Today, chocolate is often seen as a frivolous treat to enjoy in passing throughout the day. At times, it is thought of as a luxury good, marketed to have been crafted by a world class chocolatier from some general European country. Historically though, as we have discussed in lecture, ancient Mesoamericans not only utilized cacao as a food and beverage, but it also acted as an important means of currency in many societies and held spiritual and religious significance. It was such a well-rounded and well-integrated part of life. In this blog post, I will expand on how chocolate recipes were observed by Europeans only to be appropriated and used as a means to claim European superiority over Mesoamerican people.
To begin, ancient Mesoamerican civilizations used cacao as an important and integrative part of their daily lives. In saying this, it is important to not generalize the “Mesoamerica” as one people. Certain themes do permeate different civilizations in modern day North and Central America to a degree, but that is not to treat Mesoamerica as one large group. That being said, we can look to sources to give us a picture of how Mesoamerican civilizations used cacao and chocolate.
According to foodtimeline.org, ancient Mayan and Aztecs “consumed it, in beverage form, for religious ceremonies and medicinal purposes. Cocoa beans were sometimes used as money” (Olver n.pag.). One thing that was more universal in Mesoamerica was the addition of chili to chocolate drink, but due to the varying degrees of flavors and spiciness of these chilis that the preparation and tastes of these recipes varied greatly regionally (Olver n.pag.). This is a great example of a theme that applies to Mesoamerica at large, the adding of chili to chocolate recipes, but how this surface level application of a theme to the region is far too oversimplified.
Also similar throughout Mesoamerica, particularly between the Maya and the Aztec was the method of preparing the frothy, foamy chocolate beverage. An anonymous Spanish conqueror said to be among the ranks of Hernan Cortez described the process of “cacao are ground and made into powder, and other small seeds are ground, and this powder is put into certain basins with a point… and then they put water on it and mix it with a spoon. And after having mixed it very well, they change it from one basin to another, so that a foam is raised which they put in a vessel made for the purpose” (Olver n.pag.). This serves as another example of a broad preparation theme that does differ between groups. While many groups consumed this beverage hot, it has been shown that the Maya of Yucatan drank this beverage cold (Olver n.pag.). This description is also important as it highlights a period before the European adoption of chocolate preparation from ancient Mesoamerican groups. At this point, all that is mentioned as a stirring device is a wooden or silver spoon, not the Spanish swizzle stick so often associated with this method of preparation (Olver n.pag.). This additional comment in this source led me as a student to become intrigued about what parts of preparation Europeans went on to adopt, what they authentically carried forward, or what preparation techniques they modified over time.
The introduction of the swizzle stick, or molinillo, by Spaniards was only one part of the appropriation of chocolate to become suitable for Spanish royalty. We know that royal Spaniards rejected the Mesoamerican styles of serving chocolate, sipping it from a gourd or clay pot, and looked to alternatives. ““The solution came from overseas, in the form of the mancerina, which became a standard part of the Spanish chocolate service by the mid-17th century … Marques de Mancera … horrified at seeing one of the ladies present at a vice regal reception accidentally spill a jícara of chocolate on her dress…had a Lima silversmith make a plate or saucer with a collar like ring in the middle, into which a small cup would sit without being able to slip” (Coe 271). This is one way in which the actual Mesoamerican origins and cultural importance of cacao was veiled in order to appropriate it to European society. A “proper” silverware had to be invented to facilitate the neglect of chocolates Mesoamerican origin so that way Spanish royalty could enjoy it while not associating themselves with those that they conquered.
On top of this appropriated presentation of chocolate in royal circles, the recipes of chocolate preparation were then modified by Europeans. The way they discussed Mesoamerican styles of preparation and almost horrifying to read: “The Spanish, more industrious than the Savages, procured to correct the bad flavor of this liquor, adding to this cacao paste different fragrances of the East and many spices of this country [Spain]” (Norton 1). This 18th century account of the modification of chocolate recipes describes the Mesoamericans as “savages” and deems them inferior while hoisting up Spanish people as superior because they modified chocolate to their tastes.
From this history, we see that the adoption of chocolate from Mesoamerica to Europe was not a process of respect and cultural exchange but instead was closer to theft, appropriation, and neglect of Mesoamerican people. Although extracting cacao, chocolate recipes, and inspiration for preparation, they took their modifications of chocolate and its rituals as superior and used it as yet another tool to claim superiority over the indigenous people of the Americas.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate with 99 Illustrations, 14 in Colour. Thames & Hudson, 2013.
“A CONCISE HISTORY OF CHOCOLATE.” c-Spot, http://www.c-spot.com/atlas/historical-timeline/.
“Map of Mesoamerica – Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc.” FAMSI, http://www.famsi.org/maps/.
“Molinillo or Chocolate Whisk.” National Museum of American History, americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1460190.
Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review, vol. 111, no. 3, 2006, pp. 660–691., doi:10.1086/ahr.111.3.660.
Olver, Lynne. “Food Timeline FAQs: Aztec, Maya, & Inca Foods and Recipes.” The Food Timeline–Aztec, Maya & Inca Foods, http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodmaya.html#aztec.