Tag Archives: Michael D. Coe

The Molinillo: a Hybrid of Many Cultures, Not Just a “Mexican” Tool

Chocolate has a rich history in Mesoamerica, dating back to the Olmecs in 1500 BCE. However, it was not until after the Spanish invasion in the 16thcentury that chocolate traveled outside of Central America. Chocolate’s interaction with many different cultures and societies resulted in a hybridization process that spanned multiple generations, transforming it from the bitter drink consumed by the Maya and Aztecs to the sweet, sugary chocolate that dominates the world market today. Going through a similar hybridization process was the molinillo, a wooden tool used to produce froth during the chocolate-making process. A Spanish invention, the molinillo quickly became adopted in both Mesoamerica and Europe. However, today the molinillo is depicted in mass media as a distinctly Mesoamerican or Mexican tool, its Spanish and European past minimized and sometimes even neglected all together. This phenomenon can be explained by the difference in meaning attributed to the molinillo in Mesoamerican and European cultures. However, the contemporary characterization of the molinillo as solely Mexican undercuts its historical impact and significance; consequently, it is important to acknowledge the tool as a hybrid of many different cultures, not just one.

Although the molinillo was important in the chocolate making process, an entirely different method was used for hundreds of years before its introduction. The earliest known depiction of the original froth making process is the Princeton vase of the Maya, dating back to the late Classic period.

Woman creating froth by pouring chocolate from one cup to another
Princeton vase (AD 670-750)

As shown, the Maya poured chocolate from one cup to another, the height helping to froth the liquid. This was the “exclusive method” of pre-conquest Mesoamerica, as evidenced by the Codex Tudela, which depicts a similar image only eight centuries later and on an Aztec artifact rather than Mayan (Coe and Coe, 85).

It was not until the late 16thcentury that the introduction of the molinillo greatly altered this process. The molinillo, thought to be derived from the Spanish word “molino”, or little mill[1], is a wooden, grooved beater invented by the Spaniards. 

A typical molinillo

The Spaniards found that twirling a molinillo through an opening of a covered cup was a better way to produce foam. It was quickly adopted in Mesoamerica, and by the time Francesco d’Antonio Carletti, a Florentine businessman who traveled to Guatemala to observe the chocolate process, printed his official report in 1701, the molinillo was being widely used (Coe and Coe, 139). By 1780, the molinillo supplanted the former foam-making process completely, as evidenced by Francesco Saverio Claviergero’s published report on native Mexican life that describes the use of the molinillo but “totally omits the pouring from one vessel to another to produce a good head on the drink” (Coe and Coe, 85).  Clearly, the molinillo quickly became an essential part of Mesoamerican life.

At the same time the molinillo was being adopted in Central America, it was also gaining popularity in Spain and other European countries. The importance of the molinillo can be seen in a recipe published by the Spaniard Antonio Comenero de Ledesma in 1644, which stated that chocolate is best prepared with a molinillo (Coe and Coe, 133). However, the use of the molinillo was not isolated to Spain. Other European countries adapted the tool to fit their own unique ways of preparing and serving chocolate. For example, the French prepared chocolate in ornate, silver chocolatiers and the molinillo was altered to match these vessels and fit their lids. The molinillo was so widely used it was even depicted in the art of the time, as shown below (Coe and Coe, 222).

A woman reaching for a molinillo sitting atop a silver chocolatier.
“La Crainte” by Noël Le Mire (1724-1830)

Yet in contemporary media, there is little mention of the molinillo’s Spanish influences or its widespread use in Europe. Instead, it is identified as a Mexican artifact. For example, the first link that shows up after a simple Google search is a Wikipedia article that states that a molinillo is a “Mesoamerican tool”, and the only country mentioned in the article is Mexico. Although Wikipedia is not an academic source by any means, in today’s Internet age it is where most people get their information due to its convenience. Even an article that pops up from the Smithsonian magazine, the reputable written resource of the Smithsonian museum, describes the significance of the molinillo with no mention of its use in Europe. It even emphasizes that Spain contributed greatly to the chocolate process, but only in its introduction of sugar, not in its invention of the very artifact the article is about. This begs the question, why has contemporary culture diminished the importance of the Spanish and European past of the molinillo and augmented its Mexican one? Using the framework with which Sydney Mitz evaluates the spread of sugar in Great Britain in his book “Sweetness and Power” can elucidate the answer. According to Mintz, when studying food and the objects used to prepare food, it is essential to examine the meaning ascribed to them because meaning can differ substantially over time and across cultures.

For Mesoamerican civilizations, chocolate had a ritual significance. In Maya civilization, Gods were connected to cacao trees, often born of them. For the Aztecs, cacao trees were considered the center of the universe, or an axis mundil, that connected the “supernatural spheres and human spheres” (Carrasco, 92).  As such, chocolate came to have strong religious connotations, and foam was seen as an essential and sacred part of the ritual drink, or as Meredith Dreiss comments, “chocolate is for the body, but foam is for the soul” (Dreiss). Because of this, the molinillo became an essential and incredibly meaningful part of life, as the same religious and cultural emphasis that was put on foam became associated with the tool that made the foam. Yet for the Spaniards and other European countries, this ritual aspect was lacking. When chocolate traveled across the ocean, it lost some of its former meaning while simultaneously gaining new meaning. This is because the meanings associated with symbols are “historically acquired- they arise, grow, change, and die- and they are culture-specific… they have no universal meaning; they ‘mean’ because they occur in specific cultural and historical contexts” (Mintz, 153).  Once chocolate became situated in new cultures, it grew to have different contextual meaning, and none of the new meanings that Spaniards and Europeans associated with chocolate was as heavily focused on foam as it was in Mesoamerica. Consequently, to the Europeans the molinillo was simply a tool to make chocolate rather than a symbol. 

In this context, it can be argued that the cultural meaning that Mesoamerica ascribed to the molinillo is what contributes to its identification today as a distinctly Mexican tool. This is because although a Spanish invention and widely used, the molinillo did not have a significant cultural meaning like it did in Mesoamerica, and therefore it’s European past is easily disassociated. However, when analyzing the significance of the molinillo, it is important to recognize its entire historical past, rather than just its Mexican one, as its hybridization is an essential part of its identity, just as hybridization is an essential part of chocolate’s identity. 

Multimedia Sources

https://www.dandelionchocolate.com/2014/10/21/a-brief-history-of-chocolate-part/

http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1460190

http://biarritzantiquites.free.fr/gravure-18ème-le-mire-d%27après-le-prince-la-crainte.htm

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/kitchen-utensil-chocolate-stirring-from-scratch-cacao-161383020/

Works Cited

Carrasco, Davíd. Religions of Mesoamerica. Waveland Press, 1990.

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

Dreiss, Meredith L. and Sharon Edgar Greenhill. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. University of Arizona Press, 2008.

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


[1]There are alternative theories, such as Dr. León-Portilla’s belief that molinillo is a Spanish derivation of the Nahuatl world molinia, meaning to “shake, waggle, or move” (Coe and Coe, 120 )

A Chocolate Renaisscance in Mexico City

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

An Enduring History

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

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

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

A Visit to El Museo

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

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

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

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

Tasting #1: Chokola’j

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

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

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

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

Tasting #2: Chocolate Bars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

 

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

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

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

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

[v] Ibid.

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

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

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

 

Innovation and Chocolate Consumption: How Manufacturing Created Today’s Demand for Chocolate

Beginning in the 1800s, chocolate consumption increased exponentially due to innovations in chocolate production. These manufacturing innovations were not the result of increased demand, but rather were the cause of increased consumption, making chocolate production a very lucrative business and ultimately the popular food that it is today.

Van Houten cacao proef blikje, foto1
Van Houten’s cocoa powder can from 1828
In 1828, Coenraad Johannes Van Houten was responsible for creating an easier way to remove cacao butter by using a hydraulic press to remove twice as much cacao butter and make cocoa powder. He also processed cocoa with alkali (now called Dutch processing because he was in Holland) so it would be more easily mixed with water, which enabled the large-scale production of both cocoa powder and drinking cocoa, allowing it to be sold to the masses for a cheaper price (Coe and Coe 234), thereby increasing chocolate consumption.

In 1847, armed with Van Houten’s invention of the hydraulic press, one of England’s Quaker chocolate manufacturing company, J. S. Fry & Sons, was able to create the first solid “eating chocolate” by re-combining the cacao butter with cocoa powder and sugar (Martin). Now this bar was for the elite because it contained pricey cacao butter, while the drinking chocolate was now for the masses (Coe and Coe 241). This is an example of how society’s consumption of chocolate changed due to innovations in manufacturing.

When Cadbury’s, another Quaker chocolate company in Britain, got hold of Van Houten’s hydraulic press in 1866, they too began to produce their own cocoa powder and even introduced the first box of chocolates (Coe and Coe 242). This revolutionized the way cocoa was used in the world of confections, and by way of making chocolate more available, these new products increased the consumption and demand for chocolate – not only was chocolate cheaper, but it was now easier to eat.

To follow these new manufacturing practices, we must slide our gaze over to Switzerland in 1867: Henri Nestle invented powdered milk, and Daniel Peter added this to the chocolate bar to create the world’s first milk chocolate in 1879. That same year, Rudolphe Lindt invented the conching process which yielded a much smoother chocolate through grinding and heat (Martin). This video shows a present-day depiction of this chocolate making process:

Toblerone Bars
Toblerone bars, the first to be molded and filled with nougat, are still sold today

Followed by Jean Tobler’s 1899 creation of the Toblerone bar, the first filled and molded chocolate of its kind, these inventions put the Swiss on the map in terms of revolutionizing chocolate manufacturing processes (Martin). These innovations allowed milk chocolate to become popular, so popular in fact that it is still the most popular type of chocolate today.

Meanwhile, in America, Milton Hershey had also purchased Van Houten’s press and began making his own chocolates in Pennsylvania, eventually building his very own factory town to produce his famous milk chocolate (Coe and Coe 251).

Granite Roller and Granite Base of a Conche
Conche used by Hershey’s in the early 1900s.
Hershey may have borrowed techniques and machines from those that came before him, but he revolutionized the way confectioners made chocolate by focusing on producing large quantities of fewer products rather than many different products. This decreased costs enough so that more stores could carry Hershey’s Kisses and bars, thereby making it well-known (and more in demand). This strategy allowed his sales to increase by $1.4 million between 1911 and 1912 (D’antonio 121), proving that innovations in chocolate production led to increased consumption.

Ultimately, the smooth, tempered, milk chocolate that is so popular today would not have been possible without new manufacturing practices that began over 150 years ago. It was these inventions – the hydraulic press, conching, and more – that have allowed chocolate to be mass-produced and highly craved by so many of us today.

References

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. “The True History of Chocolate”. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

D’antonio, Michael. “Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams”. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006. Print.

DancityMachinery. “Chocolate Making Machinery” Video. YouTube, 20 Dec 2011. Web. 12 March 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0oaUeAg1Ezg&gt;.

Martin, Carla D. “Popular sweet tooths and scandal.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 25 Feb. 2015. Class Lecture.

By Z22 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

By Alf van Beem (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

By WestportWiki (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The Evolution of Drinking Chocolate

In modern times, hot chocolate is enjoyed by people around the world.  The most familiar types found in the grocery store are made up of a pre-sweetened powder that comes in a small package and may or may not contain 15% cocoa depending on the type of drink.  Other types of drinking chocolate, such as Abuelita, come in pressed chocolate bars that are then dissolved in milk.  Today, hot cocoa is available to people of every social and economic class.  However, historically chocolate drinks were made in a very different manner, and they were most often only available to the elites.

Swiss-Miss-Hot-Chocolateltphotos_chocolate_abuelita_951959486

The cultivation of cacao began as early as 1900 BC with the Olmec civilization (Presilla, 2001, p.10), but the oldest known cacao recipes come from the Maya and the Aztec civilizations.  For the Maya civilization, cacao was available to people of every social and economic class, although little evidence remains of the drinking vessels used by the less affluent members of society (Presilla, 2001, p. 12)  As cacao is difficult to grow, it is likely that the more affluent members of society had easier access to drinking cacao due to its rarity.  Maya drinking chocolate was often made from water that contained the starch of lime-treated corn mixed with the cacao beans that had been ground into a paste.  Mayan cacao was also flavored with ear flower, vanilla, honey, allspice, and chiles (Presilla, 2001, p. 13, 14).  Frothy chocolate was favored by the Maya, and it would later also be favored by the Aztecs and the Spaniards.

Unlike the Maya, the Aztecs limited cacao consumption to the elites and the warrior class.  Aztec cacao drinks were available (to the members of these social classes) in the market, and the makers of these drinks were considered true artisans, as:

“She who sells remade cacao for drinking first grinds it in this fashion:  At the first [grinding] she breaks or crushes the beans; at the second they are slightly more ground; at the third and last they are very well ground, being mixed with boiled and rinsed corn kernels; and being thus ground and mixed, they add water [to the mixture] in any sort of vessel [vaso].  If they add little [water] they have beautiful cacao; if they add a lot, it will not produce froth.” (Saghagun, Historia General)

Frothy cacao was considered to be the very best of the Aztec cacao drinks, and all other cacao drinks were considered inferior (Presilla, 2001, p.19-20).  Today, cacao is drunk throughout the day or as a nightcap, but the Aztec elites drank their cacao at the end of meals (Coe, 2013, Kindle location 1330).  The Aztecs, much like the Maya, used locally available ingredients to flavor their cacao.  These ingredients included honey, ear flower, vanilla, string flower, magnolia, piper sanctum ( pepper flower), heart flower, chiles, and allspice.  According to Coe in The True History of Chocolate, Aztec cacao was made with roasted ground cacao beans and sopata seeds that were mixed with ground corn and spices (Coe, 2013, Kindle location 1314).

Aztec Woman

The Spanish assimilated their own flavors when they brought chocolate over from Mesoamerica, including: cinnamon, sugar, and black pepper (Coe, 2013, Kindle Location 1599).  The Spanish also began mixing cacao with cow’s milk.  In order to grind the beans, a heated metate was used, and the precious and sought after froth was obtained using a molinillo stirring stick (Coe, 2013, Kindle Location 1599-1614).

While the historical flavors of drinking chocolate remain, cacao has become a much sweeter drink in modern times, and flavorings have continuously expanded.  With the current trend towards a diet low in refined sugars, I wonder if the Maya and Aztec way of drinking unsweetened cacao might make a comeback.

Sources

Coe, Sophie D.; Coe, Michael D. (2013-06-28). The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson. Kindle Edition. 

Presilla, Maricel. (2001).  The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ten Speed Press.

Image 1:  Swiss Miss Cocoa Collection, from the Swiss Miss website

Image 2:  Abuelita Cocoa, from the Abuelita website

Image 3:  Maya cocoa frothing, from the course slides

The Early Recipes: Preparation and Consumption of Cacao as a Reflection of Reverence

In chocolate’s early history, from the Maya to the Spanish conquistadores, recipes and rituals for consuming chocolate were indicative of each culture’s respect for cacao. The various ways in which it was prepared since it was first tasted in Mesoamerica demonstrated how much cacao was valued – from being considered the “food of the gods” to a bitter drink that disgusted the foreign Spaniards – proving that chocolate recipes and practices are a reflection of reverence.

 

As in the video above, the ancient Maya prepared chocolate drinks by laboriously grinding fermented and shelled cacao seeds into a paste, then mixing this with a corn “gruel” and water and beating this mixture until foamy (Coe and Coe 62). The intense amount of effort the Maya were willing to put into the recipe for this drink shows the great respect the Mayan people had for cacao.

Figure 1: From the Dresden Codex, a depiction of a god carrying an offering of cacao on its back (Coe and Coe 42)

Indeed, several depictions of gods being born of or holding cacao pods have been discovered from the Classic Maya era, exhibiting this reverence – see Figure 1 (Coe and Coe 42).

    The Aztec people imitated the Maya in their respect for cacao and its preparation: after much toil involving grinding and straining, they combined the ground cacao with maize to make a frothy drink, varying from the Maya by adding chiles, peppers, or other spices, and by serving it cold rather than hot. This is ascribed to the fact that cacao is “cold in its nature” (Coe and Coe 84), illustrating that how chocolate was prepared and imbibed reflected a high level of respect for honoring cacao in its natural state.

The amount of manual labor required for these drinks is important to note. Only chocolate that was “judiciously mixed” was suitable for nobles to drink (Presilla 20), so the labor involved in making this chocolate beverage was clearly respected. The Aztec also used cacao for healing many ailments, as well as a currency (Martin), further demonstrating the high value the Aztec placed upon cacao.

Figure 2: Molinillos used by Spaniards, were quickly twisted to foam their drinking chocolate rather than pouring between vessels

When the Spanish began their conquest of the Aztecs, they turned their nose up at the foamy brown drink the natives revered. This initial lack of chocolate consumption was indicative of their general disdain for the people they were oppressing. In order to create the beloved beverage it was to become, the Spanish changed the recipe by adding cane sugar to eliminate some of the bitterness they were unaccustomed to, and new spices like cinnamon and anise. They also changed the way it could be consumed by creating chocolate “wafers” that could be easily transported and instantly turned into a drink by adding hot water and sugar, and using molinillos to more effortlessly create foam (Coe and Coe 115).

These changes reflect how differently Europeans viewed cacao compared to the Aztec and the Maya. To begin with, adding sugar to the naturally bitter drink (and therefore changing its original taste) can be seen symbolic for their desecration of the New World and its native people. Also, by making dried cakes of chocolate powder and finding shortcuts to the sought after foam, chocolate drinks were now accessible to more people back in Europe and no longer required the same amount of labor. This loss of effort could be construed as somewhat diminishing its original sacredness.

Chocolate would later go on to take over Europe, as a cure for sickness and as a drink for the elite, and in the 19th century would finally begin to trickle down to the average consumer with the advent of more advanced chocolate producing technology (Presilla). With every turn cacao has taken on its road to becoming what it is today, the recipes and preparations used to consume it were – and are – indicative of how much people revere it: from drinking it during religious rituals to eating the cheap stuff absent-mindedly as we do today, how we consume chocolate is a reflection of how much we respect cacao and where it came from.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and ‘The Food of the Gods’.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 4 Feb. 2015. Class Lecture.

Plante, Walter. Figure 2: Mexico Week2 472. Digital image. Koko Buzz: Exploring the World of Chocolate. N.p., 22 Feb. 2010. Web. 18 Feb. 2015. <https://kokobuzz.wordpress.com/2010/02/22/chocolate-notes-from-mexico/&gt;.

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

Teabelize. “Toledo Ecotourism Association – Making a Chocolate Drink.” Video. YouTube, 10 May 2008. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vC4dq69rqE&gt;.