For nearly 3,000 years, humans have delighted in the consumption of cacao (Edwards.) For its originators, the Mesoamericans, the experience of preparing and drinking chocolate was unlike that of consuming other foods and substances (Sampeck and Thayn 73.) Tedious and time-consuming, the process of preparing cacao was an experience in itself, which culminated in its consumption. The complex nature of the chocolate-making process elevated the food to the status of the privileged, the royal, and even the gods (Martin.) For this reason, the tools used in the preparation of drinking chocolate took on a profound and sacred significance for Mesoamericans, especially those tools that imbued chocolate with sacred foam. To European colonizers, cacao beverages lacked this spiritual significance, so they felt little need to indulge intimately in the process of preparing it. Instead, they introduced tools and processes designed to expedite the preparation and make it more their own. The story of the introduction of the molinillo is reflective of the broader changes that took place in the consumption of cacao, a sort of microcosm of the situation that took place as European colonizers hybridized the experience of drinking chocolate.
About 2,600 years ago, the people of what is now Mexico and Central America, known as Mesoamericans, began to harvest the beans of the cacao tree. From these beans, they made a bitter, often spiced beverage that was known to provide energy (Edwards.) This process was arduous. For starters, the cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao) is picky: rainfall, humidity, shade, and soil conditions must meet specific requirements for the tree to grow and produce fruit. As you can see in this image, the pods are large, heavy, and thick; they also do not naturally fall off of the tree’s trunk and must be cut open by hand.
Even once the pods are picked by hand and split open and the beans are manually removed, the journey from beans to drinking chocolate is painstaking. There are four steps which must be completed to produce the cacao kernels which are ground into chocolate: fermentation, drying, roasting, and winnowing (Coe and Coe 19-22.) Because of the difficulty of growing cacao and transforming it into a consumable beverage, the ancient drink was reserved for the privileged Aztec and Mayan elites at the onset (Edwards.) In ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures, cacao also took on a religious significance, with use in coming of age ceremonies, holidays, ritual sacrifices, marriage, and more (Leissle 31.) The most essential and sacred part of the drink was foam (Martin.)
Because foam embodied the spiritual essence of chocolate, the foaming process and the tools it involved were imbued with similarly profound importance. An ancient account of drinking chocolate preparation describes the ancient foaming process, which consisted of pouring the liquid back and forth between two vessels, as follows:
“She grinds cacao; she crushes, breaks, pulverizes them. She chooses, selects, separates them. She drenches, soaks, steeps them. She adds water sparingly, conservatively; aerates it, filters it, strains it, pours it back and forth, aerates it; she makes it form a head, makes foam”(Coe and Coe 84.)
The molinillo, a slim, wooden tool,eventually supplemented this method of foaming. Depicted here, the molinillo is held by the handle with two hands, palms facing inward and rotated quickly, fully submerged in liquid, generating delicious froth and foam. The instrument would be carved and painted by hand, with unique patterns chiseled into either side (Edwards) as you can see.
When whisked with a molinillo, the fats in the liquid chocolate mixture gain volume, creating a foam (Sampeck and Thayn 77.) The word molinillo is thought to be derived from the Nahuatl noun molinia, “to shake, waggle, or move” (Coe and Coe 120.) Myth even says that the word “chocolate” is inspired by the noise that the molinillo makes as it whirs through the cacao mixture (182.) The molinillo is often mistaken as a distinctly Mesoamerican artifact, but the truth is a little different.
In the 16th century, Spaniard came to Mexico, where they tried the bitter, sacred cacao beverage of the native people. As they nurtured a taste for cacao, they introduced their own tastes and practices into its preparation and consumption. Rather than drinking the beverage at room temperature, as the Aztecs did, the Spanish heated the beverage, as we do today. Eventually, Europeans would substitute the traditional Mesoamerican spice profile for flavors they were familiar with. Finally, rather than maintaining the foaming method described above, the Spanish introduced a slim, wooden tool for foaming called the molinillo (Coe and Coe 114-115.) The molinillo made foaming easier and was quickly adapted by the Mesoamericans. The Jesuit Francesco Saverio Clavigero described the use of the molinillo in his comprehensive writing on Mexican life from 1780, but does mention the practice of pouring liquid between vessels to produce foam, implying that molinillos had caught on as a more efficient means of foam-production by this point (Coe and Coe 85.) Art from this period tells us that molinillos were widespread in Europe, as well. In the image below, for example, a young European woman is depicted in bed. On her bedside table, you can spot a molinillo standing in a silver pot. Notably, the Spaniards had already altered the ancient and spiritual practice of brewing drinking chocolate. This change was not only brought home to Europe, but picked up by Mesoamericans, signifying a fusion of practices that altered the cultural history of drinking chocolate.
Today, Spanish molinillos are commonly used in households worldwide to prepare foamy hot chocolate. Any traditional Mexican hot chocolate recipe will include the use of a molinillo, like this one from the Mexican Food Journal. It begins:
“When the weather gets chilly, there is no better drink to warm you up than traditional Mexican hot chocolate frothed by hand with a wooden molinillo”(Cullen.)
A molinillo has sat on my own kitchen shelf for as long as I remember, a relic of my family’s time living in Mexico. The molinillo is a helpful reminder that the hot chocolate we enjoy today is a product that has been hybridized and appropriated by Western culture. Just as the tool was a Spanish attribution to the cocoa-making process, the flavors that we may add to our cocoa, its significance in our lives, and even the temperature at which we enjoy it are significantly different from what the Mesoamericans, inventors of cacao beverages, would have chosen to enjoy.
Coe, Sophie and Michael Coe. The True History of Chocolate, London, Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2013.
Cullen, Douglas. “Mexican Hot Chocolate.” Mexican Food Journal, https://mexicanfoodjournal.com/mexican-hot-chocolate/. Accessed 9 March 2020.
Edwards, Owen. “A Historic Kitchen Utensil Captures What it Takes to Make Hot Chocolate from Scratch.” Smithsonian Magazine, Sep. 2007, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/artsculture/kitchen-utensil-chocolate-stirring-from-scratch-cacao-161383020/. Accessed 8 March 2020.
Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Cambridge, Polity Press, 2018.
Martin, Carla. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, 05 Feb 2020, Harvard University, Lecture.
Sampeck, Kathryn, and Jonathan Thayn. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” Substance and Seduction,edited by Stacey Schwartzkopf, University of Texas Press, 2017, pp. 72-99.
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