Tag Archives: Maya

A Chocolate Renaisscance in Mexico City

Find yourself in Mexico City (CDMX) and you may be overwhelmed with the current culinary scene, namely the exploding revival of one of the country’s oldest exports–cacao. Along the tree-lined streets of the La Condesa neighborhood, next to art deco apartment buildings and vegan cafés, you’ll find yourself among myriad contemporary chocolate shops headed by a new class of Mexican chocolatiers. Head to Mercado Jamaica, one of the city’s oldest traditional public markets, and you may find it hard to resist the allure of seven different types of mole–each made with a distinct combination of cacao and chili. Pop into the city’s recently opened chocolate museum, MUCHO Museo del Chocolate, and sample a mix of traditional chocolate-maiz drinks and triple chocolate tamales. Even a stop into the local Sumesa supermarket yields a unique assortment of both traditional brands like Nestle and Hershey’s and the new artisanal elite. This is where I found myself this week when a last-minute reading period trip to CDMX landed me in one of the hotspots of cacao and chocolate history. Digging deeper into the roots of Mexican chocolate, I visited museums and supermarkets, conducted tastings, and sampled as much as I could get my hands on. In doing so I noted a renaissance of sorts, with the chocolate landscape becoming increasingly dominated by a revival of Mesoamerican techniques and traditions.

An Enduring History

Long before the introduction of foodstuffs like sugar and milk by the Europeans, cacao was an integral element of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultural life. The Olmec civilization of the Mexican Gulf Coast, known for their large head sculptures and use of jade, was originally believed to have been the first one to domesticate cacao–with the Mixe-Zoquean word kakawa coming into use as early as 1000 B.C. It was not until 2006 that Hershey Foods chemist W. Jeffrey Hurst conducted residue analysis on archaeological ceramics and discovered that pre-Olmec villagers of the Chiapas plain in the Soconusco region had actually been some of the first to turn the bean into chocolate nearly 38 centuries ago. As Michael and Sophie Coe point out in their seminal work A True History of Chocolate, the Theobroma cacao tree likely originated in the northwest Amazon basin and was exploited for is sweet pulp before pre-Olmec villagers in Chiapas found a means of turning it into something more reminiscent of modern chocolate.[i] Emerging cultures in other areas of modern-day Mexico grasped on to this new foodstuff, namely the Maya who despite flourishing several centuries after the Olmecs nonetheless employed their tradition of drinking chocolate. Mayan writings the Popol Vuh, as well as the Dresden Codex, include mentions of cacao in creation narratives, and the custom of combining cacao, water, and maize to create a foamy chocolate drink was popular, as was chokola’j–the custom of drinking it with others. The fall of the Maya and the conquest of the southern regions of present-day Mexico by the Aztec Empire between the 12th and 15th centuries brought a new culture in contact with cacao. The Aztecs similarly drank chocolate, as well as utilized it as a form of currency. Sixteenth-century Franciscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagún confirmed these diverse uses, writing at one point about “chocolate kits” given to him by Aztec merchants: “They gave each noble two clay bowls…gave two hundred cacao beans to everyone, as well as one hundred seeds of that plant they call teunacaztli, and a tortoiseshell spoon for mixing the cacao. This was done by all merchants when they came from afar.”[ii] The concept of cacao and its combination with other foodstuffs like vanilla, peppers, and achiote was entirely new to the Spanish when they arrived in the late 15th century, but its flavor quickly became an acquired taste as conquistadors engaged in what Coe and Coe refer to as “crossing the taste barrier.”[iii] Such chocolate scholarship has often credited the Spanish with importing cows and cane sugar, in turn initiating a hybridization of cacao in which both classic tradition and European preference informed its new taste. Marcy Norton rebukes the Coe’s account, however, in “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics,” suggesting that the Spanish internalized Mesoamerican chocolate traditions and instead sought to emulate them on a wider scale in Europe. She writes:

“During the early history of chocolate among Europeans, the transmission of taste did not accord with the top-down structure of society. Instead, it flowed in the opposite direction: from the colonized to the colonizer, from the “barbarian” to the “civilized,” from the degenerate “creole” to the metropolitan Spaniard, from gentry to royalty. The European taste for chocolate emerged as a contingent accident of empire.”[iv]

Across the ocean, the custom of drinking chocolate as a frothy beverage continued, though the Spanish did add their own twist with sweeteners like cane sugar and “New World” spices like cinnamon, anise, and rose in place of spices like chile peppers and achiote.[v] The transformation of chocolate from drink to bar, from small-scale farming to mass production is an important one–but not integral to this story. I plan to focus instead on the centuries-long endurance of these Mesoamerican flavors, namely their contemporary renaissance.

A Visit to El Museo

One of the best places to start is with a visit to MUCHO Museo del Chocolate, in the Juárez neighborhood of CDMX. Finally within a tropical climate, I was able to see a cacao pod in person with the beans, nibs, winnowed shells, and sweet mucilaginous pulp first exploited by pre-Olmec villagers on display.

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The museum’s many rooms contained not only the history of chocolate but several art pieces depicting its enduring cultural value. Pictured below is a recreation of the making of a chocolate drink in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, with the woman pouring a large batch of cacao and water into a separate container. She would most likely pour the mixture several times, in order to achieve the frothy consistency so sought after by its drinkers.

IMG_4780In order to mix the cacao with the water, however, the cacao beans would need to be winnowed (or deshelled) and their nibs rolled on a stone ledge called a metate with a rolling-pin-like “stone mano.”[vi] This would create the paste needed to successfully mix the cacao into a beverage. The reconstruction below, though inaccurate to the extent that most Mayan women wore loose fitting tunics rather than going bare-chested, shows the process of grinding the cacao–namely how physically arduous the process was.

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The museum’s extensive exhibits and popular chocolate shop show just how important not only chocolate itself but its history has become in shaping cultural ideas of Mexico. Museum founder Ana Rita García Lascurain points out at that its inception in 2012, the museum was aimed at helping people understand, “how Mexico gave chocolate to the world.” Below is a feature conducted by Mexico City’s premier cultural news channel, Canal Once, in which you can take your own tour of the unique facilities.

Tasting #1: Chokola’j

The museum’s downstairs chocolatería was emblematic of the city’s larger Mesoamerican chocolate renaissance. After consulting the shop’s owners, I sampled three of their most popular and traditional offerings–agua con chocolate, chocolate caliente con chile picante (in lieu of their sold-out corn and chocolate drink pozol), and a tamal de chocolate. My travel partner and I then engaged in the Mayan tradition of chokola’j–or “drinking chocolate together.” The most prominent element of the agua con chocolate (“water with chocolate”) was its frothy texture and refreshing effect in the heat of an 80-degree day. As pointed out by scholars Louis E. Grivetti and Howard-Yana Shapiro in field work from the late 1990s in Oaxaca, Mexico, contemporary agua con chocolate recipes almost always employ a molinillo, or “long wooden stick with rings at the bottom that spin when the stick is rolled between the palms.”[vii] The woman preparing our agua con chocolate did the same. My travel partner lauded the drink’s lack of milk, noting that they preferred its light and air taste to heavy contemporary American and European recipes. As Mexican pastry chef José Ramon Castillo points out in his blog post entitled “The ABCs of Mexican Chocolate,” the mixture of cacao with water rather than milk, “makes the sensation of the Mexican cocoa butter palpable on the lips, which doesn’t happen with cacao from other countries.”

IMG_4808The chocolate caliente con chile picante (“hot chocolate with spicy chili”) carried the same light texture in its lack of milk but also had a different mouthfeel due to its hot temperature and inclusion of spice. My first sip of the drink was jarring considering that most of the chili flakes were floating at the top of the mug, as pictured below. The spice dimmed down a bit until the drink’s final sips when the grounds at the bottom became salient once again.

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Moving from beverages to food, we sampled the tamale chocolate (“chocolate tamale”), a sponge-cake like combination of the country’s two most traditional exports–corn and chocolate. Due to the shop being sold out of pozol­–the fermented corn and chocolate drink common in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica–I opted for the tamale in the hopes that I could replicate a similar combination.

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It was demure in sweetness, as were the two beverages, but lacked the bite of the chocolate caliente con chile picante or the freshness of the agua chocolate. The three products proved nonetheless to be a strong introduction to the use of cacao outside of chocolate bars. Still in pursuit of the latter, however, I hit the streets of CDMX once again to comb through its many supermarkets and artisanal shops.

Tasting #2: Chocolate Bars

Gathering twelve test subjects from the likes of Australia, the United States, Mexico, and Canada, I conducted my second tasting in the courtyard of the Red Tree House–a small bed and breakfast in La Condesa. The six samples were all made in Mexico, and included Hershey’s 60% Dark Chocolate (Sample A), Ricolino Kracao Milk Chocolate with Pineapple (Sample B), MUCHO Museo’s single-origin Maravilla chocolate (C), Turin 33% Milk Chocolate (D), ki’Xocolatl 72% Dark Chocolate with Spices from Chiapas (E), and Nestle Abuelita Chocolate (F). The results were as follows:

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Hershey’s 60% Dark Chocolate (Sample A)/48.90 MXN, 2.54 USD

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This Mexican Hershey’s bar is notable for its high cacao content, as compared to the classic American flavor. The bar nonetheless contains milk, in order to replicate the mouthfeel of a pastry as indicated on the packaging. Participants were keen on this chocolate’s high cacao content, some going as far as to guess 80%, and lauded its “beautiful earthy tones.” Two of the participants preferred this chocolate to more expensive single-origin samples.

Ricolino Kracao Milk Chocolate with Pineapple (Sample B, pictured right)/16 MXN, .83 USD

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This chocolate-bordering-candy bar was at the tasting’s lowest price point. Participants noted that it was one of the sweetest samples, with “nutty, creamy, [and] floral” tones. Several guessed that the bar contained rice crispy bits or raisins rather than pineapple.

MUCHO Museo’s single-origin Maravilla chocolate (C)/72 MXN, 3.74 USD

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This chocolate is a single-origin criollo variety grown in the birthplace of chocolate as we know it–Chiapas. MUCHO began selling this bar at the museum’s inception in 2012. Most of the participants ranked this chocolate their second choice, raving about its bitter lasting aftertaste and fruity tones.

Turin 33% Milk Chocolate (D)/ 63 MXN, 3.27 USD

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This milk chocolate was dividing for participants. Some lauded its “caramel, dulce de leche, maple” notes while others decried its taste as “too sweet.”

ki’Xocolatl 72% Dark Chocolate with Spices from Chiapas (E)/99 MXN, 5.14 USD

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This 72% dark chocolate, at the highest price point, was the overwhelming favorite among participants. The company was started in 2002 according to their website, with the mission of creating, “Quality products presented with a beautiful and original image that mixes the concept of modernity with the legendary Mayan culture.” Tasting participants were fans of the bar’s “floral” tones and noted flavors of cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, and pepper.

Nestle Abuelita Chocolate (F)/20.50 MXN, 1.06 USD

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The final sample, Nestle’s Abuelita chocolate, was well received despite being typically dissolved in water or milk for hot chocolate. Originally Mexican-born, Nestle acquired the brand in the 1990s. Participants tasted “cardamom, brown sugar, cinnamon, [and] pepper” and noted its “crystalline, crunchy” texture. When interviewing Mexican participants about the chocolate, they shared that most younger generations blend the chocolate into drink form while older generations prefer it plain. It was clear that Abuelita had clear cultural resonance, with several participants noting that they had grown up on the product.

Final Thoughts

There is no doubt that Mexico City has undergone a revival of Mesoamerican chocolate techniques and traditions through the establishment of museums, chocoloterías, and artisanal shops. Even supermarkets have featured an emergence of offerings, where brands like ki’Xocolatl sit next to modern household names like Nestle and Hershey’s. The question then becomes how to make Mexican-based brands with higher cacao content and less sugar and milk content more moderately priced. If brands are truly fixed on reviving Mesoamerican traditions, like the conceptualization of chocolate as a health food and medical panacea for example, then their products should be accessible and affordable. A $5 chocolate bar is not, after all, the most economically feasible choice.

 

[i] Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 2013, 71.

[ii] de Orellana, Margarita, Richard Moszka, Timothy Adès, Valentine Tibère, J. M. Hoppan, Philippe Nondedeo, Nikita Harwich et al. “Chocolate: Cultivation and Culture in pre-Hispanic Mexico.” Artes de México 103 (2011): 75.

[iii] Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 2013, 220.

[iv] Norton, Marcy. “Tasting empire: chocolate and the European internalization of Mesoamerican aesthetics.” The American Historical Review 111, no. 3 (2006): 660-691.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 2013, 128.

[vii] Grivetti, Louis E., and Howard-Yana Shapiro. Chocolate: history, culture, and heritage. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.

*Note: Scholarly sources are featured above, while multimedia sources are embedded.

 

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Lets talk about chocolate sauce

 

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CHOCOLATE SAUCE- Picture was taken by me

 

A few months back my aunt Bazat Saifiyyah made a chocolate sauce that everyone in my family went completely crazy over. We would eat it at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. With many different foods such as ice-cream, strawberries when they were in season, spread over toast or just eaten plain.

For my blog post I want to explore within the context of my aunt’s recipe, the ingredients that go into it, where does the chocolate come from, the historical backing and also the perception of chocolate and its health benefits.

The recipe 

 

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A picture taken by me to show the ingredients that go into the chocolate sauce. 

 

 

The ingredients that go into the chocolate sauce are butter, dark chocolate compound, Hershey’s natural unsweetened cocoa, Hershey’s caramel syrup, icing sugar, milk and fresh cream.

The chocolate sauce is made by melting butter over a low heat flame, then add the dark chocolate compound broken up into many pieces. Then after this has melted the milk and fresh cream are added and then whisked until fully mixed. Then after this, the Hershey’s natural unsweetened cocoa powder is added with the icing sugar. After this, the caramel syrup is added. Then the whole mixture is to be whisked over a low flame for two minutes, then it is ready to be eaten.

This is a short video that I have taken during the making of the chocolate sauce.

 

What is the history behind the recipe?

Cacao first came to be cultivated agriculturally by the Olmecs in the lowlands of the Mexican Gulf Coast ( C ) It was picked up by the Mayans and then from them the Aztecs. In this time the way that they processed the cacao bean was very different then how it is processed today. The cacao pod would be harvested and then its beans would be dried, roasted, shelled and then ground on a metate to make a paste, this paste could have other flavoring additions to it depending on the culture that it was made in. This paste was then made into balls from which a hot foamy chocolate drink was made, this seems to have been the primary way in which the Mesoamericans consumed their cacao. However, there are mentions of it being used in other food items. ( C )

This is a video that demonstrates the Mesoamerican chocolate making practices.

This cacao consumption was picked up by the Spanish during their colonization period. It became an extremely important part of their culture and practices. Then it was picked up by the European colonizers and it became joined with sugar that was also being produced in the colonies. Then came the inventions that changed how chocolate was produced such as conching by Rudolph Lindt in Switzerland, this made the chocolate smooth by breaking down the large particles in a machine. ( P ) Also, the addition of dairy products like milk and cream to chocolate changed drastically how chocolate was enjoyed by many people.

Where does the cacao come from? 

The two chocolate products that go into making this compound are Hershey’s natural unsweetened cocoa and Mordes dark compound chocolate ( CD D16 ). Both these ingredients are processed differently to reach the state that they are in.

Hershey’s natural unsweetened cocoa- 

The processing of cacao to reach cocoa powder was invented by Coenerad Van Houten in the Netherlands. He developed a technique which processed cacao beans in such a way that they separated into two compounds, cacao butter, and a solid cake.  ( P ) The cacao butter was the more prized of the two compounds and often it was sold by companies and not used with the solids of the beans that it came from.  The solid cocoa cake that was made was then ground up into a fine powder and it is used in chocolate drinks and baking. Another process that also goes behind the cocoa powder made today is the dutch processing technique which is a treatment done by adding alkaline salts to neutralize the bitter taste and also to have a darker colored chocolate. ( P )

There is no mention of the product about where the cacao that goes into this process comes from. This makes the cacao completely anonymous.

This anonymity of chocolate shows a shift in the attitudes of people towards cacao beans and their sourcing. In the past centuries, before the manufacturing of chocolate became so connected to the industrialized process, the sourcing of the cacao bean was of utmost importance. The criollo pods were counted as the best type of cacao, it has the sweetest flavor and the richest taste ( P), the finding of this pod is extremely rare nowadays and many expert chocolatiers try with great difficulty to get a hold of this criollo pod to make their chocolate. This pod was mainly used by the Olmecs, Mayans, Aztecs and then it was transported to Hispanic plantations such as Venezuela during their period of colonization. ( P ) The most common type of cacao in use today is the forastero variety, this is purple and of a darker color then the criollo variety, it is also extremely bitter however the multiple industrial processes that cacao beans go through these days balance out the bitterness. Then there is also the Trinitario variety, this is a cross breed between the criollo and forastero, it was developed in Trinidad, this is the most resilient variety and it has a more pleasant taste than the foraestro. ( P )

The other factor that matters a lot in the sourcing of cacao is where is it grown, this contains the Terrior of the landscape and also carries a lot of history and chocolate traditions and culture with it. Chocolate has a dark history intertwined with the slave trade and abuse of peoples in plantations. In the modern day, the roots of colonization, the booming cacao trade, and European chocolate culture has led to established cacao farming in many parts of the world that were colonized such as Brazil, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Ecuador and West Africa. Today West Africa produces 75% of the worlds cacao and most of this cacao is exported for production abroad, only 4% of the worlds chocolate is consumed by its people. West Africa collectively produces 3 million metric tonnes of cacao in a year( L 8)

There is a lot that goes into the cacao bean and if it is made so anonymous its history is wiped away and its variety and subtleties are emitted out of the chocolate making process as nobody knows where it originates from.

Mordes dark compound chocolate ( CD D16 ) 

This chocolate is also another example of the anonymity of the cacao bean today. The ingredients that go into making this bar are as follows, Sugar, Edible Vegetable fats, Cocoa Solids and Emulsifiers ( 492, 322 ) CONTAINS ADDED NATURAL (VANILLA) FLAVOURING SUBSTANCES, Hydrogenated Vegetable Fat Used- Contains Trans Fats.

This bar does not have a cacao percentage in it however it has cocoa solids, so it does not have cacao butter in it.

This is a video that demonstrates how chocolate bars are made today.

 

 

A look into Hershey’s

Hershey’s was founded in 1903 by Milton S. Hershey, it came to be known as Americans most iconic chocolate. It had a great influence on American business and taste. ( L 11 )

The two struggles that this company faced and managed to overcome were, one, the struggle to develop milk chocolate, so they made their own dairy farms and sourced their milk from there. Two, the struggle to control the sugar supply chain. Sugar used to come from Cuba and during the period of 1916-46 there was a highly volatile situation and this affected the sugar supply chain. To face this problem Hershey brought land in Cuba where he established his own sugar plantations, for the transportation of this sugar he also built some connecting railways.  ( L 12 )

This is a video that demonstrates the history and founding of Hershey’s chocolates.

Health effects

The potential health risks in consuming chocolate are environmental factors of polluted soil and water, problems in other ingredients such as milk, sugar, soy lecithin, inclusions, manufacturing issues, allergy or sensitivity to certain ingredients mixed with the cacao or to the caffeine, and a very high sugar and saturated fat content and a very high calorie content. ( L 12 )

There has also been a lot of contemporary research on the health benefits of chocolate. These are Antioxidant, Cardioprotective, Psychoactive, Anti-inflammatory, Anti-allergy and Anti-tumoral properties ( L 12 )

After knowing some of the history behind chocolate and everything that has gone into making it, one can eat the chocolate sauce with more understanding of what actually goes on in the making of it.

References

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 2013 – ( C)

Presilla, Maricel E. The new taste of chocolate: a cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. Random House Digital, Inc., 2009. – ( P )

Chocolate class lectures, Carla Martin, Harvard Extension School, Spring 2018 – ( L )

History of Hershey’s chocolate, Charles Dean Archive, Published on Jan 9, 2014 on Youtube

Milk Chocolate from Scratch How it is made, Science Channel, Published on Oct 30, 2016 on Youtube

Watch the Ancient Art of Chocolate Making, National Geographic, Published on Oct 13, 2017 on Youtube

Chocolate as a Symbol of Love through Luxury: From Ancient Mayan Civilization to Today

Introduction

Chocolate, more so than most foods, carries a sentiment of love and affection when shared with and given to other people, driven by the notion that it can be a luxury. Today, about 83% of people are likely to share candy or chocolate on Valentine’s day, and chocolate sales compile 75% of Valentine’s Day candy purchases (NCA). While it is believed that known chocolate brands (Hershey’s, Dove, etc.) influence our association of chocolate with love and affection (they certainly do to a significant extent), closer analysis suggests that usage of chocolate as a vessel for love and affection may stem from the luxurious nature of cacao in ancient Mesoamerica and chocolate in 17th-18th century Europe and the methods by which these commodities were consumed.

Chocolate as an Affectionate Gift Today

A significant amount of advertisement by chocolate companies frame chocolate as a luxury good that can be given as a gift to show affection towards another person. This advertisement by Perugina (owned by Nestle) highlights the symbol of chocolate as an expression of love for a family member, friend, and partner. The chocolate product advertised in this instance, as in many other, does not even appear until the final few seconds. And, when it does appear, it is given from a man to a woman and eaten in a substantially delicate fashion- the way one would treat anything opulent. This sumptuous branding of chocolate as a delicacy inherently labels it as a worthy gift that shos fondness towards someone. If that aspect is not enough to influence people to think of chocolate as a luxury gift that shows affection to someone, the quote from the advertisement, “The Italian way to say, ‘I love you’” lays out the message pretty clearly, and can be found in many similar messages throughout world chocolate marketing- one needs to only look as far as the product of a Hershey’s ‘Kiss’ or a heart-shaped dove.

Chocolate as a Social Enabler in Ancient Mesoamerica

Opossum God carries Rain God on his back, caption is “cacao is his food [kakaw u hanal].”
Maya marriage rituals included tac haa – roughly translated as “to serve chocolate” or “to invite the father of a girl whom one’s son wants to marry to discuss the marriage and serve him drink”

(Martin, 2018).

 

Today’s notion of chocolate as a luxury to be shared with others is not new by any means. Ancient Mayans can be seen using cacao in the context of love through marriage rituals. The Mayans associated cacao with their gods and religion- shown in colonial documents such as the Popul Vuh and the Dresden Codex, in which the Opposum God carries the Rain God on its back with the hieroglyphic caption “cacao is his food” (pictured above)(Martin, 2018). The glorification of cacao in these sacred contexts can be seen as the first notion of chocolate, or its origin cacao in this instance, as a luxurious commodity consumed by the powerful. Moreover, it appears as though the depiction of the God’s usage of cacao trickles down to carry social significance for the actual Mayan people. The image above shows their marriage ritual of the father of the groom offering cacao to the father of the bride to invite him to discuss the marriage, providing one of (if not the earliest) known examples connecting chocolate to fostering relationships.

Chocolate as a Luxury in 17th-18th Century Europe

The tradition of chocolate as a meaningful ritual via its opulence continued quickly into the assimilation of chocolate consumption in European culture in the 17th and 18th centuries. Specifically, the development of chocolate pots in Europe and their migration to Boston added to chocolate’s luxurious allure in both places: “fashioned for an elite clientele to serve imported luxury foodstuffs…chocolate pots were among the rarest silver forms in the early eighteenth century) (Falino, 2008). The creation of these pots initially may have been motivated by desire for functionality: “what distinguishes the chocolate pot from the coffee pot is the hole in the top under the swiveling (or hinged) finial that allows for a stirring rod to be inserted and do its work without cooling the drink” (Deitz, 1989). However, the functional appeal does nothing to hide its luxurious nature. In this surviving chocolate pot by Edward Webb, the base and top are decorated with intricate fluted design. These vessels made for the consumption of chocolate were desired only by wealthy merchants and a “succession of royal appointees who had sufficient funds and an appetite for the latest styles” (Deitz, 1989). In a similar fashion to the Mayans, the consumption of Chocolate was ritualized beginning in this rich form with silver pots.

 

1706-18 Chocolate Pot made by Edward Webb stored in Museum of Fine Arts

 

The Consumption in Chocolate Houses by Elite Add to the Allure

The development of chocolate houses in 17th-century Europe add to the history of chocolate as a luxury. These houses fostered political discussion and developed what Loveman calls “a separate identity” from coffee-houses. They soon evolved into the venue for parties with other types of drinks and games mostly for gentlemen, while “respectable ladies could call at a chocolate house” (Loveman, 2013). Furthermore, by 1680, a dialogue began during the making of a new chocolate house in Westminister developing the notion that women loved chocolate in a similar fashion that is advertised today (Loveman, 2013). These chocolate houses allowed for the practice of the consumption of chocolate by elites not only confirmed to the nature of chocolate as a luxury but also brought people together because of its appeal.

When people think about Valentine’s Day, they think about chocolate, specifically heart-shaped chocolate, and love. The association with love and affection is influenced by advertisements by chocolate companies today that convince us that chocolate is a delicacy to be shared with others, and they are able to convince us of this belief because of a deeply rooted history of chocolate as a luxury item. From the ancient Mayans believed that cacao was a food of the Gods, to 17th-century European elites using lavish silver pots to drink it, to the silky smooth texture with which they are created today, chocolate has always carried immensely more meaning than the simple ingredients that have combined to create it, allowing us to use it as a symbol for much more than a bit of food.

 

Works Cited:

“A Baci Chocolate TV Ad Italy “Say It with a Kiss” Valentine’s Day 2010.” YouTube. January 10, 2010. Accessed March 20, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fBkBqMZnTVU.

Carla Martin. “Chocolate Expansion.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard University, Cambridge. 31 Jan. 2018. Lecture.

“Chocolate Pot.” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. April 06, 2017. Accessed March 20, 2018. http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/chocolate-pot-42519.

Falino, Jeannine, and Gerald W. R. Ward. Silver of the Americas, 1600-2000: American Silver in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Boston: MFA Publ., 2008.

Kate Loveman; The Introduction of Chocolate into England: Retailers, Researchers, and Consumers, 1640–1730, Journal of Social History, Volume 47, Issue 1, 1 September 2013, Pages 27–46, https://doi-org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/10.1093/jsh/sht050

Marcy Norton; Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics, The American Historical Review, Volume 111, Issue 3, 1 June 2006, Pages 660–691, https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr.111.3.660

Paula Deitz. (1989, February 19). Chocolate Pots Brewed Ingenuity. New York Times (1923-Current File), p. H38.

“Valentine’s Day Central.” NCA. Accessed March 19, 2018. https://www.candyusa.com/life-candy/valentines-day-central/.

The Legendary Cacao: Ancient Mayan Religion and the “Food of the Gods”

The global importance of cacao today is rooted in a widespread love of chocolate. The chocolate industry is one that is lucrative yet exploitive, enticing but oppressive—yet all based on the versatile fruit cacao. Cacao, named the “food of the gods” (theobroma cacao) by Carl Linnaeus, gleans its importance today from its role in the chocolate industry, but in the ancient Maya civilization cacao’s significance was as much religious as it was dietary (Luna 87). This post will explore artifacts from the classical period of the Mayan civilization (500-800 CE) and evidence of cacao’s influential spiritual significance. The ancient artifacts explored showcase cacao’s intimate relationship with the human origin story of the ancient Maya. These spiritual beliefs laid the foundation for the important role cacao would play in Mayan civilization from a social, religious, and alimentary perspective.

Cacao and the Origin of Life

As  Maya hieroglyphic specialist Gabrielle Vail explains, the role of cacao was grounded in an ancient history that traced back to the creation of humanity.  According to the Popol Vuh, and ancient Mayan epic, cacao is one of the “precious substances”, along with corn, that poured from the “Sustenance Mountain” to ultimately create humanity (Vail 4). Before cacao catalyzed the creation of human beings, it belonged to the realm of the Underworld lords, where it “grew from the body of the sacrificed god of maize, who was defeated by the lords of the Underworld in an earlier era” (Vail 4). Later the god of maize would be resurrected by his sons the Hero Twins, who overcame the gods of the Underworld, ushering in the advent of human life (Vail 4).

 The Maize God in the Sustenance Mountain

The work of historian Simon Martin provides great insight on the role of cacao in Classical Mayan religion. The image below displays a black ware vase and Martin’s sketch of the artifact. Known as the Berlin vase, it depicts what Martin calls the “transubstantiation of man, maize, and cacao” (156). Produced in the Early Classic period, the artifact illustrates the mythological tale of cacao’s divine role. The vase depicts the death and transformation of the maize god, and the new lord who would follow in his footsteps (Martin 157). The lord who continues in the maize god’s steps is represented by the middle tree, which sprouts two cacao pods. The corpse of the maize god, reduced to a skeleton, can be seen at the base of the image.

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Simon Martin, Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion, University Press of Florida, 2009, p. 158.

The Maize God as a Cacao Tree

                  The image below is from a small stone bowl from the Early Classic era of Mayan civilization (250-600 CE). Martin analyzes the relationship between the artistic imagery and hieroglyphic text in this piece. Per Martin, the ripe cacao pods that adorn the man’s limbs and the “wavy wood motifs” which decorate his skin, indicate that this artifact depicts an anthropomorphic cacao tree (155). Although this deity has been dubbed a ‘Cacao God’ Martin argues that references to cacao in the image instead depict the Maize God as “the embodiment of a cacao tree” (155-156). Martin substantiates this conclusion through the translation of the hieroglyphs, which roughly translate to “Maize Tree God” (156). This combination of cacao imagery and maize deity inscription led Martin, like Vail, to the sixteenth-century K’iche’ Maya epic, the Popul Vuh,  a mythological tale in which both the artifact’s text and depiction make sense.

 

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Simon Martin, Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion, University Press of Florida, 2009, p. 155.

 

The Maize God as a World Tree

This image below is Simon Martin’s sketch of the lid of a Late Classic period ceramic censer which depicts an arched maize god with a cacao pod in his headdress (Martin 167). The artifact depicts the maize god in an inverted posture bearing a cacao pod. The depiction of the god is reminiscent of the idea of World Trees, which were often depicted with inverted postures (see the inverted crocodilian tree below). The artifact continues in line with the Popul Vuh, with the maize god now appearing as a World Tree. World Trees are a vital concept with ancient Mayan lore. According to the colonial era Chilam Bam documents of Yucutan, world trees helped define the limits of the cosmos and the cardinal directions (Martin 165). The depiction of the maize god as a World Tree followed his death and consequent rebirth as such a tree.

Screen Shot 2018-03-19 at 9.29.50 PM
Simon Martin, Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion, University Press of Florida, 2009, p. 167.
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Simon Martin, Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion, University Press of
Florida, 2009, p. 159.

The artifacts explored demonstrate the high value attributed to cacao within the religion of the ancient Mayan civilization. Cacao was revered on a cosmic and existential level, central to the organization of the universe and the creation of humanity. Anahi Luna suggests another spiritual connection the Maya had to cacao, by highlighting their affinity for plants with anthropomorphic structures. This idea can explain the sacred nature of both cacao and corn within the culture, both of which possess an orderly arrangement of seeds (Luna 85). The prevalence of cacao within Mayan spirituality would continue, allowing cacao to play an important role cacao in rituals, offerings, wedding ceremonies, and eventually be used as currency (Vail 5-6).

 

Works Cited

           Grivetti, Louis Evan, and Howard-Yana Shapiro. Chocolate: History, Culture, and
Heritage. Wiley, 2009.
            Luna, Anahi. “Chocolate III: Ritual, Art, and Memory.” Artes De Mexico, no. 110,
June 2013, pp. 72–96. JSTOR [JSTOR], http://www.jstor.org/stable/24318995.
           Martin, Simon. “Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica: a
Cultural History of Cacao, by Arlen F. Chase and Diane Z. Chase, University Press of
Florida, 2009, pp. 154–183.

 

The Cacao Cure

We hastened indoors after a long morning of sledding. Rhode Island public schools had all been cancelled for a snow day, and the hills around my hometown were cluttered with sheer exuberance. My brothers and I had been outside for hours, so we’d finally returned home to enjoy a much-anticipated cup of hot chocolate. After shuffling through the door, we bolted into the kitchen and wrapped our hands around the warm mugs that awaited us. But just moments later, my mother rushed in. Boys. Somebody needs to go close the front door—now. Money doesn’t grow on trees! 

Looking back on this phrase my mother commonly used, I can’t help but laugh at the multi-layered irony. First, it actually did grow on trees (though it’s not technically used as money anymore), and I was drinking it. And second, the hot chocolate I had really didn’t deserve to be called chocolate at all. In actuality, I was drinking chocolate-flavored milk and sugar, and it’d be years before I’d taste an authentic piece of chocolate or raw cacao. Although they’re not classic Mesoamerican vessels, the cups below demonstrate the simplicity and delicacy of the drink compared to our Americanized whipped-cream smothered cups of pure sugar. But still, there is one thing this cup of “cocoa” did for our frozen cores and stuffy noses, regardless of the actual cacao content. It healed us.

Bowe
Mesoamerican drinking chocolate (Bowe)

Before I get into what I mean by this, let’s take a brief step back in history. The warm, liquid “hot chocolate” we drink today is far different from the Mesoamerican drinking chocolate whose origins lie deep in the rainforests of Central and South America (St Jean). Dating back to about 1900 BC, people followed a multi-step process to treat the beans, which were ground into a chocolate liquor and mixed with water along with various spices. The finished, frothy drink was prized in a wide variety of occasions, one of which happened to be in a medical setting. If you’re interested in a unique timeline, you’ll surely be mesmerized by the rollercoaster of cacao’s use as medicine across time.

From early to modern times, cacao has been used in three unique stages with respect to medicine: a flavorful disguise for actual medicines, a preventative and remedial cure-all for a variety of ailments via the humoral system, and a targeted, well-researched concentrate. Many speculators actually assume that the early success of chocolate, not unlike other stimulant beverages, was due to its acceptance as a medicine, claiming that it was only later appreciated as an object of recreation and pleasure (Norton 36).

In the first “stage” I’ve referenced above, cacao was typically used as a medicinal disguise for “real” medications. According to the Florentine Codex, a study compiled by priest Bernardino de Sahagún back in 1590, the Aztecs brewed a drink from cacao and silk cotton tree bark to treat infections starting around 1400. Additionally, children suffering from diarrhea received a drink made from ground cacao beans and healing plant roots (Thompson). Again, the cacao was used here to disguise the bad flavors of additives.

During this same time period, Aztecs used cacao to mask unsavory flavors of medicinal ingredients such as roots used to treat fevers and “giant bones” used to treat urinary bleeding. This manuscript of Maya curative chants suggests that, after chanting, patients consumed a cacao-flavored concoction of herbs that treated skin rashes, fevers, and seizures (Thompson). Thus, perhaps the fact that was cacao was so commonly associated with healing is the real reason it eventually became known as a curative food itself.

This brings us to the second “stage.” After Maya dignitaries introduced chocolate to Spain in 1552, cacao really took on a medicinal role in society. Whether or not chocolate was good, bad, or indifferent for one’s health was a vital topic for many Spaniards, who were “at the mercy of a worthless and often destructive constellation of medical theories which had held the Western world in its grip for almost two millennia” (Coe et al 120). It’s important to note that, at this point in time, European medicine still drew heavily on the philosophy of classical scholars Hippocrates and Galen (Coe et al 120).

Hippocrates held that the body contained four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Whenever these humors fell out of balance, disease ensued (Thompson). Diseases could be “hot” or “cold” and “wet” or “dry,” and physicians typically treated them with oppositely classified pharmaceuticals. Though cold by nature and therefore normally used in this state, cacao could be prepared in hot or cold forms, depending on necessity (Thompson). As a side note, I’m surprised that chocolate was considered “cold” given it was strongly flavored and quite bitter (Coe et al 128).

In a 1631 treatise, Spanish physician Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma gave a glowing description of cacao as a wide-reaching medicinal food: “It quite takes away the Morpheus, cleaneth the teeth, and sweeteneth the breath, provokes urine, cures the stone, and expels poison, and preserves from all infectious diseases” (Thompson). Later, in the 1700s, many doctors began the transition to focusing cacao on specific ailments, incorporating chocolate into smallpox treatments as a way to prevent weight loss associated with the disease. Richard Saunders—a pen name for Benjamin Franklin—references the benefits of chocolate against smallpox in the 1761 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanac (Thompson). Can you imagine walking into the doctors office and getting a shot of chocolate to treat something? I know I’d be “sick” every day!

Thompson
Hypothetical depiction of chocolate as a vaccine (Thompson)

This brings us to “stage” three. I’ll start by reluctantly admitting that, dutching—a process by which chocolate is treated with an alkalizing agent that modifies color and gives a more mild taste—has removed dark chocolate’s acidity and flavanoids since it began in the 1800s (Thompson). This can be explained by the fact that many people started adding cocoa butter back into processed chocolate to make bars, along with dairy and sugar that are now widespread across modern chocolate candy, and dutching simply made it taste better when combined with these other sweet additives. Ironically, however, these manufacturing methods likely made chocolate more of a medical hindrance than help.

But there’s a bright side. Recently, raw, unadulterated cacao has been re-recognized as a so-called “superfood” that boasts healthful sources of phytochemicals including procyanidin, flavonoids, catechin, and epicatechin (Keen 436). Note that I say re-recognized given that, even though the Aztecs and Maya appeared to be shooting in the dark with their many claims about cacao’s medicinal properties, they were actually quite brilliant. In fact, they’re now joined in their claims by leading institutions such as Harvard, which are even looking closely at using cacao for treating serious ailments. If this study on using cacao to protect against heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes produces positive results, these scientists definitely can’t take all the credit.

I’ve left my chocolate-flavored sugar days in the past, now savoring dark chocolate each and every day, and it’s particularly comforting to know that this delicious treat is still being proven as a healthy food hundreds of years after it was first claimed to be so. Now, I’ll embrace my new saying: A cacao bean a day keeps the doctor away!

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Works Cited

Bowe, Tucker. “The Legend and Lore of Hot Chocolate.” Gear Patrol, Gear Patrol, LLC, 18 Dec. 2015.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed., vol. 1, Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Keen, Carl L. “Chocolate: Food as Medicine/Medicine as Food.” Journal of the American College of Nutrition, vol. 20, no. 5, 21 June 2013, pp. 436–439. Taylor & Francis.

Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review, vol. 111, no. 3, 1 June 2006, pp. 660–691. Oxford Academic.

St Jean, Julie. “Medicinal and Ritualistic Uses for Chocolate in Mesoamerica.” HeritageDaily, Heritage Foundation, 9 Feb. 2018.

Thompson, Helen. “Healers Once Prescribed Chocolate Like Aspirin.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 12 Feb. 2015.

Image Links

  1. https://gearpatrol.com/2014/12/12/legend-lore-hot-chocolate/
  2. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/healers-once-prescribed-chocolate-aspirin-180954189/

 

Cacao and its Ancient Literary Significance

Cacao seeds, the source of chocolate, don’t often figure as a divine substance in the modern word. However, cacao holds ancient significance as food of the Gods for the Mayan. The world of the Ancient Maya was in many ways built on chocolate. Today, many understand that chocolate was a drink for kings and nobles. There are dozens of Classic Maya pots and jars that depict chocolate as part of a ritual or feast (Presilla 12). Indeed, the Maya incorporated chocolate into their lives daily. Furthermore, they were among the first people to uncover the intricate process of creating and refining cacao seeds into chocolate drink. However, cacao operated as much more than just a food source; the Mayans used it as currency and wrote it into their creation myth. The Popol Vuh and the Dresden Codex offer a window into the ancient significance of cacao, connecting it to cultural identity. The act of processing  cacao beans, roasting and grinding them, is not only a cooking process but also deeply connected to a symbol of re-birth and power, due to its framing within a creation epic. Cacao is thus a spiritual food deeply connected to the identity of the Maya.

 

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Image: ancientamerica.org

Cacao’s origins begin with the Mayan civilization and the creation of chocolate beverages. According to Maricel E. Presilla, the Maya “consumed the pulp itself and juice made from the cacao fruit pulp (Presilla 12). Additionally, inscriptions from drinking vessels outline a clear culture of drinking cacao, as the Mayans used terminology such as ‘tree-fresh cacao’ and ‘green cacao’ in order to describe certain tastes or preferences (Presilla 12). Historians have uncovered many vases and vessels, such as a painted pottery jar from a tomb at Río Azul, Guatemala. The vessel depicts a chocolate drinking being made and further shows the process of pouring the substance from one vessel into another “to raise the foam” (Coe 48). Thus, artifacts reveal the intricate care and use of chocolate; the Mayans were so particular about their chocolate routine that even specific moments in the process feature in art.

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Image: mexicolore.co.uk

In addition to the clear culture of cacao consummation, cacao plays an instrumental within the Maya creation story. The story centers on the journey of the Hero Twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque in a world that precedes the present. Their father, Hun Hunahpu was killed in Xibalba (the underworld) after he and his brother lost to the Lords of the Death in a ball game (Grofe “Xibalba: About”). Hun Hunahpu’s head is placed in a barren tree which magically begins to bear new fruit. According to Michael Grofe, this tree is depicted as a cacao tree, the beans of which make the chocolate drink that the Mayans enjoyed. Ultimately, the Hero Twins fall into a trap from the Lords of the Death who trick them into jumping into fire; they are burned and the Lords dump their bodies into the river. However, the Twins come back within five days as fish. They defeat death and bring about creation (Grofe). Thus, within the story is also the story of cacao. Like the twins returning to Xibalba, chocolate comes from beans which is roasted, refined, and poured into water, only to create something completely new.

Picture2.png
Image: mexicolore.co.uk

The Maya word “kakaw” is spelled with two fish glyphs, further emphasizing the connection between the cacao process and the magical story of the Hero Twins (Grofe “Xibalba: About”). According to the scholar Michael J. Grofe, in the “the famous Rio Azul cacao pot, we find both the two ‘ka’ glyphs together with the reduplication symbol, as well as the final syllable ‘wa’, spelling ‘kakaw’. It therefore seems likely that the story of the Hero Twins transforming into ‘two fish’ derives from a pun on the word ‘kakaw’” (Grofe “Xibalba: About”). Grofe explains the sacrifice of the Twins as parallel to “cacao processing: entrance into the underworld (burial, fermentation), burning (roasting), grinding of their bones on a metate, and pouring them into water” (Grofe “Recipe” 1). Ultimately, Cacao, through symbolic and mythological writing thus serves as a powerful representation of re-birth, underscoring the cultural significance of cacao to the Maya who used it regularly.

The Dresden Codex further illuminates the significance of cacao in literary Mayan culture. The Codex is a “folding-screen book” and in several sections “gods can be seen holding cacao pods, or dishes heaped with cacao beans” (Coe 41). In addition, the Dresden Codex specifically connects gods to cacao; according to Sophie and Michael Coe, “the Opossum God travels a sacred road to the edge of the town carrying the Rain God on his back, while the associated text tells us that ‘cacao is his food [kakaw u hanahl]’” (Coe 42). The Mayan Gods, as depicted in the Dresden Codex, have a clear reverential relationship to cacao. Ultimately, cacao seeds are not merely food, but a divine life source, and connected to the what it means to be Mayan.

Image Sources:

  1. Vessel and Popol Vuh page: http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/maya/chocolate/cacao-use-among-the-prehispanic-maya
  2. Map: http://www.ancientamerica.org/?p=40

Works cited:

  1. Coe, Michael D. True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2013.
  2. Grofe, Michael J. “The Recipe for Rebirth: Cacao as Fish in the Mythology and Symbolism of the Ancient Maya.” Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, 15 Apr. 2009, http://www.famsi.org/research/grofe/GrofeRecipeForRebirth.pdf.
  3. Grofe, Michael J. “Xibalba: About.” Xibalba Cacao, Michael Grofe, http://www.xibalbacacao.com/index.htm.
  4.  Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: a Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ten Speed Press, 2009.

The Chocolate Lens of Religion

Depicted in various Mayan artifacts, cacao along with its various forms were interwoven into Mayan society. From rituals to everyday life, cacao seemed to have an immortal presence in Mayan society, so much so that it found its way into Mayan religious paintings that depicted cacao beans or cacao trees intertwined with the Gods. In the picture below, the Maize God, a central deity in the Mayan religion, is seen shaping himself as a cacao tree, and pointing at what seems to be a vessel holding liquid cacao: “His limbs are studded with ripe cacao pods, and his skin is marked with wavy ‘wood’ motifs. Clearly, an anthropomorphic cacao tree is at hand” (Simon Martin 155).

maize_god_cacao
The Maize God, a central deity in the Mayan religion, depicted as a cacao tree on an ancient Mayan bowl.

Along with the Maize God, cacao seems to also play a central role in other Godly tales, but why? Why did cacao play such an important part in Mayan theology? The answers lie in the very same picture above. This artifact highlights how the Mayans used the story of the Gods to explain the world around them, and ultimately, how, and why, the Mayans decided to incorporate cacao into their theology.

First, let’s establish the magnitude of how holy the cacao tree is according to the Popol Vuh, “a colonial document from records of Franciscan friar, believed to be the oldest Maya myth documented in its entirety” (Carla Martin 35). According to the Popol Vuh, a central Mayan God, the Maize God, was sacrificed during harvest time in Xibalba, the Underworld, by the Death Gods. He was later buried and somehow was reincarnated as a cacao tree, albeit quite an anthropomorphic one. The picture below depicts how the Maize God supposedly looked after he was slain and reborn as a cacao tree.

maize_cacao_god_2
A cacao tree with the Maize God’s head as a fruit. There are several instances in Mayan Bowls and Vases that depicts various gods and people as anthropomorphic cacao trees.

The Maize God, as a tree, impregnated an Underworld goddess, who subsequently gave birth to the Hero twins, Xbalanque and Hunahpu. Eventually, the Hero Twins “go on to defeat Xibalba and its ghastly denizens” (Coe and Coe 39). They then “resurrect their slain father, the Maize God…[and] rise to the sky in glory as the sun and the moon” (Coe and Coe 39).

Within this story alone, it’s undeniable that the cacao tree represents the Gods. It has a God-like quality, and is intrinsically connected to the Mayan idea of holiness. The cacao is not only deeply connected to the integrity of the Maize God, but to many others as described in the Dresden Codex, “Pre-Columbian Maya books written in hieroglyphics” (Carla Martin 34). In the Dresden, “seated gods can be seen holding cacao pods, or dishes heaped with cacao beans” (Coe and Coe 42). Cacao is also frequently seen “being consumed by Gods in ritual activities” (Carla Martin 34). Depicted in a section of the Dresden regarding new year celebrations, the Opossum God is seen carrying the Rain God on his back, with caption being “cacao is his food [kakaw u hanal]” (Carla Martin 34).

opposum_god
The Opossum god carrying the Rain God on his back, with cacao apparently sustaining the entire journey. There are several instances, including this one, that describe cacao as foods of the Gods.

Whether through the cacao tree or beans, cacao has an incredibly important role in the Mayan religion, as shown by its extensive portrayal in the Popol Vuh and the Dresden. In addition to Gods being portrayed with cacao in some way, the cacao tree is explicitly referred to as the World Tree, which “connects the vertical realms of Sky, Earth, and the Underworld” (Carla Martin 44). This is consistent with how the Maize God was murdered in Xibalba (the Underworld), how he impregnated a woman who escaped into the world’s surface (the Earth), and how the Hero Twins avenged the Maize God’s death and became the sun and the moon (the Sky). The cacao tree is present in nearly all forms of activities of the Gods and of the cycle of nature, of life and death. From the epic of the Maize God to the tales of other Gods, it is obvious that cacao is deeply connected to the Gods.

With all this reverence given to the cacao tree, it’s only natural to ask why did the Mayans choose to akin cacao to the Gods?

Firstly, the Mayans used their religion as a tool to explain the world around them. Having “had an abiding and intimate relationship with the natural world,” (Simon Martin 154) the Mayans wanted to explain why and how the world around them grows the way it does, so it’s only natural for them to create these mythical stories to do just that.

Secondly, because cacao was so integral to the lives of the Mayan and so deeply connected to their way of life, it only makes sense that they so closely kinned the very nature of the cacao to the Gods. Looking closely at the Maize God’s epic death and rebirth, it is clear that the entire story was created to simply explain how their sacred cacao was created, and how it ultimately grows.

The act of the Maize God’s dead body giving rise to trees and edible fruits and seeds (enough to impregnate an Underworld goddess) symbolizes germination in nature: “Cacao, the most coveted product of the mortal orchard, was emblematic of all prized and sustaining vegetal growth—with the exception of maize—and the myth served to explain how it and other foodstuffs came into being” (Simon Martin 178). In other words, “the story, then, basically deals in symbolic form with the burial (that is, the planting of the seed), growth, and fruition of maize [and cacao], the Maya-and Mesoamerican-staff of life” (Coe and Coe 39). Essentially, the Mayans used the Gods to explain how and why the nature around the grows (especially their precious cacao), which was used to ultimately explain the phenomenon of life and death.

While the Mayans certainly had other reasons in creating their religious tales, there is no doubt that a number of myths, including the Popol Vuh, incorporated cacao to help the Mayans understand the world around them. After all, chocolate was, and is considered divine, so why wouldn’t the Mayans place their cacao in the hands of the Gods in their tales?

 

Works Cited:

Coe, Sophie, and Coe, Michael. “The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013.

Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard College: Cambridge, MA. 1 Feb. 2018. Class Lecture. (Images also used from this Lecture as well)

Martin, Simon. “Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and Other Tales from the Underworld.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, University Press of Florida, 2009.

Cheap Sugar and Expensive Cacao: the democratization of the “food of the gods.”

Chocolate means many things to many people, invoking feelings of romance, decadence, comfort, celebration, and memories of childhood. And despite its ubiquity across most of the globe, chocolate has maintained an aura of lavishness, mystery, and prestige. Once a food item strictly for the elites, chocolate has kept its image as a luxury item even though it has been cheaply available for over a century. How and why did chocolate go from an exclusive luxury item for the privileged to a staple everyday treat for the masses? The history of chocolate, or cacao, the treated fruit-seeds from which chocolate is produced, and how it became commonplace is inseparable from the history of colonialism, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the industrial revolution. And the same is true of the history of sugar. Ultimately it was the evolution and combining of these two once-exclusive products that changed chocolate from an expensive, rare commodity for a small elite class to an affordable, mass-producible snack for the everyday citizen of the industrialised world.

Chocolate finds its origin in the cacao tree, or theobroma cacao, literally “food of the gods, cacao,” as it was named by Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus.1 However, the word cacao had been used, as had the fruits and the seeds within, since long before Linnaeus encountered the species. Traces of cacao have been discovered on pottery dating as far back as 3,300 B.C. in Zamora Chinchipe, Ecuador,2 almost five thousand years before contact between Europe and Mesoamerica began. When Europeans first encountered cacao at the beginning of the sixteenth century, cacao was used as currency and consumed as a beverage by the ruling class of the Aztec empire. The drinking chocolate travelled first to the royal courts of Spain and then spread to the other major powers in Europe including, Italy, France, and England.  Drinking chocolate prevailed until the middle of the nineteenth century when solid chocolate was first produced for widespread sale.

Köhler's_Medizinal-Pflanzen_in_naturgetreuen_Abbildungen_mit_kurz_erläuterndem_Texte_(Plate_157_II)_(8232806778)

Sugar has been known in Europe since long before cacao. Cultivated into its crystallized form in India as far back as 500 A.D.,3 and spread through the Arabic conquests of the eighth century, it was and remained “a luxury, a medicine, and a spice”4 until the seventeenth century. With the discovery and conquering of the West Indies, Europeans colonialists began to cultivate and mass-produce the luxury items – cacao, tobacco, coffee, rum, tea, and sugar – that would dramatically change the economies of the world forever.

By the nineteenth century sugar had a become a necessity of British daily life. And it was during this century that Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes Van Houten invented a machine that would lead to the ability to produce chocolate in its solid form. Van Houten’s hydraulic press separated the fat, cacao butter, from the cacao beans, leaving behind a powder we call cocoa.5 The British Fry family, who had been producing and selling drinking chocolate since the eighteenth century, discovered that by remixing this cocoa with the butter and adding sugar, a liquid that would harden could be made, and the first real chocolate bar was born.6

Frys_five_boys_milk_chocolate

It should be stated that none of the major producers of solid chocolate who would come to dominate the market were the first to think to sweeten cacao for consumption. Adding honey to sweeten drinking chocolate had been commonplace in Mesoamerica before the arrival of the Spanish, and drinking chocolate recipes enjoyed by the aristocracy in Europe pervasively contained sugar. The change that took place that would significantly spread the consumption of chocolate was the pronounced increased, first, in the consumption of sugar. According to Sidney W. Mintz’s estimates, between 1800 and 1890 world production shot from approximately two-hundred and forty-five thousand tonnes of sugar to over six million, and he writes, “there is no doubt that the sucrose consumption of the poorer classes in the United Kingdom came to exceed that of the wealthier classes after 1850.”7 This transformative period in sugar production and consumption paired with Van Houten’s machine, which meant for easier and cheaper production of higher quality cacao powder and butter, set the stage for the mass-production and consumption of chocolate.

Hershey's_Kisses_and_Cherry_Cordial_Creme_Kisses

The public’s insatiable appetite for sugar has meant that chocolate production can be much cheaper, as the most expensive ingredient, cacao, can be used in less quantity. A good example of this is the enormously successful Hershey’s kiss that is just eleven percent cocoa and over fifty percent sugar.8 And the mass-production ideology that came with the industrial revolution led to astonishing manufacturing achievements. A good example of this is the lettering machine at the M&M factory that is able to print the M’s on M&M’s at, “200,000 M&M’s a minute, or 100 million M&M’s every eight hours:”9 needless to say, a far cry from the time-consuming procedure to make the drinking chocolate that was enjoyed by Mayans, Aztecs, and European “nobility” for the centuries and millennia prior. That milk chocolate can be legally called as such with just 10% cacao content has meant a form of chocolate can be made, and therefore bought and eaten, cheaply and regularly across class lines. So while there is debate as to the health effects of cheap chocolate and ethical concerns of cheaply sourced cacao, the “food of the gods” is now available to all mortals. And thank god for that.

 

Works Cited

 

  1. Presilla, Maricel. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press. Page 5
  2. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-22733002
  3. Mintz, Sidney W. 1985. Sweetness and Power: the Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin. Page 23
  4. Page 30
  5. Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. 1996. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson. Page 234
  6. Page 241
  7. Page 143
  8. Martin, Carla D. “The rise of big chocolate and race for the global market.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 3/7/18, Class Lecture
  9. Brenner, Joel. 2000. The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars. Page 185

A Salute to Chocolate

Endurance to Diplomacy: Highlights of Chocolate in the Military

Chocolate is enjoyed worldwide by both children and adults and its popularity continues to grow. A recent report by Technavio valued the global chocolate market at $105.56 billion with an estimated value of 137.12 billion in 2021.[1] With these earnings, chocolate is truly the “food of the [shareholder] gods.”

Setting market success aside, chocolate is a unique fruit that contains theobromine, caffeine, and cocoa butter (fat), which can provide a needed energy boost, stave off hunger, and it is less likely to spoil on long journeys. These qualities make chocolate practical for many uses. One use probably not at the forefront of everyone’s mind, is military use, which has its roots in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.

Map of Mesoamerica highlighting Mayan and Aztec empires
Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica (partial view). Highlighting Mayan influence and Aztec empire. (1994 Encyclopedia Britannica)
Statuette of Mayan with cacao pods on uniform
Cacao pods dangle from this Mayan warrior or Mayan athlete? Academic debate continues on this Mayan’s identity. Either way, he would benefit from cacao’s energy boosting and fortifying properties. (Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, Class Lecture 2)

The people of Mesoamerica may not have known the scientific reasons why their chocolate, or cacao, gave them energy or satisfied their hunger, but they were certainly aware of these benefits. Chocolate was a common ration for both Mayan and Aztec warriors. Although the Aztecs limited their chocolate consumption to the elite, their soldiers were allowed to partake. Ground cacao could be made into small wafers for easier travel and remote preparation.[2] Chocolate use, among Mayans, was more democratized and consumed along many classes for rituals, medicinal, and social occasions. Mayan soldiers too carried chocolate into battle.[3] Flexible and fortifying, chocolate provided a handy fix to fight hunger, or an opponent, for soldiers in Mesoamerica as for those in North America.

In 1757, 1,200 French and Indian forces were preparing for battle from Fort Carillon (then Fort Ticonderoga) in New York state. The officers issued an additional “two pounds of chocolate,” to energize the troops.[4] Twenty years later at that very fort, chocolate continued to fortify. During the American Revolution, young Captain Moses Greenleaf noted in his diary that he had hot chocolate when he first arrived at Fort Ticonderoga in the spring of 1777.[5] That summer, when he and his small army were ordered to evacuation the fort, he ate chocolate dinner and breakfast to strengthen him on “as fatigueing [sic] aa March as ever known.”[6] In additional to fortifying soldiers, chocolate’s popularity was also due to its perceived health benefits.

General Grant sits atop of horse in front of Union Army camp
Composite showing General Ulysses S. Grant at City Point during Civil War. Close quarters like these, for long periods of time, could create unsanitary conditions. (Image Library of Congress)

During the Civil War unsanitary field conditions and malnutrition claimed more lives than battle. Concerned with this growing public health crisis, The United States Sanitary Commission (USSC), purchased more than $20,000 pounds of chocolate during the Civil War from the Baker Chocolate Company. The USSC believed chocolate had nutritional and healing properties and served it to wounded soldiers to improve their health. [8] In 1864, Dr. E. Donnelly, a field surgeon wrote the Baker Company with this endorsement “a chocolate should be made to keep in a powdered condition, not too sweet, and free from all husks or other irritating substances. Chocolate … would be much more nutritious than coffee, not so irritating to the bowels.” [9] The Baker Company would later show their patriotism through chocolate.

During World War I, the Baker Company would stamp chocolate with the initials “W.T.W” (Win The War).[10] A warm sentiment that would reach Allied soldiers around the world, forming strong bonds with them. This is just one example of chocolate diplomacy.

Berlin Airlift, Lt. Halverson, Chocolate Flyer
Miniature parachutes can be seen dropping from Halvorsen’s C-54 as he brings the plane in for a landing at Tempelhof. (Image Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum)

Another example of chocolate diplomacy against a backdrop of hardship and despair comes in post World War II Germany. Berlin was split between the U.S. and its Allies (West Germany) and the Soviets (East Germany). In 1948 the Soviet Union sought to control all of Berlin and closed it off in hopes of starving out West Berliners. For over a year, Allied forces provided daily airdrops of provisions to West Berliners. One the most popular pilots was Lieutenant Gail S. Halvorsen, better known as the “the Chocolate Flyer.” Inspired by meeting the children of Berlin and their shy demeanor, Halvorsen wrapped candy bars and gum into little packages, then dropped them to the awaiting children. As Halvorsen explains “Day by day the crowd of kids waiting for the drop got bigger, and day by day my supply of handkerchiefs, old shirts, GI sheets, and old shorts, all of which I use for parachutes, gets smaller.”[11] The chocolate drops would be repeated many times after Halverson left Germany. The Operation was covered by the International press displaying Allied forces in a positive light on the world stage.

On the heels of World War II and at the start of the Cold War, chocolate was able to perform yet another service – publicity.  For centuries, chocolate has been serving the military on many levels. From fortification to diplomacy; energy to encouragement; now publicity and propaganda, chocolate continues to serve.

Works Cited

[1] Business Wire. Technavio. Top 6 Vendors in the Global Chocolate Market from 2017 to 2021: Technavio. June 28, 2017. Web. March 4, 2018. https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20170628005998/en/Top-6-Vendors-Global-Chocolate-Market-2017

[2] Coe, Sophie D.. The True History of Chocolate (Kindle Locations 1372-1373). Thames & Hudson. Kindle Edition.

[3] Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerican and the “food of the gods”. Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. Jan. 31, 2018. Class Lecture 2.

[4] Grivetti, Louis E.; Shapiro, Howard-Yana. Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage (Kindle Locations 15908-15911). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

[5] Ibid. (Kindle Location 15887).

[6] Ibid. (Kindle Location 16244).

[7] Ibid. (Kindle Locations 12681-12682).

[8] Ibid. (Kindle Location 14089).

[9] Ibid. (Kindle Locations 14093-14094).

[10] Ibid. (Kindle Location 14212).

[11] Giangreco, D.M. and Griffin, Robert E. The Berlin Crisis of 1948, its Origins and Aftermath. Presidio Press. New York. Excerpts Published by Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum. Web. March 8, 2018. https://www.trumanlibrary.org/whistlestop/BERLIN_A/CHOCOLAT.HTM

To chokola’j – Chocolate’s History as a Connector of People

The word “chocolate” potentially traces its etymological roots back to the Quiché Mayan verb chokola’j –  translated “to drink chocolate together” (Coe and Coe 118). While there remains debate over the exact origins of the word, there is no question the processed seeds from the fruit of the theobroma cacao tree that we now call chocolate or cacao has been a unique connector of individuals, groups, and cultures throughout its history. By examining the historical record: Depictions of ancient Maya and Mixtec marriage ritual, vessels from the ancestral Pueblo of North America, and paintings portraying New England and British chocolate houses of the 1600s and 1700s, we will see chocolate’s historical significance as a connector of people.

While the first evidence of chocolate cultivation traces back to the Mokoya and Olmec of early Mesoamerica, it was through the Maya (250 CE to 900 CE) and Mixtec (1000 CE to 1500 CE), where we first see chocolate’s significance as a social connector of individuals and families particularly through marriage ceremony (Presilla 10-11). The first example of cacao’s centrality to marriage can be seen through a Maya ritual called tac haa, roughly translated “to serve chocolate”.  In this ritual, the family of the groom-to-be would “invite the father of a girl whom one’s son wants to marry to discuss the marriage and serve him (chocolate) drink” (Martin “Mesoamerica”). The image below illustrates the communal and ritualistic aspects of the marriage ceremony with a vessel of chocolate clearly at the center.

tac haa
A vessel of chocolate at the center of the marriage ceremony of “tac haa”, illustrating chocolate’s centrality in bringing individuals and families together in Maya culture (Martin “Mesoamerica”).

The next example recorded from the Codex Zouche-Nuttal shows the Mixtec marriage of Lord Eight Deer and Lady Thirteen Serpent (1051 CE) (Dreiss and Greenhill 64). Lady Serpent holds a cup of chocolate with two hands offering it to Lord Eight Deer as a gesture to cement their marriage union.

LordEightDeerandLadySerpent
From the Codex Zouche-Nuttal, Lady Thirteen Serpent offering Lord Eight Deer a cup of chocolate to seal the marriage union in Mixtec society (1051 CE) (Martin “Mesoamerica”).

A similar example from the Chol Maya elevates the cacao bean itself as a key element of the marriage union. As described by Eric Thompson:

The form of marriage is: the bride gives the bridegroom a small stool painted in colors, and also gives him five grains of cacao, and says to him “These I give thee as a sign that I accept thee as my husband.” And he also gives her some new skirts and another five grains of cacao, saying the same thing. (Coe and Coe 61)

It is clear through the examination of these Maya and Mixtec artifacts that cacao was essential in knitting together the fabric of early Mesoamerican families and society. As we travel north, we will next examine ancient Pueblo artifacts discovered in pre-colonial New Mexico and Utah that suggest the surprisingly early presence of cacao in North America.

Until very recently, it was thought there was very little interaction between the Maya of Mesoamerica and the Pueblo of southwestern North America but recent chocolate research suggests otherwise. These two cultures may have been more interconnected than ever imagined – with chocolate being at the center of this cultural exchange (Haederle).  In 2009, University of New Mexico researcher Patricia Crown observed similarities between drinking vessels found at the historic Pueblo site of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico (1000 – 1125 CE) and those used in Maya ceremony (Crown and Hurst). Crown turned to W. Jeffrey Hurst, a chemist for the Hershey Company, to test for the possibility of cacao residue on the Chaco Canyon vessels. Hurst tested five shards of pottery, three of which confirmed the presence of theobromine – a biomarker unique to cacao (Crown and Hurst).

f1-large
The presence of theobromine found on vessels from Chaco Canyon, New Mexico suggesting Maya and Pueblo relationship through trade of chocolate (Crown and Hurst).

Building on Crown and Hurst’s findings, in 2016 University of Pennsylvania researcher Dorothy Washburn examined pottery fragments originating from another historic Pueblo site located at Blanding, Utah. The vessel fragments tested also returned strong traces of theobromine, pushing the potential timeline for Maya and Pueblo interaction back 300-400 years to around 750 CE (Mozdy).

Chaco Canyon Map
Distribution of cacao cultivation in Central America showing closest major areas of production 1,200 miles from Chaco, Canyon, New Mexico CE 1502 (Crown and Hurst).

Considering the closest cacao source at that time was 1,200-1,400 miles away in Mesoamerica, these findings suggest the incredible lengths at which cacao traveled north. Says Crown of the New Mexico findings, “The only way for this material to get [to New Mexico] is [that] either people from Chaco walked down to get it, or it was traded hand to hand from Mesoamerica to Chaco, or people from Mesoamerica came up and traded it” (Haederle). The great distances a delicacy like cacao traveled and exchanged hands between the Maya and Pueblo elucidates chocolate’s connectivity and its social impact. From the ancient Pueblo culture of the southwest, we move next to New England and Britain of the 1600s and 1700s where we find paintings depicting coffee and chocolate houses as a forum for the vibrant exchange of ideas.

In both Boston and London, coffee and chocolate houses were at the center of political and cultural life where men of the emerging merchant class would “gather to discuss the news of the day and dangerous ideas like democracy or things that threatened the political elite of the time” (Martin “Introduction”). In Boston, we find the establishment of the first North American coffee and chocolate house as a political declaration in and of itself. Two women, Dorothy Jones and Jane Barnard, successfully petitioned the city “to keepe a house of publique Entertainment for the selling of Cofffee and Chucaloette” (Martin “Introduction”). In London, members of nascent political parties would often gather at these houses and would eventually turn them into a virtual headquarters (Coe and Coe 223). These establishments were so threatening, King Charles II attempted to shut them down calling them “hotbeds of sedition” (Coe and Coe 167). However, equally reflective of the social position these houses had come to have in British society, public outcry prevented their suppression and they continued to grow in importance.

interior_of_a_london_coffee-house_17th_century
17th Century painting underscoring the significance of coffee and chocolate houses as forums for political and cultural exchange (Wikimedia Commons).

In the 1600s and 1700s of New England and Britain, we see chocolate’s fundamental role in society as a reason for communal and political gathering and the debate of important ideas, not unlike the role coffee houses serve today.

Through examining the historical record depicting Maya and Mixtec marriage ritual, ancient vessels found in Pueblo North America, and images portraying coffee and chocolate houses in Boston and London, we see chocolate’s importance in binding together individuals and families, bridging different groups and cultures thousands of miles away, and serving as a reason for people to come together to discuss the important issues of the day. Reverberating from chocolate’s communal past is perhaps a paradigm to best view chocolate’s current social, economic, and environmental sustainability challenges. To chokola’j – to bring together disparate individuals and groups to have meaningful discussion and debate over the important issues surrounding chocolate itself – is perhaps the vessel we drink to in order to secure chocolate’s sustainable future.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. Thames & Hudson Ltd: London, 2013. Print.

Crown, Patricia L., and W. Jeffrey Hurst. “The distribution of cacao cultivation in Central America and Mexico in A.D. 1502, relative to Chaco Canyon” Digital Image. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Sciences, 17 Feb. 2009, www.pnas.org/content/106/7/2110. Accessed 28 Feb 2018

Crown, Patricia L., and W. Jeffrey Hurst. “Evidence of Cacao Use in the Prehispanic American Southwest.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Sciences, 17 Feb. 2009, www.pnas.org/content/106/7/2110. Accessed 28 Feb 2018

Dreiss, Meredith L. and Greenhill, Sharon E. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 2008. Print.

Haederle, Michael. “Mystery of Ancient Pueblo Jars Is Solved.” New York Times, 3 Feb. 2009, www.nytimes.com/2009/02/04/us/04cocoa.html. Accessed 1 Mar 2018

Martin, Carla D. “Introduction.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 24 Jan. 2018. Class Lecture.

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 31 Jan. 2018. Class Lecture.

Mozdy, Michael. “Utah’s Ancient Cacao: A Surprising Find.” Natural History Museum of Utah, University of Utah, 4 Aug. 2016, nhmu.utah.edu/blog/2016/08/04/utah%E2%80%99s-ancient-cacao-surprising-find. Accessed 02 Mar 2018

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

Unknown. Artist “Interior of a London Coffee-house, 17th century”. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons. 01 Mar. 2018 http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~sajamato/description.html