Additionally, there are examples of how much more localized the use of cacao has become in modern Mayan societies. Indigenous communities in Guatemala and Honduras have a cacao market where trade is restricted within the “Maya and Ladino communities in which it is produced or between closely associated areas.” This is in contrast to the use of cacao and cacao-based feasts during feasts that were intended to create sociopolitical alliances between different tribes and different Mayan factions.11 All in all, the connection between cacao and Mayan culture has evolved and/or disappeared, but there are also many characteristics of Mayan culture that have remained the same throughout the years and throughout all of the political and cultural changes that started happening during the Colonia Period. However, it is certain that ever since 1900 BCE12 —the earliest record of cacao seeds, cacao has been a critical part of Mesoamerican culture that has transformed and evolved from the chocolate beverages that the Mayans prepared in Pre-Columbian times to the chocolate bars that indigenous people now use to help emulate the chocolate drinks that their ancestors drank. This is eloquently explained in the video below by Ted-ed.


1 Kristy Leissle, Cocoa (Cambridge: Polity, 2018), 21
2 Cameron L. McNeil, “Introduction,” in Chocolate in Mesoamerica, ed. Cameron L. McNeil. (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2009), 14.
3 Ibid, 18.
4 Mary Ann Mahony, review of Chocolate in Mesoamerica, by Cameron L. McNeil, University Press of Florida, 2009. Review page 175
5 Cameron L. McNeil, “Traditional Cacao Use in Modern Mesoamerica,” in Chocolate in Mesoamerica, ed. Cameron L. McNeil. (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2009), 346.
6 Ibid, 348.
7 Terrence Kaufman and Justeson, “The History of the Word for ‘Cacao’ and Related Terms in Ancient Meso-America,” in Chocolate in Mesoamerica, ed. Cameron L. McNeil. (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2009), 117.
8 Gulnaz Khan, “Watch the Ancient Art of Chocolate-Making,” National Geographic, September 11, 2017, Accessed March 14, 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/north-america/guatemala/anitgua-maya-chocolate-making/.
9 Cameron L. McNeil, “Traditional Cacao Use in Modern Mesoamerica,” in Chocolate in Mesoamerica, ed. Cameron L. McNeil. (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2009), 356.
10 The Perennial Plate, “An Act of Resistance,” Filmed [February 2014], Vimeo video, 04:03. Posted [February 2014], https://vimeo.com/85727477.
11 Dorie Reents-Budet, “The Social Context of Kakaw Drinking among the Ancient Maya,” in Chocolate in Mesoamerica, ed. Cameron L. McNeil. (Florida: University Press of Florida, 2009), 209.
12 Ted-ed, “The history of chocolate,” Filmed [March 2017], YouTube video, 04:40. Posted [March 2017], https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibjUpk9Iagk.

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.

 

Bean to Bar Chocolate Makers and the Process Oriented Generation

Today niche markets blossom as the national food system increases efficiency and homogeneity. These two interconnected trends force us to ask ethical questions that our grandparents never faced. Firstly, technology both mechanical and genetic, have spurred unprecedented efficiency in food production. We see record yields per acre in corn and soybeans every year (Kristy). Discussions about the risks of GMOs aside, most would agree that today’s feast is preferable to the famines our ancestors faced only a few generations ago. As the most privileged consumers in history, we take for granted the concerns of our forefathers; namely, access to safe, nutritious, food at a reasonable cost. Today food is more accessible, cheaper, and safer than any other time in history (Laudan). This is all good news for consumers. As food choices have become unanimously safe and inexpensive, little was left to differentiate one brand from another.

As consumers we are currently experiencing the, “process generation.” Beginning around the time of the organics movement in the late 1990s, process has come to dominate marketing and consumption. Companies all had complete access to the same limitless basket of ingredients, and were producing only marginally different products. Process became king. When choosing the type of pasta, one no longer looked at the nutrition facts, knowing they would all be roughly the same. Rather, one looked for branding that might denote the most ethically, or sustainably produced pasta made by the most charitable and socially conscious company, packaged in the least wasteful and most recycled paper. Food no longer had to be safe and nutritious, those aspects were assumed, food needed a story.

Thankfully food producers were quick to answer the call. The dichotomy of processed versus non-processed has become complicated by the addition of ethical process issues. Shoppers suddenly can choose between Kraft mac-n-cheese and Annie’s organic and all natural mac-n-cheese, never mind both products are made by multinationals. It does not matter what the story is, but if you are a conscious consumer your food needs a story. Morality suddenly sits on the dinner plate, every food option is either, right or wrong, typically buying the, “right” food costs a little more. Your eggs need to be cage free, your fish needs to be caged, your coffee needs to be fair trade, and your beer needs to be a local brew. The birth of the process generation means that food makers can choose one of many social issues to attract customers. Those customers in turn, use their food purchases to signal their values to their communities. Though people have always used food to signal wealth, for the first time in history, your salad dressing can prove to your neighbors what a charitable person you are. Of course the vast majority of the food industry has remained unchanged, but among premium products differentiation comes with a back-story. Though a little slower to the table, the chocolate industry is no different.

Food advocates often refer to consumption decisions as casting a vote. When walking down the chocolate aisle at the grocery store, you can vote for a wide range of social causes. Your chocolate can help save endangered species, fight global warming, empower women, build schools, pay farmers livable wages and stop deforestation. A relatively new niche has developed in the chocolate industry. Bean to bar chocolate makers occupy a tiny portion of the total chocolate industry but claim to impact producer communities while delivering superior chocolate. Bean to bar chocolate makers are the latest iteration of food snobs, combining the artisanal specificity of a craft brewer with the social awareness of a fair trade coffee roaster and the geographic condescension of a wine connoisseur. If your purchase is your vote, we need to understand who’s on the ballot and what exactly it is that they stand for. This post will try to figure out if bean to bar chocolate makers actually reduce inequality in the chocolate industry or if they simply provide the latest luxury for affluent consumers: peace of mind.

Chocolate bars are typically plastered with certifications to prove their ethical engagement. Gluten free, GMO free, organic, and fair trade are all common badges. However bean to bar makers often go beyond these more standard certifications and claim to address problems that more mainstream bars only hint at. Namely bean to bar chocolate makers try to address the issue of inequality in the chocolate industry. Activists often accuse large chocolate makers of selling “blood” chocolate, or chocolate made from cacao produced by exploited people (Ryan). The common narrative paints cacao farmers as impoverished surfs, exploited by the fickle winds of a corrupt commodity market. However, those same farmers are often accused of exploiting children, by forcing them to work in their cacao plantations as slave labor. More than 500,000 children are estimated to be trapped in forced labor between Ghana and Cote D’ivoire, an area that produces roughly 75% of the worlds cacao (Mustapha). For this reason many consumers flock to chocolate certified as fair trade, searching for assurance that their favorite chocolate company pays farmers enough to avoid forcing children to work as forced laborers.

Taza chocolate based in Somerville Massachusetts is often cited as a shining example of social responsibility in the chocolate world. Self described, “chocolate pioneers” Taza created their own certification, “Direct Trade” that supposedly holds producers to higher environmental and fair-labor standers than the current “Fair Trade” certification. Taza is not simply blowing smoke. They seem genuinely committed to their standard, going so far as to employ, “Quality Certification Services” a third party auditor accredited by the USDA, to audit their internal supply standards. To go even further Taza publishes a yearly transparency report that illuminates the amount and price paid for cacao from each producer region. Currently Taza partners with five grower communities in Bolivia, Belize, Dominican Republic, and Haiti. The below video describes how Taza has impacted their farmer partners in Haiti and generally how the Direct Trade model is supposed to work.

 

Though not explicitly stated, the video shows how Direct Trade relies on a framework of intermediaries to organize high quality cacao production. Though Taza found quality cacao in Haiti, investment and technical support were required for industrial production. Pisa is a cacao company that buys raw cacao seeds from farmers and prepares and markets them for export. In addition to coordinating with buyers such as Taza, Pisa supports farmers, helping them grow the most efficient and highest quality cacao possible. The video only briefly referenced Root Capital. This Cambridge based company works to, “connect smallholder farmers to world markets” typically through financing, technical training and business education (Root). Though called, “Direct Trade” Taza’s video shows that farmer – chocolate maker interactions are complicated, and even in their simplest forms require third and fourth party involvement. As ethical consumers, we can celebrate the impact that Taza and their partners have had in Haiti. The Direct Trade model appears to help stabilize demand and provide consistent, fair pricing for farmers. In his book “The Fair Trade Scandal” Ndongo Samba Sylla explains how price fluctuation and market inconsistency are two of the main factors preventing farmers from investing in their farms. His point, as the title might suggest, is that the “Fair Trade” standard falls short of reducing inequality in the chocolate industry. Adding a few hundred dollars to an ever changing global cacao price is often not worth the high certification fees for farmers (Sylla). Taza appears aware of the shortcomings of “Fair Trade” and seems determined to overcome the challenge of inequality. However, is there a point at which too much foreign involvement can hurt a cacao community?

 

Taza founder Alex Witmore explains about his role as co-founder of “Maya Mountain Cacao” in Belize. Maya Mountain acts much like Pisa did in Haiti, providing industry coordination as well as technical support for new and existing farmers. A cynic might see Taza’s investment in the Belizean company as a step backward toward colonial sugar or cacao production, once so common in Sough America and the Caribbean. However, while some socially conscious consumers might still cringe, Taza appears to be fostering an infant industry in Belize. Firstly, according to Taza’s transparency report, they only bought 3.81 metric tons of cacao from Maya Mountain in 2016. This purchase made up approximately 1.6% of all Taza’s total purchases by weight. Secondly 74.5% of the sale price went to Maya Mountain’s partner farmers, this is on par with, or slightly higher than the percentages paid to farmers in Taza’s other four production groups. At this point it appears that Taza is leveraging their considerable industry knowledge to support cacao cultivation in an infant cacao industry. After going through the literature and the information on Taza’s website, it seems like they are the gold standard for a reason. Taza strives to create legitimate impact in their producer communities. We can’t fault Taza for their limited impact simply because they are a comparatively small company.

 

As a second case study we examine Lake Champlain Chocolates, a confectioner based in Burlington Vermont. From the start LCC and Taza appear to be from two different generations. Taza embodies the ideals and desires of the “process generation” prominently sporting the option, “learn” next to the, “buy” or, visit buttons on their homepage. This header sits over a slideshow of chocolate close-ups, machinery grinding beans and farmers growing cacao. The website expertly communicates that Taza values process as much as any millennial. LCC on the other hand, is a retail website. The homepage sports glossy images of neatly packaged seasonal gifts. Customers have to scroll to the bottom of the page and hunt through the fine print to find the “About Us” section. While this product-oriented approach to marketing denotes humility on LCC’s part, it misses the importance that current consumers place on a food’s background. On the face of it LCC is appears to be from the generation where luxury meant flavor and packaging, not a social conscience. However beneath the superficiality of websites, LCC and Taza may have much in common.

 

Blue Bandana Chocolate Maker is one of LCC’s sub-brands. Blue Bandana is a bean to bar chocolate maker, currently producing five, single origin bars. Started in 2012 by LCC’s, now CEO, Eric Lampman Blue Bandana partners with growers and cooperatives to provide consistent income while ensuring the highest quality cacao. One of the ways that Blue Bandana ensures that their partner-farmers are upholding high labor and environmental standards is through site visits. The below video shows follows funder Eric Lampman as he pays a visit to Anselmo Luc, a Guatemalan cacao producer.

 

I had the good fortune to speak with Nick Hadsel-Mares, the principle chocolate maker at Blue Bandana about the company and the bean to bar industry more generally.

 

Nick explained that Blue Bandana, and many other bean to bar makers are riding a wave of consumer demand. According to Nick, “Chocolate is a completely different landscape than it was ten years ago.” He added that, “Consumers have shifted, they expect a lot more transparency, they want Fair Trade and organic and are willing to pay a premium for it.” The new tide of consumer interest in transparency is one that Nick thinks is unlikely to end. When asked what drove Blue Bandana to work with a specific community he said, “Well firstly, it’s all about the beans, we’re a company after all and we need to produce exceptional chocolate bars. That being said, we care deeply about the working conditions and practices on our partner’s farms. If a producer is not transparent about their practices, we won’t work with them.” According to Nick, Blue Bandana’s commitments to ethical process and Direct Trade are not unique in the bean to bar community. From his years in the industry, Nick assured me of the earnestness and responsibility that bean to bar makers feel about their partners growing the cacao. Because Blue Bandana is much smaller than Taza, they don’t have the resources to produce an in-depth transparency report. However Nick assured me that part of their direct trade model is paying farmers well above the “Fair Trade” price for premium cacao.

After researching both companies and speaking to Nick, it appears this post is premised on a false dichotomy. Bean to bar chocolate makers might simultaneously impact their producer communities while also providing a product inline with consumers’ ethical standards. Because the bean to bar industry makes up an estimated .47% of the chocolate industry, their impact might go further than critics expect. Consumers are demanding more transparency and more ethical process. Though small, companies like Taza and Blue Bandana are validating that consumer interest. Some, including Nick, hope that Taza and Blue Bandana can teach the rest of the chocolate industry how to be “better” while still turning a profit. When evaluating these companies as consumers it is important to remember one thing; Blue Bandana and Taza never ask consumers to compromise on taste. Both companies are jointly driven by finding powerful and unique flavors while achieving a tangible benefit for their places of origin. Ethics aside, many would argue that the premium for these bars is justified by taste alone. However, knowing that farmers are paid a fair price only makes the bar that much sweeter.

 

Special thanks to Nick Hadsel-Mares who took time out of his busy schedule to chat. His skill as a chocolate maker is paralleled only by vast knowledge of the industry.

 

                       Work Cited

Kristy Foster Seachrist | Sep 09, 2016. “Georgia producer sets new world soybean yield record.” Corn and Soybean Digest. N.p., 21 Sept. 2016. Web. 05 May 2017.

Laudan, Rachel. “Plea for Culinary Modernism.pdf.” : n. pag. Print.

Mustapha, Kemi. “Taste of Child Labor Not so Sweet: A Crititue of Regulatory Approaches to Combating Child Labor Abuses by the U.S Chocolate Industry.” 1 (2010): n. pag. Print.

“Root Capital.” Root Capital. N.p., 03 May 2017. Web. 05 May 2017.

Ryan, Orla. Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa. N.p., 2011. Print.

Sylla, Samba Ndongo. The Fair Trade Scandal. N.p., 2014. Print.

 

From Earthy to Elegant: The Evolution of the Chocolate Pot

 


Chocolate drinks created from cacao beans date back to the Mesoamericans many centuries ago. In fact, researchers have identified an instance where cacao residue was found on a pottery shard at the archeological site of the  Paso de la Amada village occupied by the Mokaya people dating to 1900 to 1500 BC (Presilla 10). Serving vessels used for the precious chocolate elixir created from cacao have varied over time. As the various ingredients for labor intensive chocolate beverages have evolved, so have the vessels that were blessed with the liquid.

Ancient Barra ceramics- oldest know chocolate vessels (dated to 1900-1500 BC) (Coe and Coe 89)

The early chocolate vessels of the Mesoamerican culture were crafted of ceramics and adorned with colorful designs and hieroglyphics. Specific hieroglyphics offered a hint of Mayan life depicting images that represented parts of their culture. Through scientific analysis, chemist W. Jeffrey Hurst of the Hershey Company determined that both theobromine and caffeine were detected in a jar discovered in a Rio Azul tomb in Guatemala, evidence that cacao had been contained in the vessel (Presilla 9). Cacao is the only Mesoamerican plant that contains both theobromine and caffeine (Coe and Coe 36). In the image below, the hieroglyphic for cacao is labeled on the exterior of the jar, another telltale sign that it contained chocolate at one time (Martin). The clever locking lid on the burial object was an industrious way to keep the sacred chocolate beverage safe and secure. Not only was the vessel sturdy and functional, it also boasts a lovely shape where the lid can be likened to a halo or crown, perhaps worthy of an important person or ruler buried in the tomb.

mayan-choc

Chocolate jar with locked-lid found in a Rio Azul tomb, dated to ca. 500 A.D.

Fast forward to 1125 AD and the shape of the vessels appeared to have changed. As pictured in the image below, the jars were taller and cylindrical in nature. Black and white jars attributed to that era found in the New Mexican Pueblo Bonito offer evidence of the influence of the Mesoamericans and their trade between the Toltec merchants (Coe and Coe 55). Archeologist Patricia Crown of the University of New Mexico sought confirmation from W. Jeffrey Hurst that sherds from the cylindrical jars from New Mexican Pueblo Bonito trash mound contained elements of cacao (Coe and Coe 55). Hurst confirmed that the sherds (dating between 1000 and 1125 AD) tested positive for theobromine, sufficient confirmation that the Anasazi elite, ancestors of the Pueblo Indians drank chocolate from these vessels (Coe and Coe 55).

 

Publo

Cylindrical jar from Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon.

Credit: James Garber

As the Spanish invaded Mesoamerica, their influence on the native culture was undeniable and the ritual of chocolate drinking was no exception. In the pre-Conquest days, Mesoamericans raised foam on a chocolate beverage by the simple task of pouring the chocolate beverage from one vessel to another (Coe and Coe 85). In the early 16th century the molinillo, a wooden stick, was used to twirl the liquid to form a foam on the top, a method still used today in some preparations in Mexico and Latin America. However, in the post-Conquest era, vessels that held chocolate beverages changed and spanned a broad range of designs that were both functional and fashionable.

Chocolate was introduced to the United Kingdom  during the third quarter of the 17th century (Mintz 108). At that time, craftsman designed chocolate pots that were appropriate for both the liquid and the elite drinkers.  In addition to ceramic or porcelain, chocolate pots evolved to include pewter, silver and even gold.

18th Century silver British chocolatière

The image above  represents a pot with an adjustable finial that can be removed to allow the insertion of a stirring rod, the British version of a molinillo.  This shiny design is representative of a delicate serving pot that nods to the refined practice of serving chocolate to the British elite.

In contrast to the British pot, the image below represents a design created by Edward Winslow, an 18th century American silversmith from Boston, Massachusetts. Unlike the delicate three legged British pot, Winslow’s handsome pot is constructed with a solid base, perhaps indicative of the sturdiness required of early colonists in the new world.

Chocolate Pot

Early 18th century silver chocolate pot 

If we compare the image of the Barra ceramics in the first image and the last photo of the Winslow chocolate pot, it is hard to believe they were used for the same purpose. The striking difference of the rich warm colors of the rounded ceramic vessels versus the hard cold metal of the 18th century pots are quite opposite and distinct.

Just as the chocolate vessels have evolved over time so has the desire or lack thereof for chocolate beverages. Regardless of the type of chocolate pot, the prominence of drinking chocolate in North America and Europe began to wane at the beginning of the 20th century when solid chocolate first appeared. Chocolate aficionados  seem to prefer the quick fix of a chocolate bar that can satiate chocolate desire without spending time on the ritual and lengthy preparation of a chocolate beverage and need for chocolate pots.

                 Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013. Print.

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods”.” Harvard University, Cambridge. 1 Feb. 2017. Lecture

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and power : the place of sugar in modern history. New York: Penguin Books, 1986. Print.

Mcgovern, Pat. “RioAzul Chocolate-Pot.” Flickr. Yahoo!, 17 Nov. 2009. Web. 10 Mar. 2017. <https://www.flickr.com/photos/patmcgovern/4113214840/in/photolist-7gtitf&gt;.

Parry, Wynne. “Sweet Trading: Chocolate May Have Linked Prehistoric Civilizations.” LiveScience. Purch, 01 Apr. 2011. Web. 10 Mar. 2017. <http://www.livescience.com/13533-prehistoric-chocolate-trade-cacao-chaco-canyon-puebloans.html&gt;.

Presilla, Maricel E. The new taste of chocolate : a cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. Berkeley Calif: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.

“Chocolate Pot | Edward Winslow | 33.120.221 | Work of Art | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2017. <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/33.120.221/&gt;.

Digital image. Chocolate Pot. Wikimedia Commons, n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2017. <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Joseph-Th%C3%A9odore_Van_Cauwenbergh_-_Chocolate_Pot_-_Walters_571802.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Invasion of Gods Through Pods and People

Invasion of the Body Snatchers Trailer, 1956 gives perspective of invasion through the eyes of a foreign entity. This exaggerated approach is what Pollan argues plants have done for thousands of years.

The idea of alien infiltration into the human race is far fetched from the vista of outer space, but a shift in perspective from the obscure sci-fi view of invasion reveals an entity regional, yet subhuman. One that has been here all along. The alien mother ship, according to the Mayan cultivators of this amazing Amazon Basin plant, are culture bringers; the gods themselves. Their modal is the Theobroma cacao.

In, The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan discusses the symbiotic relationship that humans and plant life share. In his ground breaking book, Pollan exposes the control that intelligent plant life has on the human race. “We don’t give nearly enough credit to plants,” says Pollan. “They’ve been working on us – they’ve been using us – for their own purposes.” (Pollan, 17)

The Botany of Desire Trailer, 2009 is an academic and modernly eloquent take on the above, Invasion of The Body Snatchers. This media takes the idea of cacao invading the world and makes it plausible.

The idea of plants gratifying specific desires in the human condition reveals  their purpose to be a sort of world dominance. The opposing perspective on plant control is deemed by Pollan as a way to satisfy these desires by using humans to disperse themselves around the world. No such plant has been successful in doing so as the cacao tree. It’s versatility in food and health has succeeded in gaining control over human activity throughout centuries of its cultivation.

If this is credible, the conscious character of the cacao pod is not only that of a survivor, but a resilient mastermind who’s ingenious tactic is it’s adeptness to be linked with almost any other ingredient in the world. Through the wiles of consumption and medicinal properties, cacao reigns.

Beginning with the Olmec as the first Meso-American group to cultivate cacao, and following through up until the about 900 CE invasion of colonists, the early caretakers were manipulated by chocolate as they utilized its versatility. Seen in documents such as the Dresden codex, Madrid Codex, and Paris Codex (pre-columbian Maya books written in hieroglyphics) cacao was used as a food, a medicine and even a gift back to the gods who gave it. Our first glimpse into the versatility of chocolate was its use through the practice of Tac Haa, roughly translated as “to serve chocolate”. Early on in its use, chocolate was paired with many other Mayan staples. (Hurst, et al. 2002, 289) It was then drunk communally.

We know this due to human disbursement of cacao in differentiating pots, made specifically to house chocolate’s diverse uses. Spices and flowers were added along with maize and other grains. Its broad span reached as far as medicinal through digestive and anti-inflammatory related uses. It was a meal replacement as a gruel. This included maze which would cut hunger and chocolate which would energize. So we see very early on, this clever plant crafting itself to become an indispensable staple.

In her recipe section of “The New Taste of Chocolate, Maricel Presilla remarks on this amazing ingredient as a conductor of a taste symphony. “The following recipes have one quality in common: they showcase the wide-ranging possibilities of chocolate and imaginatively explore its capacity to absorb flavors and harmonize with other flavorings and spices.” (Presilla,143)

Cacao vessels inscribed with hieroglyphs (as to which pot was to be used for which recipe) contained combinations such as cherry, honey and a maize type gruel. These precursors aided chocolate in it’s migration to Europe. “A survey of early colonial cacao beverage recipes shows that early colonial Mesoamerican recipes usually had vanilla and water, and included a variable array of aromatic flavours, such as orejuela (custard apple) and piquant spices, such as chile pepper. Sweetness, by adding honey, occurred, as well. These Mesoamerican colonial recipes also show Europeanization, by the adoption of flavorings such as sesame, almond, and sugar. (Martin and Sampeck 2016, 41)

 

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This South Coast, Guatemalan vessel depicts a female holding cacao. The copious amounts of cacao beans reveals that the crop is highly valued. The female herself is holding a small bowl filled with cacao pods. AD 250-450

 

In order for chocolate to make its way out of the Amazon basin, it must not only appeal to the indigenous cultivators of the pods, but the Europeans who would take it to the world. “Europeans sought to re-create the indigenous chocolate experience in America and Europe. Europeans in the New World and then the Old World somatized native aesthetic values.” writes Marcy Norton. “The migration of the chocolate habit led to the cross-cultural transmission of tastes. Over time, the composition of chocolate did evolve, but this was a gradual process of change linked to the technological and economic challenges posed by long-distance trade rather than a radical rupture in the aesthetic preferences of chocolate consumers.” (Norton 2006, 681)

A turning point for the cacao plant was the invasion of the Spanish and early colonialists who saw very early on the value of this versatile plant. As stated by Michael Pollan, we did exactly what cacao wanted us to do. Took it around the world.

Used originally as food for the elite, it quickly went viral and into everyones home. Seen through non-taste bias perspective, this would appear to be something right out of Little Shop of Horrors. However, in order to sustain its rule as staple in the early centuries of its being, it had to make itself useful in a wide variety of uses for the new world.

It was chocolates versatility that took it from its Meso-American origin to the entire world. By the 1800’s, chocolate’s versatility strikes again. Paired with sugar, chocolate began to be wildly consumed by British people of all social classes.

Food has been a focal point of colonization and labor through cultivation and even revolution throughout history.

Now modern day, the explosion of culinary delights thrives off pairings even the gods didn’t see coming. Chocolate reinvented itself once again. Chocolate can now be found in ingredients such as oysters, bacon and oranges. Is there room for chocolate in future foods? What will cacao do next to maintain it’s survival and master plan of world domination?

Another way chocolate has infiltrated the world is by being beneficial to human health. Health conditions such as indigestion and heart disease are treated with chocolate. These benefits are still early in discovery and insure that chocolate has not seen the end of its plan for world domination.

The future food and health booms see chocolate as an unexplored frontier as far as its variety in pairings and health benefits.

It is said by doctors that even in the 21st century, modern approach to nutrition and health, is similar to what we knew about surgery in the 1600’s, very little. This idea puts the combination of food and science in its very early stages of knowledge and health practices. Cacao for health purposes are then placed as a final frontier in breakthrough medicine, and solidifies the plant’s invasion on the human race as an indispensable crop we will soon be unable to live without. The more we discover, the more we realize the plant’s invasion on the human race, is indispensable.

-“A Square a Day Keeps the Doctor Away” is a modern twist on the historical advertisement boom for apples, “An Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away”. The video represents the popularity that cacao is attaining in modern culture as both a food and a medicine.

“The major goal… is to evaluate the variety of clinical benefits of chocolate and especially its polyphenols. Thus, dark chocolate could reduce the risk of heart attack and provide other cardioprotective actions if consumed regularly.” (Watchson et al, 10)

One product simply called “Cacao” is a supplement pill claiming to promote antioxidants such as polyphenols and the basic structure of catching and many other free radical fighting nutrients.

“All natural appetite suppressant, decreases appetite so you eat less. Helps you maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Helps you maintain healthy cholesterol and lipid levels. Provides a variety of antioxidants from two dozen herbs and nutrients. Provides healthy fiber. Balances mood. Improves will power and choice of food selection.” (Cocoa Supplement Pill Benefit, 2015, cocaobean.html)

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Cacao Powder 500mg showing the versatility of cacao through its unique ability to be fused as both food and medicine.

Conclusion

Chocolate’s versatility has given it a place in modern culture as an indispensable ingredient. By availing its delicious yet medicinal components for all to utilize, it has been involved in every major culinary turning point throughout history. The offerings of cacao that humans have some to rely on, is what has aided it’s longevity over thousands of years. It’s ability to be paired with a vast amount of secondary ingredients have gave it a place throughout the centuries. Chocolate meets demands that modern culinary trends place on it. With chocolate’s adaptability and versatility so vast, it is sure to stand the test of time as one of the most influential ingredients the world has ever seen. Saving and enriching the lives of those who cultivate as well as those whom consume this mysterious plant, cacao has shown it self to truly be a gift of the gods.

WORKS CITED

Pollan, Michael. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. New York: Random House, 2001. Print.

W. Jeffrey Hurst, Stanley M. Tarka, Jr, Terry G. Powis, Fred Valdez, Jr & Thomas R. Hester. “Archaeology: Cacao Usage By The Earliest Maya Civilization Nature” 418, 289-290 (18 July 2002)

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

Martin, Carla D. ; Sampeck, Kathryn E . “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe”                                                                                                                                                                             8300 defect for UNSW Socio.hu, 2015, Issue special issue 3, pp.37-60

Marcy Norton “Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics”                              The American Historical Review (2006) 111 (3): 660-691

Watson, Ronald R., Victor R. Preedy, and Sherma Zibadi. “Chocolate in Health and Nutrition”. New York: Humana, 2013. Print.

Sahelian, Ray. “Cocoa Supplement Pill Benefit, Antioxidant, Health Improvement.” RaySahelian.com. 14 Apr. 2015. Web. 25 Apr. 2016.