Tag Archives: mexico

Ethnography on Chocolate: Socioeconomic Visual Culture, Mesoamerican Origins, & Contemporary Perspectives

The purpose of this small-scale ethnography is to examine the social significance of chocolate from a cross-cultural perspective. Through interviewing various members of my local community that were born in different regions of Mexico and Central America, I document here their experiences and observances of chocolate.

Experienced through consumption or non-consumption, and observed through their emic perspective, there are underscoring themes exposed amongst the roles in which chocolate has played throughout each of their own lives. Within the context of those personal relationships with chocolate, an interaction between social and economic functions of their state and country may be contemporaneous to their outlook. Although this simultaneity is not always the circumstance, motifs emerge as their uniqueness transpires. Effectually, their contributed insight has actualized a microcosm of chocolates’ socio-cultural diversity and likenesses.

While conducting the interviews with members of my community, the aim was to first listen to their observances, and to then ask questions of clarification to assist in their thought process. The framework of my Q&A was designed this way to acquire a qualitative study, so that this retelling would reflect the individual perspectives of each subject, synchronously providing a glimpse into the societal experience. To depict those experiences through a cultural historical lens, that of which illustrated itself during most of the interviews already, I asked questions about their culture as a whole and how they thought chocolate was generally regarded in their own communities.

This study is not meant to define those relationships, but to highlight multiplicities within these individual cross- cultural accounts. Over reflections of my own and of the human subjects in this ethnographic study, I hope to provide sufficient ­imagery of historic milieu within the functional roles chocolate has played in personal experience and in society.

Origins

Theobroma Cacao, or the Food-of-the-God’s Cacao, is widely accepted by botanists and scholars as indigenous to Mesoamerica. Evidence of its cultivation is indicative of the role it played in ancient civilizations like the Mixe-Zoquean-speaking Olmecs (1500 BCE – 400 BCE). At the famed Olmec archaeological site in San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, evidence has been found of the term “Kakawa” used by the Olmec as early as 1000 BCE (Coe & Coe, 1996). See on the map below, San Lorenzo is west of present day Guatemala, and north of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico.

 

San Lorenzo on the map 2
San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán is a famed archaeological site, well known for the massive Olmec stone heads excavated there

 

We find in the archaeological record, the ways in which early civilizations illustrated cacao, or “Kakawa” on their pottery. This being a significant attribute to understand the role chocolate played in their livelihoods and rituals. According to Maricel Presilla in her book, The New Taste of Chocolate, “it was the Maya who brought chocolate making to a high art… building on the foundation left behind by other Mesoamerican cultures”, like that of the Olmecs and other sibling tribes (2009).

 

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Buenavista vase, Buenavista del Cayo, Belize

 

See this Classic Maya vase from the seventh century portraying the Maize God in an “unending dance, symbolizing both the creation of the universe and also his cycle of death and rebirth” (Takushi, Pioneer Press).

Maya Classic period (250 – 900 CE) vessels show quite literally the function of cacao as it was for drinking, as well as the relative role it played in Mayan life though various representations of the divine.

This is one of the many Classic period vessels that was found to contain cacao residues inside. We know it was used to hold chocolate because cacao is the only plant in the region with both the compounds Theobromine and Caffeine, “a unique marker for the presence of cacao in pre-Columbian artifacts” (Cheong, 2011). To verify the vessels were used to hold chocolate was an important piece to the archaeological record. It provided contextual knowledge when deciphering the imagery or glyphs depicted on the vessels.

Affirmed in the glyphs of drinking vessels from this period, there is evidence of “well established cacao-chocolate terminology”. On the Buenavista vase shown above, we see “tree-fresh cacao” inscribed.  From the Primary Standard Sequence (PSS) of the glyphs you see banded around the top of the vessel, the characters that make the Maya name for cacao, “Ka-Ka-Wa” were deciphered. What strikes me the most about this piece is the seemingly relative “tree-fresh cacao” to the Maize God’s cyclical existence. (Presilla, 2009)

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Buenavista vase closeup: Maya glyphs depicted translate to “tree-fresh cacao”, “Ta-Tsih-Te’el Kakawa” (Prescilla)

I particularly find this vessel so interesting when we look at the role of chocolate in culture because it reflects a cyclical ideology of their ecological relationship to their land; in the sustenance it provides, the concept of time through death and rebirth, and their Gods all-encompassing role within those cycles.

Field Study

A few years ago in 2013 I came to know a few young men and women from the northern Mexican state of Sonora – (follow the link to read a brief history of Seri Indians of Sonora). They were working and studying here on visa’s while we were employed at a busy restaurant in the heart of downtown Boston. What better place than behind the bar to nose around and pick into people’s lives for cultural insights! Just kidding on the nose-picking… but seriously, even minute conversations with guests created thought-provoking observations. During their multiple terms of residency in Boston over the years, these talented intellectual Sonoran natives and I connected on Mexican – American culture alike, and apart. Upon reaching out to ask if anyone would be interested in participating in this modest ethnographic study, my request was received most graciously. They have all elected to omit fully identifying information, so for the purposes of this study, I will refer to them by their first name only. Below I have included their perspectives on the role chocolate has played throughout their lives.

Andrés began by explaining Mexico as a large country where the culture is full of diversity. “Every state has their own culture about everything – food, traditional parties, our dialect and slang”. With that being said, in the state of Sonora where he lives he doesn’t use chocolate and cacao the way he knows it is used in the southern states of the country like Oaxaca, Guerrero, Chiapas, and Tabasco. Andrés has observed the influence of cacao beans in southern Mexico because the cacao growing region produces a lot of recipes that involve cacao and chocolate.

When I asked what he knows about Mesoamerican uses for cacao, he remembers learning from childhood that they used it as currency, and he understood they sometimes would use it in beauty treatments. On that note, I recollect a fortuitous conversation about skin care had between myself and a female of Mexican ancestry I met while servicing wedding hair and makeup to her cousin’s bridal party, circa summer 2015 in East Boston – Indeed, I am not only an aspiring Anthropologist, also a Cosmetologist. My thoughts are usually occupied by anthropological inquiry on a daily basis, which inevitably grants unique opportunity for cultural discussions with the people I meet. Although not a part of this ethnography, she let me know back then about her family recipe for a skin care regimen that contains cacao. Her grandmother and her aunts would grind down cacao beans into a powder, “cocoa powder” minus the hydraulic press. They would mix the antioxidant rich powder with other grinded down local herbs, add water to create a paste-like texture and apply generously to the skin.

“Lather. Dry. Rinse. Repeat.” – she persisted. Yum.

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The Spa At Hotel Hershey seems to know just how to indulge all the senses with chocolate

 

For the purposes of this study, I was curious about chocolate in spa treatments, as I have heard echoes of the luxury before. Take a look at The Spa At The Hotel Hershey or examples of just a few contemporary accommodations created for chocolate in the beauty industry.

Andrés expressed to me that Sonora being just below Arizona, his culture is more- so “American” than the way Mexicans live in the south. It is in his experience and observation the misconception of Mexican culture as being one. I think any educated person understands culture, language, economy, etc. vary across spaces of human population. Yet, for those who generalize a nation’s people by its borders, Andrés and his community experience the bias. He grew up with a collection of influences “by the things Americans do”. For example, one of his earliest memories of eating chocolate was during Halloween. They’re also heavily influenced by “spring break madness”, as he defined the season. He grew up consuming chocolate predominantly made by the big corporations, like Mars. His notable favorites being the Snicker and M&Ms. “In the south they don’t have that influence, they don’t experience American Halloween as we do”.

Carlos V chocolate bars are the Nestlé- proclaimed “# 1 chocolate brand in Mexico with over 70 years in the market!… Because of its unique and mild flavor, it is considered the reference of chocolate for Mexicans.” The Aztec stylized imagery first designed to brand the chocolate before it was bought by Nestlé sometime in the 1980’s was created by Fabrica de Chocolates La Azteca, S.A. de C.V. Jason Liebig on his blog, Collecting Candy chronicles his findings in the L.M. Kallok Confectioners Collection of antique packaging. Most notable about the evolution of the branding is first the Aztec styling alongside the “Imperial Coat of Arms” for “by the grace of God, Carolus V Imperator (emporer)”. Then with the English labeling introduced we see a change in the ingredients as well (which was apparent of each label seen in Leibig’s compilation from the beginning to the end. “A tie-in with the film Toy Story, which tells us La Azteca was still the brand’s sole owner as late as 1995″ is interesting where we see Quaker Oats leaving its insignia on the label by the late 1990’s.

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Not one of the Sonoran’s I interviewed has tried a Carlos V chocolate bar but they have all heard of it at some point in their life through advertisements. Eduardo attests to Andrés’ personal account of diversity from the southern regions in Mexico. Dia de los Muertos is “not celebrated as much as the south, but we do things like going to the cemetery”, Andrés says. Eduardo told me that they celebrate Dia de los Muertos on November 2. “We celebrate in memory of the people who are no longer with us and usually at the tombstones we put special things they liked when they were alive. Chocolates is usually one of them”. Both Andrés and Eduardo did not have a definitive sense of the historical reason for chocolate being placed on gravesites, but they both know it as a long- standing tradition and ritual in celebrating their deceased ancestors. Fernanda, another Sonoran native, added some insight to this practice of memorial. She told me that usually the graveyards are managed by local churches or publicly owned so in contrast to the majority of graveyards that are privately owned in the US, the families play a greater role in gravesite maintenance of their deceased. In this way, chocolate serves a social function in their celebrations.

Interpretations

Shown below, Dr. Martin presented in class this semester some of the ways Maya and Mixtec society visually depicted the functions that cacao played within their cultural practices and belief systems. Royal marriages necessitated the use of currency in the negotiation, so we see in the Codex Nuttall how cacao was a part of the price for the bride. Eduardo remembers learning in school that Mayans used to used the cacao “as a coin to buy everything, from goods to wives”. A relative topic for further study would be in the ways chocolate was introduced to the elite. Diffused out of Mesoamerica first by the Spanish, the Europeans assimilated to its royal regard and used chocolate in the women’s dowry through royal inter-marriages – that of which played a great role in spreading chocolate throughout Europe.

Another example (seen below) comes from the Madrid Codex where we see cacao being exchanged, portraying a give-and-take linkage between their concepts of cyclical time (lunar goddess) and their environment (rain god). I find this imagery especially expressive to their belief of the divine relationship to their human existence and sustenance on earth. Lastly, from the Codex Nuttall we see a royal funerary procession in “Twelve Movements”. Within the tomb depicted at the bottom right of the artwork lies a “vessel of foaming cacao beverage… to ease the soul’s journey to the underworld”. (Martin)

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Eduardo recounts drinking cups of hot chocolate since he can remember. While traveling south to Puebla state he tried their “typical meal, mole, and it’s made of cacao”. What he knows about the Maya and cacao is how they used to prepare beverages and meals like the Puebla “mole”. “We have different tribes and culture but we learned about it in school and I experiences it myself while traveling south. Cacao is still a huge deal in south Mexico.”

 

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“Mole” Ingredients. Presilla, 2009

 

See the dozen or more ingredients to make the traditional “thick, baroque sauce, mole” from Xalapa, Veracruz (Presilla), north of Puebla state in Mexico. Presilla notes that each ingredient is “processed in sequence, each at its own time” (2009).

As the mole is diverse in ingredients, and rich in unique Mesoamerican culture, so too – as these contemporary perspectives have illustrated, are the people of the region diversely interwoven with it’s history and unique place on Earth’s sphere.

***

 

Sources:

Campbell, Lyle & Kaufman, Terrence. 1976. A Linguistic Look at the Olmecs: American Antiquity, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Jan., 1976), pp. 80-89 Published by: Society for American Archaeology http://www2.hawaii.edu/~lylecamp/LC%20Lx%20look%20at%20Olmecs%20JSTOR.pdf

Cheong, Kong (Powis, T.; Cyphers, A.; Gaikwad, T.W.; Grivetti, L.) 2011. Cacao use and the San Lorenzo Olmec: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). 108(21):8595-600 · May 2011 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/51110764_Cacao_Use_and_the_San_Lorenzo_Olmec

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013 [1996] The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson

Johnston, Bernice. 1997. The Seri Indians of Sonora Mexico. The University of Arizona Press http://www.uapress.arizona.edu/onlinebks/SERIS/HISTORY.HTM

Liebig, Jason. 2012. Carlos V – Building a history for the King of Chocolate Bars http://www.collectingcandy.com/wordpress/?p=2958

Martin, Carla. 2017 AAAS E-119 Lecture Slides. February 1st, pp.23, 47, 53, 57

Mintz, Sidney. 1986 [1985] Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books

Morton, Marcia and Frederic. 1986 Chocolate, An Illustrated History Crown Publishers, Inc. New York, NY

Nestlé. 2017. https://www.nestle.com.mx/brands/carlos-v

Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology: Harvard University. 2017. https://www.peabody.harvard.edu/node/287

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

Smithsonian Institute. 2017. Olmec Stone Heads photo: http://anthropology.si.edu/olmec/english/sites/sanLorenzo.htm

Takushi, Scott (Pioneer Press). 2013, December 17. Museum of Belize and House of Culture: NEWSEUM Blog Spot: Belize’s Maya Collection on Displayhttps://mobnmoc.wordpress.com/2013/12/17/belizes-maya-collection-on-display/mayaex1/

Unknown photographer; featured image. 2016, October – November. Nexos. https://americanwaymagazine.com/cacao-route

Unknown photographer; chocolate as beauty regimen image. 2017. The Spa At The Hotel Hershey. http://www.chocolatespa.com/treatments/signature/chocolate.php

The Evolution of Cacao-Based Drinks in Mexico

Millions of tons of chocolate are produced each year, yet few today would guess that this sugary treat had its origins in frothy, semi-sweet cacao drinks prepared for Maya and Aztec royalty. Chocolate bars, candies, cakes, and pastries are the most popular forms of the food in most of the US and Europe today. Chocolate milk and hot chocolate retain some basic similarity with the cacao drinks of thousands of years ago, yet they combine the chocolate with milk, sugar, and other ingredients that would have been foreign to the Maya and Aztecs. Yet, in Mexico, a tradition of cacao beverages has been preserved from the fall of the Aztec empire to the present day. In this paper, I investigate modern cacao drinks and argue that though they are often marketed with references to the Maya and Aztecs, modern drinks represent a unique hybridity of ancient traditions and European ingredients and styles of preparation.

Chemical analysis has shown that cacao beverages were produced in Mesoamerica as early as 1100 BCE.[1] Cacao beverages were prepared by both the Maya and Aztec, and were considered very precious because cacao beans were used as a form of currency.[2] Maya drinks, especially those produced in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, were known for being prepared hot, while Aztec cacao drinks were generally cold.[3] In Aztec times, cacao beverages were often prepared in different ways depending on the quality of the cacao. High quality cacao was combined with water and frothed, while lower-quality cacao was often combined with other ingredients, including corn, seeds, chili peppers, vanilla, and other flowers.[4] By the time the Spanish arrived in the 1600’s, cacao beverages were sold in markets across Mexico, though cacao remained expensive and had high social significance.[5] Because of the wide range of different flavorings combined with cacao drinks, different regions of present-day Mexico each had unique interpretations of cacao beverages during Aztec times.[6]

Today, Mexico still has a wide range of cacao-based drinks available in different regions of the country. During lecture on February 1st, we watched a video detailing the preparation of Champurrado, a popular chocolate beverage in Mexico today.[7] In this video, the drink is prepared using pre-processed bars of dark chocolate, rather than the raw cacao that would have been used in ancient beverages. Additionally, the Champurrado is mixed with sugar, milk, cinnamon, and star anise – additions that are distinctively European. However, Champurrado also contains masa harina (a form of corn flour) and water, and makes use of a traditional molinillo (an item introduced to Mesoamerica by the Spanish[8]) to mix the ingredients and create a froth. Though the mixture of cacao and water is distinctively Mesoamerican, the additional ingredients and use of a molinillo reflect the influence of Spanish colonialism.

However, Champurrado is just one of many popular cacao drinks in Mexico today – and just one of many unique combinations of ancient recipes and European influences. Today there are a variety of different cacao drinks made in different regions of Mexico, for example bu’pu in Tehuantepec, chorote in Tabasco, tascalate in Chiapas, and tejate in Oaxaca.[9]

Tejate is perhaps the most authentic, as archaeological research has shown that many of its ingredients, as well as the vessels it is served in, reflect the style of cacao beverages produced in Oaxaca for thousands of years.[10] According to a 2009 article from The Atlantic, in tejate’s recipe “you’ll almost always find a blend of nixtamal corn, cacao beans, mamey seed, and rosita de cacao–the secret ingredient that makes tejate truly special. Rosita de cacao is the flower of the funeral tree (Quararibea funebris).”[11] Once the ingredients are combined, tejate is served combined with water and topped with a pile of frothy foam.[12] Similar cacao-foam-based drinks can be found passed-down from generation to generation in Cholula, Puebla, and other regions of Mexico.[13] Though tejate combines cacao, corn, flowers, and abundant foam, much like ancient drinks, it also includes modern influences. Today, tejate is served with a sugar-based syrup, and some have experimented with serving tejate paste “in cookies, cake, ice, powder,” and other forms that stray away from the traditional liquid.[14] Though tejate recipes have been passed down for generations and represent a unique cultural inheritance, they have not been immune to the ingredients and new tastes imported by Spanish colonizers.

The video below describes a drink that can be found in Mexico City, Espuma de Cacao[15] – a beverage very similar to the tejate prepared across Oaxaca. However, it is notable that this version of the drink specifically calls it “El elixir de los Dioses” – the elixir of the Gods – a direct reference to the elite pedigree of cacao beverages in Maya and Aztec times. The video does not reference the influence of Spanish colonialism, yet the inclusion of sugar in the recipe reflects the changes to traditional recipes that occurred under Spanish rule.

Video is from OZY travel blog article.[16]

Besides the recipes for cacao-foam drinks passed down in communities across Mexico, there are also recipes that have been created specifically to recreate the cacao-drinking experience of the Aztecs and Mayans. Munchies documents some such recipes made by Fernando Rodriguez, a businessman in Teotihuacan.[17] Rodriguez uses recipes for ancient drinks, found in such sources as the Popul Vuh and Florentine Codex, to design modern drinks that rely on the same key spices, flavors, flowers, and production methods.[18] Though Rodriguez bases most of his drinks on the historical clues he finds from ancient writings, he still makes some blends that introduce cinnamon, ginger, and other spices that were first introduced to Mesoamerica by Spanish colonizers.[19]

Though different areas of Mexico each have their own variations on how to prepare and serve cacao-based drinks, there are common threads that connect all these beverages. In all areas, modern Mexicans are proud of their unique cultural heritage stemming from Aztec and Maya civilization, and market modern cacao drinks for the ancient wisdom and tradition that they perpetuate. Many of the ancient drink-making customs remain the same – corn, flowers, and water are often added, and foam is still often considered a desirable element to top the beverage. Yet, Spanish and European taste and colonial influence can also be seen in many variations of these drinks. The most common manifestation of this is the addition of sugar, though cinnamon, ginger, star anise, other spices, and milk also reflect the influx of European ingredients and taste preferences. The cacao beverages produced across Mexico today are unique, with no clear counterpart in most other countries, yet they represent both the heritage of ancient civilizations and, more subtly, the complex and difficult legacy of Spanish colonialism.

 

[1] John S. Henderson, Rosemary A. Joyce, Gretchen R. Hall, W. Jeffrey Hurst, and Patrick E. Mcgovern, “Chemical and Archaeological Evidence for the Earliest Cacao Beverages,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, no. 48 (2007): 18937. http://www.pnas.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/content/104/48/18937.full

[2] Sophie D. Coe, and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 3rd ed. (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013), 81-84.

[3] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 83-84.

[4] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 86-94.

[5] Daniela Soleri, Marcus Winter, Steven R. Bozarth, and W. Jeffrey Hurst, “Archaeological Residues and Recipes: Exploratory Testing for Evidence of Maize and Cacao Beverages in Postclassic Vessels from the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico,” Latin American Antiquity 24, no. 03 (2013): 345-62, 345-347, accessed via Hollis, http://www.jstor.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/stable/23645680?seq=3#page_scan_tab_contents

[6] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 94.

[7] Dr. Carla Martin, “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods,’” February 1, 2017, slide 82, https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1FzrAQvjXJZnu7lTixblZ1FsyfDjnXtQ-8JyXd2uq5ZM/edit#slide=id.gef490479d_4_279

[8] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 83-85.

[9] Soleri, et al, “Archaeological Residues and Recipes,” 347.

[10] Soleri, et al, “Archaeological Residues and Recipes.”

[11] Alex Whitmore, “Cacao Tejate: Ancient Chocolate Drink,” The Atlantic, April 28, 2009, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/04/cacao-tejate-ancient-chocolate-drink/16609/

[12] Whitmore, “Cacao Tejate.”

[13] Margot Castaneda, “How Mexico Is Rediscovering (and Reinventing) Ancient Cacao Drinks,” Munchies (a branch of Vice News), January 7, 2017, https://munchies.vice.com/en_us/article/how-mexico-is-rediscovering-ancient-cacao-drinks

[14] Castaneda, “How Mexico Is Rediscovering (and Reinventing) Ancient Cacao Drinks.”

[15] Libby Coleman, “This Chocolatey Mexican Drink Will Get You Foaming at the Mouth,” OZY, January 24, 2017, http://www.ozy.com/good-sht/this-chocolatey-mexican-drink-will-get-you-foaming-at-the-mouth/75134

[16] Coleman, “This Chocolatey Mexican Drink.”

[17] Castaneda, “How Mexico Is Rediscovering (and Reinventing) Ancient Cacao Drinks.”

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

 

Bibliography

Multimedia Sources 

Castaneda, Margot. “How Mexico Is Rediscovering (and Reinventing) Ancient Cacao Drinks.” Munchies (a branch of Vice News). January 7, 2017. https://munchies.vice.com/en_us/article/how-mexico-is-rediscovering-ancient-cacao-drinks

Coleman, Libby. “This Chocolatey Mexican Drink Will Get You Foaming at the Mouth.” OZY. January 24, 2017. http://www.ozy.com/good-sht/this-chocolatey-mexican-drink-will-get-you-foaming-at-the-mouth/75134

Whitmore, Alex. “Cacao Tejate: Ancient Chocolate Drink.” The Atlantic. April 28, 2009. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/04/cacao-tejate-ancient-chocolate-drink/16609/

 

Academic Sources 

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

Henderson, John S., Rosemary A. Joyce, Gretchen R. Hall, W. Jeffrey Hurst, and Patrick E. Mcgovern. “Chemical and Archaeological Evidence for the Earliest Cacao Beverages.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104, no. 48 (2007): 18937. Accessed via Hollis. http://www.pnas.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/content/104/48/18937.full

Martin, Carla. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” February 1, 2017. https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1FzrAQvjXJZnu7lTixblZ1FsyfDjnXtQ-8JyXd2uq5ZM/edit#slide=id.gef490479d_4_279

Soleri, Daniela, Marcus Winter, Steven R. Bozarth, and W. Jeffrey Hurst. “Archaeological Residues and Recipes: Exploratory Testing for Evidence of Maize and Cacao Beverages in Postclassic Vessels from the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico.” Latin American Antiquity 24, no. 03 (2013): 345-62. accessed via Hollis. http://www.jstor.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/stable/23645680?seq=3#page_scan_tab_contents

A Brief Review Of A Bean-To-Bar Company:

 

 The Case Of Xocolatl Mexica

When one first accesses Xocolatl Mexica’s website, it is possible to read “Since 1989 we fabricate pure Xocolatl made with 100% organic Mexican cacao and ancestral natural flavours.” The small Mexican chocolatier was founded about 30 years ago by local entrepreneurs trained in the ancestral art of Xocolatl making and consumption, and since then, they have made it their mission to modify the way in which Mexican societies think about chocolate. By going back to the roots of the tradition, the small company aims to restore indigenous handling of the basic ingredients with which Xocolatl and chocolate were prepared in the past in order to reincorporate them to mainstream society. In this essay I will evaluate the processes that take place in and through this bean-to-bar chocolate company in order to offer quality products, this with the objective of corroborating the affirmation that Xocolatl Mexica is a sustainable, fair company that is helping solve some problems in the cacao-chocolate supply chain.

History of the Company

Xocolatl Mexica is a small family-owned company that was founded in Aguascalientes, Mexico in 1989. Their name comes from the Mayan word ‘Xocolatl’ which translates to ‘bitter water,’ and ‘Mexica,’ which references the homonymous indigenous civilization. According to the company itself, they started experimenting with a few kilograms of cacao in a household setting, trying original indigenous recipes and disregarding the practices of larger chocolatiers and other companies in order to create an authentic Xocolatl essence that stemmed from original local techniques. In their own words, it was “thanks to a trial and error process that [they] learned that cacao must be worked and that every stage of the preparation requires specific knowledge and dedication to ensure that its texture and aroma can be brought to their best.”

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Logo of the company depicting their name and a historically accurate representation of Xocolatl consumption by indigenous people.

The company aims to bring back the traditional preparation method of the Xocolatl, which was a beverage created by the Olmeca people during the Prehispanic era of Mesoamerica that involved the use of cacao beans and water and was sometimes utilized in rituals. It was known as the beverage of the gods and the Maya and Aztec people also used it for years. Xocolatl has had about 4000 years of history, and chocolate as we known it today has only been around for a couple centuries. By going back to the basics of cacao consumption, Xocolatl Mexica aims to restore the conception that the people of Mesoamerica—nowadays partially Mexico—have of cacao, chocolate, and their relevance in social and folkloric practices (Godiva Chocolate, Inc.).

Xocolatl as a beverage was taken to Europe where it was modified, still in liquid form until 1828 when Van Houten invented the hydraulic press that allowed for a solid version to be created. Even though this allowed for ease of spread of chocolate to the masses, Xocolatl Mexica views this transition from liquid to solid consumption of cacao as a sacrilegious happening that corrupted the “beverage of the gods” by adding fats, lower quality cacao, and other impure ingredients that detracted from the natural scents of cacao and other natural Mesoamerican additives. It is because of this transformation that the company wants to return to organic processes.

Cacao Sourcing

The cacao used by Xocolatl Mexica ranges from the coasts of Chiapas, where the plant grew naturally since ancient times. It is Cacao Criollo and is grown organically by local Chiapaneco producers who are also fairly remunerated. Furthermore, the supply chain is reduced by the direct purchase from cacao plantations without any intermediate steps, which in turn accounts for a higher return to the producers themselves.

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In this map, it is possible to see the Mexican state of Chiapas, where the cacao used by Xocolatl Mexica comes form.

Xocolatl Mexica works with Cacao México, an initiative similar to the Mexico Cocoa Project that the Hershey Company and Mars have in Mexico with the same nonprofit organization, but that unlike the further, is completely independent from the chocolatier, which means that information about progress cannot be tainted by a conflict of interests or economic impediments. The Cocoa Project is a subsection of Cacao México that focuses on the practices of Hershey and Mars and has as a goal the improvement of their production systems in particular (Cacao México).

Cacao México aims to promote an increase in high quality cacao production in Mexico (as of now, Mexico is not even close to West Africa even though cacao is native to Mesoamerica) by fomenting sustainable farming practices and supporting the improvement of the life conditions of agriculture workers and their families (Triple Pundit).

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Image of the cacao used by Xocolatl Mexica for the fabrication of their products. 

This all is really important because it not only means that Xocolatl Mexica sources their cacao from sustainable producers that do not negatively impact the environment, but furthermore, the company works with partners that endeavour to ensure that the producers of the crop are actually benefitted and justly remunerated by their labour. The current international climate around the production of cacao and the lack of fair-trade systems in many countries around the world calls for responsible consumers that engage in efforts that strive for equality amid those involved in the chain from bean to bar, which is why companies that make this an integral part of their work are crucial for societal understanding of the magnitude of the issue and the solutions that can be taken to fix it.

Process

The products sold by Xocolatl Mexica go through most of the same processes that other cacao-based products do, with the only exception that no hydraulic presses are utilized by the company due to their philosophy of no separation of components. As it was mentioned before in this paper, the company as a whole believes that separating different parts of cacao is a transgression of the organic qualities that the plant possesses and those that it can provide as an ingredient, which is why they do not use presses in their preparation processes.

However, the rest of the machinery normally used is still employed by Xocolatl Mexica, albeit specifically crafted to fit their company goals. “Every machine has been carefully crafted, following [the company’s] necessities, which means that the machines have adapted to the Xocolatl and not the other way around,” ensuring that their main objective of going back to the roots of cacao consumption is still met. In addition to that, many of the methods of modification for cacao seeds that the company makes use of liken those that ancient civilizations used too, utilizing metates and molcajetes to achieve a more rustic grinding that preserves more aromas and textures characteristic of cacao.

Ancestral preparations of Xocolatl oft included flowers or spices native to Mexico, which in addition to smells and tastes, gave medicinal properties that added to those of cacao. Xocolatl Mexica produces several products that include ingredients such as organic vanilla bean, chili peppers, magnolia flowers, and honey. They also mention how some components of ancient Xocolatl were produced by using plants that have gone extinct and thus are no longer available for consumption, which is important when raising awareness about the potential ecological future of different vegetal ingredients that are consumed by the general population and have a cultural impact, creating an example of virtuous consumership. By presenting the case of these ingredients in particular, the company ensures that whoever consumes their products has some sort of historical context, is able to appreciate whatever ingredients go into current products, and understands why preservation efforts are crucial not only for biological wellbeing, but also for cultural continuation.

Culture of Consumption

A very important component of Xocolatl Mexica’s cultural restoration efforts is the fact that they have established a Chocolatería that people can come to in order to consume their products. This locale is different from a store because the way in which it was designed embodies everything that the company has set as their mission. Their different products are offered there, served in clay xicalli and accompanied by wooden molinillos that can be used to froth the beverages. Both the xicalli and the molinillos have existed in Mexico for over 2000 years, and the ones used in the Chocolatería have been designed in cooperation with local artisans in order to be historically accurate and reflect indigenous traditions of cacao consumption (Bowman).

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Picture depicting a xicalli and a molinillo next to a clay jar possibly containing Xocolatl.

The accompaniments offered by this place include tamalli, crêpes, confitures, and cacao fondue, which also speaks to the goal of situating cacao and its products as edibles that can constitute something other than a dessert. In mainstream culture, cacao and its derivatives are often only seen as desserts or side dishes, whereas in ancient times, Xocolatl and other preparations were considered dishes in an of themselves, so prestigious even that they were offered to deities worshiped by the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica. The fact that Xocolatl Mexica pushes for a reconsideration of the place of cacao in the normative diet brings back traditions dating from years gone by that were representative of the culture of prehispanic populations.

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Snap of the Chocolatería where Xocolatl Mexica sells their products.

Conclusion

Xocolatl Mexica asks the common person to reconsider what their thoughts on cacao-based products are, and to think beyond mainstream chocolate. Their efforts to restore indigenous practices by incorporating instruments such as molinillos and xicalli, as well as the creation of a space destined specifically for the consumption of their products speaks of their commitment to their cause as an immersive experience rather than a commercial transaction (Puratos). Furthermore, their sourcing and processing of cacao are sustainable, fair, and true to their mission; by only accepting the parts of the process that they believe do not detract from the essence of the Xocolatl, they preserve the inherent aromas, textures, and flavours of cacao, which in turn results in a more authentic tasting experience.

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The Obsidiana chocolate bars are some of the most popular products sold by Xocolatl Mexica.

In the words of their mission:

“El objetivo que tenemos con la chocolatería es difundir la cultura del cacao y del chocolate puro. Por eso, con mucho gusto estamos dispuestos a dar explicaciones sobre el cultivo del cacao y de la fabricación del chocolate. Desgraciadamente, esta cultura milenaria se ha perdido con los años en México, pero queremos que el patrimonio Mexica y Maya siga vivo para que cada uno de los mexicanos y los extranjeros valoren la cultura mexicana y la calidad de sus productos.”

“The objective that we have with chocolate-manufacturing is the diffusion of the culture of cacao and pure chocolate. It is because of that that we are more than happy to provide explanations about the cultivation of cacao and the fabrication of chocolate. Sadly, this millennial culture has been lost in Mexico with the passing of years, but we want that the Mexica and Mayan heritage remains alive so that each Mexican and each foreigner is able to value Mexican culture and the quality of its products.”

By staying true to their roots and revitalizing local traditions while supporting the economic growth of the region, and by overseeing and caring for every step in their manufacturing process  from the production of their ingredients to the containers in which they serve their beverages, Xocolatl Mexica can justly be said to be a sustainable, fair company that is helping solve problems in the cacao-chocolate supply chain.

Works Cited:

Pictures taken from Xocolatl Mexica’s website, and from Wikimedia Commons.

Bowman, Barbara. “Molinillo – Mexican Chocolate Whisk (Stirrer).” Gourmet Sleuth. GourmetSleuth, Inc, n.d. Web. 04 May 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.gourmetsleuth.com/articles/detail/molinillo

“Cacao México.” Cacao México. Telaio, n.d. Web. 04 May 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.cacaomexico.org/?page_id=1402

“Hershey Goes to Mexico: The Mexico Cocoa Project.” Triple Pundit People Planet Profit. Triple Pundit, 22 June 2012. Web. 04 May 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.triplepundit.com/2012/06/hershey-pledges-improve-cocoa-farming-conditions-mexico/

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, NY: Viking, 1985. Print.

“Sustainable Cocoa Production and Livelihood Improvement in Mexico.” Puratos: Reliable Partners in Innovation. Puratos Group, 2016. Web. 4 May 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.puratos.com/en/our-group/sustainability/CSR-programs/tikul.jsp

“The History of Chocolate: The Mayans and Aztecs.” The History of Chocolate: The Mayans and Aztecs. Godiva Chocolate, Inc., n.d. Web. 04 May 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.godivachocolates.co.uk/the-history-of-chocolate-mayans-aztecs.html

“Xocolatl Mexica | Fábrica De Chocolate.” http://www.xocolatlmexica.com. Xocolatl Mexica, 2007. Web. 04 May 2016.