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A Student Activist with A Chocolate Addiction

At 2AM each morning Harvard student activist and writer Minahil Khan, awakens from her deep sleep. She describes this disruption in her sleep schedule as “inevitable;” no matter how hard she tries, she wakes up each night, reaches to the ground beside her bed, and grabs a piece of chocolate. Minahil’s nightly chocolate routine began about one year ago, while she visited her parents in their home in New York City, NY and suddenly found herself having a mid-night craving for her mom’s famous chocolate mousse. The seemingly random craving quickly became a consistent necessity in her life, and Minahil has now eaten chocolate every night since. While Minahil’s case is quite extreme, many people have experienced some form of her chocolate “addiction.” So, what is it that makes chocolate such a beloved food product? Through my interview with Minahil, I attempt to uncover the various ways cultural, economic, and emotional factors have influenced consumers relationships to chocolate.

Harvard student activist and writer Minahil Khan, awakens from her deep sleep. She describes this disruption in her sleep schedule as “inevitable;” no matter how hard she tries, she wakes up each night, reaches to the ground beside her bed, and grabs a piece of chocolate. Minahil’s nightly chocolate routine began about one year ago, while she visited her parents in their home in New York City, NY and suddenly found herself having a mid-night craving for her mom’s famous chocolate mousse. The seemingly random craving quickly became a consistent necessity in her life, and Minahil has now eaten chocolate every night since. While Minahil’s case is quite extreme, many people have experienced some form of her chocolate “addiction.” So, what is it that makes chocolate such a beloved food product? Through my interview with Minahil, I attempt to uncover the various ways cultural, economic, and emotional factors have influenced consumers relationships to chocolate.

            Minahil’s chocolate dependence begins with its sentimental value, manifested in its preparation process and centrality to her childhood memories. 

LR: Do you remember the first time you ate chocolate?

MK: “I feel like the earliest memory I associate with chocolate is definitely related to birthdays. I’m from Pakistan and when I was younger we lived in this little engineering township, and I remember my mom just always made these chocolate cakes shaped like a gingerbread man. It’s weird because part of those memories only comes from the pictures of those birthdays. I look back at them now and realize, oh ‘that’s when I first had chocolate.’”

Although Minahil does not completely recall the experience of eating chocolate for the first time, she feels as if she remembers the experience, and notes the reconstruction of that early chocolate memory by her family photos. Her earliest chocolate memories were also significant because they revolved around an important event: birthdays. Chocolate has been a fixture of cultural rituals since it’s Mayan and Aztec origins. In A True History of Chocolate, Sophia and Michael Coe discuss the significance of chocolate in the Dresden codex, a Mayan book dating back to the 13th or 14th century. They write that “in several sections of the Dresden which deal with ritual activities tied in to the Maya’s sacred 260-day cycle, seated gods can be seen holding cacao pods, or dishes heaped with cacao beans” (Coe 42). The Maya viewed chocolate as an essential part of various ceremonies, including celebrations of life and death. Minahil’s birthday chocolate memory, therefore, illustrates a much longer history of chocolate as a center piece in ritualistic events. Chocolate has even become the centerpiece of the modern birthday party itself, with many choosing to have chocolate-themed birthday parties. In this video, for example, a woman throws her young daughter a chocolate-themed birthday party where the children excitedly get a behind the scenes look at chocolate production at a local chocolatier.

Drawing of Mayan chocolate drink

For Minahil, a Pakistani woman, chocolate has come to represent not only a symbol of celebration and ritual, but also of foreign or “westernness.”

LR: What’s your favorite kind of chocolate?

MK: “My mom’s chocolate mousse. That’s the best thing I’ve ever eaten. It’s just really airy.

LR: It sounds like a lot of your chocolate memories are associated with your family and childhood. How did chocolate become a part of your food culture in Pakistan? Is chocolate a part of Pakistani cuisine?

MK: “No. Really, not at all. The Pakistani desserts we have are very sugary, but there’s no chocolate involved. I don’t know if I know any dessert that has anything to do with chocolate. It’s the very western side of our upbringing even there.”

LR: Did chocolate represent something foreign to you?

MK: “At the time, no. Now, thinking about it, yeah, the fact that at one point, my mom made a chocolate barbie cake, where the cake was the dress of a barbie doll and she stuck a blonde, white barbie into the middle of it. I hadn’t even ever seen white foreign people in real life.”

As a child, Minahil considered chocolate to be an excited treat because, in addition to its sweet taste, it represented a distant and alluring west. Minahil’s mother paired the chocolate cake with a white barbie doll, demonstrating the consistent association of chocolate with white people and Western society. This association is ironic because, as Professor Martin and Kathryn E. Sampeck discuss in the Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe, the West and Central African nations of Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon collectively produce approximately 70% of the world’s cacao today (Martin, Sampeck, 50).  Cacao is then processed in factories and craft chocolatiers in Europe, eventually becoming the recognizable chocolate product. Chocolate is, meanwhile, continuously branded as a luxury product, which is often not intended for consumption by nonwhite people. As Sampeck and Thayne write in Translating Tastes “In some ways, and as part of the colonial protect, chocolate was never meant to be familiar… Europeans maintained the sensory experience of chocolate—sweetness, spices, a simulation of the taste—an embodiment by colonists of Mesoamerican values but framed within the vicissitudes of the humoral scheme” (Sampeck, Thayne, 92). Through effective branding, slow recipe shifts, and colonialism, Europeans managed to construct chocolate as something unattainable to nonwhite people and victims of colonialism, like Pakistanis.

            In his article in Candy Industry, Saif Dewan clarifies the increasing accessibility of chocolate in Pakistan, from a delicacy enjoyed by the English and the wealthy, to a product available to the masses.  He writes that until the mid 1980’s, “chocolates were supposed to be the domain of the upper and upper-middle class segments in Pakistan” (Deiwan 1). In 1983, the chocolate company Mitchell created a product called Jubilee that sold for R.S 3.50 per bar. Its attractive packaging, quality, affordable price and focused media support, gave the brand unprecedented consumer reception, revolutionizing the accessibility of chocolate to the general Pakistani population. It currently exists at varying price points and remains popular in Pakistan. I asked Minahil about her personal chocolate preferences and developing tastes when she immigrated to the US.  

LR: How did your relationship to chocolate change when you came to the U.S.? Or did it at all?

MK: “Oh actually, in Pakistan we used to have Mars bars, but you never find that here. That’s one noticeable difference. Like, I used to remember every time I went to Pakistan, I used to be so excited to see Mars bars. Actually, it’s funny but now I think it’s become more accessible here. I have some Mars bars here in the corner of my room right now. Oh also, dairy… you know that one… dairy cow dairy cream? The purple wrapper? Cadbury! Yes, I had that all the time in Pakistan. I could never find that here. I think Mars is also European? I guess it was more of a British thing, you know, colonialism, so coming here I was more exposed to different brands of chocolates.

LR: What was your favorite chocolate?

MK: Cadbury.

Cadbury Dairy Milk Bar

Minahil is particularly passionate about Cadbury Dairy Milk Chocolate, one of the most popular chocolates in Pakistan today. Deiwan explains Cadbury’s place within the chocolate market, writing that that in the early 2000s, Cadbury’s introduced products like Dairy Milk at varying price points and marketed it as “making chocolates the choice for everyone.” He adds that “The role of Cadbury in expanding the chocolate market in Pakistan will become a primer on how to penetrate and grow a fledging segment in an underdeveloped economy.” Cadbury is on the cutting edge of popularizing chocolate in Pakistan, with efforts that began when Minahil was a child in the early 2000s. Today, Cadbury still holds a reputation from people like Minahil and other native Pakistanis as being accessible and delicious. In this Cadbury commercial, a young woman, anxious on the day of her wedding, quells both her and her father’s anxieties with Cadbury chocolate. The commercial illustrates how Cadbury chocolate is not only enjoyable, but also contains healing powers, mending the bride and her father’s relationship and giving them a moment of piece in a stressful day. Cadbury’s prevalence illustrates the globalization of chocolate and its shift towards becoming as an accessible and increasingly culturally essential product.

Minahil is also an activist, who has been heavily involved in organizing efforts on campus. However, when it came to her chocolate consumption, Minahil was fairly unacquainted with chocolate’s violent histories and exploitative present.

LR: Where do you get the chocolate from for the chocolate mousse?

MK: They are Nestle chocolate chips.

LR: Do you ever think about where the chocolate you eat comes from?

MK: Yeah sometimes and it makes me really sad, and I hate it. Like Hershey, Nestle, Nestle’s really messed up.

LR: Why is Nestle messed up?

MK: I think they just like take advantage of their workers and are buying lands and not compensating the people where chocolate is coming from fairly. Chocolate wasn’t as accessible in the west but now it’s more accessible because corporations. But with corporations comes exploitation.”

            As a civically engaged person who is immersed in activist circles, Minahil has adopted an understanding of the chocolate industry as problematic. Beyond that initial understanding however, her evaluation stops short. She is correct in saying that Nestle and Hershey most likely utilize exploitative processes, and that a large amount of that does in fact stem from corporate practices. In Bitter Chocolate, Carol Off explains the continuation of slavery far past emancipation in the 19th century on Cacao Plantations. She highlights a 2000 documentary, Slavery: A Global investigation which exposed indentured servitude in Cote d’Ivoire. The young people in the film were purchased by the plantation owners and described experiencing “beatings, starvation diets and foul living conditions” (Off 134).  Off also mentions the continuation of slavery in Sao Tome and Principe of the coast of West Africa. Minahil didn’t seem to know this connection between chocolate or slavery, despite her understanding of chocolate’s complicated reputation.

            After addressing some of chocolate’s unjust history, I was curious to see if Minahil would be willing to become a more conscious consumer.

LR: So, when you think about where your chocolate comes from, does that make you want to buy other types of chocolate? Does it make you choose between different brands based off of ethics?

MK: I haven’t. That’s not an area where I’ve invested that energy. But maybe it’s something worth thinking about. Um, yeah. I feel like in my home, I didn’t buy the chocolate. It’s just there and I eat it. Part of it is that so much of it is just sold by the same company, right? Like so much of it is just Hershey. So, I guess I’m not thinking about it because I know that already. But maybe between the two or three companies we can choose from.

Interestingly enough, the same sentimental connection to chocolate which makes it so significant to her, is also the connections which prevents Minahil from feeling mobilized to become a more conscious consumer. She understands that she could alter her taste to choose companies that use better practices but feels helpless in committing to that direction. She wants to preserve chocolate as something she can enjoy and not have to think about morally or ethically. She also seems to have convinced herself that no one buys the chocolate in her home, that she just arrives there and it’s waiting for her. She prefers to not confront the reality of her chocolate consumption, with its complicated ethical implications.

            As a Pakistani immigrant and student activist, Minahil is a particularly unique consumer of chocolate. She’s culturally conscious and frequently motivated to enact change. However, she is also extremely attached to chocolate for both its emotional and physical benefits. Ideally, my peers and I could mobilize to become conscious and active consumers of chocolate and other foods, but the personal connection and dependency we often feel towards these items calls into question the extent to which true progress can eventually be made.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2007.

Dewan, Saif. “PAKISTAN: Despite Odds, Pakistan’s Confectionery Industry Continues to Grow.” Candy Industry, Mar. 2011, pp. 18–22.

Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in

Europe.” Socio.hu, no. special issue 3, 2015, pp. 37–60., doi:10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37.

Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. New Press,


Sampeck citing Clarence-Smith, W. G. Cocoa and Chocolate, 1765-1914. Routledge, 2000.

Satre, Lowell J. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. 1st ed., Ohio

University Press, 2005.

Schwartzkopf, Stacey, and Kathryn E. Sampeck. Substance and Seduction: Ingested

Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica. First ed., University of Texas Press, 2017.

The Relationship Between Cacao Beverages and Ritual in Ancient Mesoamerica

It is no secret that cacao beverages were utilized extensively throughout Ancient Mesoamerica. The Maya were most famously known for using cacao and cacao beverages for a variety of different societal and cultural uses, as well as economic and trade uses. However, this essay will explore the exact known origins of cacao beverages within ancient Mesoamerica, as well as their relationship to ancient rituals and then end by discussing their context within more modern-day rituals within what used to be the Mesoamerican region.

The Origins of Cacao Beverages in Ancient Mesoamerica

            Before the relationship between cacao beverages and rituals in ancient Mesoamerica can be examined and discussed, the origins of these beverages within the region must first be explained. That is, how cacao beverages came about and rose to social, cultural, and ritual prominence within ancient Mesoamerican societies. It is not exactly known to researchers, anthropologists, and scientists how Theobroma, which are a genus of flowering plants that include the type of cacao present in ancient Mesoamerica, arrived in the region. That is, “all wild relatives of domesticated Theobroma are native to northern Amazonian South America, although cacao was not cultivated there in pre-Columbian times…” (Henderson et. al. 18937). Thus, “whether cacao arrived in Mesoamerica through human agency or whether the natural range of Theobroma once extended through Central America is a controversial issue” (Henderson et. al. 18937). However, the best way in which to approach the issue of determining the specific origin of cacao beverages within ancient Mesoamerica is through the scientific examination of artifacts that were used to make, store, and present cacao beverages. However, this process is very difficult due to the fact that, “the process of cacao preparation destroys the pods and seeds, making recovery of macrobotanical remains rare” (Henderson et. al. 18937). However, scientists can determine the ancient presence of cacao beverage by chemically analyzing pottery artifacts for the remanence of Theobroma. Through this chemical analysis, the origins have cacao beverages within ancient Mesoamerica has been determined through the analysis of sherds of vessels from Puerto Escondido in what is now Honduras. That is, chemical analyses of residues extracted from pottery vessels from Puerto Escondido show that cacao beverages were being made there before 1000 B.C., extending the confirmed use of cacao back at least 500 years (Henderson et. al. 18937). Thus, “the preparation, serving, and consumption of cacao beverages in the Early Formative period at Puerto Escondido is the earliest documented context for what became a central dimension of social life in Mesoamerica” (Henderson et. al. 18937).

Bodega Brown bottle from northern Honduras. This vessel is of the same type and form as samples found at Puerto Escondido (Henderson et. al. 18938)

Cacao Beverages and Rituals in Ancient Mesoamerica

           The vast importance of cacao beverages in ancient Mesoamerican societies is well-documented and well-known. However, one of the most important uses of these beverages was to facilitate rituals. That is, following the use of cacao beverages in the Early Formative period at Puerto Escondido, cacao beverages continued to be an essential component of important social ceremonies and ritual events throughout Mesoamerica over the past two and a half millennia (Henderson et. al. 18937). Furthermore, “from 1000 B.C. to the sixteenth century, kakaw [the Mayan word for ‘cacao’] drinks remained a primary component of social and political events among the indigenous peoples of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and as far south as Nicaragua and Costa Rica, its consumption crossing nearly all socioeconomic and political boundaries” (McNeil 206). These cacao beverages were utilized in various important rituals within ancient Mesoamerican societies. More specifically, cacao and cacao beverages were primary objects of exchanges between social groups, marking betrothal, marriage, and children’s life cycle rituals (McNeil 151). Although these particular ritual events were extremely important within these societies, cacao beverages held their most significant role within the facilitation of ritual feasts and communal eating. These beverages’ importance to ritual feasting within ancient Mesoamerica can be confirmed by portrayals on vessels of palace feasts wherein cylinder vases brimming with frothy cacao are offered by attendant women or sit next to the host and close at hand to the gathered guests (McNeil 211). The connection between cacao beverages and the rituals of feasting and communal eating is extremely important because feasting has been linked to emergent sociopolitical complexity in discussions of, “political strategies available to would-be local leaders in societies in which social stratification was not institutionalized” (Joyce and Henderson 650). Feasting allowed local leaders to establish obligations from people who would not otherwise have owed emergent leaders anything (Joyce and Henderson 650). Thus, the feasting system not only created a forum for sociopolitical alliance formation, but it also was an essential mechanism wielded by Mesoamerica’s ruling elites (McNeil 209). And the essential role that cacao beverages played within this vastly important ritual of feasting acts as a case study depicting the inextricable link between cacao beverages and rituals in ancient Mesoamerican societies.

Late Classic period Maya painted vase whose palace scene depicts an aristocratic meeting and feasting event during which tamales are served in a large plate, and a painted ceramic vessel is brimming with foamy cacao beverage (McNeil 211)

Mesoamerican Cacao Beverages and Rituals in a Modern Context

            Along with the vastly important case study of the ritual of feasting, cacao beverages have been, and continue to be, an essential aspect of religious rituals within Mesoamerica. Within the modern context, cacao beverages are still utilized by the Ch’orti’ Maya who live in eastern Guatemala near the Classic period Maya site of Copan in western Honduras (McNeil 384). That is, the Ch’orti’ make and consume cacao beverages during their Rain Ceremonies, which occur during the end of April and into the beginning of May. The Rain Ceremonies are rooted in ancient Mayan culture and the rituals performed during the ceremony are done so that the rain gods may be worshipped (McNeil 384-386). Cacao beverages, along with fermented and alcoholic maize beverages, are consumed throughout the rituals of the Rain Ceremonies (McNeil 390-392). Thus, the Ch’orti’ provide a modern example of the inextricable relationship between cacao beverages and rituals within Mesoamerica.

Chocolate is poured from a guacal into a jícaran containing hot chilate (a Ch’orti’ ritual maize drink) in Quetzaltepeque, Guatemala (McNeil 391)


Works Cited

Henderson, John S., et al. “Chemical and Archaeological Evidence for the Earliest Cacao           Beverages.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 104, no. 48, 2007,          pp. 18937–18940.

Joyce, Rosemary A., and John S. Henderson. “From Feasting to Cuisine: Implications of             Archaeological Research in an Early Honduran Village.” American Anthropologist, vol.             109, no. 4, 2007, pp. 642–653.

McNeil, Cameron L. Chocolate in Mesoamerica : a Cultural History of Cacao. University Press             of Florida, 2006.

The Ritual Significance of Cacao in Pre-Colombian Mesoamerica

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

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

Cacao and Death

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

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

Cacao and Fertility

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

Cacao and Wealth

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

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

Concluding Thoughts

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Kitchen to Culture

A sociohistorical analysis of ancient Mayan chocolate recipes

Food and recipes are a glimpse into the intimate cultural customs and beliefs of a civilization. Chocolate, the ever-popular sweet treat, beverage, and flavor, has a culinary history that is as rich and complex as the food itself. The ancient Maya and their Olmec ancestors introduced drinking chocolate to Mesoamerica, and later to the entire Old World (Coe Kindle loc. 914). Historians have deduced recipes of these original beverages, which enhanced cacao with indigenous flavorings, additives, and techniques. These ingredients, methods of preparation, and contexts of consumption reflect not only Mayan culinary tastes, but also the cultural and social customs and beliefs of the time. Through the analysis of two particular recipes from the Lacandón Maya, this work will examine the connections between the culinary, cultural, and historical aspects of cacao in Mesoamerica.

Geographic region of Lacandón civilization in Chiapas and Petén

The Lacandón Maya lived in the cacao-cultivating regions of Chiapas, Mexico and Petén, Guatemala. The Lacandón were not direct descendants of the Classic Maya; but rather, developed from inter-indigenous interactions between Classic Maya and other cultures (Cecil 261). Despite their dwindling numbers, the Lacandón have maintained many traditions, particularly culinary practices, from their original Classic Mayan roots. This is especially significant considering the lack of written documentation of Classic Maya chocolate recipes. Any references to cacao preparation were typically illustrations and scenes of cacao consumption or social use. Despite their artistic value, these hieroglyphs lacked culinary detail, as they translated simply to “cacao,” only indicating the purpose of the vessel (Coe Kindle loc. 608). The subsequent work of anthropologists and historians have uncovered two Lacandón recipes for chocolate beverages, demonstrating the various uses, additives, and social contexts of chocolate.

Classic Mayan glyph for “cacao”
Cacao vessel, as indicated by the hieroglyphs around the rim

Secular cacao recipes and uses

One of the most significant aspects of chocolate in Maya culture was its versatility and ubiquity in a variety of different social contexts. Cacao-based beverages were enjoyed regularly as an everyday drink, in secular settings or for practical purposes. The Maya termed this chacau haa, meaning “hot water” or “hot chocolate.” Another type of common beverage was saca, which evolved from the traditional sak ha drink made of corn gruel (Coe Kindle loc. 875). Saca incorporated cacao with the traditional cooked maize and water, providing body and substance to the otherwise watery chocolate drink. Combined with cacao’s caffeine, this chocolate maize drink served as an excellent source of fuel and calories. Mayan warriors were also depicted with cacao pods, referencing the invigorating, sustaining properties of such cacao beverages (Martin slide 52).

The first Lacandón recipe presented by Sophie and Michael Coe was claimed to be for “ordinary consumption” (Kindle loc. 885). The basic ingredients and techniques of this secular recipe were the foundation from which more culinarily complex and socially meaningful recipes were developed. The main components were cacao beans, maize, and suqir. The preparation involved first grinding the cacao beans with a metate, mixing the grounds with water to form a paste, straining the mixture, and finally adding more water while heating and beating to produce foam (Coe Kindle loc. 896). The addition of maize mirrors the basic saca recipe, using corn to increase the beverage’s value as caloric fuel. Despite the practical aspects of chocolate consumption, the Maya most highly valued the delicious taste and sensation of the foam. This was created with the addition of suqir, a vine that acted as a foaming agent, and the technique of beating the hot chocolate (Cook 257). This preparation would have taken a significant amount of time and effort, especially in comparison to the modern-day electric tools developed for the same purpose of foaming beverages. Thus, it is evident that the Maya valued even their ordinary chocolate drinking enough to put forth the effort in its foaming and preparation.

72% Ecuador Hot Chocolate - Monsieur Truffe AUD5
The prized foam atop hot chocolate beverages

Sacred cacao recipes and rituals

Despite its widespread consumption among the Maya and their descendants, cacao was also a culturally sacred, ritualistic comestible. The second Lacandón recipe was intended for sacred purposes, as seen in the additives and special techniques that carried religious significance. The ritual sponsor’s wife prepared the drink “in a special cooking hut next to the ‘god house’ where the clay effigy ‘god pots’ are kept” (Coe Kindle loc. 896). These god pots were essential in Lacandón spiritual practices. They were called ol, translating to “center” or “heart of,” presumably because they served as otherworldly portals (Dreiss 57). This corresponds to the Mayan belief that the cacao tree was the center of the universe and source of all life, connecting the Sky, Earth, and Underworld (Martin slide 44). These god pots were sculpted with the likenesses of cacao gods and were used as vessels to transmit the Lacandón spiritual offerings.

Vessels for cocoa / Съдове за какао
Cacao vessels and god pots

Before the ceremonial offering and “feeding” of the cacao to the god pots, there were several other critical components distinguishing the sacred cacao from the secular. Aak’, a soft grass, was added to enhance the frothing process while beating the liquid. Additionally, to ensure that the beverage had sufficient foam to please the gods, the women preparers would simultaneously sing a special frothing song (Dreiss 58). The frothed cacao would then be poured into the god pots, which contained either sak ha, the aforementioned corn gruel, or balché, another ceremonial drink. In a ritualistic context, the Maya offered sak ha to the gods of various crops, to protect them from plagues and ensure a substantial harvest. Balché was made from water fermented with the bark of the balché tree, which was supposed to impart sanctity and protection against evil, as well as provide hallucinogenic effects to the drinkers (Cano 4). The addition of these two beverages for ritual offerings reflects the Classic Maya belief in cacao’s role in fertility. As another example, the Madrid Codex depicts the Mayan moon goddess and rain god exchanging cacao to maintain the earth’s fertility (Martin slide 38). This combination of sacred beverages highlights the importance of cacao in Maya rituals and the inherent assumption that gods too, love chocolate.

The juxtaposition of the secular and sacred Maya chocolate recipes reveals the stark differences in cacao consumption based on social context. The addition of corn as maize may be interpreted as a caloric enhancement when cacao was consumed as fuel. In a sacred preparation, this maize could also serve as a godly offering to protect the cacao crops. The consistent practice of beating the liquid and adding frothing agents was also a vital technique to please both human imbibers and gods. These recipes demonstrate the versatility of cacao and its ability to embody different cultural meanings through its preparation, method of serving or consuming, and its spiritual synergy with additional ingredients. Cacao was a delicious foundation that could be adapted to fulfill both humans’ gastronomic and spiritual appetites, contributing to its persistent popularity throughout history.

Works Cited: Scholarly Sources

  1. Cano, Mirtha. Sacred Food and Drinks. FLAAR Network, 2008.
  2. Cecil, Leslie G., and Timothy W. Pugh. Maya Worldviews at Conquest. University Press of Colorado, 2009.
  3. Coe, Sophie D and Michael D., Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson. Kindle Edition.
  4. Cook, Suzanne. The Forest of the Lacandon Maya: An Ethnobotanical Guide. Springer US, 2016.
  5. Dreiss, Meredith L., and Greenhill, Sharon. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. University of Arizona Press, 2008.
  6. Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” AAAS 119X, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University. 6 Feb. 2019.

Works Cited: Multimedia Sources

  1. Alpha. 72% Ecuador Hot Chocolate – Monsieur Truffe AUD5. 5 Mar 2011. Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/9prH1J. Accessed 10 Mar 2019.
  2. Burchell, Simon. Maya civilization location map. Wikimedia Commons, 26 May 2015, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maya_civilization_location_map_-_geography.svg. Accessed 10 Mar 2019.
  3. Maya. Vessel with Battle Scene. 600. John L. Severance Fund, Cleveland Museum of Art. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Clevelandart_2012.32.jpg. Accessed 10 Mar 2019.
  4. Mitko_denev. Vessels for cocoa. 6 Jan 2008. Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/4nzkzY. Accessed 10 Mar 2019.
  5. Soparamens. Cacao-glyph. Wikimedia Commons, 29 Mar 2017, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cacao-glyph_vectorized.png. Accessed 10 Mar 2019.

The Myth of Separation

The Aztec culture is notorious for their often bloody rituals, which are now widely thought to be egregiously barbaric. We look upon Aztec sacrificial practices as evidence of a sadistic and morally bankrupt culture, of a people who are terrible in ways we could never be; but assuming this inherent separation keeps us from exploring the breadth of human connection and commonality.

In The true history of chocolate Coe & Coe explain that the view of Aztec society as barbaric is handed down to us by the Spanish conquistadores as an excuse for their terrible treatment of the Aztecs (Coe, 65). While the Spanish had their own motivations to portray the Aztecs as barbarians, it’s easy to imagine that they might have also felt genuine shock at Aztec practices which included ritual human sacrifice.

An example of one such ritual, which was carried out yearly, proceeded as follows: A slave was chosen to be dressed and treated as the god Quetzalcoatl for 40 days, after which he was told that he would be killed the following day. He was then required to dance with perfect happiness, as a sorrowful response was thought to be a bad omen. If he was not able to remain cheerful he would be given a drink of chocolate which was mixed with bloody water from the washing of sacrificial knives. This drink, known as itzpacalatl, was said to bewitch him and bring about renewed happiness and dancing (Coe, 103). One fascinating element of this ritual is the importance placed on the sacrifice’s happiness (or at least the display of it). Another fascinating element; the function of nourishment and fortification from the chocolate having a transformative role in the experience of being sacrificed.

It is important to note that bloody Aztec rituals were not done merely for sadistic entertainment. In “The Aztec Ritual Sacrifices,” Izeki explains that sacrifice was integral to Aztec religion and considered necessary for maintaining order in the universe. It was believed that humans were created to give their lives to the gods in order to maintain creation. Izeki notes, too, that death was not thought to be permanent but rather cyclical— the Aztecs believed “that sacrificial victims became divine beings after being slain, that the dead lived an afterlife, and that each part of a soul went back to its provenance”(Izeki).

Solely looking voyeuristically at Aztec rituals as evidence of barbarism allows us to foster a comforting sense of moral superiority. However, this sense of superiority and separations may be a misconception. When we study the history of chocolate we uncover a deep historical connection with the Aztecs. This connection can be seen first through the consumption and ritualization of cacao.

800px-valentines_chocolates1Like the Aztecs, we love chocolate, and like the Aztecs, we imbue it with symbolism. The Aztecs sometimes used cacao pods to ritualistically symbolize the human heart— we sometimes gift heart-shaped boxes of chocolate to symbolize love (Coe 103).

Might there be a connection even in the dark specifics of the discussed ritual to aspects of our culture today? In her thesis Revulsion and Palatability, Angie Wheaton explores the topic of rituals surrounding the death penalty, with a special focus on the ritual of giving the condemned a choice of last meals. This ritual has been the subject of several art projects, like the one shown in the below image.

5430175617_6328bbd2d7_z-1Wheaton explains that this ritual of providing nourishment and comfort to those we put to death in the form of favorite foods has a longstanding tradition, and is still common practice in most places (one notable exception being Texas) (Wheaton, 6). This tradition has much in common with the Aztec ritual of providing sacrifices with the culturally favored form of nourishment, cacao. Wheaton argues that in the context of the death penalty, “rituality has helped cushion the revulsion that is inherently present when taking the life of a human being” (Wheaton, v). Might this effect also be one explanation for the specifics of Aztec rituals?

The use of chocolate as an intoxicant in the discussed Aztec ritual is somewhat perplexing. Though cacao beans do contain caffeine and theobromine which cause a stimulant effect, this effect is moderate and insufficient to cause extreme euphoria. Despite this, there are also people today who consume chocolate in ritualistic settings for the purpose of intoxication.


In the Business Insider article “San Franciscans are obsessed with ‘cacao ceremonies,’ where they claim to get high on chocolate,” author Melia Robinson details currently trendy rituals where people gather to drink concentrated cacao drinks. Participants report “a wide range of reactions, from feelings of connectedness and ecstasy to hallucinations” (Robinson).

The common concept of superiority and separation between people today and the Aztecs is a myth. Through the lens of chocolate, food, and ritual, we can uncover striking similarities between these cultures. These common threads of practice and perception between the people of today and the Aztecs may serve to remind us that however different we might like to think ourselves from those that commit atrocities, we are more alike than we are different. We are all human and capable of both great things and terrible ones.


Works Cited:

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The true history of chocolate. 3rd ed., Thames and Hudson, 2013.

Wheaton, Angie. Revulsion and Palatability: The Staying Power of Death Penalty Rituals – Last Meals and Beyond, Eastern Kentucky University, Ann Arbor, 2013, ProQuest, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/1433293088?accountid=11311.

Robinson, Melia. “San Franciscans are obsessed with ‘cacao ceremonies,’ where they claim to get high on chocolate.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 19 May 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/cacao-ceremony-san-francisco-2017-5.

Izeki, Mutsumi (2014) The Aztec Ritual Sacrifices, Performance Research, 3:3, 25-32, DOI: 10.1080/13528165.1998.10871623

Last Meal Photo credit John Dalton on Flikr, Creative Commons license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

Cacao Drink Photo credit Julie Gibbons on Flikr, Creative Commons license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Other images in public domain

To chokola’j – Chocolate’s History as a Connector of People

The word “chocolate” potentially traces its etymological roots back to the Quiché Mayan verb chokola’j –  translated “to drink chocolate together” (Coe and Coe 118). While there remains debate over the exact origins of the word, there is no question the processed seeds from the fruit of the theobroma cacao tree that we now call chocolate or cacao has been a unique connector of individuals, groups, and cultures throughout its history. By examining the historical record: Depictions of ancient Maya and Mixtec marriage ritual, vessels from the ancestral Pueblo of North America, and paintings portraying New England and British chocolate houses of the 1600s and 1700s, we will see chocolate’s historical significance as a connector of people.

While the first evidence of chocolate cultivation traces back to the Mokoya and Olmec of early Mesoamerica, it was through the Maya (250 CE to 900 CE) and Mixtec (1000 CE to 1500 CE), where we first see chocolate’s significance as a social connector of individuals and families particularly through marriage ceremony (Presilla 10-11). The first example of cacao’s centrality to marriage can be seen through a Maya ritual called tac haa, roughly translated “to serve chocolate”.  In this ritual, the family of the groom-to-be would “invite the father of a girl whom one’s son wants to marry to discuss the marriage and serve him (chocolate) drink” (Martin “Mesoamerica”). The image below illustrates the communal and ritualistic aspects of the marriage ceremony with a vessel of chocolate clearly at the center.

tac haa
A vessel of chocolate at the center of the marriage ceremony of “tac haa”, illustrating chocolate’s centrality in bringing individuals and families together in Maya culture (Martin “Mesoamerica”).

The next example recorded from the Codex Zouche-Nuttal shows the Mixtec marriage of Lord Eight Deer and Lady Thirteen Serpent (1051 CE) (Dreiss and Greenhill 64). Lady Serpent holds a cup of chocolate with two hands offering it to Lord Eight Deer as a gesture to cement their marriage union.

From the Codex Zouche-Nuttal, Lady Thirteen Serpent offering Lord Eight Deer a cup of chocolate to seal the marriage union in Mixtec society (1051 CE) (Martin “Mesoamerica”).

A similar example from the Chol Maya elevates the cacao bean itself as a key element of the marriage union. As described by Eric Thompson:

The form of marriage is: the bride gives the bridegroom a small stool painted in colors, and also gives him five grains of cacao, and says to him “These I give thee as a sign that I accept thee as my husband.” And he also gives her some new skirts and another five grains of cacao, saying the same thing. (Coe and Coe 61)

It is clear through the examination of these Maya and Mixtec artifacts that cacao was essential in knitting together the fabric of early Mesoamerican families and society. As we travel north, we will next examine ancient Pueblo artifacts discovered in pre-colonial New Mexico and Utah that suggest the surprisingly early presence of cacao in North America.

Until very recently, it was thought there was very little interaction between the Maya of Mesoamerica and the Pueblo of southwestern North America but recent chocolate research suggests otherwise. These two cultures may have been more interconnected than ever imagined – with chocolate being at the center of this cultural exchange (Haederle).  In 2009, University of New Mexico researcher Patricia Crown observed similarities between drinking vessels found at the historic Pueblo site of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico (1000 – 1125 CE) and those used in Maya ceremony (Crown and Hurst). Crown turned to W. Jeffrey Hurst, a chemist for the Hershey Company, to test for the possibility of cacao residue on the Chaco Canyon vessels. Hurst tested five shards of pottery, three of which confirmed the presence of theobromine – a biomarker unique to cacao (Crown and Hurst).

The presence of theobromine found on vessels from Chaco Canyon, New Mexico suggesting Maya and Pueblo relationship through trade of chocolate (Crown and Hurst).

Building on Crown and Hurst’s findings, in 2016 University of Pennsylvania researcher Dorothy Washburn examined pottery fragments originating from another historic Pueblo site located at Blanding, Utah. The vessel fragments tested also returned strong traces of theobromine, pushing the potential timeline for Maya and Pueblo interaction back 300-400 years to around 750 CE (Mozdy).

Chaco Canyon Map
Distribution of cacao cultivation in Central America showing closest major areas of production 1,200 miles from Chaco, Canyon, New Mexico CE 1502 (Crown and Hurst).

Considering the closest cacao source at that time was 1,200-1,400 miles away in Mesoamerica, these findings suggest the incredible lengths at which cacao traveled north. Says Crown of the New Mexico findings, “The only way for this material to get [to New Mexico] is [that] either people from Chaco walked down to get it, or it was traded hand to hand from Mesoamerica to Chaco, or people from Mesoamerica came up and traded it” (Haederle). The great distances a delicacy like cacao traveled and exchanged hands between the Maya and Pueblo elucidates chocolate’s connectivity and its social impact. From the ancient Pueblo culture of the southwest, we move next to New England and Britain of the 1600s and 1700s where we find paintings depicting coffee and chocolate houses as a forum for the vibrant exchange of ideas.

In both Boston and London, coffee and chocolate houses were at the center of political and cultural life where men of the emerging merchant class would “gather to discuss the news of the day and dangerous ideas like democracy or things that threatened the political elite of the time” (Martin “Introduction”). In Boston, we find the establishment of the first North American coffee and chocolate house as a political declaration in and of itself. Two women, Dorothy Jones and Jane Barnard, successfully petitioned the city “to keepe a house of publique Entertainment for the selling of Cofffee and Chucaloette” (Martin “Introduction”). In London, members of nascent political parties would often gather at these houses and would eventually turn them into a virtual headquarters (Coe and Coe 223). These establishments were so threatening, King Charles II attempted to shut them down calling them “hotbeds of sedition” (Coe and Coe 167). However, equally reflective of the social position these houses had come to have in British society, public outcry prevented their suppression and they continued to grow in importance.

17th Century painting underscoring the significance of coffee and chocolate houses as forums for political and cultural exchange (Wikimedia Commons).

In the 1600s and 1700s of New England and Britain, we see chocolate’s fundamental role in society as a reason for communal and political gathering and the debate of important ideas, not unlike the role coffee houses serve today.

Through examining the historical record depicting Maya and Mixtec marriage ritual, ancient vessels found in Pueblo North America, and images portraying coffee and chocolate houses in Boston and London, we see chocolate’s importance in binding together individuals and families, bridging different groups and cultures thousands of miles away, and serving as a reason for people to come together to discuss the important issues of the day. Reverberating from chocolate’s communal past is perhaps a paradigm to best view chocolate’s current social, economic, and environmental sustainability challenges. To chokola’j – to bring together disparate individuals and groups to have meaningful discussion and debate over the important issues surrounding chocolate itself – is perhaps the vessel we drink to in order to secure chocolate’s sustainable future.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. Thames & Hudson Ltd: London, 2013. Print.

Crown, Patricia L., and W. Jeffrey Hurst. “The distribution of cacao cultivation in Central America and Mexico in A.D. 1502, relative to Chaco Canyon” Digital Image. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Sciences, 17 Feb. 2009, www.pnas.org/content/106/7/2110. Accessed 28 Feb 2018

Crown, Patricia L., and W. Jeffrey Hurst. “Evidence of Cacao Use in the Prehispanic American Southwest.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Sciences, 17 Feb. 2009, www.pnas.org/content/106/7/2110. Accessed 28 Feb 2018

Dreiss, Meredith L. and Greenhill, Sharon E. Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 2008. Print.

Haederle, Michael. “Mystery of Ancient Pueblo Jars Is Solved.” New York Times, 3 Feb. 2009, www.nytimes.com/2009/02/04/us/04cocoa.html. Accessed 1 Mar 2018

Martin, Carla D. “Introduction.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 24 Jan. 2018. Class Lecture.

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 31 Jan. 2018. Class Lecture.

Mozdy, Michael. “Utah’s Ancient Cacao: A Surprising Find.” Natural History Museum of Utah, University of Utah, 4 Aug. 2016, nhmu.utah.edu/blog/2016/08/04/utah%E2%80%99s-ancient-cacao-surprising-find. Accessed 02 Mar 2018

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

Unknown. Artist “Interior of a London Coffee-house, 17th century”. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons. 01 Mar. 2018 http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~sajamato/description.html

Let Us Raise a Vessel to Cacao… Mayan Style!

Do you remember the last time you had a cup of hot chocolate? Was it served in a mug, topped with whipped cream? Or maybe you sipped it from a to-go cup from your favorite drive-thru restaurant. Most of the time we don’t fuss with what we’re drinking our hot chocolate from because we’re too busy enjoying the aroma and experience this time honored beverage provides us. Yet, ancient cultures, alike the Mayans, respected their cacao drinking methods and admired the cup they drank from just as much as they prized the drink itself. In many cases, cacao wouldn’t have been drunk if it wasn’t out of an artistically treasured and symbolized vessel… a far cry from how we view and present our version of hot chocolate today. Nevertheless, this customary beverage and the material in which it was once presented in was systematically ritualized throughout the ancient Classic Maya culture, proving a frothy cup of cacao was more than just something to cheers with.

The Classic Maya period (250 A.D. to 900 A.D.) was considered to be the most influential and profound stage of the ancient Mayan civilization. Fabulous accomplishments, such as towering pyramids and vast palaces throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, beautifully decorated ceramics, and a distinguishable writing system flourished during this time. This was also a time when the Maya elite prospered, and their admiration for the finer things in life influenced their daily lives and dietary intake, ritualizing items such as cacao and the vessels they were ingested from. David Stuart, an archaeologist and epigrapher who specializes in Mesoamerican cultures, describes in a chapter within the book, Chocolate in Mesoamerica, the ways in which the Maya civilization upheld the role of cacao within their society. Stuart suggests, “The importance of cacao in Classic Maya society was not widely appreciated until the decipherment of glyphic texts on ceramics in the 1980s, when it became clear that seemingly countless ceramic vessels were inscribed with a dedicatory formula identifying them as drinking vessels for chocolate” (Stuart 184).

Around the same time those descriptive discoveries were uncovered, much excitement arose when two vessels were found in Guatemala containing chemical remains of cacao (Theobromine), a study that was performed by W. Jeffery Hurst, a chemist at the Hershey Foods Technical Center (Carla D. Martin, Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods,” January 31, 2018). By identifying the Maya word and glyph for cacao (ka-ka-wa), including the remains of Theobromine, archaeologists soon realized the extensive amount of Maya vessels which were artistically depicted with the kakaw glyph, symbolizing the importance of cacao within their culture, alongside the vessels in which they were consumed from (Stuart 184). In most early cases, a vessel that depicted the kakaw glyph was considered to be apart of a Maya elites collection, illustrating the consumption of cacao was reserved for those of importance within the community.

The Kakaw Glyph
Figure 1. The kakaw glyph (ka-ka-wa) in the Dresden Codex. a. The individual syllables of ka-ka-wa. b. The representation of the God of Death holding an offering of a bowl of cacao. Drawings by Carlos Villacorta from the Dresden Codex (1976).

Maricel E. Presilla, a cultural historian, chef, and author of the book, The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes, reviews the ways in which the kakaw glyph was depicted on Maya pots and drinking vessels, and goes on to say, “Dozens of Classic Maya pots and jars, included along with other furnishings in burial chambers, depict chocolate as a crucial, central element of opulent feasts” (Presilla 12). Archaeologists have also come to believe that the vessel in which the cacao drink was drunk from had different levels of significance and cultural value, through the means of the artwork depicted on the cup and the individuals utilizing this piece of material culture (Presilla 12). Realizations as such have contributed to many other professionals from a plethora of academic fields, such as anthropologists and art curators, into the mix, creating a vast amount of research conducted around this specific topic. Dr. Dorie Reents-Budet, an Art Curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, describes the functionality of these impressive vessels in a chapter within the book, Chocolate in Mesoamerica, and considers these vessels, “Function as containers for edibles and also as portable props whose myths-political imagery lent power and prestige to their owners and the event during which they were used” (Reents-Budet 210).

As a result, these elaborate cacao drinking vessels served up a frothy-drink of dualism between the vessel itself and the individual enjoying this influential beverage. Illustrations of exclusive banquets held by the Maya elite were plentiful, and according to Reents-Budet, these elite banquets which included fantastic kakaw serving vessels, “Transcended their primary function as food service wares and were transformed into indispensable status markers and essential gifts; that is, they became social currency” (Reents-Budet 213). The aftereffect of these frequent banquets lead to those creative kakaw drinking vessels to be perceived as social currency and a higher status, and soon after, production of cacao drinking vessels by “highly trained artisans and renewed painters” (Reents-Budet 214) was off and running.

A Late Classic Maya Vase
Figure 2. A Late Classic Maya period polychrome vase for serving chocolate beverages and giving as gifts during elite feasts. Collections of the New Orleans Museum of Art. Photograph copyright Justin Kerr (K2800).

As a result of this newfound kakaw drinking vessel popularity, the Maya civilization never looked back, and the ideals around this foamy, ritualized beverage flourished for the rest of their reign. Through mysterious circumstances, the decline of the Maya culture happened sometime between the late eighth and ninth century, creating a sense of wonder around this distinguished ancient civilization. While we may never know what truly happened to the Mayans and their artistic culture, the remnants of their treasured vessels and love for cacao has overcome their deterioration, and continues to thrive in our modern day society through academic means and pure curiosity for what was once a fascinating and complex society.

Depiction of a Cacao Beverage Being Frothed
Figure 3. Classic Maya period depicting the aerating of a kakaw beverage by pouring the liquid from one jar to another placed on the floor. Collections from the Princeton Art Museum (acc. no. 75-17, the Hans and Dorthy Widenmann Foundation). Photograph copyright Justin Kerr (K511).

References Cited:

Martin, Carla D. Mesoamerica and the “food gods.” Harvard University, Jan. 2018, https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1XF-lM9Z9iks0cVhUFRJ1QWBokKTRrdvZISwAJVSe_Ag/edit#slide=id.gef490479d_2_18

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

Reents-Budet, Dorie. “The Social Context of Kakaw Drinking among the Ancient Maya.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, edited by Cameron L. McNeil, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. 202-223.

Stuart, David. “The Language of Chocolate References to Cacao on Classic Maya Drinking Vessels.” Chocolate in Mesoamerica, edited by Cameron L. McNeil, University Press of Florida, 2009, pp. 184-201.

Dumbledore Loves Chocolate
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Dir. Chris Columbus. Warner Bros., 2001. DVD.


The Maya link between Cacao and Religion

People and societies are always looking for ways in which to find meaning in their world. Whether it is through creating rituals, forming habits, or connecting with others, humans are constantly looking for ways to find meaning, connection, and a greater purpose. Because of this need to to create values, societies often elevate everyday, mundane aspects of life to something significant and powerful. In Charles Long’s analysis of religion, he explains how religion is about “orientation in the ultimate sense, that is, how one comes to terms with the ultimate significance of one’s place in the world” (Long 7). In order to create a religion and to find meaning in life, societies must orient themselves using the objects and experiences around them. Each society assigns values to different and unique aspects of their daily lives, and for the ancient Maya civilization cacao became an elevated and important aspect substance. Mayas used cacao as a way to understand their place in the world, which elevated cacao to more than just food for sustenance; it became a lens in which they could see the world through.

As David Carrasco describes, the tree is “rooted in the underworld, has its trunk in the middleworld, and its high branches or top ascending into heaven or the upperworld: (Carrasco 124). The cacao tree acted as useful visual and tool for the Maya as they sought out ways to understand their place in the world.

First and foremost, The Maya used cacao trees as a framework to conceptualize how their place in the world related to the afterlife and underworld. The different parts of the tree correspond to the the different aspects of life and afterlife, with the roots representing the underworld, the trunk representing the present, everyday life, and the leaves connecting to heaven (Carrasco 124). By thinking about these abstract ideas in terms of a understandable visual, it not only elevates the significance of the tree but also makes lofty and complicated ideas more accessible. Further, cacao was used as a powerful safeguard when people transitioned into the underworld. At a tomb in Río Azul (a Maya city in present day Guatamala), ancient jars with traces of chocolate were discovered, suggesting that “the dead lord began his voyage through the underworld with sustaining portions of what were probably several different chocolate drinks by his side” (Coe & Coe 46). Cacao trees not only had connections to the underworld through its roots, but it was also a resource for individuals as they transitioned into life after death.  By taking cacao and using it as a means of orienting themselves and their understanding of afterlife, it both elevated cacao’s significance and helped the Maya understand their life cycle. Not only did cacao provide a way to understand life and afterlife, it helped Maya transition into the afterlife comfortably.

The Popul Vuh references cacao in a variety of ways, and the story of Hunahpu is just one unique tale demonstrating cacao’s significance.

Additionally, the Maya used cacao as a way to conceptualize passing along traits and characteristics from one generation to the next. The Popol Vuh, one of the oldest documented Maya myths, has many references to cacao and helps to demonstrate how valuable cacao was for the Maya and the way in which they viewed the world. The story in the Popol Vuh of the Maize God, Hunahpu, is a myth that describes the sacrifice of Hunahpu (Martin 163). After Hunahpu was killed, his head was placed in a tree that had never grown fruit, yet once his head became a part of the tree it was able to produce fruit in abundance. Because of this, Hunahpu’s offspring, the Hero Twins, were able to carry his legacy with them. As Simon Martin describes, this tale “sets out the divine origins of cacao, as well as its role as a means of exchange. […] Here the fruit serves the purpose it has in nature: a means of generational descent” (Martin 164). Once again, the Maya were able to take a somewhat abstract religious concept and use cacao as a way to understand it.

The Hero Twins are the offspring of Hunahpu whose characteristics were carried on through the fruits of the tree in which his head was placed (Martin 163).

Finally, the Maya used cacao as a way to provide meaning and significance in various rituals, like baptisms. By bringing cacao into different types of rituals, it extends cacao’s previously established significance in order to assign greater meaning to to new rituals. For example, as Coe & Coe describe, “the pagan Maya had a baptismal rite for boys and girls… The children were gathered together… [and ] then the noble who was giving the ceremony took a bone and wet it in a vessel filled with water made of ‘certain flowers and of cacao pounded and dissolved in virgin water […]’; with this liquid he anointed the children on their foreheads, faces, and in the spaces between their fingers and toes, in complete silence” (Coe & Coe 60). Many religions have baptism rituals, and they each reflect important values within each group of people. For these Maya, cacao is clearly a highly valued and treasured substance that adds greater meaning and connection to this important ceremony.

By using cacao as a way to understand and find meaning in the world from understanding the afterlife to baptisms, cacao’s relevance and power were strengthened and it became an important framework for the Maya to understand the world through. Cacao did not have any meaning until the Maya decided to use it as lens for them to see the world through, which goes to show how powerful societies can be in taking something mundane and using it as a tool to create religion and meaning. The narratives around cacao are so strong that we still today associate the Maya with cacao and recognize its significance. For example, Godiva, a popular premium and mainstream chocolate company, references the Maya’s relationship with with cacao, noting its prominence on many Maya artifacts and its place in Maya ceremonies on their website (Godiva website). The Maya were able to take something seemingly mundane, a fruit bearing tree, and use it as a tool to help them understand and interact with the world. This not only helped the Maya create religious significance in their lives, but it completely changed the way we view cacao today and has shaped our understanding of cacao as special and important.

Works Cited

“Cacao Tree and Seedling.” Wikimedia Commons. Web. 30 August 2012.


Carrasco, David. Religions of Mesoamerica, Second Edition. Long Grove:

Waveland Press, Inc, 2013. Print.

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition.

Thames & Hudson Ltd: London, 2013. Print.

“Hero Twins,” Wikimedia Commons. Web. 25 September 2014.


Long, Charles H. Significations: Signs, Symbols, And Images In The Interpretation

Of Religion. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986. Print.

Martin, Simon. “Cacao in ancient Maya religion: first fruit from the maize free and other

tales from the underworld.” Chocolate In Mesoamerica : a Cultural History of

Cacao. Ed. Cameron L. McNeil: Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006.

154-183. Print.

“Popol Vuh.” Wikimedia Commons. Web. 17 April 2012.


“The History of Chocolate: The Mayans and Aztecs.” Godiva Chocolate, Godiva.

Web. 8 March 2018. <https://www.godivachocolates.co.uk/the-history-of-



The Tea Habit and The Dramatic Increase in British Sugar Consumption in the 17th and 18th Centuries

British sugar consumption dramatically escalated in the 17th and 18th centuries. Records show that British per-capita annual consumption grew from 4 lbs. in the early 1700’s to 18 lbs. in the early 1800’s representing a 400 percent increase in just one century (Mintz). While the figures are astonishing, the increase in sugar consumption can be attributed to several things including the decrease in price, the democratization of use, and most notably, the ritualization of drinking tea.  Henry James once said, “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” And with tea, came sugar.

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But let’s go back to sugar’s not so humble beginnings.  Initially, sugar was considered a luxury item afforded only by the noble and wealthy. In Britain, sugar served 5 different purposes – as a medicine, a spice, a decorative material, a preservative and as a sweetener.  And it commonly served more than one such purpose at a time (Mintz).  Cookbooks of the late 16th and early 17th century even treated sugar as a sort of drug to help balance the “humors” — energies that were believed to affect health and mood (Godoy). Like other spices, sugar was used to enhance the flavor of foods.  When combined with various ingredients, sugar was molded into fantastic shapes and structures to decorate noble dinner tables as a symbol of the host’s wealth and standing. Sugar’s preservative qualities extended the life of perishable fruits and meats and prevented spoilage.  But it was with the introduction of chocolate, coffee and tea that sugar’s use as a sweetener became relevant.  Interestingly, the British enjoyed a long-standing familiarity with sweetened beverages such as ale and wine so it is understandable that they would chose to sweeten these otherwise bitter beverages with sugar.

Sugar was expensive and relatively rare, making it a perfect object of conspicuous consumption for the status chasing elite (Goody).  Tea, an exotic import first made fashionable by a Portuguese princess, quickly gained popularity with the rise of coffee houses in London. As the price of tea and sugar dropped, they gained wider appeal across all socioeconomic lines and daily consumption per person increased. Over a relatively short period of time, the habit of drinking tea with sugar became ritualized.  In the chocolate and coffee houses of London, gentlemen and wealthy merchants took their tea sweetened with sugar. Women of privilege enjoyed tea accompanied by pastries, breads and jam at home with their friends often using their finest china and tea pots.

“We can imagine them then that while seventeenth century men were

at coffee houses drinking tea and exchanging gossip, their wives

gathered at one another’s hoes to do exactly the same thing – justin a more

refined atmosphere” (Tea.co.uk)

The first sugar habit learned by the English poor was part of the tea habit, and the tea habit spread downward from the rulers and outward from cities at a rapid rate (Mintz).  For the working class, tea with sugar often served as a break from their backbreaking jobs.  In homes of the poor, men who were the primary bread winners dined on meat while their wives and children subsisted on tea with sugar, bread and preserves.  Regardless of wealth or social status, the amount of sugar consumed at each meal continued to rise.  Tea sweetened with a strong dose of sugar was an affordable luxury: It gave workers a hit of caffeine to get through a long slog of a day, it provided plentiful calories, and it offered the comfort of warmth during a meal that otherwise often consisted only of bread (Godoy).

It is important to acknowledge that the dramatic increase in domestic demand for sugar was intertwined with the rise of the slave trade. Britain relied heavily on her sugar colonies to sustain her rabid consumer base, and forced labor allowed more sugar to be produced at a fraction of the price (Sheridan). They conquered the most colonies and went the farthest and fastest in creating the plantation system to satisfy growing demand for sugar (Mintz).  In the British West Indies, the number of enslaved Africans grew to 263,000 by the mid 1700’s (Martin). They were required to work 18 hour days and received only minimal food, clothing and shelter from the plantation owners. As a result, their life expectancy was only 7-8 years (Martin).

Sugar consumption levels continued to rise during and after the Industrial Revolution. By the 1900’s, annual per capita consumption approximated 80 lbs. climbing to an astonishing 120 lbs. in the 2000’s (Martin).   As processed food manufacturers gained a better understanding of taste preferences, they increasingly added sugar to everyday consumables like ketchup, cereals and dairy products. Currently, soft drinks are the biggest single source of added sugar for young people, with boys aged 11-18 getting 42% of their intake this way; and for adults aged 19-64, the main sources are also confectionery and jams, soft drinks and cereals (Jeavans). Clearly, the British love for sweet beverages survived and flourished throughout the centuries.

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In conclusion, the significant increase in British sugar consumption in the 17th and 18th centuries was a direct result of the increasing affordability of the commodity, the democratization of use, and the ritualization of tea time. Today, the British remain some of the greatest consumers of sugar in the world and are taking great steps to encourage people to limit their daily added sugar intake to ward off obesity, diabetes and other illnesses.


Works Cited

Martin, Carla D. “Lecture 6: Slavery, Abolition and Forced Labor.” Lecture

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

Sheridan, Richard B. Sugar and Slavery: An economic history of the British West Indies, 1623-1775.  University of West Indies  Press, 1974.  Web.

Jeavens, Christine. “How Much Sugar Do We Eat?” BBC News, BBC, 26 June 2014.  22 Feb. 2018.  http://www.bbc.com/news/health-27941325

Godoy, Maria. “Tea Tuesdays – How Tea + Sugar Reshaped the British Empire” The Salt. NPR. 7 April 2015.  22 Feb 2018. https://www.npr.org.sections/thesalt/2015/04/07/396664685/tea-tuesdays-how-tea-sugar-reshaped-the-british-empire

“Tea – A Brief History of the Nations Favorite Beverage” UK Tea and Infusions Association 2018.  22 Feb 2018. http://www.tea.co.uk

Ward, J.R. “Oxford History of the British Empire.  The Eighteenth Century. The British West Indies, 1748-1815” Oxford University Press.  New York. 1998 https://books.google.de/books?



Containing Chocolate and Culture

The instruments used to hold chocolate reveal more about the history and culture of the time period than one might first assume. Chocolate consumption began with the Olmecs, a civilization who lived along the Gulf Coast of Mexico between 1500 BC and 400 BC (Presilla, 46). Around 500 AD, the Mayan people also embraced chocolate as a drink and as part of traditional rituals like marriage, funerals, and religious ceremonies. Over 1000 years later, chocolate had made its way to Europe as a luxury enjoyed by the elite members of society (Coe and Coe, 158). The transformation of chocolate from a religious food to an indulgence for the wealthy is reflected through the vessels used to contain cacao. The culture and beliefs surrounding chocolate are reflected by a vessel found in a Mayan tomb discovery and the French silver chocolatière.



In 1984, archeologists uncovered a Mayan tomb from the late 5th century containing 14 decorated vessels. This tomb was found at Rio Azul, a Maya city located in Guatemala (Presilla, 46). Specifically, one artifact found in this tomb helped researchers to discover Cacao’s importance in Mayan funeral traditions. In their book, Michael D. Coe and Sophie D. Coe describe the artifact:


“There was a single example of an extremely rare form, a stirrup-handled pot with a screw-on lid. This strange object had been surfaced with stucco and brilliantly painted with six large hieroglyphs, including two which read ‘cacao.’” (Coe and Coe, 46)

Kakaw_(Mayan_word).pngFigure 1:  A close up of the glyph that helped identify this vessel. This symbol meant “cacao” in the Classic Maya period. 

Figure 2 (on left): The pot found at Rio Azul that Coe describes.


For the Mayans, chocolate was more than just a substance to consume. Chocolate held spiritual power. This connection between religion and chocolate is clear when we take into consideration the location of this pot. This artifact was found in a tomb, surrounding the body of the deceased ruler. When tested in a lab, this screw-top jar had traces of caffeine and theobromine—the two trace compounds found together only in chocolate (Martin.) This discovery confirmed that the ruler was buried with chocolate. For further proof that the vessel contained chocolate, researcher David Stuart decoded the glyphs along the outside to read “a drinking vessel for witik cacao, for kox caco” (Coe and Coe, 46).

Funerals and chocolate were also linked in Mayan scripture.  The Mayans believed that chocolate eased the journey to the underworld. Chocolate is mentioned in conjunction with different religious rituals in the Dresden Codex, a Maya text that still exists today (Martin).

Not only does the Rio Azul discovery reveal the connection between religion and chocolate, it also clues us into the consumption process. Some of the other vases are tall and narrow. They were picked up and poured into other pots to increase the foam.
Figure 3: This image is found on the Princeton Vase, and it depicts the process in which people made the chocolate drink. The chocolate was poured from one jug to the other to add froth, as the foam was considered the most important part. 



Luxury in the 18th century France

In France in the 17th and 18th centuries, the vessels used to contain chocolate also reflect the attitudes towards chocolate and the way it was imbibed. Chocolate was heralded as a beneficial delicacy with many health benefits. The French “are usually credited with the invention of the chocolatière, the chocolate pot ”(Coe and Coe, 156). Many of the elite took chocolate daily to cure a number of ailments (Coe and Coe, 156). The vessels from which hot chocolate was poured reflect the extravagance of the segment of society who embraced chocolate.


Figure 4 and 5: This chocolatière, currently on display in the Metropolitan museum of art, was made in the 1760s and  is typical for the time period.





“The French innovation seems to have been fix a straight wooden handle to the metal pot at right angles to the spout; this handle was usually unscrewed clockwise so that it would remain tight while pouring from the pot in a counter-clockwise motion. At the top was a hinged lid, with a central hole under the swiveling (or hinged) finial to take the handle of the moussoir (“froth maker”), as they called the molinillo.… Of course, this would have been in silver, as would the chocolatiers of all the nobility.” – Coe 


The extravagance of this pot highlights how only the wealthy had access to chocolate at the time. The average citizen would have never been able to afford such an intricate piece of silverware (Righthand). Chocolatières were also used as gifts between royalty. Coe cites the first appearance of a silver chocolatières in France as a gift from a Siamese mission. “It was not that the Thai had suddenly turned into chocolate drinkers (they never did so), but [the minister to the King of Siam] had obviously instructed the royal metalsmiths to turn out something that would appeal to the French court.” And the metalsmith’s idea of what would appeal to the French court was an extravagant set of chocolatières. The chocolatières given to the French court incuded “two chocolatières in silver, one with golden flowers and the other Japenned” as well as another “entirely in gold” (Coe and Coe, 158). Chocolatières were brought as a gift and to signify diplomacy. This incident establishes the way chocolate was viewed in society—something for only the elite to enjoy for pleasure.



Figure 6:  “La Famille du duc de Penthièvre en 1768” a painting by Jean-Baptiste Charpentier illustrates how chocolate was for the wealthy.


Same food, different cultures

For the Europeans of the 17th century, chocolate was a status symbol. As the price was still expensive, only the wealthy could afford to take chocolate. The intricacies of the chocolatières highlight their function in society. For the most part, chocolate no longer held any spiritual affiliation. While the Mayan pots were decorated with glyphs and drawings depicting what was inside and religious rituals, the chocolatières were ornately decorated illustrating the wealth and class of those who used them. Although both pots hold chocolate, their uses and sociological function were very different, illustrating the adaptation of chocolate as it spread to Europe as a secular delicacy, rather than a religious artifact.


Works cited:

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

Martin, Carla D. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 1 Feb. 2017. Class Lecture.

Righthand, Jess. “A Brief History of the Chocolate Pot.” Smithsonian.com. February 13, 2015. Accessed March 10, 2017. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/brief-history-chocolate-pot-180954241/.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised. Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, CA, 2009 Print.