Tag Archives: Maize

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 Curious Relationship Between Corn and Chocolate in Mesoamerica

 

To the casual observer learning the process of chocolate making, there is always some confusion that takes place when first tasting the raw, bitter cocoa beans; their tannic nature seems in total contradiction to the expected chocolate flavor. Further, to those lucky few who are able to taste fresh cacao fruit and experience the sweet, sticky pulp…nothing about its tropical character suggests anything remotely “chocolate”. Even as cocoa beans roast, as they are cleaned and ground into a thick and fragrant paste, there persists a complicated leap-of-faith element to the procedure; that is, the seemingly far-fetched notion that someone, once upon a time, would have “discovered” the chocolate making process.  It would suggest unusual prescience, or simply dumb luck, to have predicted the transformation of an unlikely, bitter seed into the miraculous, finished product that we know as chocolate. We learn that cacao is known, botanically, as Theobroma, the Food of the Gods, and are content to leave it at that.

In fact, as Maricel Presilla points out, the process seems “logical and inevitable, given the systematic way in which the (Mayan people) approached most of their standard foods….spread them out to dry in the sun, roast them on clay comales and then grind them on stone slabs – everyday techniques used with such common foods as corn, chiles and pumpkin seeds.” (Presilla, p.8,9)  

From our modern day perspective, as we are further removed from the source of our food, we are less likely to recognize the simple relationships that shape the foundations and techniques by which that food is produced.  As it happens, this specific example, drawing a relationship between cacao (chocolate) and corn (maize), sets up a curious comparison. Both begin as hard, unpalatable seeds. Through a series of processes, both chemical and mechanical, they are transformed into foods that are quite different from their original form. Here, the similarities diverge, as one becomes the most basic food of everyday life, while the other is most synonymous with luxury and status. (Presilla, p.14) The gastronomic connection that binds these two foods is worth a deeper look.

Screenshot 2018-03-08 at 11.24.35 AM

 

Although a common, staple commodity, maize is significant in Mayan society from both religious and culinary perspectives. Scholars believe that maize had evolved from an earlier, native grass called teosinte, the name derived from the Nahuatl teo, meaning “sacred” or “godly”, and cintli, meaning “maize”. (Miller/Taube, p.108) Note the irony here, where cacao is the “food of the gods”, yet Maize literally is the god.

 

 

Screenshot 2018-03-05 at 4.50.23 PM

Creation myths abound with stories of maize, likening its yearly birth and regeneration cycle to that of humans, a metaphor of life and death. The Popul Vuh, the Mayan sacred text,  proposes that humans were first fashioned from ground yellow and white corn dough. (Tedlock, p. 146)

 

 

Later in the same text, we are introduced to the Maize God, chief among the Maya, for his ability to give and sustain life. In his own life/death cycle, the Maize god transforms his body, and from it sprouts all manner of fruits and vegetables. Cacao, ritualized in ceremony, celebrated for its medicinal effects and assigned such value that it is used as a form of currency,  is portrayed as the first fruit to grow from the Maize god’s abandoned body, thereby reinforcing the esteem to which it was held.

 

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Maya art shows ample evidence of a close connection between the Maize god and the Cacao god, suggesting they might have shared comparable significance.  

Screenshot 2018-03-07 at 11.09.31 AM

 

 

 

 

Although corn had long been domesticated, it was the Olmec, the Mesoamerican predecessor to the Maya, who discovered the technique of nixtamalization, which proved to be a game-changer in the development of the Mayan civilization. Nixtamalization, simply a boiling process involving an alkaline solution (achieved by adding wood ash to the cooking liquid), results in a softer, more nutritious corn kernel. The discovery raised the status of corn to a “true staff of life, the central focus of their religion and the source of four-fifths of the nourishment for the native peoples” (Coe, p. 38)  In short, the domestication of corn allowed for sufficient leisure time to dedicate to more imaginative pursuits: art and architecture, astronomy, a calendar, math, writing, and of course, chocolate. (C. Martin, Lecture 2, Mesoamerica and the Food of the Gods)

In its original form, chocolate was consumed exclusively as a drink; a frothy, corn-thickened beverage that might have been scented with any variety of chiles, achiote, vanilla beans, flowers or roasted nuts, and perhaps have been sweetened with honey or the sap of certain fruit-bearing trees. While this concoction may bear little resemblance to modern “hot chocolate”, it is worth noting that recipes for traditional Mesoamerican style drinks continue to flourish and are gaining popularity in the culinary world, where chefs and chocolatiers seek to capitalize on the exotic image of the Maya culture. (C. Martin). Although contemporary versions of these drinks are generally modernized with the addition of sugar, the underlying goal of preserving and celebrating the history of cacao and corn is both sweet and satisfying.

Here we demonstrate a traditional approach to preparing champurado, a corn-thickened atole (drink) that is flavored with chocolate. Citing the evidence recorded by Bernardino de Sahagun, a Franciscan friar who documented life in 16th century “New Spain”, the process is as follows: (although Sahagun chronicled the daily activity of the Aztec people and not the Maya, we can assume the process was consistent throughout the Mesoamerican landscape.

 “She who sells premade cacao for drinking first grinds it in this fashion: At first (grinding) she breaks or crushes the beans; at the second they are slightly more ground; at the third and last they are very well ground, being mixed with boiled and rinsed corn kernels; and being thus ground and mixed, they add water in any sort of vessel…. after    straining, it is lifted up high, so that it will pour in a good stream, and this is what raises the froth”    (Presilla)

 

Modern techniques may have evolved, with mechanized machinery to take the place of the traditional metate and a broader palette of flavorings to excite a new generation of chocolate enthusiasts, but the principal features remain constant. Familiarity with classic methods and historical foundations is like the World Tree; rooting us in the past, living in the present and reaching for the divine.

 

Peanut Butter and Toasted Corn Chocolate Bar

Works cited:

Presilla, Maricel. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised.  Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA (2009) Print

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

Tedlock, Dennis (Tr.) The Popul Vuh, The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life. Simon and Schuster, NY (1996) Print

Miller, Mary and Taube, Karl.  An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya, Thames and Hudson, (1997) PDF Print

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 1/31/18, Class Lecture

Images:

“Woman grinding corn on a metate”, Dennis Tedlock

“Head of Maize God, growing in a cacao tree”, “Maize God with cacao pods growing from his body”.  Martin, Simon. Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion, Mesoweb, 2006

http://history2701.wikia.com/wiki/Mayan_Maize_God_Sculpture

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/ff/Mujer_vertiendo_chocolate_-_Codex_Tudela.jpg/366px-Mujer_vertiendo_chocolate_-_Codex_Tudela.jpg

Christopher Elbow Chocolates, Kansas City, MO

Francisco Migoya, Hudson Chocolate, Poughkeepsie, NY

Fruition Chocolate, Shokan, NY

Cacao and Corn in the Mayan World

Mayans were cacao pioneers. Maricel E. Presilla writes in The New Taste of Chocolate that “It was the Maya who brought chocolate making to a high art” (Presilla 11). Mayans made a variety beverages with cacao, from a frothy drink that was prized by the upper class to a humbler porridge based on ground corn (Presilla 9). A variation on this porridge, or chocolate atole, is still widely made today and is now known as champurrado. This atole stands out as interesting in the context of the the agricultural Mayan religion that prized cacao but worshiped corn.

The Mayans recorded their complex cacao recipes, inscribing drinking vessels with glyphs for the beverage they contained (Presilla 12). These vessels could be beautiful pieces of clay pottery or hollowed-out gourds from the calabash tree. The calabash tree was religiously significant to the Mayans; the Popol Vuh creation myth outlines a story of two brothers who lose a ballgame to the lords of the underworld and are consequently decapitated. One of the brothers has his head hung in tree that then sprouts flowers and turns into a calabash tree. This unfortunate brother is the main deity in the Mayan religion, the Maize God (de Orellana 69).

688_07_2
This ceramic bowl from the Classic Period shows the Mayan Maize God’s head hanging from a cacao tree

 

Bernardino de Sahagún was a Franciscan friar and Spanish colonizer who took down a Spanish version of the Popol Vuh. This document has illuminated Mayan beliefs and traditions that were stifled and lost during the period of Spanish conquest. The version of the Popol Vuh that survives today mentions cacao, but not specifically; it’s brought up in conjunction with descriptions of the foods Mesoamericans would consume (Coe and Coe 41). Much of the text of the Popol Vuh is devoted to another crop, maize.

 

Maize was widely consumed by early Mesoamericans, constituting four fifths of their diet (Coe and Coe 38). The Maize God was a figure of high importance for a reason. Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe call maize “the Maya-and Mesoamerican-staff of life” (Coe and Coe 41). And just as corn was linked to life, Mayans saw cacao trees as a link to the land of the dead. In cacao growing regions the tree was seen as the World Tree or First Tree and as a connection to both heaven and the underworld (Martin).

Valentine Tibere writes beautifully on this dichotomy in the publication “Artes de México: Chocolate: Cultivation and Culture in pre-Hispanic Mexico”:

Corn, a solar plant, embodies light, resurrection on earth and the creation of humanity on Xmucane’s grinding stone. Corn—or Santo Gracia as the ancients called it—is thus related to public ceremonies and the general recognition of “the people of corn”: ancient and contemporary Mexicans. Cacao, growing in the gloom, secretly represents rebirth after death, gestation and germination in the primordial sea, the breath of life, the word entombed. Corn is earthly, it is the substance of human flesh and its sustenance, but its double, cacao, contains the secret embryo of birth or rebirth. Chocolate is the ferryman that helps us cross over from death to life, that regenerates our forces, that reawakens the slumbering spirit, that makes women pregnant, that revives the dead. (de Orellana 70)

So when corn and cacao are combined in invigorating and nourishing atoles a connection to life and death is established. Precious cacao elevates essential maize; as Mayans consumed these two highly valued crops they were partaking in an everyday demonstration of appreciation for the religious, agricultural culture their society was founded on.

 

 

Works Cited

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

de Orellana, Margarita et al.. “Chocolate: Cultivation and Culture in Pre-hispanic Mexico”. Artes de México 103 (2011): 65–80. Web. 19 February 2016.

Martin, Carla D. Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.  Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 3 February 2016. Class Lecture.

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

Maize and Chocolate: A Match Made in Heaven

Upon first glance, corn and chocolate do not seem like two foods that would mix well together, but civilizations as old as the Maya combined them in recipes that people still use today. Maize and cacao both played significant roles in Mayan religion in addition to being major crops. Cacao contains caffeine that the Maya used as a stimulant while maize provided an easy way for them to consume required calories without much effort or significant resources (Coe & Coe 50). The above reasons logically led to the pairing of the two in several recipes with varied uses, but the religious connection provides an explanation for why these recipes were so common.

668_06_21
The head of the Maize God from a Classic Maya vase

The Maize God played an important role in Mayan religion given that maize was such a staple in the Mayan diet. Interestingly, several times in Mayan art and writing, the Maize God is connected to cacao in some way. In one story in the Popul Vuh, the severed head of the Maize God is hung up in a tree that is portrayed as a cacao tree in the Classic Maya vase above (Coe & Coe 39). In this story, the Maize God is the son of an old couple who created the universe, which clearly makes him an important figure in the Mayan religion.

8e41080bfc3e8bbc27e8031229ce0d8a
The Classic Maya Maize God as a cacao tree

In another Classic Maya artifact, shown above, the Maize god is represented as a cacao tree (Coe & Coe 43). The fact that such an important Mayan God is portrayed as a cacao tree illustrates how significant cacao was to the Maya. This depiction also helps to explain why recipes containing maize and cacao were used in rituals and ceremonies (Coe & Coe 49-50). The two ingredients held significant religious meaning to the Maya so it makes sense they would be mixed together for important events.

The Aztecs also chose to combine maize and cacao in their recipes, but cacao was usually reserved for the elite in their society (Presilla 5). Warriors were supplied with cacao and “the all-important corn” when they were on campaigns (Presilla 5). The cacao acted as a stimulant for the warriors while the corn provided them with the necessary nutrition.

Scholars have found cacao and maize drinks on Mayan artifacts, specifically a vase that shows a bowl of atole—a chocolate corn gruel—next to a dignitary (Presilla 14). Presilla sums up the relationship between maize and chocolate, saying “One is the basic, necessary staff [sic] of everyday life, the other the food most synonymous with luxury and status. But they both bore mythical associations with cosmic life cycles, and it is clear that the two were indeed combined in Maya cuisine” (Presilla 14). As explained by Presilla, abundant evidence exists that cacao and maize were combined to make drinks and gruel, which seems logical given the importance of each, both religiously and as food staples.

20150202-mexican-atoles-drinks-vicky-wasik-7
Whisking champurrado

Today this pairing can be found in modern recipes. Mexican champurrado, chocolate corn gruel, is one such recipe. Recipes for atole are also still common in Mexico (Presilla 14). The image above shows chocolate being whisked into corn gruel to make champurrado. It is interesting to see this image juxtaposed against how a similar recipe would have been made in Classic Mayan times. The Mayan recipe survives, but in a world with whisks, chocolate bars, and stoves.

The significance of cacao and maize in the past explains the persistence of recipes containing them today. With the understanding of the religious and social importance of maize and cacao, it is no wonder the two are paired together so frequently.

Sources

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

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

 

Multimedia sources

Classic Maya vase image: http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/images-6/668_06_2.jpg

Classic Maya Maize God as cacao tree image: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/8e/41/08/8e41080bfc3e8bbc27e8031229ce0d8a.jpg

Whisking champurrado image: http://www.seriouseats.com/images/2015/02/20150202-mexican-atoles-drinks-vicky-wasik-7.jpg

College Model Essay: Cacao and Maize in Maya Tradition

To today’s consumer of ultra-sweet Hershey’s bars, the notion of blending corn and chocolate may seem less than appetizing. But cacao and maize have been wedded for far longer than more familiar combinations like chocolate and caramel. The roots of this centuries-old link between maize and cacao can be traced back to Maya religious stories and social customs. In fact, the marriage of corn and chocolate can be seen as inevitable. Maize was the most significant good in Maya beliefs, as its growth symbolized the cycle of life and regeneration. Cacao, on the other hand, was among the most significant goods in Maya practices, with great exchange value and medicinal effects. The natural merger of the otherworldly with the earthly led maize and cacao to become a central culinary combination, one which is still enjoyed in modern Mexico.

The chief god in Maya religion was that of maize, whose repeated process of growth and harvesting was akin to the human cycles of rebirth and death. It was from the maize tree that so many fruits and goods were created.

Maize God of the Maya
Maize God of the Maya

Among these was cacao, the fruit which bore seeds of great importance to the Maya (“Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion”). So crucial was cacao to Maya life that it was overseen by the Chocolate God, who may have been a brother or close relative of the Maize God (“Maya Gods”). Repeatedly in Maya mythology, cacao and maize appear in tandem. In the Popol Vuh, the creation story of the Maya, the god K’awaiil strikes open a mountain using lightning. Inside the split mountain, maize and cacao are uncovered in a glorious discovery. In another story Itzamna, a healing god with the power to resurrect the dead, teaches the Maya how to properly cultivate both maize and cacao, a sure sign that the two are of paramount importance (“The Mayan Pantheon”). Maya art even shows the Maize God taking the form of a cacao tree, pods sprouting from his pods.

Art depicting Maize God as cacao tree.
Art depicting Maize God as cacao tree

Given that the two goods meant so much to the Maya, it stands to reason that they were paired repeatedly in religion and art. The question, then, turns to the link between cacao and maize in a culinary sense.

 

While today’s consumers might assume that corn was added to enrich the texture of solid chocolate (the same way crisped rice often is), maize was instead used in cacao drink mixtures. Among these mixtures was Sak ha’, a cold beverage with maize kernels and cacao. Sak ha’ was a special drink, consumed only on major social or religious occasions (Staller). Its hot counterpart was a foamy atole prepared for ceremonial gatherings (Green). After creating the base of cacao and maize, numerous other flavors were thrown in, including vanilla and peppers (“Food of the Gods”). Some recipes featured honey from Xunan-Cab, the so-called stingless bee, whose product had a lower sugar content than that of a European honeybee (“Mayan Agriculture”). Today, atole remains popular in Mexico, with modern recipes calling for processed corn dough. In its chocolate form, atole is known as champurrado, which is increasingly popular in the United States (Mora).

A woman prepares champurrado.
A woman prepares champurrado.

While corn and chocolate may sound like strange bedfellows, they have been paired together for years, and their combination lives on in parts of the world. Blending two major foods isn’t at all uncommon; chocolate alone is mixed with meat, fruit, alcohol, and salty snacks. For a society that so valued corn and cacao, it seems only natural that the Maya would associate the two so deeply.

 

Works Cited

“CACAO, FOOD OF THE GODS.” Economic Botany. UCLA, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.

“Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion.” Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion. Mexicolore, n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.

Green, Judith Strupp. “Feasting with foam: Ceremonial drinks of cacao, maize, and pataxte cacao.” Pre-Columbian Foodways. Springer New York, 2010. 315-343.

“Maya Agriculture.” Maya Agriculture. Authentic Maya, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.

“Maya Gods.” NGA: The Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya. National Gallery of Art, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.

“The Mayan Pantheon: The Many Gods of the Maya.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.

Mora, Ozzy. “Let’s Make Champurrado: A Mexican Christmas Hot Chocolate.” Azcentral.com. AZ Central News, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.

Staller, John, and Michael Carrasco. Pre-Columbian foodways: interdisciplinary approaches to food, culture, and markets in ancient Mesoamerica. Springer Science & Business Media, 2009.

Cacao and Maize in Maya Tradition

To today’s consumer of ultra-sweet Hershey’s bars, the notion of blending corn and chocolate may seem less than appetizing. But cacao and maize have been wedded for far longer than more familiar combinations like chocolate and caramel. The roots of this centuries-old link between maize and cacao can be traced back to Maya religious stories and social customs. In fact, the marriage of corn and chocolate can be seen as inevitable. Maize was the most significant good in Maya beliefs, as its growth symbolized the cycle of life and regeneration. Cacao, on the other hand, was among the most significant goods in Maya practices, with great exchange value and medicinal effects. The natural merger of the otherworldly with the earthly led maize and cacao to become a central culinary combination, one which is still enjoyed in modern Mexico.

The chief god in Maya religion was that of maize, whose repeated process of growth and harvesting was akin to the human cycles of rebirth and death. It was from the maize tree that so many fruits and goods were created.

Maize God of the Maya
Maize God of the Maya

Among these was cacao, the fruit which bore seeds of great importance to the Maya (“Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion”). So crucial was cacao to Maya life that it was overseen by the Chocolate God, who may have been a brother or close relative of the Maize God (“Maya Gods”). Repeatedly in Maya mythology, cacao and maize appear in tandem. In the Popol Vuh, the creation story of the Maya, the god K’awaiil strikes open a mountain using lightning. Inside the split mountain, maize and cacao are uncovered in a glorious discovery. In another story Itzamna, a healing god with the power to resurrect the dead, teaches the Maya how to properly cultivate both maize and cacao, a sure sign that the two are of paramount importance (“The Mayan Pantheon”). Maya art even shows the Maize God taking the form of a cacao tree, pods sprouting from his pods.

Art depicting Maize God as cacao tree.
Art depicting Maize God as cacao tree

Given that the two goods meant so much to the Maya, it stands to reason that they were paired repeatedly in religion and art. The question, then, turns to the link between cacao and maize in a culinary sense.

 

While today’s consumers might assume that corn was added to enrich the texture of solid chocolate (the same way crisped rice often is), maize was instead used in cacao drink mixtures. Among these mixtures was Sak ha’, a cold beverage with maize kernels and cacao. Sak ha’ was a special drink, consumed only on major social or religious occasions (Staller). Its hot counterpart was a foamy atole prepared for ceremonial gatherings (Green). After creating the base of cacao and maize, numerous other flavors were thrown in, including vanilla and peppers (“Food of the Gods”). Some recipes featured honey from Xunan-Cab, the so-called stingless bee, whose product had a lower sugar content than that of a European honeybee (“Mayan Agriculture”). Today, atole remains popular in Mexico, with modern recipes calling for processed corn dough. In its chocolate form, atole is known as champurrado, which is increasingly popular in the United States (Mora).

A woman prepares champurrado.
A woman prepares champurrado.

While corn and chocolate may sound like strange bedfellows, they have been paired together for years, and their combination lives on in parts of the world. Blending two major foods isn’t at all uncommon; chocolate alone is mixed with meat, fruit, alcohol, and salty snacks. For a society that so valued corn and cacao, it seems only natural that the Maya would associate the two so deeply.

 

Works Cited

“CACAO, FOOD OF THE GODS.” Economic Botany. UCLA, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.

“Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion.” Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion. Mexicolore, n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.

Green, Judith Strupp. “Feasting with foam: Ceremonial drinks of cacao, maize, and pataxte cacao.” Pre-Columbian Foodways. Springer New York, 2010. 315-343.

“Maya Agriculture.” Maya Agriculture. Authentic Maya, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.

“Maya Gods.” NGA: The Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya. National Gallery of Art, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.

“The Mayan Pantheon: The Many Gods of the Maya.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.

Mora, Ozzy. “Let’s Make Champurrado: A Mexican Christmas Hot Chocolate.” Azcentral.com. AZ Central News, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2015.

Staller, John, and Michael Carrasco. Pre-Columbian foodways: interdisciplinary approaches to food, culture, and markets in ancient Mesoamerica. Springer Science & Business Media, 2009.