Chocolate is arguably the most versatile candy in the United States. From cakes to brownies to fondues, Americans consume chocolate in a multitude of ways. Not only is chocolate extremely versatile, it is one of the most popular forms of candy in America. According to internal sales data examined by candystore.com, last year almost half (eleven to be exact) of the top 25 candies sold on Halloween in the United States were some form of chocolate. (Daily Meal 2018) However, this wasn’t always the case. English-speaking Europeans weren’t very impressed by cocoa beans upon first meeting. In fact, the first English and Dutch sailors to discover cocoa beans on a Spanish treasure ship threw them overboard, confusing the beans with sheep droppings. (Cadbury) So how did chocolate make the transition from sheep droppings to a staple American delicacy that is easily available to anyone? Let’s take a look at its long journey.
Cocoa beans are home to Central and South America, and is speculated to have been a central part of Olmec culture since as far back as 1500 B.C.. (History 2018) The Olmecs passed their knowledge of chocolate on to the Mayans, who primarily used it in drinks to make something most similar to what we know today as hot chocolate. Although cocoa was a central part of Mayan culture, it was available to pretty much everyone in society. The rich and the poor were able to enjoy hot chocolate as a delicacy. However, the Aztecs saw chocolate in a completely different light. To them chocolate was a gift from their gods and was only available to the lower class at celebrations like weddings. Because it came from the gods, chocolate was believed to have divine properties and was used in the most Sacred rituals in Aztec society such as birth, death, marriage and sacrifice. Chocolate was regarded so highly in the culture that Aztec ruler Montezuma II drank gallons of chocolate a day as an energy boost and an aphrodisiac, and also kept cocoa beans reserved for the military should they ever go to war. In Aztec culture, cocoa beans were more valuable than gold, and it is speculated that many European countries were first introduced to chocolate by the Aztecs.
There are differing stories about how and when chocolate first arrived in Europe, however most agree that chocolate arrived in Spain first. The Spanish took the Mayan recipe and added some of their own spices like cinnamon and cane sugar. Soon after arrival, hot chocolate became a popular commodity, and by 1585, Spain was importing chocolate into its ports. As its popularity continued to soar in Spain, simultaneously other European countries were visiting parts of Central America and bringing cocoa beans back to their individual countries. By the 17th century, chocolate was a popular drink throughout much of Europe, though it was reserved for the upper class. Similar to the Mayans and Aztecs, Europeans believed chocolate had medicinal, nutritional and even aphrodisiac properties. Chocolate would remain exclusive to the upper-class until the late 1700s when the steam engine made mass production possible. As imperialism spread to the Americas, chocolate went with it. Chocolate arrived in the British colony Florida in the late 1690s and by 1773 it was available to all people in the American colonies. Like the Aztecs, Americans believed that chocolate was beneficial in war, and thus soldiers were rationed chocolate in the Revolutionary War. In fact, chocolate was so highly regarded, that it was often given to soldiers instead of actual wages.
There were a number of different factors that led to chocolate being able to be mass-produced at an affordable price, and in the different forms that we are familiar with today. First and foremost, Imperialism played a major role in the spread of chocolate. As European countries attempted to conquer the Americas and spread their influence across the world, they came in contact with chocolate. Some historians believe that Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes was the first to discover chocolate when the Aztecs mistook him for a deity and welcomed him with a big feast where they served him large amounts of chocolate. (History 2018) This allowed him to bring the beans back to Spain, and aid in the spread of chocolate across Europe. A major breakthrough occurred in 1828 when a Dutch chemist discovered a way to make chocolate powder. (Fiegl 2008) His discovery paved the way for solid chocolate and the many different forms of chocolate that we are familiar with today. Later in the 1800s companies in Europe and America began making and selling different forms of chocolate candies. For the first time, chocolate became available to consume in different forms to everyone in society. Another breakthrough, and perhaps most important was the creation of the steam engine. Before the steam engine, the process of creating chocolate was still very remedia, and hadn’t improved much from the formula used by the Aztecs. Before the introduction of the steam engine, grinding cacao beans into chocolate was a grueling process done by hand. It was inefficient to say the least. However, the steam engine allowed chocolate makers to make much larger quantities of chocolate. Joseph Storrs Fry was the first to buy a steam engine for chocolate production, and his success inspired others to do the same. (Coe and Coe 2013) As more people began streamlining their chocolate process, the price of chocolate also fell, which allowed all classes of people to enjoy it.
Chocolate has been a major part of Mesoamerican, as well as European history. It has a tumultuous past and is guaranteed to have an interesting future. Chocolate has a place in our lives that we rarely think about, as it had a very important place historically in peoples lives. The preparation of chocolate and its recipes have changed over the years, as I will show later in this post. How we consume and enjoy chocolate is vastly different from how our ancestors and others enjoyed the delicious treat.
Researchers assumed chocolate was used in Mesoamerica first, however new research has found that “cacao was first domesticated around 3,600 years ago- and not in Mesoamerica” (Blakemore, 2018). They looked at nearly 200 cacao plants and found that the plant most likely to be the earliest domesticated cacao plant was the Criollo tree. This tree is usually found in the amazon basin in South America. There is evidence of contact with the Mayo-Chinchipe and people in Ecuador, likely how cacao was transferred to Mesoamerica (Blakemore, 2018). Below is an example of a Criollo Tree:
This domestication and spread of cacao influenced the way we see chocolate today. The Mesoamerican cultures that processed cacao spread that knowledge to Europe, and in return to America.
Historical Recipes of Chocolate Drinks
Historically the hot chocolate drink from Mesoamerica was a bitter beverage, not the sweet one we enjoy today. Mayans typically used the chocolate beverage for celebrations and currency, but it was common to be used and drank by all classes of people. They generally drank it with honey or other natural sweeteners, chili peppers, and they frothed the drink (“History of Chocolate”, 2017).
“Mayans never mixed the cacao bean paste with milk, instead they used hot water; it was the Spaniards in Colonial times that began to add milk, cream, and sugar to the cacao paste to create a soft creamy taste similar to current hot cocoa” (Ancient Mayan Hot Chocolate, n.d.). Their recipe is very similar to the Aztec recipe for the chocolate drink. Below is an example of the Mayan recipe:
3 cups boiling water
1 to 2 cinnamon sticks
8 ounces bittersweet Maya Kakaw or Xocoalt (chocolate paste) or 3 tablets Mexican
unsweetened chocolate, cut into small pieces
2 tablespoons of wild pure honey, or raw sugar to taste
1 pinch of dried red chili (This is what makes the difference so try it!)
In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, add the cinnamon sticks to boiling water. Cook until liquid is reduced to 2 ½ cups. Remove cinnamon sticks; add the vanilla bean and lower the heat a bit, wait until bubbles appear around the edge to reduce heat to low and drop the chocolate pieces and wild pure honey, mix well and whisk occasionally until chocolate is melted. Turn off heat, remove vanilla bean. Whisk vigorously to create a light foam effect, sprinkle the dried chili pepper and serve.
(“Ancient Mayan Hot Chocolate”, n.d.)
Aztecs placed a spiritual connection on cacao and used it as currency as well. The difference was that cacao was reserved primarily for the elite and upper-class. They also liked a bit of spice to their drink (“History of Chocolate”, 2017).
Below is the Princeton Vase from A.D. 670–750 with a woman pouring chocolate back and forth in vase to froth:
In reference to a blog on chocolate, below is a recipe similar to the Aztec drink of xocoatl (the Nahuatl word for cacao):
2 3/4 cups water
1 green chile pepper, sliced
1/8 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
Put 3/4 cup of water and the sliced green chile (including the seeds) in a pot and bring it to boiling. Let it boil for 5-10 mins, so the water really takes on the chile flavor.
Strain it to remove the chile and the seeds, then put the water back in the pot. Add in the other 2 cups of water, put it on medium heat, and bring it to a boil again. As it’s heating up, whisk in the vanilla extract. The vanilla mixed into the pepper water smells really good! I was surprised, I didn’t think it would be very appetizing.
Finally, once it’s boiling, add in the cocoa powder and keep whisking for another 5 minutes or so. You’ll notice the mixture froths easily, but it’s not a very thick froth
Instead of cocoa powder, the most likely ingredient of the time was cacao liquor made from the cacao nibs.
Modern Recipes of Chocolate Drinks
The Lacandon Maya of present times still hold true to many ancient Mayan values. They have a drink they prepare called the Lacandon Sacred Chocolate Drink, made very similarly to the way it was made so long ago. They roast the cacao beans, grind them to a foamy liquid, add water and strain, and then pour into the “god pots” (Coe, 2013).
Below is a video of people recreating a version of the Mesoamerican chocolate drink:
Europeans have changed the recipe to closer to what we know as hot chocolate today, with cane sugar and cinnamon as common ingredients. “In 1829 Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten discovered a way to treat cacao beans with alkaline salts to make a powdered chocolate that was easier to mix with water” (“History of Chocolate”, 2017). This is what helped with the mass production and consumption of chocolate throughout the classes. In the 19th century milk was added to the hot chocolate beverage, and in 1847 they started making the chocolate bar for easier consumption of the treat. It included cocoa butter, chocolate liquor, dried milk and was aerated to give it a sweeter, milkier and smoother taste.
The changes of the chocolate beverage are obvious since ancient Aztec and Mayan times, but the similarities in the way we enjoy this drink are still shared today.
In 2017, consumers in the United States spent over $22 billion on chocolate and ate an average of 12 pounds of chocolate per person. That chocolate is consumed in many forms: mass-market Hershey’s Kisses, melted chocolate covering a strawberry, chocolate powder warmed up with milk to be drunk, or an artisanal cacao bar, just to name a few. Chocolate has become so desirable and pervasive in our society that Kay Jewelers even has a collection of chocolate diamond rings.
In understanding the history of chocolate, it is important to consider early Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Aztecs and Mayans. In the interest of brevity, I will focus exclusively on the Mayan civilization below. My hope is that by examining a traditional Mayan chocolate recipe, and the societal context of chocolate in classical Mayan society, one will better understand both the evolution of chocolate and also Mayan society itself. At the risk of sounding dramatic, chocolate can be an incredibly powerful way of comprehending history.
The Classical Mayan Civilization
I begin with a map of the general location of the Mayan civilization (below). I have chosen to include this map for two reasons. The first is that in understanding Mayan cacao, it is necessary to think about environmental factors that dictate nuances such as the characteristics of the Mayan cacao trees and pods. For instance, cacao can only be grown in certain ranges of latitude, but even within that range, temperature and climate differences dictate the nature of the cacao pods in a given location (Coe and Coe, 2007). But the map is also worth keeping in mind when considering the spatial relation of cacao to other civilizations. From its origin in the Amazon Basin, cacao spread to Mesoamerican civilizations, and gradually to continents far and wide through institutions such as colonialization. In understanding how civilizations engaged with cacao, it is useful to keep a mental image of a map so as to understand how other cultures then created their own cacao recipes as it moved geographically around the world.
Although the so-called classical Mayan era occurred over a millennium ago in the years of 250AD through 800AD, historians have nonetheless been able to piece together aspects of the Mayan civilization through various means: artifacts, linguistics, and written documents, to name a few. Among these methods have been the work of epigraphers such as Yuri Knorosov which has allowed for historians to be able to read texts from the era such as the Dresden Codex (Coe and Coe, 2007). Being able to read books such as the Dresden Codex have in turn shed great insight into how the Mayan civilization engaged with cacao.
Mayan Engagement with Cacao
From the Dresden Codex, for example, historians have been able to conclude that cacao had a place in ritualistic spheres of the Mayan civilization, with descriptions of the gods engaging with cacao (Coe and Coe, 2007). From the Madrid Codex, historians have learned of a powerful connection between human blood and chocolate in Mayan civilization (Coe and Coe, 2007). And from chemical analysis of residue on artifacts, researchers have been able to learn about the vessels through which cacao was enjoyed. While cacao thus held several ‘uses’ of sorts, whether for rituals or consumption, a common misconception is that cacao in Mayan civilization was solely enjoyed in pure form as a drink. Instead, as Coe describes, “pre-Conquest chocolate was not a single concoction to be drunk; it was a vast and complex array of drinks, gruels, porridges, powders, and probably solid substances, to all of which could be added a wide variety of flavorings” (Coe and Coe, 2007, p48). This serves as a nice segue into thinking about a Mayan recipe for cacao.
Mayan Chocolate Recipe
To modern-day Americans, a foodstuff recipe typically consists of a list of ingredients described in precise quantities and orders that result in an end-product ready for consumption. However, the use of the word recipe for the Mayans is much broader (Hull, 2010). From a Mayan recipe for chocolate, we can gather information such as the contexts in which cacao was consumed, the methods of preparation, and characteristics of a society-at-large.
Consider the chocolate recipe of sorts that was deciphered by David Stuart and others. In scenes depicted on vases, we can see the process by which Mayans frothed the chocolate beverage. The very act of frothing the beverage shows us a specific, integral feature of the Mayan chocolate. We concurrently see writings that mention flavorings that were added, such as chilli (Coe and Coe, 2007). The types of ingredients added to cacao help us to imagine flavor profiles of the Mayan diet, but also to then compare to later iterations of chocolate found in countries such as England with high levels of added sugar (Mintz, 1986). Finally, vocabulary related to chocolate are an integral part of the recipe. For instance, the term ‘tac haa’ related to fathers’ of a future married couple meeting and discussing the prospect of a wedding over chocolate (Coe and Coe, 2007). A vital component of the Mayan recipe was thus the social aspect of consumption of chocolate.
The image included below summarizes some of the above components of the recipe. For instance, the depicted drinking cup would be placed on the ground and have chocolate poured into it from an above height for the purposes of frothing. It also has elaborate depictions on the outside of the cup which are one of the many ways that historians and researchers have been able to piece together the very ‘recipes’ of the ancient Maya.
Lessons from the Recipe
A great deal can be learned from what may appear above to be a simple recipe. For instance, we can think about how different recipes reflect the broader nature of a civilization. The Mayan recipe seems to focus on cacao as a social experience rather than a commodity. Sidney Mintz’s observations on how sedentary civilizations over time demand more complex carbohydrates in their diets then allows us to understand how recipes evolved to include more sugar and other such ingredients (Mintz, 1986).
While the classical Mayan civilization may have fallen more than a millennium ago, the idea of Mayan chocolate has been both idealized and profit-ized; it has become synonymous with chocolate from a past era, eliciting feelings of more natural and wholesome cacao. The included National Geographic video (below) for instance, profiles a chocolatier in Guatemala who is claimed in the video to employ a present-day version of Mayan chocolate making. While the authenticity may be disputed, the genuine interest in understanding distant cultures and societies persists nonetheless.
Ultimately, learning about the Mayan recipe has also made me want to be more cognizant of the deliberate choices that are made in the preparation of foodstuff. For instance, it is not only the ingredients that are selected that matter, but also the exacting methods (such as frothing of chocolate for the Mayans) that go into the final presentation.
Coe, S. (2007). The true history of chocolate (Revised [and updated ed.]. ed.). New York: Thames and
Hull, K., Staller, J., &
Carrasco, M. (2010). An Epigraphic Analysis of Classic-Period Maya Foodstuffs.
In Pre-Columbian Foodways: Interdisciplinary
Approaches to Food, Culture, and Markets in Ancient Mesoamerica (pp. 235-256). New York, NY: Springer New
Mintz, S. (1986). Sweetness and power : The place of sugar in modern history. New York: Penguin Books.
In today’s society, chocolate is a well known commodity that many people associate with sweetness and romance. A key ingredient in the making of chocolate is cacao. When people think about chocolate, they think of a sweet treat with European origins from places such as Switzerland. However, many people are often unaware that cacao was believed to be discovered in early Mesoamerican civilizations. These civilizations also had quite a different view of cacao and chocolate than the modern view. They viewed these items as luxury goods given to them by the gods and used them for more than simply eating. Cacao and chocolate were used in religious rituals, marriage rituals, and even used to cure illness. The Mayans viewed chocolate so fondly that they would have a yearly festival to honor the cacao god, Ek Chuah.
Cacao can be traced all the way back to the Mesoamerican civilizations. According to Magnus PharaoHansen, cacao was seen as luxury crop during this time period and it provided theobromine for the nervous system after a labor process of cultivation and processing. This evidence allows us to understand that Mesoamerica was becoming a civilization, moving past the stages of just necessities and creating class division and hierarchy. The image to the right shows vessels with residue of theobromine, which is an ingredient in cacao. This shows us that chocolate was becoming a big attraction in civilizations such as the Olmecs. Other civilizations such as Mayans and Aztecs have records that show a strong presence of cacao and chocolate.Documents such as the Dresden Codex, Madrid Codex, and ParisCodex (shown on the right) were in hieroglyphics and have cacao featured throughout, often being consumed by gods in ritual activities. Evidently, cacao was viewed by the Mesoamerican people as more than just a food item, but rather a sacred item given to them by the gods. According to historian Marcy Norton, cacao was viewed in a religious setting as essential to one’s physical, social, and spiritual well- being. During this time as well, many marriage customs involved the presence of cacao. The Mayan marriage rituals had the husband serve chocolate to the father of the girl he wanted to marry and discuss the marriage. Cacao was also used in customs involved death. The rites of death referred to cacao that was dyed red and helped ease the soul’s journey to the underworld. Cacao was used in beverages, as well, during the time of the Mayans. Chocolate beverages were viewed as sacred drinks with the foam being the most important part of the beverage. The beverages were able to boost energy for people due to the caffeine in the chocolate. Usually, it was men of royalty and elite status who consumed chocolate through beverages, while women and children were not allowed to drink the cacao. This is because they viewed it as an intoxicating food. Eventually, cacao and chocolate were being used for medicinal purposes. In the Mayan civilization, cacao was used for digestion and as an anti- inflammatory. In the Aztec civilization, cacao was used to cure infections and illnesses. As Teresa L. Dillinger states, “Childhood diarrhea was treated with a prescription that used five cacao beans. These were ground and blended with the root of tlayapoloni xiuitl (unknown plant) and then drunk. To relieve fever and faintness the prescription called for 8–10 cacao beans to be ground with dried maize kernels and blended with tlacoxochitl.” (Dillinger et al, 2060S) While the uses for chocolate expanded far beyond social use and pleasure, cacao still had an effect on the social landscape of the Mesoamerican civilizations. The Mayans had words such as “chokola’j”, whichis translated to “to drink chocolate together”. Cacao had quite a special effect on people and played an important role in society and still does to this day.
Clearly, there were many customs and beliefs that the Pre Columbian civilizations had involving chocolate and cacao. The influence chocolate was able to have on these civilizations was immense and impacted their everyday lives. Many aspects of life were changed socially, religiously, and physically. Cacao and chocolate were able to change social interactions and physical treatments of people. People in the Mesoamerican civilizations used chocolate during many marriage, death, and religious rituals. As shown in lecture, foods and beverages such as the one shown on the right, still use the influence of early civilizations in order to sell products. The description of this beverage states, “Recommended served warm (106°), this delicious and relaxing beverage was blended to revive the delicacies and keen insights of the ancient Aztec tribes of Central America. Passed from generation to generation, our take on this blessed drink brings you the sensational benefits of anti-oxidant rich cacao and the powerful digestion aid blend of spices to create a tasty healthful experience.” With this description, we can clearly see how the Mayans and Aztecs views on chocolate still influence the modern global chocolate market. Due to the significance of cacao in the Mesoamerican society, chocolate has played a major role in the lives of many people and continues to have a major influence all over the world.
Hansen, Magnus Pharao. “Cacao: How a Single Word Holds the Key to Understanding the Mesoamerican Past.” Nawatl Scholar, 1 Jan. 1970, nahuatlstudies.blogspot.com/2015/01/cacao-how-contested-history-of-single.html?spref=tw.
Dillinger, Teresa L., et al. “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate.” The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 130, no. 8, 2000, doi:10.1093/jn/130.8.2057s.
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).
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.
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).
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?
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.
The sourcing and production of chocolate had a direct effect on its place in the social hierarchy in different societies and cultures across time. It is possible to see this by going in depth into three chronological time periods in different places in the world where the allure of cacao had spread. By an early exploration of Mayan chocolate production to Venezuelan plantations ending at the discovery of the Cocoa press in the Netherlands.
Mayan Chocolate Making
Mayans revered chocolate, it played an essential role in their stories of origin and cosmology. It was used in burial rites and great ceremonies. Cacao was grown agriculturally by the Mayans 1.
One of the only direct evidence discovered about how Mayans made their chocolate is found in this vessel on the right-hand side which shows a lady pouring chocolate drink from a height into another cup. This was to create the foam that was extremely prized in the Mayan culture; it was thought to be the breath of the Gods.
This Maya Princeton Vase is evidence for the heavy usage and importance of cacao in the Mayan culture. It has engraved hieroglyphics for the word cacao coupled with cosmological depictions.
The Maya had many ways of using Cacao to make food.
Chacau haa – This is hot chocolate drink.
Tzune – This is a mix of cacao, maize and sapote seeds.
Saca– A gruel made from cooked maize, water, and cacao.
The flavoring that was commonly used was vanilla and ‘ear flower’2. These different ways of cooking show a creative and vibrant diversity in the usage of the cacao pod. It is highly developed and adaptable. It shows cacao to be an essential part of the Mayan culture and diet.
The remnants of traditional Mayan way of making chocolate drink are still alive today in certain parts of Mexico among the Mayan communities. This video highlights and explains the traditional ways women make the chocolate drink in these Mayan communities.
This video shows us how labor intensive and time consuming it was to make chocolate drink in the Mayan style. The cacao beans have to shelled, roasted, dried in the sun, ground and after this long process mixed with water ready to be consumed.
Venezuelan Cacao Boom
The high-quality strain of Criollo cacao is native to Venezuela. It started being produced agriculturally at the turn of the seventeenth century. The first recorded shipment is in 1607 from La Guaira to Spain 3. This was under the influence of Hispanic colonization, those working on these plantations were slaves and laborers 4.
Here the cacao was so abundantly grown it was consumed on a regular basis by everybody, from slaves to lords. There were three different styles in consuming the cacao 5.
Cerrero– ( rough and ready, bitter ) This was just plain cacao dissolved in water with no added flavorings or sweeteners. It was widely drunk by people in the interiors.
Chorote– Made by creating solid chocolate balls which are dissolved in water, added to this is muscovado sugar. The chocolate balls were created by boiling ground cacao to separate the fats and solids. This was drunk by people in the cities as well as given to slaves and laborers for lunch and dinner.
Chocolate– Made by mixing balls of ground chocolate mixed with sugar or honey, toasted corn, seasonings such as cinnamon, ginger, and allspice. This was consumed by the Spanish elite at morning and noon meals.
The mass production led to cacao being available for everybody to consume. However what marks the social classes is by what process they made their cacao and what was added to it. Also the number of cacao beans used in the food and the time and effort of making it.
Development of industrial techniques of cacao processing
Conrad Johanes Van Houten discovered, along with his father the Cocoa press and Dutch process chocolate 6.
This created a fast and easy chocolate producing technique. It was adopted by big industries to use in their ways of chocolate production. This created a speedy and cheaper way of making good tasting chocolate.
Another process invented was the conching of chocolate. This was invented by Rudolfhe Lindt in Switzerland 7.
. It created smoother chocolate and covered the origins and original flavors and textures of the cacao bean, hence a bean sourced from anywhere of any strain could be used. The image below portrays the process of creating smoother chocolate.
These invented process allowed for the anonymity of cacao in the chocolate drink and bar. It became possible to mass produce chocolate without knowing of the origins and sourcing of the cacao bean that went into the chocolate. This created a lot of distance between the agriculture of growing cacao, strains and qualities of the pod and the consumer of the chocolate.
Mass Chocolate Production Today
This kind of mechanized industrialized mass production allows for a lot of chocolate to be produced. When chocolate production moved to such a mechanized way of being made, it became widely available for the average consumer. In today’s world chocolate is a regular household good with a large gap between knowledge of the sourcing and production of chocolate and the regular consumers of chocolate. The intensive agricultural development of cacao with the support of slave exploitation and the inventions of chocolate processing in Europe led to chocolate as is known today.
1- Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 2013.
2- Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 2013.
3- Presilla, Maricel E. The new taste of chocolate: a cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. Random House Digital, Inc., 2009.
4- Romero, Simon. “In Venezuela, plantations of cocoa stir bitterness.” The New York Times (2009): A04.
5- Presilla, Maricel E. The new taste of chocolate: a cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. Random House Digital, Inc., 2009.
6- Presilla, Maricel E. The new taste of chocolate: a cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. Random House Digital, Inc., 2009.
7- Presilla, Maricel E. The new taste of chocolate: a cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. Random House Digital, Inc., 2009.
From the earliest of its history, chocolate has been tied to the value systems of the people that consumed it. As cacao products and recipes traveled around the world, the decorations and designs that people have chosen to use on containers give us insight into the value systems of their cultures.
Relics of Meso-American pottery date to the same place and timeframe as the archeological record of chocolate–with the Olmec people. (Rose) Chemical analysis of pottery shards shows that the Olmec culture made cacao pulp into an intoxicating beer-type drink at least 1000 years before the current era. Eventually the cacao bean byproduct fermented into its own food source and began to resemble chocolate–at least in its crudest liquid form. (Henderson)
Our first pictorial record of the original bitter drink begins with the wealthiest of the Mayan society. These colorful jewels of Western Hemisphere art document the details about ritual life by describing events, attendees, and even the ingredients of the beverage. Documenting their religion and political record onto the containers from which they drank chocolate shows the importance of the beverage in their society.
The Aztec created rounded bowls from the calabash gourds which the local populace used to prepare their daily cacao. The society elite commissioned ceremonial pottery that took the same shape and name as the gourd vessels–jícara. Vessels like this were documented in the first Spanish histories, with descriptions of cacao preparation being poured from bowl to bowl to create a frothy top. (Presilla 32)
By the time the Spanish arrived, Aztec decorations were becoming less literal than the Mayans’ had been, and were more symbolic of the gods’ earthy powers. Geometric representation of forces such as lightening and serpents were replacing the drawings of the gods themselves. As colonization progressed, the strong geometric symbolism was married with the Spanich-Islamic influences and techniques–showing up in the hybridization of cuisines, ingredients (Lauden) as well as in the art motifs.
The ultimate reason for the Spanish colonization the Americas was to extract the wealth from the natural resources of the new world. Although the Spanish government justified their version of slavery with the religious conversion of the Native Americans, in the end the colonization effort needed to be a wealth-producing enterprise. Along with agricultural products such as chocolate and sugar, metals were of great value in the European market. Native cultures shared the affinity for gold, silver and copper and used them as ornament and decorative items for the elite, but they had not perfected many techniques to create items for utilitarian purposes. The Spanish brought the knowledge of metallurgy which led to the local creation of copper chocolate pots for drink preparation. They also used silver to create handles and feet on the local cups made from coconut, literally wrapping the drink in wealth.
This video of a Filipino chocolate preparation shows the use of a copper chocolate pot and a molinillo stick to stir the chocolate into a froth. This is how the Spanish modified the native Nahuatl method of pouring the chocolate from bowl to bowl to produce a froth. (Coe 156), (Presilla 20)
After the Spanish arrival, pottery designs started showing stronger geometric divisions and flowery natural imagery moving away from the stylization of the Aztec and becoming more reminiscent of the designs that were slathered on mother Spain’s 12th century Moorish architecture. Images of upper-class colonial life, replaced the Native American depictions of myths and ceremonies. Plantation life was becoming more important than the natural forces and religions of Mexico. The sgrafitto, or incised pottery techniques that the Spaniards brought with them, married well with the engraved and carved techniques that had been in Meso-America since the Olmecs, but allowed for a more refined hand to carve into gourds and coconuts as well as pottery. (Presilla 32)
The gourd-bowl shape has become synonymous with colorful, modern Mexican tourist-style pottery in the shape of flowerpots and salad bowls. Calabash gourds are still grown, dried, carved and sold today in the markets of Tabasco. Grown from a native American tree that is remarkably similar to cacao in habit and form–modern uses for the gourds can be anything from drinking, to measuring, to display.
Few historic gourd relics remain, but those that do show a hybridization of Spanish, Moorish, and Meso-American styles, focusing on plantation life.
Modern carved gourds sold to tourists still use the sgrafitto technique.
The influence and pottery technology of the Olmecs had moved northward with trade routes to the Pueblo people. Gas chromatography analysis of North American artifacts has shown that long before the Aztecs had usurped the regional market on cacao, the trade routes of the Mayans had extended northward to canyons of New Mexico. (Mozdy) The Anasazi cultures created tall, vessels reminiscent of the Mayan vase shape, decorated with extremely stylized iconography that represented the common Meso-American pantheon.
This 1200-mile path between where the vessels were found (in the Pueblo Bonito of Chaco Canyon) and the nearest source of cacao would have required 600 hours of backpacking through rough country and sweltering heat. As one researcher phrased it “That’s a long way to go for something that you don’t need for survival”, [something] that’s more of a delicacy…” Whether the Anasazi acquired this cacao through dedicated treks south–which would have taken weeks–or their pueblo was the endpoint of an even slower hand-to-hand, village-to-village trade route. (Mozdy)
Soon after chocolate washed across the courts of Europe, trade with the east opened up, bringing with it tea, and a new the technology harder, refined pottery that we still refer to as “china”. Tea was not treated just as basic sustenance. Like the original chocolate beverage, there was ceremony attached to it that appealed to the idle wealthy who could afford these imported beverages. Tea was prepared in a fancy ceramic pot–separate from the kettle used to heat the water. Then it was decanted to a cup to delicately sip. The wealthy started applying the same approach their chocolate. Long gone was the habit of preparing and drinking chocolate out of the same vessel. The wealthy had even stopped decanting directly from a copper pot into a cup. Drinking chocolate now represented wealth and was given all the trappings to prove it. Chocolate was prepared in the kitchen and placed in the chocolate pot, or chocotalière, by servants, then brought to the public gathering of wealthy ladies, and delicately poured into cups and handed round by the magnanimous hostess. (Coe 156-159)
Chocolate pots were made from the most expensive of porcelain, and shaped in the fashion of teapots with some adjustments. Traditional teapots have a short, squat form into order to be able to keep heat in and extract the flavor from the swirling tea leaves that are actively stewing in the hot water. A low-seated spout is fixed with an interior strainer to keep the floating leaves in the pot once you are ready to pour the fully brewed beverage. Coffee pots, on the other hand, need a tall form and highly placed straining spout for the opposite reason. As it is basically a decanting mechanism for an already brewed beverage, the height of the coffee pot allows any grounds from the brew to settle to the bottom, or get caught in the strainer. (Righthand)
Chocolate pots can be hard to spot, as they often hybridize these two forms–typically tall, but often bulbous. Early European chocolate pots most always have a removable finial to allow for a mixing stick to create the desired froth and keep the chocolate mixed. As cocoa powder was developed and cocoa preparations replaced true hot chocolate, the stirring stick went by the wayside, and chocotalière became nearly indistinguishable from coffee pots. The last distinguishing characteristic of a coffee pot was the internal strainer where the spout and body meet, and a spout that lowered over time.
Drinking chocolate represented wealth, therefore decorations were those that affluent courtiers and nouveau-riche traders would value. Gone were the forces of Meso-American nature, or plantation life, and in came garden scene–often mimicking the exotic origins of the pot. Elaborately painted and gilt decorations brought the wealth of court on the surface of the chocolate pot. An 18th century fad called “Chinoiserie” depicted the European’s visions of Asian gardens with palm trees, umbrellas, and architecture that they imagined would be found in the gardens of the imperial court of China. As many of the traders were making fortunes off the new-found economy, the asian motifs became a temporary obsession throughout the continent and its colonies.
Chocolate drinkers in the British colonies of North America usually imported English middle-class pottery with basic garden motifs to take to their breakfast tables. Very little pottery was made in New England so imported china had a cache of wealth and the designs were reminiscent of the estate and gardens of England as colonists tried to keep up all the appearances of home. The wealthiest of families had their chocolate pots crafted by local silversmiths, and garnished with the family seal to tie their family names and crests directly with the wealth that the precious metal embodied.
Modern Global Values
As solid chocolate became available and ubiquitous throughout western culture, the packaging of it has changed with the form, but the still conveyed the values of the local surroundings. To make chocolate appealing to a mass Victorian audience, purveyors wrapped it in the trappings of health and wholesomeness. As modern food science undermined the myth of “healthful chocolate” and the western world was coming out of a financial depression, the ideology of wealth returned. Silver wrappers, foil lettering on thick, glossy boxes, expansive packaging, and silky imagery are on all price-points of chocolate. Our favorite addiction is made more expensive by giving it the trappings of luxury: heart-shaped boxes and ribbons; gilded truffles and patisseries. Feeling rich makes many of us very happy.
Even the least expensive candies can be elevated by wrapping in gold and silver foils as is common on http://www.hersheys.com
The fact that cacao is grown as a third world agricultural product, but consumed almost exclusively in comfortable homes of first world economies has been coming to the attention of consumers over the last half a century. For the socially conscious consumer–those whose values do not hold with personal indulgence without consideration to the cost to others and the planet–a whole new branding for chocolate has developed.
These consumers feel better about buying chocolate that is emblazoned with the iconography of Fair Trade, organic, or direct trade certifications–even if the certification system is more of a seasonal band-aid than a true economic transformation. (Sylla) The sheer plethora of virtuous symbols appearing on labels in the chocolate isle work to the benefit of the marketing. The variety of symbols and levels of individual certification system adds layers of confusion to the real benefits. The level of confusion is so high, there is no way the average consumer can understand all the nuances and impacts. In the end buyers spend more for a product that has a “seal of approval,” and go on their merry way with the psychological satisfaction of having done something good for the “other.” They get to feel good without ever looking for any proof of the benefit these programs have on the lives of the farmers.
Slapping a feel-good seal on a wrapper has become so successful as marketing, that major companies are eschewing certifications that are attached to bureaucratic oversight of bona fide good intent, and instead are working toward establishing their own brands’ seal of ethical approval and creating home-grown social initiatives that are much easier to operationalize and do not threaten profits in the way that transforming the cacao supply chain would. Adding these icons into the patchwork of other initiatives ensures that social initiative logos appear on more and more packaging. Buying products branded with one of the myriad of ethical icons assuages the consciences of most purchasers. (Martin) In this way, we ensure that imagery that conveys these values will keep on proliferating on the packaging of our chocolate.
Brigden, Zachariah. Chocolate Pot. 1755. Silver. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts.
Burt, Benjamin, and Nathaniel Hurd. Teapot. 1763. Silver. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. Print.
Eaton, William M. Odyssey of the Pueblo Indians: an introduction to Pueblo Indian petroglyphs, pictographs, and kiva art murals in the Southwest. Paducah, KY: Turner Pub., 1999. Print.
Henderson, John S., et al. “Chemical and Archaeological Evidence for the Earliest Cacao Beverages.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, National Acad Sciences, 16 Nov. 2007, www.pnas.org/content/104/48/18937.full. Accessed 6 Mar. 2017.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Andrei, Mihai. “Chocolate History: The Early Days, Mesoamericans, Culture and Rituals. “ZME Science. N.p., 13 Aug. (2015).
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.
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).
Like 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.”
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.