From its inception to the Second Industrial Revolution, the practice of preparing and serving chocolate can be defined by two essential qualities: the impression of luxury, and cookware designed to reflect the labor required to produce it. Throughout its history, methods of preparing and serving chocolate have changed along with the culture around its consumption, as chocolate moved from connoting wealth and power amongst Mesoamerican indigenous cultures, to serving as a social vehicle for the 17th century Western elite (Martin and Sampeck 39-43; Righthand). In each case, chocolate was a symbol of status, and the vessels used to store, cook, and serve it reflected that symbolism. From earthen vessels and molinillos to matching ceramic chocolate sets, the various methods of storing and serving chocolate in Aztec Mexico, seventeenth-century Europe, and post-Industrial Revolution America reveal the changing ways that chocolate’s status as a luxury item was entrenched visually as well as economically.
Cacao’s status as a food of the elite originated in the culture behind its production and consumption in Mesoamerican tradition; in this case, the manual labor required to make chocolate drove its elite status – labor symbolized by the instruments used to prepare and store it (Coe 220). The cacao tree, or Theobroma cacao, is native to Mesoamerica and was adopted by the Olmecs, the Maya, and eventually the Aztec as a currency, spice, dietary staple, and most importantly as the primary ingredient in chocolate, a drink featuring spices such as vanilla and ear flower which served as a beverage of warriors amongst the Aztec (Coe 181-220, 1274). Chocolate was associated with the display of wealth and power; because cacao is a fickle fruit, requiring significant labor to grow and then process for consumption, restricting chocolate to those in positions of power – noblemen and warriors – was a testament of the power and social clout of the drinker (Coe 220, 1088). The physical embodiment of that clout were the vessels used to store and prepare cacao and chocolate. The Aztec king Motecuhzoma the Younger stored over 960 million beans in large, guarded bins coated with clay, and two thousand containers of chocolate daily were transported for consumption by his guard (Coe 1182-1194). Additionally, the preparation of cacao required an tool known as the molinillo, or chocolate mill, a slender, curved stick with a knob at one end, used to froth the cacao before drinking. Building and using molinillos required significant skilled and artisanal labor, as can be seen here (constructing the molinillo) and here (using the molinillo to froth chocolate), which depict the modern incarnation of the tool (Lange 131). To the Aztecs, the higher the amount of froth in the drink – and the more work performed with the molinillo – the greater the quality of the chocolate; this froth was highly prized and even consumed independent of the chocolate drink (Coe 1195, 655). Because of the labor it represented, the molinillo thus served as a cultural, culinary, and anthropological vehicle for enhancing the impression of luxury and labor which chocolate cultivated through its place of honor in Aztec culture.
Chocolate was appropriated into European culture relatively quickly after its discovery during the Columbian exchange, and its luxury status was defined by the wealth and social connections required to procure chocolate – wealth then represented by the wares used to serve and prepare it. As the Spanish encomienda system ensured that cacao was available to the European elite, chocolate became renowned as a foreign curiosity, a medicinal stimulant, and a luxurious indulgence all at once; drinking chocolate became a public social endeavor representative of class and wealth (Martin 40-41). For example, it was introduced to the court of Versailles at the wedding of King Louis XIII, and throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the French monarchy cultivated a reputation both for opulence and a love of chocolate (Chateau de Versailles). Their influence popularized the French chocolatiere set, captured in this painting of the Pentheviere ducal family (PBS Learning Media). As pictured in the painting, such sets were made of ceramic, porcelain, and precious metals, a clear use of wealthy containers to augment the status of the drink they contained (Martin 42; Lange 132). Such sets were outsourced throughout Europe, as far as colonial America, where they were happily put to use by people such as Thomas Jefferson (Lange 133). Interestingly, while the design of European chocolate vessels were Mesoamerican in nature, including tall spouted pots, steep-sided cups, and molinillos, the materials used were distinctly and ultimately representative of a Westernized ideal of monetary wealth.
After the second Industrial Revolution, and with it several innovations in the processing of cacao, chocolate became readily available to the public; “vessels” for holding chocolate were replaced by branded wrapping and packaging that ultimately represented chocolate’s universal appeal and accessibility. The invention of the hydraulic press, along with van Houten’s method of alkalizing cocoa, made chocolate more shelf-stable, cheaper, and thus more accessible to the working class (Lange 138). Higher demand drove chocolate companies such as Hershey to homogenize and brand their products through standardized processing methods, as a means of promoting these brands to the working class public (Counihan and Esterik 84-85; D’Antonio 106-109). In this case, chocolate’s value was indicated by size and complexity – for example, Milky Way bars were filled with nougat and caramel, making them larger than pure chocolate bars and thus of greater value, despite actually being cheaper to produce (Brenner 54-55). Yet, like many other once-luxury items such as tea and sugar, chocolate had become a product for the masses, not one for the elite, and chocolate producers deliberately designed their marketing and packaging of chocolate to reflect this shift (Counihan and Esterik 84-85). The loss of elaborate, personalized tools for making and consuming chocolate paralleled this transition of chocolate in the Western cultural psyche – the iconic, cheap packaging of Hershey’s and Mars candy bars indicated that chocolate was no longer a food of the elite, but rather accessible to the average, working class family.
The role of chocolate in global culture has changed vastly from its origins as a bitter, frothy drink of the May and Aztec elite, and the way that chocolate is stored, prepared, served, and distributed has changed in tandem. When chocolate was an item of luxury, reflected by the labor required to produce it or the wealth needed to procure it, in Aztec and seventeenth-century Europe, respectively, carefully designed and expensively produced containers and preparatory cookware developed to suit and complement chocolate’s coveted societal place. However, with the advent of new processing methods, and an economic shift towards mass production for the working-class, chocolate’s packing and distribution has changed to give it the impression of universality, and to render it a symbol of the quotidian, in a branded, neat, and instantly recognizable package.
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