Tag Archives: Mesoamerican culture

Switch out the Night at the Bar with a cup of Chocolate at your local Café: The Aztecs’ Preference of Chocolate vs Octli

Today, many social gatherings revolve around alcoholic drinks – whether that’s going out to a bar for beers and cocktails, having a calm wine night at home, or enjoying a boozy brunch at a local restaurant. Modern ceremonies also frequently involve a celebratory alcoholic drink or a champagne toast. However, in what is now present-day Mexico, the Aztecs preferred chocolate, a cacao-based beverage, to their native alcoholic drink of pulque – or octli as known in their Nahuatl language – which is derived from the fermented nectar of the maguey or agave plant (Coe and Coe 2013). This is significant because chocolate and the cacao, itself, not octli or agave, caught the eye of Mesoamerica’s Spanish colonizers and became the catalyst for European obsession and mass, slave-based crop production.

Because the contemporary reader likely goes out for a beer rather than a cup of chocolate, the preference of the Aztecs might seem puzzling, and the reasoning for this preference and the subsequent Spanish adoption of chocolate is also not as straightforward as it appears. Chocolate won out over octli as the Aztec drink of choice and the Spanish likely gravitated towards cacao rather than agave due to not only the Aztecs’ disdain for intoxication, but also the adoption of cacao as currency and the breakdown of who in the Aztec society drank chocolate versus octli.

The People of the Fifth Sun’s Warning against the Fifth Cup of Octli

The simple answer to as to why the Aztecs, known as the People of the Fifth Sun, preferred chocolate to octli is that they strongly disapproved of intoxication. Many ancient Mexican myths warned against the inebriating effects of taking a fifth cup octli because this fifth cup would cause drunkenness, disrupt the balance of life, and lead to dangerous and ill behavior (DiCesare 2018). For instance, the Florentine Codex includes a tale of Quetzalcoatl, a creator deity, who passes out, as see in Figure 1, after being tricked into drinking a fifth cup of octli. The Annals of Cuauhtitlan also describe how the octli led Quetzalcoatl to desert his people, retreat to the sea, and self-immolate – reinforcing the notion that drunkenness leads to unfavorable and often shameful actions (DiCesare 2018).

Figure 1: Quetzalcoatl passed out from drinking octli, Florentine Codex

In the Aztec tradition, drunkenness also led to severe punishments, whether self-inflicted or imposed by leaders. For example, the Codex Mendoza and the Legend of the Suns detail how a group of youths fails to bring the Sun a drink and instead gets drunk off of octli. In turn, the Sun orders them to be executed (DiCesare 2018). Similarly, the Florentine Codex depicts a drunkard falling off of a cliff to his death, emphasizing the physical dangers of intoxication (DiCesare 2018).

Because of the unfavorable nature of drunkenness and the punishments for public inebriation in the Aztec culture, Weinberg and Bealer claim the ancient people prized chocolate over octli because it was a “safe alternative” with its own benefits, such as caffeine for warriors (Weinberg and Bealer 2004). Coe and Coe further explain how chocolate was a “culturally acceptable replacement” for octli and how it was a particularly more desirable beverage for the nobility and warriors – who needed full control over their senses for leadership and battle – as it was a stimulating, but non-alcoholic, drink (Coe and Coe 2013).

A More Complete View: Chocolate and Octli in Ceremonial Rituals

Although the Aztecs disdained drunkenness, Dr. Catherine DiCesare of Colorado State University outlines that there were many instances in which the Aztecs did drink octli, even to the point of intoxication, without punishment. In fact, octli, and alcohol generally, served as a way for the Aztecs to access divine realms and connect with the gods by producing altered states of consciousness (DiCesare 2018). For example, the Codex Mgliabechiano depicts an octli ritual, shown in Figure 2, in which the Aztecs receive drunken visions of the octli god drinking the beverage among them. There are also many other celebrations involving alcoholic consumption such as the octli festival during Quecholli, an annual ceremony (DiCesare 2018).

Figure 2: Aztec octli ritual, Codex Magliabechiano

Therefore, the mere fact that the Aztecs looked unfavorably upon drunkenness does not completely explain why chocolate became the drink of choice since these ritual uses of octli are not unlike the many ceremonial applications of chocolate. The Aztecs used the cacao beverage in installation ceremonies for warriors, including the esteemed Eagle and Jaguar Knights, and healing rites to cure fevers and other illnesses (Coe and Coe 2013). They also referenced chocolate in many depictions of the gods and rituals because the drink represented blood and the cacao pod, itself, symbolized a sacrificial heart (Coe and Coe 2013).

Likewise, even though Coe and Coe assert the Aztecs preferred chocolate to octli due to their notions of intoxication, they concede that not everyone in the Aztec society believed chocolate was acceptable either (Coe and Coe 2013). They outline a parable about Emperor Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina, who sends sixty sorcerers to Colhuacan, a hill in which the goddess Coatlicue lived. Once they reach Colhuacan, however, the sorcerers struggle to climb the hill, and the old guard claims this is because the sorcerers’ consumption of chocolate has made them weak, heavy, and tired (Coe and Coe 2013). Tales such as these that warn against chocolate resemble the concerns over octli and suggest there must be another reason as to why chocolate became more popular than the alcoholic beverage.

Chocolate in Relation to Currency and Status

Two factors unrelated to the content of the drinks themselves set chocolate apart from octli in the Aztec society: the use of cacao beans as currency and the breakdown of who drank the two beverages.

The Aztecs used cacao beans, pictured in Figure 3, as commodity money to exchange for other goods given their rare, expensive nature and their special role in making the prized chocolate beverage. The preference of cacao beans as a currency over, say, the leaves of the agave plant, pictured in Figure 3, is also supported by the physical properties of the two. As seen in the images, the cacao beans are much more portable as individual units and can easily be exchanged in various quantities as opposed to the large agave leaves.

Figure 3: Cacao beans (left) and Maguey or Agave plant (right)

Moreover, while octli consumption was typically restricted to only those of “sufficiently mature age” and for specific rituals, chocolate was consumed regularly by three socially elite groups in Aztec society: the royal house, the warriors, and the long-distance merchants, known as pochteca, who brought cacao beans to the Aztecs (Weinberg and Bealer 2004; Coe and Coe 2013). Chocolate was, thus, a much more widespread beverage than octli, especially among the lords and nobility. The merchants, warriors, and social elite were also the main groups Mesoamerica’s Spanish conquistadors likely interacted with, given their externally-facing roles.

Therefore, because the Aztecs disdained drunkenness, used cacao as both a drink and currency, and consumed chocolate among the socially elite, the cacao-based beverage gained preference over the alcoholic octli. This proved significant in the development of history, as the Spanish colonizers saw the importance of cacao in Mesoamerica and were attracted to chocolate, not octli. The colonizers partially adopted cacao as a currency, became obsessed with chocolate and hybridized it to their own tastes, and set up encomiendas to control cacao production. These encomiendas later set the stage for the slave trade and the subsequent mass production of cacao that still exists today.

So, why then do modern, Western social gatherings focus on alcoholic beverages if Spain brought cacao, not octli, back to Europe? There is a wide host of answers – perhaps one of which is due to the invention of the ever-present chocolate bar and the rise of solid chocolate over its beverage form – but this is just the beginning of an interesting discussion for another time.

References

CaDiCesare, Catherine R. “Dangers of the ‘Fifth Cup’: the Aztec Approach to Alcohol.” Aztecs at Mexicolore. Mexicolore, January 31, 2018. https://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/home/the-aztec-approach-to-alcohol.

Coe, Sophie D, and Michael D Coe. “Chapter 3: The Aztecs: People of the Fifth Sun.” In The True History of Chocolate, 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Weinberg, Bennett Alan, and Bonnie K Bealer. “3 Cacao: American Origins.” In The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug. Routledge, 2004.

Picture Sources

Codex images courtesy of Mexicolore https://www.mexicolore.co.uk/.

Cacao beans image courtesy of F. Delventhal via Creative Commons.

Agave plant image courtesy of Christian Córdova via Creative Commons.

Innovating the Culture Away: The Evolution of Cacao’s Preparation

For the many Mesoamerican peoples with access to cacao, traditional preparation methods contributed largely to the plant’s known cultural significance. The customary techniques of chocolate production represented a cornerstone of cultural and political gatherings (Coe and Coe 45-47). Additionally, the presence of ritualistic cacao preparations at momentous occasions, and the product’s spiritual connotations and economic utility (Leissle 30), maintained an intimate connection between the sacred plant and Mesoamerican life. The reach of cacao expanded following encounters with Western colonizers, and gradually Mesoamerican preparation practices were hybridized through a European lens. Furthermore, an industrializing Europe introduced numerous innovations in the preparation of chocolate products (Leissle 38-39). Hence, by the 19th century, a large factor in cacao’s original cultural significance—its preparation—had been separated from the plant itself.

Mesoamerican Preparation

On account of the plant’s particular environmental preferences, there were just several epicenters of intensive Theobroma cacao production in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. Nevertheless, cacao was among the most prevalent products in Mesoamerican life, serving numerous cultural and economic purposes (Sampeck and Thayn 75). The nature of the T. cacao plant influenced many of the processing steps required prior to the preparation of cacao beverages. The pods cannot be opened to unveil the prized seeds (“beans”) without the aid of an animal (Leissle 27); moreover, much of the sought-after aroma and flavor profile of the beans must be brought out through production processes such as fermentation and roasting (Coe and Coe 22-24). These arduous procedures are essential to produce cacao nibs, the starting point for deeper exploration of Mesoamerican preparation techniques and recipes (Coe and Coe 22).

From its nib state, the cacao was ground into small granules which, with enough grinding, could become a paste-like substance now known as cacao liquor (Coe and Coe 24). Mesoamerican societies like the Aztecs employed a metate, or curved grinding stone, during this process (Coe and Coe 115).

A metate, used to grind cacao nibs in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica

Importantly, once the cacao was ground, Mesoamerican preparations diverged based on ingredients, the terroir of the cacao used, and the target consumers—elites, common people, or gods (Coe and Coe 61-63; Sampeck and Thayn 77). Cacao beverage recipes distinguished Mesoamerican regions from their neighbors, as common supplemental ingredients included vanilla, chilis, various flowers, and the corn-based atole (Sampeck and Thayn 81-82). One widely desired element in cacao beverages across Mesoamerica was a frothy texture, often created in pre-Columbian times by repeatedly pouring a cacao beverage from one vessel into another from a height (Coe and Coe 48, 62; Leissle 31). The below scene from the Princeton Vase, while quite dramatic and busy, includes on the right-hand side a woman pouring a cacao beverage from one vessel to another in pursuit of the foamy texture cherished in pre-colonial Mesoamerica (Coe and Coe 48). This calligraphic painting supports the presence of ritualistic cacao preparations in cultural settings, such as the mythological scene unfolding below.

A mythological scene from the Princeton Vase (670-750 A.D.) depicting the deity known as “God L,” who was associated with trade. On the right-hand side of the scene, a woman is frothing a cacao beverage by pouring it from one vessel to another from a height.

Cultural Significance and Ubiquity of Cacao

The traditional preparations of cacao in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica—both the techniques used and the recipes followed—were meticulous and even ritualistic. Martin and Sampeck note, “The distinctive tools and preparation of cacao beverages…created a highly distinctive sensorial experience of cacao beverages in Mesoamerican foodways” (41). This cultural experience was especially present in Mesoamerican life due to the social, spiritual, and economic pervasiveness of cacao.

The T. cacao plant itself was intimately linked to Maya culture. The Dresden Codex frequently depicts gods as cacao trees or holding cacao pods and beans (Coe and Coe 42-43). In addition, cacao was offered during healing rituals, marriage arrangements, and burials (Coe and Coe 45-47; Martin and Sampeck 39). In both the Maya and Aztec civilizations, rituals of preparing and drinking cacao were instrumental in political and economic affairs (Leissle 30). In short, cacao was undeniably embedded in Mesoamerican society. Plus, the techniques and recipes used to make cacao beverages were relatively familiar to the people of a given region (Sampeck and Thayn 82). Thus, each instance of cacao in religious, cultural, or economic life represented an opportunity for Mesoamerican people to stay in touch with their local traditions of taste and preparation. The ritualistic preparations of cacao in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica served to reinforce the connection between the people and the plant.

Beginnings of Western Influence

In the 16th century, European explorers encountered Mesoamerican peoples and their cacao-based traditions. Europeans initially appreciated the beans’ utility as currency (Martin and Sampeck 41). As for the comestible side of cacao, European adoption was more gradual (Norton 660); in fact, Europeans took up the newly coined chocolate “in a generally Mesoamerican way, both in flavorings and in manner of preparation” (Sampeck and Thayn 80). These early encounters marked the beginning of Western influence on the preparation of cacao and chocolate products—a multi-century trend that steadily eroded the sociocultural significance of the plant and its bounty.

To bridge the unique tastes of Mesoamerica and Western Europe, cacao experienced a process of hybridization: Europeans drank their chocolate hot, rather than cold as in the Aztec tradition; they sweetened the product with cane sugar; and they introduced Old World spices, such as cinnamon, anise, and black pepper, into their chocolate recipes (Coe and Coe 114-115). Some preparation methods, such as grinding the nibs over a heated metate, carried over in early European recipes. Other techniques changed, such as the introduction of the molinillo, a swizzle-stick that replaced the pouring-between-vessels method of frothing the beverage (Coe and Coe 115). Europeans further translated cacao-making tools into new materials, such as metal and porcelain (Martin and Sampeck 43).

A Still Life of Peaches, Fish, Chestnuts, a Tin Plate and Sweet Box and
Two Mexican Lacquer Cups, by Spanish painter Antonio Ponce (1608–1677). A molinillo is pictured next to a container of ground cacao—evidence that Europeans initially engaged in the textural and flavor experiences of Mesoamerican cacao.

In 1556, the so-called “Anonymous Conqueror,” a companion of Hernán Cortés, described the preparation of an Aztec cacao beverage (Frydenborg 58). The author’s awed descriptions of the instruments used, the novel foam texture, and cacao’s health benefits display a Western curiosity toward Mesoamerican cacao preparation. Through encounters like these, cacao preparation began to be filtered through a Western lens—one which eventually rendered cacao a global commodity (Leissle 34). Increasingly, the preparation of a once-sacred product became detached from its sociocultural significance, as Kristy Leissle summarizes superbly:

“For all its history prior to European colonization, cacao as a fruit on a tree, as currency, and as a drink had been deeply connected, within civilizational traditions that barely distinguished between its economic, social, cultural, and food values. Now, those values diverged”

Leissle 34

Innovating the Culture Away

Over the next two centuries, the global taste for chocolate expanded, and a broader socioeconomic base gained access to the product (Leissle 36-38). In the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution unlocked new preparation methods for chocolate that drastically separated the modern conception of cacao from its traditional Mesoamerican roots. For one, the burgeoning industrial manufacture of chocolate nullified the notion of cacao’s terroir, once so important to the localization of recipes and preparation techniques. The goal of creating uniform products was achieved by blending cacao beans, yielding a new consumption experience in “stark contrast to historical chocolate flavor experiences” (Martin and Sampeck 49). Today’s most renowned names in chocolate—Cadbury, Nestlé, Lindt, Hershey, and the like—were behind these industrial shifts in preparation (Martin and Sampeck 49). Rudolphe Lindt’s 1879 invention of the conche, a device that employed rollers to reduce the size of ground cacao particles, attained a smoother chocolate for confections (Coe and Coe 247-248; Leissle 39).

An example of an industrial conche, a more modern manifestation of Lindt’s 19th-century invention. Begin at 1:25.

Innovations like the conche supported the chocolate industry’s ability to scale globally (Martin and Sampeck 49). Yet, they also contributed to a striking shift from local production—settings in which “people knew who made the tools they used and the foods they ate”—to factory production (Leissle 38). The impersonal preparation methods of 19th-century chocolate were wholly disparate from the socioculturally relevant, ritualistic Mesoamerican preparations from the days of the Maya and Aztecs.

Conclusion: Food for Thought

The historical narrative of chocolate preparation, featuring a glaring dislocation of cacao’s cultural connotations from its purely comestible properties, represents a critical step in the formation of the modern conception of chocolate. Compared to cacao’s Mesoamerican roots, most chocolate is mass-produced with little sociocultural attachment; in the absence of traditional preparation practices, there are fewer reminders of the cacao plant’s original societal significance. Thus, cacao has been reduced to a mere commodity in the eyes of most global chocolate producers. This shift in the world’s conception of cacao allowed the product to be “absorbed into expanding overseas…capitalism” (Mintz 69), which arguably set the stage for the well-documented exploitation and inequity underlying chocolate production to this day.

Works Cited

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

Frydenborg, Kay. Chocolate: Sweet Science & Dark Secrets of the World’s Favorite Treat. 2015.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.

Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.Hu, no. special issue 3, 2015, pp. 37–60.

Mintz, Sidney W. (Sidney Wilfred). Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, 1986.

Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review, vol. 111, no. 3, 2006, pp. 660–91.

Sampeck, Kathryn E., and Jonathan Thayn. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” Substance and Seduction : Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, First edition., University of Texas Press, 2017, pp. 72–99.

Chocolate & Spice

The production and utilization of cacao continues to be extremely prominent in global economies and cultures. In Mesoamerican history, the use of cacao can be traced to as early as 2000 B.C., where the fruit solely belonged to the elites in ritual. By 400 B.C., cacao seeds began to be transformed into lavish beverages, or “chocolate,” as defined by Mesoamericans. Pre-Columbian regimes “invoked class-based authority” (Martin and Sampeck 2015) of the extractive production of the commodity, and the use of cacao as a chocolate beverage was a delicacy for the noble. However, Mesoamericans utilized the cacao bean itself in a variety of ways. In fact, the refined seed along with the process itself  “defined an experience quite separate from other agricultural, consumable products, largely because Mesoamericans consumed cacao in simultaneously discordant and complementary ways: as a ritual offering, as currency, as a flavouring in foods, and as a beverage” (Martin and Sampeck 2015). Cacao is historically unique because of its versatility as a spiritual symbol, a flavoring, a stimulant, a marriage ritual, and most importantly within the context of Mesoamerican culture, a beverage. As shown in the photo below, this chocolate beverage held great significance as a symbol of virtue and celebration in the Mesoamerican regions, as it is given as a beverage at a wedding ceremony.

Historically, the cacao seed itself is highly social and ritualistically significant, and Mesoamerican practices have even had the power to influence today’s use of chocolate. 

The ways in which cacao was prepared, consumed, and flavored was not consistent amongst the various regions of Mesoamerica. Pre-Columbian inscriptions and recipes depict that “different spices, colorants, and kinds of cacao” (Martin and Sampeck 2015) used in “various stages of ripeness were emblematic of a particular place; taste and place designated each other” (Stuart 1988). The standard mode of cacao and chocolate preparation was established by the nobility of each region. Terroir, or the impact of the natural environment such as “the manner of production and almost ineffable qualities of genetics, climate, soil, and place” (Martin and Sampeck 2015) strongly influenced the variety of cacao use across Mesoamerican regions.

Both “cacao” and “chocolate” are terms that come from Mesoamerican languages, “chocolate” referring to the processed cacao seed in the form of a delicious, highly regarded beverage. However, chocolate was only one of various cacao drinks, so what made Mesoamerican chocolate so unique? Aside from the pre-Columbian nomenclature and the term of “chocolate,” “preparing and consuming cacao beverages were sensory experiences that stood cacao apart from other foods and drinks” (Schwartzkopf and Sampeck 2017)  The Mesoamerican procedure for conditioning the cacao seeds set the region apart from others: “the distinctive tools and preparation of cacao beverages – the molinillo, the steep-sided cup, and the spouted pot – created a highly distinctive sensorial experience of cacao beverages in Mesoamerican foodways” (Martin and Sampeck 2015). In particular, the pouring of the hot cacao liquid from a height, conserving the foam, set the drink apart. The photo below depicts this almost sacred act of pouring the heated chocolate liquid from a height, allowing the foam to naturally rise. This technique was specific to Mesoamerican cacao procedures.

The pre-Columbian, chocolate beverage was so alluring because it satisfied social, political, and sensual needs all at once. Though Mesoamericans regarded the foam as the beverage’s most desirable feature, additional ingredients, flavors, and spices that were added to the chocolate not only enhanced the beverage but also differentiated the chocolate from other foods and drinks.

Hot chocolate beverages were more often enhanced by other flavorings than not, and “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” (Mintz 1985). Early colonial Mesoamerican recipes show that vanilla and water, among an array of other aromatic flavors, were delicately incorporated into the chocolate recipes. Depicted in the chart below, Mesoamericans were notorious for incorporating a large variety of secondary ingredients into the chocolate for consumption.

Over time, Mesoamerican recipes also show a European influence, with the adoption of sweetening flavors, and vice versa, Europe obtaining Mesoamerica’s strategy in using the chocolate beverage as a caffeinated stimulant. Between the various colors of the cacao pods, the sweeteners, aromatic flavorings, and herbs, Mesoamericans often incorporated other ailments into chocolate.

A common theme among the additional ingredients that Mesoamericans paired with cacao was the theme of flowers. Despite one’s immediate assumptions, flowers in Mesoamerican life do not symbolize “sentimental, cloying sweetness,” but rather “forces of warfare, power, death, and life” (Schwartzkopf and Sampeck 2017). One recipe, in particular, utilizes one of the three flavorings that is known to be highly prized by the Aztecs: hueinacaztli. Hueinacaztli, most importantly “nacaztli” meaning “ear,” or the “ear-shaped petal of the flower” (Mintz 1985). This particular recipe is unique because of its ability to lead to drunkenness, and it’s similarity to beverages that we consume today. Hueinacaztli’s flavor can be described as similar to black pepper, but “other sources compare it variously with nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon” (Mintz 1985). These flavor descriptions of warm and hot spices are similar to flavorings that we pair with chocolate today, such as cinnamon, hazelnut, and other blends.

These recipes are historically significant because they demonstrate that one substance, cacao, was able to be modified in so many different ways, utilized by a diverse group of regions, but still able to represent something used by the elite. Chocolate’s ability to simultaneously be used in so many different ways make the substance so unique and distinct in Mesoamerican history.

Works Cited:

  • Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” The Social Meaning of Food Workshop. The Social Meaning of Food Workshop, 16 June 2015, Budapest, The Institute for Sociology, Centre for Social Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
  • Stuart, D. (1988) The Rio Azul Cacao Pot: Epigraphic Observations on the Function of a Maya Ceramic Vessel. American Antiquity 62 (1), 153-157. – 
  • “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” Substance and Seduction. Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, by Stacey Schwartzkopf and Kathryn E. Sampeck, University of Texas Press, 2017, pp. 72–95.
  • Sampeck, Kathryn E. (2017) “Cacao and Violence: Consequences of Money in Colonial Guatemala” Society for Historical Archaeology 2019. Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Illinois State.
  • Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.
  • Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin, 1985.

Pre-Columbian Cacao and The Various Applications of Chocolate in Society

Cacao and chocolate had a wide variety of uses and associations in pre-Columbian society, as it was a highly multifunctional good that was respected and coveted. Cacao first originated in Mesoamerica and was used for religious purposes, as a luxurious food item, as currency, and as medicine. These uses were often interconnected and posed a variety of implications, ranging from economic, social, cultural, and/or political. 

Cacao has many origin stories rooted in religion. The Theobroma tree, also known as the World Tree, was believed to be the center of the universe and the source of life (Martin, 2020). It was thought to connect the realm of the sky, earth, and the underworld. In addition, religious gods and figures were often portrayed as trees, transforming into trees, or born from trees (Martin, 2020). Some even believed that by drinking chocolate, one could obtain god-like qualities or wisdom (Dreiss & Greenhill, 2008). For example, the two figures below provide representations of gods portrayed as cacao trees or wearing elements of the tree: 

The Maya Maize god portrayed as a personified cacao tree (Dreiss & Greenhill, 2008)
A Classic Maya stone monument in Guatemala that portrays a cacao deity wearing a headdress of cacao leaves and a cacao pod (Dreiss & Greenhill, 2008)

Cacao was also used in various religious rituals and ceremonies, such as baptisms, marriages, and rites of births and death. The Maya people would often baptize children with a mixture of cacao, virgin water, and crushed flowers (Dreiss & Greenhill, 2008). In addition, Frier Bernardino de Sahagún reported that Aztec fathers would often instruct their sons to offer a cacaoatl drink to God as they entered religious school (Dreiss & Greenhill, 2008). Cacao was also incorporated into marriage ceremonies. According to the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, the groom often offered cacao (beans or a drink) to the woman they were marrying. It is interesting that cacao was often used to signify the significance of a certain ceremony or ritual, almost as if documenting authenticity and serving as a symbol of religious respect. The figure below depicts a Mixtec ceremony where Lady Thirteen Serpent offers a bowl of cacao to Lord Eight Deer to solemnise their marriage (Dreiss & Greenhill, 2008):

The groom pointing a cup of frothy cacao in the hands of his bride during a marriage ceremony (Seawright, 2012)

Moreover, the Maya people were often buried with some form of cacao, whether it cups or vases or bowls. These pottery items were often personalized, containing the Primary Standard Sequence – the name of the deceased and the type of cacao the cup contained (Seawright, 2012). It was thought that chocolate energized and eased the soul’s journey to the underworld (Martin, 2020). It is interesting that chocolate was often viewed to have some sort of “superpower” or healing quality for both the living and the dead. Below is a figure of relatives offering the deceased individual cacao for his journey to the underworld/afterlife (Seawright, 2012):

The relatives of the deceased offering the deceased chocolate for his journey to the afterlife, from the Codex Magliabechiano (Seawright, 2012)

Cacao was also involved in religious sacrifice rituals. Human sacrifices were often made to various gods or deities to show respect and honor, and they were first signaled by offering chocolate (Dillinger et al., 2000). Extracting the cacao beans from the pod was also viewed as symbolically similar to the extraction of the human heart during a sacrifice (Dillinger et al., 2000). This is just another example proving the high regard that chocolate held, especially in a religious sense. It was truly viewed as a sacred item, and using it in a sacrifice showed generosity and reverence.

Besides its religious purposes, cacao had always been widely recognized as a delicious food item to be consumed. In the Pre-Columbian era, it was typically consumed as a beverage and limited only to the very elite or royal. The beans were often used to prepare a drink called Xocoatl, which was a very bitter drink made of roasted and ground beans mixed with water and spices (De Maré, 2013). Maya ruins often depicted cacao as being associated with the god of abundance and wealth, which helps to explain cacao’s restriction to the very elites – priests, royals, distinguished warriors, and military officers (Dillinger et al., 2000). It was also believed that cacao was an intoxicating substance, and thus not appropriate for women and children (Dillinger et al., 2000). This had implications for social structures of the societies that included cacao, as cacao served as a hierarchical catalyst that enforced a disparity between the elites and the commoners.

Moreover, cacao was used as a form of currency. It may be strange to think of a food/beverage as a form of currency, but this helps to explain why only the rich and royal elite were consuming cacao. These people were essentially swallowing money, which lower-class people could not afford to do. When the Aztecs, who at the time were one of the most advanced societies, captured the Maya people and their land, they also seized their economy. This included cacao, as the land in this area was most suitable for growing the pods (De Maré, 2013). The Aztecs entered trade, assisted by cacao beans as a form of commodity money (De Maré, 2013).  Cacao beans soon became one of the most common means of exchange among pre-Columbian people for simple, low-value transactions. In a letter Cortes wrote to Charles V, he stated: “This seed was being used as currency for daily exchanges” (De Maré, 2013). The number of seeds used was proportional to relative worth – for example, one rabbit was 10 cocoa beans, while one slave was 100 cocoa beans (De Maré, 2013). Cacao beans soon became the main currency of the Empire, and its value was officially fixed in 1555 when a decree stated that one Spanish real equaled 140 cacao beans (De Maré, 2013). This currency even spread to countries that are now in present-day South America, and it was in use until the start of the 19th century.  

Lastly, cacao was utilized as a form of medicine. It was believed to have digestive, anti-inflammatory, anesthetic, and energy-related applications that would assist in healing. People often believed illnesses were connected to the gods, and due to the fact that many also believed cacao to be a powerfully divine item, cacao was used as a healing agent. Evidently, these applications of cacao began to become interrelated. In terms of evidence of cacao’s medicinal properties, there were many documents and manuscripts that recorded its uses. The Badianus Codex indicated that cacao flowers may be used to alleviate fatigue, while the Florentine Codex took note of a recipe of cacao beans, maize, and the herb tlacoxochitl to relieve fevers and shortness of breath (Lippi, 2009). It also cautioned against excessive consumption of cocoa from unroasted beans but approved it in moderation to help replenish and invigorate the body (Lippi, 2009). Later, manuscripts like Chilam Balam and The Ritual of the Bacams recorded over a hundred uses and instructions for medicinal cacao. There were several themes of cacao’s healing properties found within these records – it was often used to treat emaciated patients to gain weight, to address exhaustion and stimulate patients’ nervous systems, and to aid digestion. Besides these common uses, chocolate had a variety of other health issues it was prescribed to treat, such as poor appetite, anemia, kidney stones, etc. (Dillinger et al., 2000). Likely due to the fact that chocolate was believed to have divine origins and thus god-like properties, it was utilized to treat a large variety of illnesses. This provides support for the idea that the various uses and applications for chocolate were often intertwined and circled back to one another, thus rendering chocolate as one of the most dominating forces in the Pre-Columbian society.


Works Cited

Dillinger, T. L., Barriga, P., Escárcega Sylvia, Jimenez, M., Lowe, D. S., & Grivetti, L. E. (2000). Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate. The Journal of Nutrition, 130(8). doi: 10.1093/jn/130.8.2057s

De Maré, L. (2013, March 4). Museum of the National Bank of Belgium. Retrieved from https://www.nbbmuseum.be/en/2013/03/kakao.htm

Dreiss, M. L., & Greenhill, S. (2008). Chocolate: pathway to the gods. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Lippi, D. (2009). Chocolate and medicine: Dangerous liaisons? Nutrition25(11-12), 1100–1103. doi: 10.1016/j.nut.2009.08.002

Martin, C. (2020). Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods”. Retrieved from Canvas.

Seawright, C. (2012). Life, Death and Chocolate in Mesoamerica: The Aztecs and the Maya; Where did the Ritual Use of Cacao Originate? ResearchGate. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Caroline_Seawright/publication/274837640_ARC2AZT_Essay_Life_Death_and_Chocolate_in_Mesoamerica_The_Aztecs_and_the_Maya_Where_did_the_Ritual_Use_of_Cacao_Originate/links/55f8b47908aec948c4864629.pdf

Chocolate, The Secret Ingredient for Love: The History of the Relationship Between Chocolate, Sex, and Romance

Lauren Conrad in The Hills (Giphy).

“Flowers mean I’m sorry and chocolate means I love you.” These are the wise words of Lauren Conrad, the star of The Hills, a Los Angeles-based television show that aired in 2006. This proverb is not unique to reality TV. People have shared Lauren’s opinion for centuries; from ancient Mesoamerican civilizations to 16th century Europe to modern westernized societies, chocolate has remained a symbol of and an ingredient for romantic love. The endurance of the relationship between chocolate and love is striking, making it quite possibly the only thing that Mesoamerica and MTV have in common. Throughout history, raw and processed cacao has been imbued with cultural, medicinal, and spiritual significance regarding sexual and romantic success. As a result, chocolate is believed to not only “mean” love, but to make love.

Mesoamerican Civilizations

The ancient Mayans are thought to be the first civilization to cultivate cacao, and thus the first people to endow it with sexual and romantic significance (Martin). However, later civilizations, such as the Mixtecs and the Aztecs, retained cacao as a prominent religious and cultural symbol. Mesoamerican societies always incorporated chocolate into their marriage ceremonies (Coe 97). A bride often served her groom a chocolate drink during the wedding ceremony to consecrate their marriage (Martin). The Codex Zouche-Nutall, a pre-Columbian manuscript from the Mixtec civilization, illustrates this custom in its depiction of the royal marriage of Lord Eight Deer and Lady Thirteen Serpent. 

The Codex Zouche-Nuttall depicts Lady Thirteen Serpent presenting Lord Eight Deer with a frothy chocolate beverage to consecrate their royal marriage. 

Raw cacao seeds were also part of the ceremony. Women’s dowries often consisted of cacao beans, which doubled as a form of currency in Mesoamerican economies (Martin). In some societies, the bride and groom exchanged cacao beans with the words “These I give thee as a sign that I accept thee as my husband [or wife]” (Coe 61). In this custom, cacao plays the same role as rings in modern marriages in that it symbolized and sanctified a romantic commitment.

16th Century Europe

Chocolate arrived in Europe in the 16th century via the Spanish courts, and its romantic and sexual connotations also survived the journey across the Atlantic. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a Spanish conquistador who produced a detailed written account of the Mexican conquest, claimed Aztec Emperor Motecuhzoma drank cacao to have “success with women” (Coe 96). The Spanish perpetuated this faith in cacao’s sexual and romantic benefits, believing that its consumption would increase the probability of both conception and love (Martin). Chocolate was also considered a powerful aphrodisiac, and recommended by physicians as a remedy for a weak “venereal appetite” (Coe 122). 

Modern Westernized Societies

While modern medicine has progressed far beyond that of 16th century Europe, chocolate has retained its prescribed aphrodisiacal properties. In Dr. Nicholas Perricone’s list of the “Top 10 Sex-Boosting Foods”, published by CBS News, chocolate lands at number six. In the justification for this ranking, CBS cites a study by “The Journal of Sexual Medicine” that found a positive correlation between daily chocolate consumption and sexual activity.

The photo accompanying CBS News’ inclusion of chocolate on its list of the “Top 10 Sex-Boosting Foods.”

In case the double medical endorsement wasn’t enough to solidify the connection between chocolate and sex, CBS also includes a photo of a naked woman coating herself in liquid chocolate. This picture is just one example of the sexual presentation of chocolate in modern media. A provocative advertisement for 1848 Chocolate incorporates very similar imagery. The video involves a woman bathing in liquid chocolate, cacao pods, and cocoa powder, with sound effects that enhance the seductive tone and sexual connotations of the scene. 

The chocolate industry wholeheartedly embraces the idea that “sex sells.” Sex plays a role not only in cinematic advertising, but in chocolate’s linguistic presentation as well.

The company Chuao Chocolatier describes its Spicy Maya bar as a blend of “seductive cinnamon, pasilla chile and warming cayenne bedded in dark chocolate.” Chuao’s advertising copywriters don’t stop there: the Spicy Maya bar is “[a] warm cinnamon embrace, velvety dark chocolate, and an infusion of cayenne and pasilla chile. With just enough heat to melt your heart, it’s a truly delicious way to brighten up your day. Spicy maya is the perfect mix of sweet and seductive.” The numerous references to heat are subtle sensual suggestions, whereas “bedded,” “embrace,” and the repetition of “seductive” are blatantly sexual.

A photo from the Mondelez International (Cadbury’s parent company) press release for the Cadbury Dairy Milk Silk Heart Pop Valentine’s Day Special Edition chocolate bar.

Sex sells, but so does romance. In Cocoa, Kristy Leissle acknowledges that chocolate companies “steer consumer desire for chocolate in certain directions,” and in many cases that direction is love (Leissle 9). Cadbury’s 2020 Valentine’s Day advertisement literally embodies the idea of chocolate leading to love. The video depicts a man guiding his impatient female partner through the woods. Her irritation evaporates when they end up in a clearing of fireflies and he gives her his heart — or at least the heart-shaped centerpiece of the Cadbury Dairy Milk Silk Heart Pop chocolate bar (a Valentine’s Day Special Edition!). This interaction reflects Leissle’s idea that manufacturers promote chocolate not only as the path to romantic love, but as a “surrogate for romantic love” itself (Leissle 9). At the end of the video, Cadbury asks its audience, “How far will you go for love?” The answer is the nearest chocolate aisle.

Just as sex and romance promote chocolate in advertisements, chocolate promotes sex and romance in cinema. According to TV Tropes, a website devoted to explaining common cinematic themes and motifs, chocolate appears in three primary sexual and romantic contexts: in the progressing of a relationship, often in the form of a gift during courtship, anniversaries, or holidays; in the mending of a relationship, offered in exchange for forgiveness; in the initiation of intimacy, consumed before characters are sexually intimate. This latter trend has a subtle presence in the Cadbury ad: when the man presents the woman with chocolate, the music changes from instrumental to lyrical, starting with the words “Kiss me.” Chocolate plays a critical role in the promotion, progression, and preservation of sexual and romantic relationships in the media.

While TV Tropes and the Cadbury ad focus on chocolate facilitating romance between two people, it’s possible that chocolate can create love regardless of whether its consumer has a significant other. Along with its abundance of sexual suggestions, Chuao Chocolatier promises that the Spicy Maya bar will “melt your heart” and “brighten up your day.” There is some data to back up these claims: “[d]ark chocolate contains phenylethylamine, a chemical believed to produce the feeling of being in love” (CBS News). While the connection between chocolate and love has typically been symbolic, it may also be scientific. 

There is a reason chocolate is so strongly associated with Valentine’s Day, a holiday celebrating romantic love. Throughout history, chocolate has been credited with sexual and romantic benefits. Chocolate has been used to consecrate Mesoamerican marriages, attract romantic partners, improve sexual performance, and even increase the chance of pregnancy. Today, it is a means to flirt, to court, to celebrate, to seduce, to apologize, to appease. Chocolate is more than just an aphrodisiac: it is a modern-day love potion. Chocolate might be a “surrogate for romantic love,” but in many ways it is also an ingredient. We give chocolate the power not only to “mean” love, but to make love.

Works Cited

Scholarly Sources:

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. John Wiley & Sons, 2018.

Martin, Carla. “Introduction.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. 29 Jan. 2020, Harvard University, Cambridge. Class Lecture.

—. “Mesoamerica and the “Food of the Gods’.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. 5 Feb. 2020, Harvard University, Cambridge. Class Lecture.

Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin, 1986.

Multimedia Sources:

“Cadbury Silk Valentine’s Day 2020.” YouTube, uploaded by Cadbury Silk, 20 Jan. 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXp6oCEty-8. 

“Chocolate of Romance.” TVTropes. TVTropes, 9 Jan. 2020, https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/article_history.php?article=Main.ChocolateOfRomance. Accessed 8 Mar. 2020.

Chocolat Poulain. “1848 Seduction.” YouTube, uploaded by Karina Taira at HomeCorp, 23 Nov. 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rr-OBmMY9e8. 

Codex Zouche-Nuttall. Mixtec Marriage of Lord Eight Deer and Lady Thirteen Serpent. Mexicolore, https://www.mexicolore.co.uk/maya/chocolate/blood-of-the-gods. Accessed 8 Mar. 2020.

“Lauren Conrad.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, 2 Feb. 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:CiteThisPage&page=Lauren_Conrad&id=938792566. Accessed 8 Mar. 2020.

“Pop Your Heart Out and Say It With Silk.” Mondelez International. Mondelez International, 7 Feb. 2018, https://in.mondelezinternational.com/newsroom/say-it-with-silk. Accessed 8 Mar. 2020.

“Spicy Maya.” Chuao Chocolatier. Chuao Chocolatier, 2019, https://chuaochocolatier.com/products/spicy-maya. Accessed 28 Feb. 2020. 

“The Hills Lc GIF.” GIPHY. Giphy, https://giphy.com/gifs/the-hills-chocolates-mean-i-love-you-flowers-im-sorry-l3E6oYp4ADCbXfHmE. Accessed 20 Mar. 2020.

“Top 10 Sex-Boosting Foods.” CBS News. https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/top-10-sex-boosting-foods/6/. Accessed 8 Mar. 2020.

From Cultural to Commercial: Cocoa’s Geopolitical Transformation

Molded by years of exposure to masterfully crafted marketing campaigns, average consumer knowledge of cacao [or cocoa] is limited to its function as an ingredient and source from which their beloved chocolate is derived. There is much more to the birth, rise, and spread of Theobroma cacao.

The following seeks to explain how a culturally significant crop among early civilizations dating back to 1500 BCE (Coe and Coe, 2013) transformed from a highly treasured ingredient and social currency cultivated within a fairly limited zone to a globally produced and traded commodity: a highly reformulated, mass-produced, and readily available confectionery product.

This journey traces cacao back to its genetic and cultural beginnings where it was religious and cultural fixture among early civilizations; how exploration and migration played into the geographical expansion of its cultivation and rise in popularity as a food; role in accelerating industrialization; and transformation from a social currency and treasured ingredient to a heavily traded commodity and mass manufactured consumer product.

Genetic and Cultural Beginnings

From births and burials, recipes and rituals, cacao’s cultural origins are linked to Mesoamerica (present day Mexico through Central America), where its social and religious significance among the Olmec dates back to 1500 to 400 BCE (Coe and Coe, 2013). The rise of Maya and Aztec civilizations gave way for cacao’s evolution utility and proliferation as a consumable.

Cacao’s Role in Society and Religion

Evidenced by archeologic discoveries, translated texts, and scientific testing, several vessels and writings have been unearthed, clarifying and validating cacao’s significance, religious ties, and early application as a currency.

Mayan and Aztec civilization associated cacao with the gods. As such, they were believed to enrich and afford protections during and after life, playing a central role in offerings and rituals (Coe and Coe, 2013).

Ceramic vessels similar to those pictured here which date back to 455 to 465 CE were found in burial tombs at Río Azul (Martin, 2019). Further testing confirmed positive traces of caffeine and theobromine—two of cacao’s alkaloid signatures (Martin, 2019).

Dating back to 455 to 465 CE, “funerary vessels” similar to those pictured here were discovered in tombs at Río Azul. As testing revealed traces of caffeine and theobromine, two of cacao’s signature alkaloids, this further supported evidence of cacao’s religious significance (Martin, 2019).

As a food or drink, cacao took many forms. Popular among the Maya and Aztec, “cacahuatl” was a frothy preparation often transferred from one vessel to another and served cold (Coe and Coe, 2013).

Described by Coe and Coe in The True History of Chocolate and drawn by Diane Griffiths Peck, this illustration provides a glimpse into one of many Maya and Aztec cacao preparation and serving methods.
Of the 15 discovered, translated, and still intact, the Dresden Codex contains the aforementioned Mayan hieroglyphic depiction of cacao being consumed by gods and used in rituals (Martin, 2019). Other major works include the Popol Vuh or “Book of Counsel” is a colonial document later translated by Friar Francisco Ximénez that reveals the importance of cacao among early civilizations.

Exploration and Migration: Changes in Cultivation and Consumption

By definition, explorers were bound to make new discoveries and learn from their experience. Capturing the innocent confusion and eye-opening experience (only to be realized years later), the following briefly details just how one explorer mistakenly thought that cacao beans were almonds.”

Mistaken for Almonds: When recounting observations from his 1502 landing at Guanaja, one of many landmasses that make up the Bay Islands archipelago, Ferdinand Columbus, one of Christopher Columbus’ sons wrote about cherished “almonds” that traded hands similarly to how currency would pass between customers and merchants (Coe and Coe, 2013). It was not until years later after multiple interpretations and sources concluded that what he presumed to be almonds were in fact cacao beans.

As it came to be more widely known, not far from where Ferdidnad landed, throughout the Rio Ceniza Valley (present day coast of El Salvador), cacao was an increasingly popular form of currency being produced and traded in record volume—something . In time, this led to further learnings about the “Nahua counting system” and subsequent adoption of cacao as payment for “protection” by Spanish conquistadors.

Generally relegated to tropical climates falling 10-15 degrees north and south of equator, is was inevitable that cacao would make its way around the world. So as people moved, and culture spread, so too did the cacao, as a crop, currency, and curiosity, ultimately leading to its introduction to new geographies, and paving the way for new industries and traditions around the world (Martin, 2019).

New Formulations and Complementary Ingredients

As ingredients such as vanilla, chili, and many others traveled around the world, pairings and formulations rapidly evolved. Marking a major development and informing direction for the confectionery side as we know it today, sugar was introduced to Europe around 1100 CE and chocolate followed shortly thereafter in 1500 CE (Martin, 2019).

Cacao’s Role in Accelerating Industrialization and Expanding its Place in Society

While cacao consumption continued to be reserved for certain classes during its journey around the world, increasingly sophisticated processing methods streamlined productions, regulation eventually brought its price down, and despite medical and religious challenges to its place in society, cacao products were increasingly available to a grander population.

By the 1600 and 1700s, advances in processing continued to align with rising and more diverse consumption habits. Of course, by this time, the separation between “producing” and “processing” countries (read: colonies vs. industrialized nations) was increasingly clear.

So while cultivation and production spread across Central and South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa to meet demand, industry began to take shape on the consumer side as well with the emergence of social gathering halls or “Chocolate Houses” in Britain, France, Spain, the United States, and other “industrialized” nations who had transitioned to managing the cacao’s trade as a commodity and processing for various food and beverage applications. It was not until Rudolphe Lindt’s invention of the conche in 1879, an advancement that bolstered flavor and feel (among other things), and set the stage for quality, processing, and mass production to take off (Coe and Coe, 2013).

Illustrated above, the matete, grinder, and conche are examples of what cacao processing tools were used by early civilizations (and are still used in the same or similar forms today) and evolved or industrialized processing equipment employed today (Martin, 2019).

From early civilizations to present day, cacao’s role in society, cultural significance, availability and consumption have evolved tremendously. However, its mystique and association as something special are still true to this day—just as they were in different and more elaborate forms among early civilizations. Perhaps this condensed history will give pause and reason for the average consumer to think beyond commercialization of cacao, cocoa, or chocolate, and value and validate its history and claims made by brands to improve global understanding, perception, and consumer habits.

Works Cited

  • Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd Edition, Thames & Hudson, 2013.
  • Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.Hu, Vol. 3, 2015, pp. 37–60.
  • Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, 1986.
  • Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018

Media Cited

  • Hansen, Magnus Pharao. “Cacao: How a Single Word Holds the Key to Understanding the Mesoamerican Past”. Nawatl Scholar. January 1, 1970. Accessed March 15, 2019. http://nahuatlstudies.blogspot.com/2015/01/cacao-how-contested-history-of-single.html?spref=tw.
  • Olver, Lynne. “Food Timeline FAQs: Aztec, Maya, & Inca foods and recipes”. Lynne Olver 2000. March 1, 2015. Accessed February 17, 2019. http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodmaya.html.
  • Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies. “Map of Mesoamerica.” Accessed February 17, 2019. http://www.famsi.org/maps/.
  • Río Azul [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
  • Wikimedia Commons. File:Popol vuh.jpg. (January 16, 2015). Retrieved February 17, 2019. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Popol_vuh.jpg&oldid=146695431.
  • Matete [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
  • Grinder [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
  • Conche [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.

Lectures Cited

  • Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Expansion”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. February 13, 2019. Lecture.
  • Martin, Carla D. “Sugar and Cacao”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. February 20, 2019. Lecture.
  • Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.

Cacao as Part of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican Society

While the essential process of turning pods of the Theobroma cacao, or cacao tree, into edible forms of chocolate has remained largely unchanged over the last several thousand years, its earliest/original cultural significance has largely been lost or ignored in favor of an emphasis on individual enjoyment and commercial expansion.  As Carla Martin and Kathryn Sampeck reflect in “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe,” cacao has a “Potent history of ritual, cosmological, and high-status associations.”

Through various accounts, as well as the discovery of ancient artifacts and the more recent translations of glyphs found on Classic-period vessels, we can enjoy a more authentic understanding of what cacao meant to the people who brought it into existence.  Chocolate is such an incredibly important part of our world today, it is hard to imagine a society without it. We owe it to these early civilizations to pay respectful attention to the importance chocolate played in their own societies and how it permeated every aspect of their cultures during the pre-Conquest era.

Cacao held value in myriad ways for the people of pre-Conquest Mesoamerica, and therefore it was present in almost every aspect of society.  It was also of great importance at every level of society, from the lowest classes to royalty and even in their views the celestial world and the afterlife.  

One use of cacao that affected all aspects of society was as coinage.  It can be difficult in at this point in time to imagine using a perishable commodity such as chocolate as currency, but it was indeed a valuable staple of the Mesoamerican economical system.  While some have argued that the Spanish introduced the concept of using cacao as a form of currency, we can see from Colonial era documentary information that the indigenous communities were already using it in this way upon their arrival.  One of the first accounts of this “coin of the realm” was written by Peter Martyr, an early observer of the Aztec society. In one of his passages from his De Orbe Novo, he writes “ But it is very needful to heare what happie money they use, for they have money, which I call happy, because for the greedie desire and gaping to attaine the same, the bowelles of the earth are not rent a sunder, nor through the ravening greediness of covetous men, nor terrour of warres assayling, it returneth to the dennes and caves of the mother earth, as golden, or silver money doth. For this groweth upon trees.”

In terms of the purchasing power of cacao beans (or more accurately, the seeds of the cacao pod), there are varying reports. However, according to a Nahuatl document in 1545 documenting prices in Tlaxcala, one cacao bean held the equivalent value of one large tomato or one tamale.  Three beans would buy you an avocado, 30 would buy you a small rabbit, and 100 full beans (or alternatively 120 shrunken beans) would buy you one good turkey hen.

Naturally, cacao was also used as a consumable good in pre-Colonial Mesoamerica, but it was consumed largely as a drink rather than a food.  According to Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, “during nine tenths of its long history, chocolate was drunk, not eaten.” Evidence of this can be found in many artifacts discovered in that region, including the Princeton Vase below.  This example of Maya “codex style” ceramic art depicts a woman pouring a chocolate beverage from one vessel into another for the Merchant God. It is the earliest known depiction of a chocolate beverage being frothed and served. Cacao was often combined with corn in beverages to give it more sustenance, and it was also used in recipes to add flavor to other foods.

Beyond the serving of cacao as a pleasurable beverage or food, it was also believed by the Mesoamericans to have medicinal qualities.  It was used to treat digestive issues, coughs, and other sicknesses, and it was used as an anaesthetic, an anti-inflammatory aid, and as a cure for struggles such as breast milk production and kidney stones.  According to the Florentine Codex, an early collaboration between Aztec and Spanish ethnographers, cacao beans were used in combination with other ingredients to treat a range of physical and psychological issues, from fatigue to anemia. Cacao was also believed to provide strength and energy, so soldiers would often drink it before battle, and depictions of warriors carrying cacao beans into war can be found on many of the artifacts from that era.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who documented the Spanish conquest extensively, relayed the use of cacao beverages by the Aztecsfor “success with women.”  We now know that chocolate contains the compound phenylethylamne, which the brain produces when they experience attraction, confirming the Aztec belief in the connection between chocolate and romance.  

Cacao had a large role in community rituals and traditions as well.  Cacao beans were used as dowry payments, and cacao beverages were served during betrothal and marriage ceremonies.  One such marriage ritual, “tac haa,” involved inviting the father of a girl whom one’s son wants to marry to discuss the marriage and serving him a chocolate drink.

Similarly, cacao was present in the death rituals of the Mesoamerican era as well.  Images and glyphs depicting cacao in its various forms – pods, beans, beverages, etc. – are seen in many depictions of burial ceremonies, and for those who could afford it, the dead were even buried with cacao vessels filled with the chocolate beverage, to give their souls strength and energy in the afterlife.

Other examples of cacao as part of the societal fabric is how it was used to depict class and hierarchy.  For example, we see portrayals in paintings and carvings of members of royal families emerging from the ground as cacao trees.  This was done as a way of legitimating their royal blood and status. The cacao trees, or theobroma cacao, were considered sacred, referred to also as “world trees” or “first trees.”  In their mythologies, dieties were often born of trees or transformed into trees; the roots extended down to the underworld, the trunk represented the contemporary world, and the leaves or shoots reached up into the heavens.  In essence, the cacao tree served as a metastructure of the heavens.

As we have seen here, cacao in its various forms played a very potent role throughout pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.  It served as a social “glue,” binding the peoples of each region together through common rituals and customs, and doing social “work,” in a vastly expanded yet somehow way when compared to our own contemporary concept of “chocolate.”  

Works Cited:

Bernardino de Sahagun, Fray. Florentine Codex, General History of the Things of New Spain, Book X. Santa Fe: School of American Research, 1955.

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

Edgar, Blake. “The Power of Chocolate.” Archaeology Magazine, 2010, archive.archaeology.org/1011/abstracts/chocolate.html.

Martin, Carla and Sampeck, Kathryn. The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe. The Social Meaning of Food. Socio.HU, 2015.

Wolfe, David and Holdstock, Sharon. Naked Chocolate: The Astonishing Truth About the World’s Greatest Food. North Atlantic Books, 2005.


The Movement of Cacao and its Contributions to Today’s Contradictory Chocolate Culture

Chocolate. Convenient, but luxurious. Heartwarming, yet harmful to health. Innocently childish, but sinfully sexual. Rich and elite, yet somehow democratized. The cultural impact and social connotations of chocolate are about as diverse and confounding as the chemical makeup of the cacao beans themselves. Metaphorically and physically, it seems as if chocolate can take on any form we impose on it. It has no strict definition, so it either contributes to the confusing complexity of our culture today or is oversimplified through the imposition of a specific but incomplete structure. One might wonder how and why chocolate, specifically, so profoundly developed these odd cultural characteristics in the Western world.

The development of the role of chocolate in society today ties fundamentally back to the effect of the spread of chocolate from its Mesoamerican home to Europe, when the functionality of chocolate shifted and developed into what we know today. Whereas all aspects of chocolate production and consumption were intertwined and fundamentally connected in Mesoamerican society, its spread to Europe caused an irreversible disconnect between all stages of the chocolate experience. Chocolate no longer served as a reflection of or connection to humanity and society. Instead, it took on an exotic quality, able to be molded into the desires of the person.  It became a social construct and developed a standardized, homogenous cultural trap for Westerners, both fulfilling and now defining their own desires rather than reflecting it.

In Mesoamerican society, where cacao was first cultivated and consumed, cacao served as a pillar of the social, cultural, and religious structures and was as a crucial reflection of the state of society as a whole (Coe 17, 39-40). Mesoamerican people, specifically the Aztec and Maya, integrated cacao into every portion of their life and were connected to cacao and chocolate at every stage of its harvesting, consumption, or use otherwise. Cacao served as a currency, a luxury food for the elite, a powerful source of energy for warriors, a symbol of religious significance, and a deep and meaningful connection to the significance and origins of life (Leissle 30-32). All members of society were aware of its role at every stage of development and consumption and felt a personal stake in maintaining and cherishing the importance of the cacao plant. Each person’s life was intrinsically connected to that of the cacao plant (Coe 41-42). Cacao reinforced the social structure, the culture, and the way of life, and consequently also reflected it.

However, cacao’s connection to European societies was intrinsically different. Europeans were introduced to cacao with prejudice, with a mindset already in place that would forever change the way that they interact with the plant. Their goals in traveling to the Americas were to find cures and remedies for all that seemed to be plaguing their own societies. They were looking for sources of wealth, medicine, romance, and more (Coe 96).  And with such a strong, desperate desire to find these things, they ended up fabricating them out of whatever they found, especially cacao. The first Europeans to “discover” cacao already had a destiny planned out for cacao before even setting eyes on it, and this destiny was what they brought back to their home.

What does this mean for the contribution of cacao and chocolate to Europe’s culture? Clearly, since the very beginning, chocolate served as a mode of fabricating a reality that fit the wishes and desires of Europeans. It served as an exotic, luxurious drink of the elite (Leissle 35-36). It served as a medicine, a cure-all for the various ailments that plagued European society (Coe 126-129). It was simultaneously sexualized (Coe 171) for adults and later purified for children. It was politically, religiously, and medically debated (Leissle 35). Chocolate could be anything and everything. Since Europeans felt no historical, traditional, or other connection to cacao, they had complete discretion over the role it played in their own lives. As this power fell into the hands of millions of Europeans, the role of cacao was suddenly no longer well-defined. Chocolate became a little bit of everything, but it thus fell victim to not truly being much of anything. Because of this, it escapes specific categorizations and is associated with general contradicting characteristics (sensuality, wealth, luxury, innocence, etc.). Take, for example, a Ferrero Rocher advertisement, displaying chocolate as a luxury for the wealthy (Ferrero Rocher). Another advertisement, released by Sainsbury, depicts quite the opposite scenario where chocolate is meant to warm the hearts of the jaded common men fighting in WWI (Sainsbury’s).

Ferrero Rocher Commercial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jld1rpsrtSI

Sainsbury Commercial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWF2JBb1bvM

Or consider, for instance, a Godiva commercial where chocolate is advertised as a highly gendered, sexualized product (Godiva Chocolates). Yet, we can quickly turn to a Cadbury commercial that ties chocolate to innocent young children and family values (Cadbury):

Godiva Commercial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EfA1iAgPczY  

Cadbury Commercial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0eEqeizNCA

Curiously, as early Europeans defined cacao and chocolate culture, they were unconsciously setting themselves up to later be dominated by the same product that they once controlled. Besides its enticing flavors, the ability to fit any desire gradually made chocolate extremely popular, which transferred power back to cacao. The Western world trapped itself in a generalizing, homogenifying culture defined by chocolate’s cultural associations. Today, we see that chocolate has grown so powerful that now it defines for us the contradictory culture that we initially created for it.

One of the clearest examples of this is how cacao’s role changed in the reinforcement of class structure. In Mesoamerican society, cacao reinforced strict social dichotomies, mainly through how each class interacted with the substance (Leissle 33) (Martin and Sampeck 39-40). The chocolate drink and cacao cakes were for the nobility and warriors (Coe 33, 76, 95).  Lower classes did not consume it often (Coe 95), but they were fundamentally connected to cacao ecologically, financially (as a currency), and symbolically (Leissle 30). No matter the class, everyone was aware of every step of cacao harvesting, use, and value addition. This universal awareness of cacao’s role in society seemed to create a very transparent social structure.

When cacao moved to Europe, it took on a different way of reinforcing class structure. Cacao production was moved to far away plantations in Sao Tome, Principe, Ghana, Nigeria, Côte D’Ivoire, and more (Martin and Sampeck 49-50). Cacao stopped reflecting society or connecting cacao and humanity. We are no longer familiar with who grows it, how it is made, and how it affects us. We have trapped ourselves in a world of mirrors, where all that is visible is our final personal interaction with the product. All else is hidden behind closed doors. Europeans could define the role that chocolate played; they could show what they wanted, hide what they wanted, cherish some aspects, and spit on others. But, fragmenting cacao’s value and social impact inherently fragmented humanity as well.

It is common in this day and age to believe that ancient societies like those of the Aztec and Maya were incredibly powerful, stable, and knowledgeable. It appears as if these people held the key to life, youth, health, happiness, and more, but this is not necessarily true. The Maya and Aztec appeared successful because their lifestyle was centered around traditions and objects that dated back centuries, possibly even millenia. In contrast, with the diversity of concepts, foods, objects, and more that the Europeans had been introduced to which had no traditional or fundamental connection, they were essentially given the incredible power to decide for themselves how to incorporate each new discovery into their own society. By pure nature of the situation, as we see with cacao specifically, out of a stable and established culture grew a fluid, moldable, and complex one that has trapped Westerners in a contradictory culture that now ironically defines their roles for them.

Works Cited:

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

Cadbury. “Cadbury – Mum’s Birthday TV Advert – 2018 (60 secs).” YouTube, Cadbury, 12 Jan. 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l0eEqeizNCA.

Ferrero Rocher. “Ferrero Rocher: Christmas Greetings.” YouTube, Ferrero Rocher, 29 Nov. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jld1rpsrtSI.

Godiva Chocolates UK. “New Godiva Masterpieces Chocolates. Chocolate Never Felt so Good.” YouTube, Godiva Chocolates UK, 3 Oct. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=EfA1iAgPczY.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.

Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.hu, no. Special issue 3, 2015, pp. 37–60., doi:10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37.

Sainsbury’s. “1914 | Sainsbury’s Ad | Christmas 2014.” YouTube, Sainsbury’s, 12 Nov. 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWF2JBb1bvM.

The Ritual Significance of Cacao in Pre-Colombian Mesoamerica

Chocolate and other cocao-based products were first produced by Mesoamerican natives from the beans of the cacao tree, theobroma cacao, pictured below. The genus of cacao’s scientific name, theobroma, means “food of the gods,” and the species name, cacao, is the Mesoamerican name for the tree and its beans (Coe and Coe 2007, 17-18). This scientific name is particularly appropriate for cacao, as the tree and its beans carried great significance in Mesoamerican religions. Cacao was indeed associated with the gods and important rituals in Maya and Aztec societies. In pre-Columbian Maya and Aztec civilizations, cacao was significant for religious customs and beliefs surrounding death, fertility, and economic exchange.

Cacao Tree - Theobroma cacao
Figure 1: Theobroma cacao tree and pods

Cacao and Death

In pre-Colombian Mesoamerica, cacao was ritually connected to and representative of death. The cacao tree grows in the shady understory of the lowland tropical forests of Central America (Coe and Coe 2007). Because of cacao’s love of shade, the tree was associated with night and the Underworld in Mesoamerican societies (Leissle 2018). In the Maya origin myth, the central deity, the Maize God, is beheaded in the Underworld. The Maize God’s head is then hung on none other than the cacao tree. Cacao beverages were often prepared by adding achiote, a red plant substance, that colored the drink red and linked cacao to blood (Leissle 2018). In Figure 2 below, the cacao tree is depicted as one of the four sacred trees of Aztec society, representing the South. The pods of the cacao tree in the image are painted red, harkening this connection to blood and resembling a human heart (Coe and Coe 2007, 103). The ghostly spectre of Mictlantecuhtli, the Lord of the Land of the Dead, is depicted standing beside the cacao tree on one side, reinforcing cacao’s connection to death and the Underworld (Coe and Coe 2007, 103). Cacao was also utilized as an offering in human sacrifices, especially by the Aztecs (though human sacrifice was likely not as widespread as Spanish accounts suggest) (Leissle 2018). In both Maya and Aztec societies, cacao was not only a food but an important symbol of the transition between this life and the next. Because of cacao’s religious significance, the consumption of cacao in these Mesoamerican societies was a symbolic act in itself.

Figure 2: pre-Columbian Aztec ritual calendar depicting the four quarters of the universe, four world-trees, and nine gods , taken from the Codex Fejervary-Mayer (Coe and Coe 2007, 102). The cacao tree of the South is depicted on the right.

Cacao and Fertility

In Mesoamerican religion, cacao was also associated with rebirth and fertility. In Mesoamerican ideology, death is the foundation for new life (Martin 2009). In the Maya origin myth introduced above, from the Maize God’s corpse, the next generation is conceived and fruit-bearing trees sprout, specifically the coveted cacao tree (Martin 2009). In this cycle of death and rebirth, cacao was not only an important symbol of death in Mesoamerican cultures but also a symbol of fertility and life. Mesoamerican people believed that humans were created by the gods from the food crops that sustained life, especially cacao and maize (Coe and Coe 2007). As a symbol of new life, cacao was often exchanged to endorse marriage alliances in both Maya and Aztec societies (Martin and Sampeck 2016; Coe and Coe 2007). Brides and bridegrooms in marriage ceremonies would often gift cacao beans or beverages to one another and engage in chokola’j, the act of drinking chocolate together, to seal the wedding pact (Coe and Coe 2007, 61). This exchange of cacao was a blessing of fertility for the couple.

Cacao and Wealth

Beyond the social exchanges of marriage and fertility, cacao was also important for economic exchanges and ritual displays of wealth. Cacao beans were used as valuable currency by Maya and Aztec people. Cacao became associated with trade and mercantilism as the merchant class in Mesoamerican societies transported precious cacao beans and seasonings from distant areas of production throughout the Maya and Aztec civilizations (Coe and Coe 2007). Figure 3 below depicts the Maya Merchant God (Ek Chuah or God L) with a cacao tree. The Merchant God in the image is located at the botom of a set of stairs; this location is quite purposeful because the Merchant God was also the principal deity of the Underworld. Thus God L has a two-fold connection to cacao as both an important trade item and a symbol of death (Martin 2009). Cacao was such a valuable currency and sacred food item that Mesoamericans were buried with cacao in their tombs to take with them into the afterlife (Coe and Coe 2007, 47; Leissle 2018). Cacao in daily life and in Mesoamerican religion was a symbol of power and wealth that could even aide one in death. In life, Mesoamerican elites would also display their wealth and power by hosting feasts at which guests drank chocolate beverages (Coe and Coe 2007). Cacao as a symbol of wealth in life and in death interweaves these ritual themes of death, rebirth, and economic exchange.

Figure 3: The Maya Merchant God with a cacao tree on a 9th century mural at Cacaxtla in central Mexico (Coe and Coe 2007, 55).

Concluding Thoughts

The spiritual meanings of cacao as it related to death, fertility, and economic exchange in Mesoamerican societies were interconnected in complex and significant ways. Cacao served in Maya and Aztec cultures as a symbol of the afterlife, yet the afterlife was also intimately connected with the idea of rebirth and fertility. Thus, cacao carried meanings of both death and new life. Additionally, cacao came to be associated with wealth, power, and trade. The significance of cacao in economic exchange transcended both life and death as the Maya and Aztec elites displayed their wealth in cacao through ritual feasts while living and in their burial chambers after death. Cacao for the Maya and Aztec was so much more than a food product or a beverage. Cacao was thoroughly integrated into Mesoamerican peoples’ belief systems and ways of life.

If the reader is interested in further exploring cacao’s ritual significance in Mesoamerica, check out this video production:

Bibliography

2013. “Xiuhtecuhtli 1.jpg.” Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved March 14, 2019 (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7e/Xiuhtecuhtli_1.jpg).

Bjorn, S. 2016. “Cacao Tree: Theobroma Cacao.” Flickr. Retrieved March 15, 2019 (https://www.flickr.com/photos/40948266@N04/26680744921).

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2007. The True History of Chocolate. 2nd ed. London: Thames & Hudson.

Leissle, Kristy. 2018. Cocoa. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Martin, Carla and Sampeck, Kathryn. 2016. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.hu, 37-60.

Martin, Simon. 2009. “Cacao in Ancient Maya Religion: First Fruit from the Maize Tree and other Tales from the Underworld.” Pp. 154-183 in Chocolate in Mesoamerica. Edited by McNeil, Cameron L. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press.

Sandra Origins. 2016. “Cacao Pathway to the Gods: Sacred Cacao Rituals.” You-Tube Web site. Retrieved March 14, 2019 (https://youtu.be/XDxZ_BH_xYQ).

Zaman, Tim. 2012. “Caxatla Mural Del Templo Rojo.jpg.” Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved March 14, 2019 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Caxatla_Mural_Del_Templo_Rojo.jpg).

Compliments to the Chef: Lessons from a Mayan Chocolate Recipe

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.

A map of the Mayan civilization

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.

The drinking cup of a classic Maya noble.

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.

National Geographic video on the continuing Mayan tradition of chocolate making

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.

Works Cited

Coe, S. (2007). The true history of chocolate (Revised [and updated ed.]. ed.). New York: Thames and Hudson.

Doyle, J. (2014). The Drinking Cup of a Classic Maya Noble. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed from https://www.metmuseum.org/blogs/now-at-the-met/2014/maya-drinking-cup

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 York.

Mintz, S. (1986). Sweetness and power : The place of sugar in modern history. New York: Penguin Books.

Image Credits:

https://ancientcivilizationsworld.com/maya/ancient-maya-civilization-map/

https://www.metmuseum.org/blogs/now-at-the-met/2014/maya-drinking-cup