Tag Archives: Mayan

From Earthy to Elegant: The Evolution of the Chocolate Pot


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

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

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


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

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



Cylindrical jar from Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon.

Credit: James Garber

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

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

18th Century silver British chocolatière

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

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

Chocolate Pot

Early 18th century silver chocolate pot 

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

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

                 Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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








Chocolate: A ritual unlike any other

Chocolate, the apparently simple food actually has a very rich and complex history. It is believed that it originated at the time of the first Mesoamerican civilizations and it played a very important role. That role has changed considerably over time, but today chocolate still plays an essential part of everyday life and it has become a tradition and ritual in many holidays.

Even though some researchers haven’t been able to find the exact time period of the beginning of chocolate consumption, it is widely believed that it commenced during the Olmec civilization, almost 4 millennia ago. This was confirmed by archeologists from the University of Pennsylvania who in 2008 announced that they found “ceramic vessels with residue traces of theobromine” in the sites of El Manatí and San Lorenzo (Andrei 2015). However, there is very limited direct evidence on the use of cacao in Mesoamerica until the later Mayan and Aztec civilizations.

Mayan vessel portraying a Cacao Tree

The beliefs and uses of chocolate then were significantly different to those today. The sweet, warm, liquid beverage we enjoy today is not what it was like during that time since they didn’t have access to ingredients like sugar. The Mayans prepared the drink in liquid form “seasoned with chili peppers and cornmeal, transferring the mixture repeatedly between pots until the top was covered with a thick foam” and it was mostly consumed by their Kings, nobleman, and newly married couples (Andrei 2015). Moreover, the Mayans also used chocolate for ritualistic purposes and for medicinal use. The Mayans frequently combined blood and chocolate as offerings for their Gods and had different chocolate recipes for different rituals. It is even believed that they had a Cacao God or Goddess. Furthermore, chocolate was credited with “curative properties – everything from reducing fever to helping clean the teeth was attributed to the cacao wonder” (Andrei 2015). Overall, chocolate played a very important role in the Mayan civilization and chocolate is portrayed in many Mayan texts, vessels, murals, and other types of art.

Chocolate might have played an even bigger role in the Aztec civilization because they did not only love chocolate, but they also had challenges acquiring it. Even though, the Aztecs believed that chocolate drinks were intoxicating and, as a result, did not allow women and children to consume it, their “nobility and male soldiers loved chocolate… It was served as a beverage only to adult males, specifically priests, government officials, military officers, distinguished warriors, and sometimes to the bravest enemy captives before sacrifice” (Grivetti 2005).  The difficulty in obtaining chocolate – because it did not grow around the highlands of Tenochtitlan – also added value and importance to cacao. It was so precious that the Aztecs even used it as currency and imposed taxes in the form of cacao to people they conquered. According to Sophie and Michael Coe, “a single cacao bean would buy one large tomato; three beans, a newly picked avocado; 30 beans, a rabbit; and 200 beans, a turkey” (Coe 1996). Additionally, like the Mayans, chocolate for the Aztecs had a religious importance. “In Aztec ritual, cacao was a metaphor for the heart torn out in sacrifice – the seeds inside the pod were thought to be like blood spilling out of the human body. Chocolate drinks were sometimes dyed blood-red with annatto to underline the point” (Henry 2009). With regards to the preparation process it was mostly similar to the Mayans, however the Aztecs had their chocolate drink cold, whereas the Mayans warm.






There are a lot of similarities in the importance of cacao culturally and religiously in the Aztec and Mayan civilizations. Today, chocolate is not seen as divine and important as it was back then, however, there is an argument to make that culture and tradition are important factors in the consumption of chocolate nowadays. Technology has played a role in accelerating the production of chocolate and significant labor is not required anymore. As a result, chocolate has globalized and it is accessible in every part of the world. This has led to significant changes in the customs and beliefs throughout time.

The way chocolate is consumed today is very different than it was hundreds of years ago. The production of this product has increased dramatically and now it is accessible and consumed in many different shape and forms. Chocolate is eatable in bars, liquid, and could achieve almost any form. There are chocolate factories that have statues of many different things and objects that are made of chocolate.








The most common uses for chocolate today are as dessert, reward, or gift. Eating sweet chocolate tends to put people in a better mood and provides them with energy. The taste gives many people incredible satisfaction which is why they use it for a wide variety of desserts. Once they accomplish their set goal they will reward themselves with a chocolate treat. Chocolate has also become one of the best and most common gifts people give during special occasions and holidays. For example, for many people, Valentine’s day wouldn’t feel right without giving chocolate as a gift to my significant other.

Chocolate has transitioned from divine in ancient civilizations to part of our everyday life today. However, there is still a ritual factor involved when consuming chocolate currently. No longer does it involve sacrifices or blood, but rather satisfaction, pleasure, and reward. People have many different uses for cacao, however the presence of a ritual is still involved at times. In my case this is during Valentine’s and when I visit my grandmother who makes a delicious homemade hot chocolate. For others it is during their birthday, Halloween, or Christmas, but the tradition continues.

Works Cited

Andrei, Mihai. “Chocolate History: The Early Days, Mesoamericans, Culture and Rituals. “ZME    Science. N.p., 13 Aug. (2015).

Champurrado (Mexican Hot Chocolate). Dir. Tastemade. Youtube, 10 Dec. 2012. Web.     <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oKCVI9fbdzA&gt;.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. “The True History of Chocolate.” (1996).

Grivetti, Louis E. “From aphrodisiac to health food: A cultural history of chocolate.” (2005).

Henry, Diana. “Aztecs and Cacao: The Bittersweet past of Chocolate.” The Telegraph. Telegraph   Media Group, 15 Sept. (2009).

Hunt, Patrick. Maya and Aztec Chocolate History and Antecedents. Digital image. Food History.   Electrum Magazine, 01 Apr. 2013. Web.

McDonald, James. “Why Do We Love To Eat Chocolate?” Food Guide. Street Directory, n.d.   Web.

Oliver, Thomas. A Chocolate Love Affair. Digital image. Eye on Spain. N.p., n.d. Web.

O’Neil, Megan E. Chocolate, Food of the Gods, in Maya Art. Digital image. LACMA. LACMA,     27 Oct. 2016. Web.

The Globalization of Chocolate Meriem Abid. Digital image. Infograph. Venngage, n.d. Web.


Chocolate: Medicine’s Gateway into Society

Chocolate has elicited interest as a possible medicine across time for early Mesoamericans to Renaissance Europeans to modern Americans. Renaissance Europeans, desperate for medical solutions, attempted to fit chocolate into their rudimentary medical theory and touted it as a cure for a wide array of maladies. A medicinal framing of chocolate facilitated its journey to Europe where it expanded its influence into culture. Despite continued debate, chocolate’s medical potential opened a gateway that allowed chocolate to enter and become largely accepted in European society. This interest and debate continues with a modern resurgence of interest in chocolate as medicine. Today researchers investigate the health benefits of chocolate while health bloggers proliferate their own sometimes exaggerated perspectives.

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Chocolate held spiritual and monetary value for the Mayan and Aztec peoples of Mesoamerica. However, it also fit into their medical theory. Mesoamericans believed disease and illness was born from imbalances of hot and cold. The Florentine Codex of 1590, created by a Spanish priest, noted that Mesoamericans drank chocolate to ease stomach pain and cure infections. It also played a role in treating diarrhea, fevers, and coughs (Dillinger, et al).

Europeans had a framework for understanding illness that traces back to the ancient Greek “Humoral Theory of Disease and Nutrition.” This theory holds that the body contains four humors– wet, dry, hot and cold. Like the Mesoamericans, they believed ill health stemmed from imbalance. In 130 AD Galen advanced the idea that disease could be treated by applying the opposite humor (a hot disease can be cured with a cold medicine, and so on). Europeans like Franciso Hernandez worked to fit chocolate into the medical theory of humors. Hernandez decided that chocolate should be classified as a “cold” drug (Coe & Coe, 122).

The medical potential of chocolate was appealing to Europeans, who were routinely affected by infections, diseases, and plagues for which they had no effective cure. In addition, a medical use provided a convenient rationale for drinking chocolate, for Christian Europeans were suspicious of substances like chocolate, coffee and tea that might  “upset moral behaviors” because of their “amorous properties and exciting effects” (Lippi). As a result, chocolate entered Europe cloaked as medicine that fit into the humoral theory of disease. However, like many other “drugs” such as coffee and tea, its role transformed into one of recreation. (Coe & Coe, 126). Doctors in each country debated its virtues and drawbacks while chocolate continued to develop a cultural role.

Chocolate began its European journeys in the Spanish court in the 17th century.  Marie de Villars, wife of the French ambassador to Spain, provides evidence that the elite believed in the health benefits of chocolate. De Villars writes “I observe my chocolate diet, to which I believe I owe my health…” (Coe & Coe).  Chocolate transformed into a drink that conveyed elite status and became common in the Spanish court. Chocolate likely entered Italy, France and England as medicine as well. Bonaventure d’ Argonne wrote that “…the Cardinal of Lyon was the first in France to use this drug… he uses it to moderate the vapors of his spleen” (Coe & Coe, 152). Chocolate became popular in French court while physicians continued to debate its medical properties. When chocolate arrived in England, a newspaper advertisement from 1659 claims that chocolate “cures and preserves the body of many diseases” (165). In England, chocolate expanded its cultural role beyond just the elite, as it was served to commoners in coffee houses. However, the popular chocolate drink, which was mixed with sugar, arose medical suspicions. Martin Lister wrote that after taking chocolate, “your Stomach is faint, craving and feels hollow and empty… it wears it [the gut] out.” Dr. Henry Stubbes felt that chocolate on its own was healthy, but the added sugar was not (170).

sugar-485045_960_720Like Henry Stubbes, modern people also do not view chocolate as healthy because it is associated with sugar, and awareness of sugar’s negative health impacts has grown in recent years. In the 2016 Huffington Post article “Sugar is Not Only a Drug, but a Poison Too” author David Samadi explains that “Too much sugar is harmful to the body and promotes inflammation and disease” and “sugar consumption is also a ma
jor risk factor for the development of other health conditions such as obesity and heart disease.”

Read more here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-david-samadi/sugar-is-not-only-a-drug-but-a-poison-too_b_8918630.html

The popular food blogger known as “The Food Babe” criticizes our modern chocolate for additives beyond just sugar. She shares concerns about the negative health impacts of corn syrup, trans fats, and artificial flavors and preservatives.

urlSee The Food Babe’s perspective here: http://foodbabe.com/2012/10/31/getting-conned-cheap-toxic-chocolate/

With negative attention like this in the media, it is easy to see why chocolate is perceived as unhealthy. However, modern medical researchers have renewed interest in the health benefits of chocolate as a stand alone ingredient, unadulterated by sugar and additives.

In 2011, researchers studied the heart health of 4970 participants aged 25-93 and recorded their chocolate intake. They found that participants who consumed chocolate had a decreased risk for coronary heart disease (Djousse, et al). Another 2011 study assessed other studies of chocolate and heart health. These researchers found that five out of seven studies showed chocolate to correlate with heart health. The most significant finding was that chocolate was associated with a 37% reduction in heart disease (Buitrago-Lopez, et al).

Read the studies here:



Medical research has revealed benefits beyond heart health as well. In 2013, a study revealed that polyphenols in chocolate correlate to positive mood. Participants who consumed chocolate reported an increase in calmness and contentment (Pase, et al).

Read the study here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23364814

Health bloggers and news sites often pick up on these research studies and present them for the average reader. However, their articles often simplify or exaggerate the health benefits of chocolate, and fail to clearly explain the meaning of recent research.

Check out these examples:




These articles sound encouraging, but Harvard Women’s Health Watch reminds us to remain skeptical because “while some observational studies have linked chocolate consumption to reductions in heart disease and dementia, they don’t establish a cause-and-effect relationship” (Is Chocolate Really a Health Food?). Further research is needed to confirm that the antioxidants in chocolate are truly protecting us against disease.

See the article here: http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthy-eating/is-chocolate-really-a-health-food

Chocolate originally crossed the ocean to Europe as medicine, allowing it to overcome Christian suspicions around the moral permissibility of such an “exciting” drink. In Spain, Italy and France chocolate became a recreational drink for the elite and in England it expanded its reach to the common people. Chocolate’s recreational role eclipsed its medicinal and chocolate became commonplace in Western culture as a dessert; however, the debate over chocolate’s medical value never disappeared. Today we are witnessing a rebirth of curiosity in chocolate as medicine, as modern researchers aim to use scientific method to confirm what we all hope– that chocolate is more than just a delicious treat, but a healthy one too!

Work Cited

Buitrago-Lopez, et al. “Chocolate Consumption and Cardiometabolic Disorders: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.” BMJ (Clinical Research Ed.). U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2011. Web. 04 Mar. 2017.

Dillinger, et al. “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate.” American Society for Nutritional Sciences. 2000. Web.

Djousse, et al. “Chocolate Consumption Is Inversely Associated with Prevalent Coronary Heart Disease: The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Family Heart Study.” Clinical Nutrition. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2011. Web. 04 Mar. 2017.

“Is Chocolate Really a Health Food?” Harvard Health Publications. Harvard Medical School, Sept. 2015. Web. 04 Mar. 2017.

Lippi, Donatella. Nutrients. May 2013. Web.

Pase, et al. “Cocoa Polyphenols Enhance Positive Mood States but Not Cognitive Performance: A Randomized, Placebo-controlled Trial.” Journal of Psychopharmacology. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2013. Web. 04 Mar. 2017.

Sophie D. Coe & Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 1996.

Invasion of Gods Through Pods and People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mayans and the Food of the Gods

For most of us consumers, it is easy to have a sense of detachment from the origins of the product which we consume, this statement is most applicable in the case of chocolate. It is arguable that the vast majority of chocolate consumers do not know the etymology of chocolate nor do they know it as a Cacao fruit first before its many transformation into chocolate. The word chocolate is said to have come from the Mayan word xocolatl. We have come to be introduced into the world of chocolate thanks to the many works of the meticulous archaeologists who have gone back in time to examine artifacts from regions in Mesoamerica that has helped to pinpoint the introduction of Chocolate into history, the culture, uses and beliefs of this wonderful beverage that came to be known as “food of the gods” (Presilla 5). The more delicate discoveries of chocolate including pre-Columbian recipes, uses and beliefs stems out of the Mayan civilization. In Mayan culture chocolate was a highly revered beverage both to the living and the dead and in particular to the Mayan elite. It was of utmost importance in Mayan ritual sacrifices and the use of cacao was also prevalent in Mayan dishes. Today, is a treat that can be afforded by both the rich and the poor, this being the case it is so easy to forget that at one point and especially in Mayan culture chocolate was a treat reserved only for the wealthy and the gods. The Mayan use of chocolate in various ceremonies including in sacred ritual sacrifices, marriage ceremonies, funerals and such makes an astounding case that the association of chocolate as “ the food of the gods” had its influences from the Mayan civilization.
It may be argued that cacao made its first appearance in the Olmec civilization but the Mayans came to domesticate this fruit and provide the vast artifacts that gave room to the study and understanding of chocolate. The area known today as Mesoamerica which spans “between central Mexico and Western Honduras, including all of Guatemala, Belize and El Salvador” (Presilla 8); Is said to be the birth place of the cacao and for the most part, this region has been placed as the sites of Mayan settlement.

Image 1:


The first discovery of Cacao in Mayan culture came from the Dresden codex. This historical artifact is “a type of folding screen book that was discovered as part of Mayan writing collections that preceded the Spanish conquest” (Coe 41). From the scenes in which cacao is depicted in this sacred text, it can be deduced that the Mayans saw cacao as a sacred. Cacao also made another appearance in a “far less artistic Madrid codex and in this text, a young god squats while grasping limbs from a cacao tree. We also see a depiction of gods scattering blood over cacao bloods” (Coe 42). This last scene was the first time the association between human blood and chocolate was made one that would come to mean so much later as we discover about the use of chocolate and blood in sacred sacrifices.

Image 2:

A god holding a vessel with cacao beans.

As it has become apparent, the Mayans highly prized cacao, so much so that it was depicted quite often in the presence of gods. For people who held such reverence for this fruit, how so did they consume it?

We know from “inscriptions deciphered from classic period drinking vessels and funerary offerings” (Presilla 12), that cacao was first consumed as a fruit beverage made from the fruit pulp. Mayan glyphs for “tree fresh cacao, was discovered from the Primary Standard Sequence of the Buena vista vase, from Buena vista del Cayo in Belize” (Presilla 12).
Image 3:

mayan drinking vessel
Classic Mayan drinking Vessel


The most instrumental discovery for archaeologists in understanding the Mayan use of cacao and chocolate came from the discovery of the tombs at Rio Azul. It proved to be a site of countless evidence of the chocolate drinking culture of the Mayans. On one particular person, that of a “middle aged ruler, archaeologists discovered in his tomb an astounding 14 pottery vessels including six cylindrical vases and on some of the vases evidence that they had contained dark liquid was very apparent” (Coe 46). In this particular tomb, evidence of different recipes of chocolate was also found; a drinking vessel containing for “witik cacao and kox cacao” (Coe 46). In these wonderful discoveries, it is well seen that the Mayans even sent of their dead equipped with chocolate beverages to ensure a feast in the afterlife. The Mayans were also credited for popularizing the frothed chocolate beverage which we still enjoy today. In a vase that was discovered and attributed to be made in the “Nakbe area in the 8th century, of the images illustrated, a lady is seen pouring a chocolate drink from one vessel to another. A discovery that proved to be the first time a picture of a chocolate drink was being made and the introduction of the foaming method” (Coe 48).

Image 4:

mayan glyph for cacao
A replica of the vessel found in a tomb at Rio Azul; highlighted next to it is a Mayan glyph for cacao.

To the Mayans, chocolate was a highly prized beverage, one that found its way into various aspects of Mayan culture including, marriage ceremonies, parties, rite to passage ceremonies, burial ceremonies and sacred ritual sacrifices. Although cacao may have first made its appearance in the Olmec civilization, it was not raised to its level of importance until the Mayans came into the picture. That is, the Mayans are responsible for introducing a level of finesse into the making of the beverage we come to know as chocolate today; The Mayans raised chocolate to its status as the “food of the gods”.

Scholarly Sources:
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013(1996). The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames&Hudson.
Presilla, Maricel. 2009. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural &Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Multimedia Sources:
Herrera, Ashleigh. beloit college. 2012. image. 28 february 2016. <https://www.beloit.edu/wright/honors_term_pilot/mayan_vase/&gt;.
http://www.famsi.org/maps/. n.d. 26 February 2016.
Vail, Dr. Gabrielle. Chocolate in Prehispanic Maya Culture. 8 August 2015. 28 february 2016. <http://www.southfloridamuseum.org/TheMuseum/EastGallery/MayaStories/tabid/218/post/chocolate-in-prehispanic-maya-culture/Default.aspx&gt;.
—. The Food of the Gods: Cacao use among the Prehispanic Maya. 1 August 2014. Image. 27 February 2016. <http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/maya/chocolate/cacao-use-among-the-prehispanic-maya&gt;.

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).

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.

Mayan and Aztec Medicinal Use and Benefits of Cacao

Since the discovery of the Theobrama cacao tree (the “food of the gods”), entire civilizations myths and legends, social habits, and religions have been influenced and based upon this fruit bearing tree (Presilla, 11). For the Mayans and the Aztecs, cacao was seen as a divine food, given to them by the gods (Coe and Coe, 18), and its use was widespread within their culture (Presilla, 12). While the Mayans and the Aztecs were perhaps unable to comprehend many of the correlations between the venerated cacao drink and its medicinal effects on a scientific level, the prevalence of cacao and its superiority over other foods in their cultures shows that they had at least a subliminal understanding of its many benefits.

Known medicinal and recreational usages of cacao

Aztec woman pouring a cacao drink. Credit: In public domain.

Cacao contains both theobromine and caffein which both act as stimulants (Judelson et al., 499 & Coe and Coe, 30-31), as such, cacao was seen as refreshing and invigorating substance, and a rich delicacy in Mayan and Aztec cultures. Cacao was held in such high esteem that it was used as a currency (Coe and Coe, 99). However despite its high value, there is evidence that cacao usage was fairly widespread among all the classes (Presilla, 12).


One of the most common usages of cacao was a drink (served hot for the Mayans and cold for the Aztecs) prepared from the dried, fermented, roasted and ground cacao beans (cacao nib). It was a drink favored among the elite, and served at special feasts and ceremonies, both religious and cultural (Presilla, 12).

Along with the elite, warriors would also partake of the cacao drink before entering battle, and carry additional cacao with their armor so that they might regain their energy during a battle (Martin, 51).

Depiction of a king in warrior garb, who might have drunk cacao before entering battle. Credit: Einsamer Schutze

One of the first European accounts of the invigorating benefits of cacao appeared in the 1500s when a Spanish monk by the name of Bernardino de Sahagun lived among the Aztecs, and recorded the various ways in which they utilized cacao recreationally and medicinally (Lippi, 1101).

Along with cacao’s primary use for its chemical based invigorate properties, it also held a variety of other medicinal uses in mesoamerican cultures, including helping to promote the production of breast milk, as a soothing agent, and even as a snakebite remedy (Wilson and Hurst, 36-37).

Benefits of cacao far beyond their beliefs

Despite their fairly advanced medical beliefs and understanding at the time, and their limited use of cacao medicinally, the widespread use of cacao throughout their culture provided many additional health benefits unbeknownst to their scientists, priests and doctors.

A Mayan skull showing jade inlays performed by a Mayan dentist. Credit: David Dennis

One such area was oral hygiene, which was considered a method of expressing one’s beauty in Mayan and Aztec culture. Mayans and Aztecs ate little sugar, brushed their teeth regularly, and dentists would fill cavities, add inlays, and remove rotten teeth (Mayaincaaztec.com). However along with basic Mayan and Aztec dentistry, recent studies have revealed that the consumption of cacao could have had an effect on oral hygiene, as the cacao bean husk provides natural protection against cavities, similar in function and perhaps surpassing modern day fluoride (Babu, Vivek and Ambika).

Another example is the flavonoids contained in cacao. One such flavonoid, called quercetin, is known to contain antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties (Coe & Coe, 31), which have been shown to  prevent accelerated aging, promote cardiovascular health, and prevent cancer (Lee et al).

In conclusion, the Mayan and Aztecs understood only a very small portion of the beneficial effects their rampant consumption of cacao provided, whose diverse healing properties are only now being uncovered by modern science.

Cited Works:

  • Coe, Sophie D, and Michael D Coe. The True History Of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
  • Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste Of Chocolate. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2001. Print.
  • Judelson, Daniel A. et al. “Effects Of Theobromine And Caffeine On Mood And Vigilance”. Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology 33.4 (2013): 499-506. Web.
  • Martin, Carla. “Chocolate, Culture, And The Politics Of Food”. 2016. Lecture slides.
  • Lippi, Donatella. “Chocolate And Medicine: Dangerous Liaisons?”. Nutrition 25.11-12 (2009): 1100-1103. Web.
  • Wilson, Philip K, and W. Jeffrey Hurst. Chocolate As Medicine. Cambridge, UK: RSC Publishing, 2012. Print.
  • Babu, N. S. Venkatesh, D. K. Vivek, and G. Ambika. “Comparative Evaluation Of Chlorhexidine Mouthrinse Versus Cacao Bean Husk Extract Mouthrinse As Antimicrobial Agents In Children”. Eur Arch Paediatr Dent 12.5 (2011): 245-249. Web.
  • Mayaincaaztec.com,. “Maya Inca Aztec Dentistry”. N.p., 2016. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.
  • Lee, Ki Won et al. “Cocoa Has More Phenolic Phytochemicals And A Higher Antioxidant Capacity Than Teas And Red Wine”. J. Agric. Food Chem. 51.25 (2003): 7292-7295. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

Chocolate: an old mark of a hierarchical society

Though it is common to think that women consume more chocolate than men today, it does not seem to have held true for the Ancient Mayans and Aztecs. This is not because chocolate was less desirable during the third to twelfth centuries CE, in fact, the Ancient Mayans and Aztecs valued chocolate so highly that they considered it a sacred drink1(S. D. Coe and M. D. Coe 18). Chocolate had numerous uses – it was economically useful2, medically beneficial3, religiously and ritually important4, and nutritious5. In addition, it was socially cherished, as cacao was enjoyed in companionship. The exotic chocolate drink was expensive and difficult to make,6 so its enjoyment was confined to the elites (S. D. and M. D. Coe; M. E. Presilla). In artistic works of the Ancient Mayans and Aztecs during the Classic Period, females would often be without cacao. Therefore, the Ancient female Aztecs and Mayans’ lack of chocolate consumption suggests that regular females were generally of a lower social status than regular men and the elite.



The consumption and possession of cacao does not only highlight a binary gender imbalance in the Aztec and Mayan societies, but a more complex hierarchical society amongst different classes and occupations. Gods appear to be at the top of the hierarchical society as they are often seen in possession of cacao.


The Rain God is on The Opossum God’s back and cacao is said to be both of their food.


Meanwhile the Mayan moon goddess IxChel and the Rain God Chac exchange cacao.



As well as the gods, we can infer that royals were of high status because they too were in possession of cacao.

King Palace

The Maya King is in his palace.  Directly underneath the throne his is sitting on is a cylindrical vase for the chocolate drink. 


On the left is Lady Zac-Kuk: the mother of the seventh century Mayan king of Palenque, Pakal the Great. She is portrayed to emerge as a cacao tree.

Though Mayan and Aztec females are generally of lower status, Lady Zac-kuk’s honourable characterisation as a cacao tree, which are considered to be invaluable and sacred, marks her royalty and raises her social status. Therefore, the consumption of chocolate is not the only indication of an elite, but one’s general association with cacao signposts their place in society.



Pochteca Merchants and the Elites

Similarly, though Pochteca merchants7 are not seen consuming cacao, they are still considered among the elite (S. D.and M. D. Coe; M. E. Presilla).


The numerous footprints illustrate the lengthy distance that they travel. And the Pochteca merchants’ bent-over backs portray the difficulty and pain that they endured.

Though their work is labour-intensive, difficult, and painful, they were not considered as slaves. Since their jobs involved transporting scared and luxurious cacao beans, their travels from the Mayans to the Aztecs was highly valued. Therefore, Pochteca merchants were considered as elites because their possession and important affiliation with cacao beans marked them as noble.



While the gods, royalty, and other elites were high up in the hierarchical society because of their respective association with cacao, the Ancient Aztec and Mayan females could have been low down in the hierarchy as they are not seen consuming cacao in artistic works.

Final Mayan Chocolate vessel Illustration

Chocolate is consumed and present at a rite of marriage, as was typical.

In the image above, females are illustrated on the right and are separate from the males. The men are on the left making the decisions and drinking chocolate while the women are without chocolate. The contrast between the two gender’s interaction with chocolate indicate that women are below men in the Mayan and Aztec societies, as men were able to enjoy  the sacred and delightful chocolate drink while women were not.


The gender inequality builds, as not only are the women never seen drinking chocolate, but they are always seen as the makers of the drink. Therefore, they endure the difficult repetitive menial labour without being able to enjoy their labour and reap its rewards. This suggests the presence of a matriarchal society.The gender difference places females at the bottom of the social ladder.


A 750AD scene of a woman pouring chocolate from one vessel to another. This raised the foam which made the chocolate more delicious.



Ancient Aztecs and Mayans from different backgrounds had different interactions with cacao. These interactions could involve consuming, possessing, transporting, and producing cacao, or being characterised by a cacao tree. Each of the Aztecs’ and Mayans’ interactions with cacao give us a signal of the social class they may have fitted into, classes such as gods, royals, nobles, elites, or commoners and ordinary civilians. This suggests that chocolate can be used to highlight the social inequality, imbalance, and hierarchical society that existed in the Aztec and Mayan empire.



The Greek meaning of cacao is “food of the gods”, which is applicable because cacao was thought to be so sacred is was fed to the gods (S. D. Coe and M. D. Coe 18).

Cacao beans could have been considered as a currency, since cacao beans were traded for commodities. For example, according to the Nahualt document in 1545, 200 cacao beans was worth a turkey cock (S. D. and M. D. Coe 99).

3 The Chilam Balam and The Ritual of the Bacams describe cacao’s healthy powers, some of which include healing skin eruptions, fevers and seizures (Martin Lecture slide 68).

Chocolate was drunk at banquets, baptisms, weddings, and burials.

Along with cacao’s medicinal healing powers, drinking chocolate regularly had long term health benefits. Cacao was also considered nutritious because it energised its consumers. Warriors often consumed and wore cacao pods on their amour as they went into battle because cacao was so energising (Martin Lecture slide 51).

Not only are there many steps in the chocolate making process (fermentation, drying, roasting, deshelling/winnowing, and grinding), but the cacao tree itself has many maintenance requirements. The tree can only grow within 20 degrees north and south of the equator, in temperatures above 60°F, and if the whole year is moist  (S. D. and M. D. Coe 19).

Long distance travelling merchants


Picture Sources

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. 2007[1996]. The True History of Chocolate. p44


Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. “The True History of Chocolate.” Thames & Hudson 2007 (1996). 18, 19, 99. Print

Martin, Carla. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food Lecture Slides 2016.” 2016. Slide 68. Retrieved from: https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B_kGt6Sj1X5bYUY0UWg0Y1h2TTA&usp=sharing

Presilla, Maricel E. “The New Taste of Chocolate.” Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009. 1-59. Print.



The Social Value of Chocolate

Chocolate was once very expensive. Almost every store today will offer chocolate right at the counter, at very low costs. But there is a high cost associated with the entire process of making chocolate, which is oftentimes unrealized because it is figured in a social cost. In the course of chocolate’s (un)celebrated history, there have been few periods where chocolate was as inexpensive as it is now, whether the costs are figured in terms of capital, labour, or social currency. As chocolate has become integrated in cultures worldwide, the advance of technology has propelled this shift from a monetary cost towards one that is far more socially punishing. Chocolate’s social value has grown from once being a food for the elite, to being a widely accessible part of the human diet.

To begin at the start of the chocolate-making process, growing cacao is extremely labour intensive. The cacao tree is hard to grow, and requires particular weather conditions that aren’t too sunny, too shady, too cold, or too hot. Cacao is a finicky tree to grow. In the Aztec society, the Aztecs could only obtain cacao beans through the efforts of Pochteca merchants. These merchants carried cacao from the Mayan lowlands to the Aztec highlands, but at great costs because upon arrival they were celebrated with elaborate feasts. (Martin, Feb 4). Simply put, merely obtaining cacao in early Mesoamerican culture was a considerable cost in terms of labour and money.

Once available in the Mesoamerican markets, cacao was valued very highly, to the point where it was a viable form of currency. But chocolate was also appreciated in a social sense – the Mayans had the word “chokola’j”, meaning “to drink chocolate together” (Coe & Coe, 61). The Mayans valued not only chocolate, but the act of drinking with another person. Interestingly enough, in Aztec culture the chocolate drink was also favoured as a social alternative to octli, a “mildly alcoholic” beverage (Coe & Coe, 75). However, chocolate was still “an ambrosia from the rich and exotic lands of Anahuac, not something to wash down one’s food” (Coe & Coe, 95). Thus, chocolate clearly did have a social value early on in its history.

White’s Chocolate House, London, c.1708

That social value grew more prominent once chocolate spread to Europe and was hybridized. Food is inherently a social activity, and chocolate even more so. Chocolate even had social value after it was popularized in Europe. At first, there was still “the association of drinking chocolate with high social standing” (Presilla, 25), but soon the taste for chocolate had spread to the masses. In the 1600s and 1700s, chocolate houses were fashionable places where people could meet their friends to enjoy various rich chocolate drinks, as seen in the image below.

Upcoming Easter themed chocolate from Russell Stover

In today’s society, chocolate is still very much a social activity. We go out for hot chocolate, socialize over the fires making s’mores, and delight in fondue with friends. Chocolate has become so very cheap to buy. Every holiday seems to be accompanied by massive sales of themed chocolate. If you enter a store today, you will undoubtedly find an aisle overflowing with Easter candy.

But even chocolate that is sold at relatively low prices can have high social value, especially in today’s society. We gift chocolate like no other – according to Nielsen research from 2009, consumers were expected to purchase more than $345 million in chocolate candy for Valentine’s Day. That figure shows how much value we place in giving and receiving chocolate, which is not even considered expensive today. We think that chocolate is inherently valuable as a social good, and so we continue to give and get, fueling the industry and our sweet addiction to chocolate.

Works Cited
– Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
– Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. Print.
– Professor Carla Martin. Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. 4 February 2015.
– “U.S. CONSUMERS SHOW THEIR LOVE FOR CHOCOLATE ON VALENTINE’S DAY.” Nielsen. N.p., 02 Apr. 2009. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.

– Easter Sweets. Digital image. Russell Stover. Web.
– White’s Chocolate House, London. Digital image. The Story of Chocolate. National Confectioners Association, n.d. Web.

What is Mayan or Aztec chocolate?

I am proud to say that I contributed to the 58 million pounds of chocolate purchased by Americans last week.

As I browsed rows of beautifully packaged chocolates, I, and probably millions of other shoppers, often came across chocolate bars like this or drink mixes like this. So-called “Mayan” or “Aztec” chocolates, with tantalizing descriptions hearkening back to ancient traditions: “Seductive cinnamon, pasilla chile and warming cayenne bedded in dark chocolate”; “Discover the rich flavors of ancient Mexico!” Time and time again, the terms “Aztec” and “Maya” signified cinnamon, spice, and history.

Fig 1: Chuao Chocolatier’s Spicy Maya chocolate. Chuao makes a variety of bars, each named for its flavorings.

But these descriptions are misleading. While it’s true that the Maya and Aztecs put chilli in their chocolate from the start, it was the Spanish who were the first to begin incorporating cinnamon and black pepper. In terms of both texture and flavor, the chocolate that the Maya and Aztec traditionally enjoyed was a far cry from the stuff sold in most chocolateries today.

Specifically, chemical and hieroglyphic evidence indicates that the Classic Maya (c. 250-900 AD) most often took chocolate as a hot, foamed liquid (Coe & Coe). To prepare these drinks, the Maya would grind roasted cacao nibs, optionally with roasted grains (usually maize) and possibly a plant that acted as a foaming agent, and incorporate hot water. Finally, they would pour the liquid from one vessel at a height into a larger one resting on the ground, causing the chocolate to raise a beautiful foam that they considered the most valuable part of the drink. Sometimes, they incorporated flavorings like vanilla, chilli, or the native ear flower, shown below, which Europeans could only agree was “spicy.”

Fig 2: Ear flower, used throughout Mesoamerica as one of the most popular spices of chocolate. European sources compare the flavor to nutmeg, allspice, black pepper, and cinnamon, among other spices. Perhaps “spicy” is the best way to summarize (Coe & Coe 88).

The Aztecs, who rose in the 1200s and dominated Mexico until the Spanish Conquest in the 1500s, traditionally prepared chocolate very similarly: they too ground cacao multiple times into increasingly finer crumb, and incorporated water and optionally maize, foaming agents, and spices, strained, and poured the mixture from vessel to vessel to create the treasured foam. But in contrast with the hot drinks preferred by the Classic Maya, the Aztecs took chocolate cold or at room temperature. Moreover, the Aztecs incorporated a far larger array of flavorings: honey, green vanilla, achiote or annato, mecaxochitl (string flower), yolloxochitl (heart flower) of the Magnolia genus, the elongated stalk of hoja santa, rose-fragranced izquixochitl (popcorn flower), and allspice, among others, as well as the vanilla, achiote, and ear flower used by the Maya (Coe & Coe 87, Presilla 19).

But with the Conquest, Aztec recipes soon evolved along Spanish tastes. Chocolate in its native Aztec form–dark, bitter, cold, and strangely spiced sludge–seemed “more a drink for pigs” to the sweet-toothed Europeans like Girolamo Benzoni (Coe & Coe 110). Instead, the Spanish began drinking hot chocolate, sweetened with sugar and spiced instead with Old World familiarities such as cinnamon, sugar, or black pepper. By 1569, when Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún completed his Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España documenting all aspects of New Spanish life including chocolate consumption, Aztec peoples had begun to chocolate hot and use Old World spices as well as their traditional New World ones (Presilla 19). Furthermore, to create foam, some Aztecs now whipped air into their drink using a molinillo, a grooved wooden whisk invented by the Spanish settlers, rather than pouring from a height.

In the ensuing decades, these new Spanish influences diffused throughout Mesoamerica. For example, a 17th-century post-Conquest Mayan-Spanish dictionary documents beating to create foam. Yet, the recipes in the dictionary remained highly similar if not identical to the Classic ones: the age-old chacau haa of water and chocolate; saca, a Classic gruel prepared from cooked maize, water, and cacao, and a special-occasion drink called tzune made of cacao and maize, with sapote seeds for foaming (Coe & Coe 61).

Even in the present, The Lacandon Maya of Chiapas, known for their stubborn adherence to tradition, still grind roasted cacao with various plant foaming agents, incorporating water, mixing into corn gruels, and beating with a molinillo to produce the treasured froth—again producing the classic Mesoamerican recipe with a Spanish-originated tool. On the other hand, the contemporary Maya in the highlands of Guatemala have diverged farther from traditional ways. Batido, one of their most popular drinks, uses a teaspoonful of flavored ground cacao paste mixed with hot water, where the paste can contain native flavorings such as vanilla, achiote, or ear flower, as well as Spanish-originated ingredients like sugar, black pepper, cinnamon, rice, or black pepper (Coe & Coe 61-63).

Hence, chocolate flavorings originated by the Maya and Aztec never appear in Euro-American chocolate products, while the flavorings commonly labeled as “Maya” or “Aztec” are certainly not Mayan or Aztec in origin. One could argue that they are Spanish flavors, sometimes used in Mayan or Aztec chocolate recipes, and that “Spicy Spanish” would be a more accurate label for that seductive cinnamon-studded chocolate bar up top. It is not even clear whether it is appropriate to toss around the labels of “Maya” or “Aztec” when discussing most modern-day chocolate bars. The similarity between our sugary solid chocolate and the frothed drinks of the Aztecs and Mayans is their use of ground cacao nibs, but it is neither the Maya nor the Aztec but their ancestors of another millennia before who discovered that brilliant, complex technique of harvesting, fermenting, drying, and roasting cacao for chocolate. As it stands, there is little that is characteristically Mayan or Aztec about our chocolate.

Undoubtedly, many chocolatiers are aware of the history of chocolate yet still choose to market spicy cinnamon-studded bars as Aztec or Mayan at the price of distorting the truth. After all, exotic labels do evoke historical weight, mystery, and excitement. They’re an excellent marketing tactic. Hopefully, they also encourage more people to learn about the history of chocolate, the food of the gods.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2013. London.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.

Multimedia Sources

Fig. 1: http://chuaochocolatier.com/chocolate-bars/bars/spicy-maya.html

Fig. 2: http://www.maya-ethnobotany.org/images-mayan-ethnobotanicals-medicinal-plants-tropical-agriculture-flower-spice-flavoring/cymbopetalum-penduliflorum-orejuela-ear-flower-images.php