Tag Archives: #spanish

The Medical Hybridization– or Rationalization– of Cacao for Consumption

Throughout history, humans have been wary of the unknown. This constant vigilance has benefitted us throughout evolution by helping us to avoid possible dangers, especially in the context of items for consumption. Understanding the ways in which our bodies react to different food substances is crucial to our survival. In light of this, it is unsurprising that when cacao—an exotic commodity—was introduced to the Spanish diet in the 16th century, it was met with hesitation. Originally a Mesoamerican good, cacao was undoubtedly foreign and certainly questionable when it was first brought across the Atlantic by Spanish explorers (likely Hernán Cortés) in the early 1500’s (Coe 129). In order for this new product to be accepted by the Spanish (and later European) people, cacao needed to be transformed into a food and a concept that fit in with the already existing framework of diet and medical culture (120). By fitting cacao (in its various forms) into the ever-pervasive humoral scheme of medicine, the Spanish were able to hybridize chocolate into a form that was acceptable by the general population. However, there was a tradeoff for this hybridization: what the Spaniards gained in acceptance through the application of Galenic medicine, they lost in true knowledge of cacao’s medicinal properties. In this way, the medical hybridization of cacao in Spain and Europe was not comprehensive, but rather was a selective hybridization that excluded some of the most medicinally applicable aspects of cacao known to the Aztecs— a more ‘primitive’ people, but a people who understood the world around them better than the Europeans would for years to come (122).

Cacao, a sacred substance, as an offering to the Aztec sun god.
Cacao, a sacred substance, as an offering to the Aztec sun god.

In Aztec society, the tradition of cacao as medicine was well engrained in society. Cacao was used for digestion and elimination issues, anti-inflammatory purposes, or as a source of strength to name just a few (Dillinger et al., 2061S). The Aztec beliefs and disease etiology that backed these medical claims stemmed from an extensive knowledge of the native plants, as well as centuries of experience with substances like cacao (Coe 122). Cacao was no exception, and though they may not have known about caffeine per se, through experience and acquired knowledge of the Theobroma cacao plant, the Aztecs knew that it behaved as a stimulant, increasing alertness and providing energy. Cacao’s slew of medicinal properties added to its symbolic meaning for them—a meaning that was quickly stripped when the Spaniards adopted it into their own culture (126).

Francisco Hernández' publication detailing his botanical and zoological finds in New Spain (modern-day Mexico), 1615.
Francisco Hernández’ publication detailing his botanical and zoological finds in New Spain (modern-day Mexico), 1615.

Hearing of the abundance of medicinal plants growing in Aztec Mexico, Royal Physician Francisco Hernández of Spain was sent to study and classify the native botany in terms that the Spanish would understand (Dillinger et al., 2063S). Hernández recorded data on many plants, fitting them all into the theory of Galenic medicine that Europe so heavily relied upon. He classified cacao as a “cold” substance, concluding that it would be good to treat “hot” conditions like fever and hot temperaments. However, he also conversely concluded that depending on the flavorings added (chilis, etc), cacao could also be a “hot” substance used to combat colic (Coe 122-3). The contradictions did not end here. Physician Juan de Cárdenas reported that cacao could lead to fatigue, but physician Henry Stubbe concluded that it was a “speedy refreshment” that was especially helpful to restore energy (Dillinger et al., 2064S). In this way, there was no clear consensus about the medicinal effects of cacao in Europe, and this is largely a result of the general vagueness and inadequate evidence backing the heavily lauded humoral theory of medicine.

Yet, these inconsistencies did not seem to bother the Spaniards, nor the Europeans at large. To me, this suggests that the general population was not looking for truth in exchange for their approval of cacao, but merely a sense of familiarization and the 201012-w-hot-chocolate-lake-champlainreassurance of safety that we evolutionarily crave. The Aztecs had the answers behind the powers of cacao, and though they may not have been easily communicated, Francisco Hernández and others like him were so caught up in mapping the exotic plant onto their own mental schemas, that the real meaning (and symbolic meaning) was lost somewhere over the Atlantic. In this way, the introduction and subsequent hybridization of cacao was less of a hybridization and more of an adoption with appropriation to appease the masses. I can’t really be mad though, because as much as I’d like to know exactly what the Aztecs knew about chocolate, I can’t blame the Europeans for not needing a real medicinal reason to dive in to some cacao.

Works Cited:

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

Dillinger, Teresa L., Barriga, Patricia, Escarcega, Sylia, Jimenez, Martha, Salazar Lowe, Diana, and Louis E. Grivetti. “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate.” The Journal of Nutrition 130 (2000): 2057S-2072S. Web. 18 February 2015.

Image Links:

Image 1: http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/images-ans/ans_21_05_2.jpg

Image 2: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8d/Francisco_Hernández_(1615)_Quatro_libros_de_la_naturaleza_y_virtudes_de_las_plantas_y_animales.png

Image 3: http://globalimmersions.com/Images/Hot%20Chocolate/201012-w-hot-chocolate-lake-champlain.jpg

Excursions with Ek Chua – Mesoamerica’s intrepid traders and beyond.


In exploring the long history of chocolate in Mesoamerican life, it is easy to see the importance of trade, and see that as with any journey, there are benefits and pitfalls. Thus it is seemly that such a land would host a god of the traveler, Ek Chua, portrayed with his pack and staff, seeking out the cacao tree. A town council report written in 1553 Tlaxcala provides us with an effective moment from which to view the effects of the journey – the cacao trade -on pre and post conquest Mesoamerica, affecting commerce, consciousness and community.

Image from the Codex Mendoza, Albert R. Mann Library, Cornell University
Image from the Codex Mendoza, Albert R. Mann Library, Cornell University

The Tlaxcalans, the council complains, seem to only know themselves through their cacao; how much they have; how much they can get:

“ …he is seen to have gold and cacao. That makes them proud and swells them up.”[i]

Cacao was not grown in Tlaxcala, rather arrived via long distance trade. Its significance is clear as cacao was mentioned eleven times in the short report and always as a sign of degradation. A code word for wealth, cacao exemplified the new disregard for proper living and a profound lack of foresight infecting the populace. The councilman concludes by warning,

“It is greatly urged that everyone cultivate and plant… if there were in people’s possession much money, cacao and cloth, will those things be eaten? …It cannot be. Money, cacao and cloth do not fill one up.[ii]

This crisis of cocoa morality was caused by excessive cultivation of cochineal, a cactus mite whose flesh produces a highly profitable red dye. Zeal for cochineal caused apathy toward food production, and Tlaxcala was at risk of a famine as the local barter system was replaced by the exchange of currency for cochineal. Among the most desirous of currenacy was cacao. [iii]

teo cylinder vase

Extremes in altitude in Mesoamerica lead to the complex market where cacao was money. The far-flung trade routes promoted the mingling of cultures in areas of coveted resource. Early evidence in Veracruz and Teotihuacan (AD 1 -750) is suggestive of a thriving exchange of Teotihuacan grey obsidian for Mayan cacao[iv] that cross-pollinated cultures along the trade routes. [v]

Later pochtecas, Mesoamericas outfitters linked Mesoamerican cities by mounting trading expeditions from the Aztec cities to as far afield as Xoconochco of the market savvy Putún Maya, who moved to the southern lowlands during the Terminal Classic period (AD 800 – 1200) to cultivate flourishing cacao orchards[vi] Xoconochco became the Aztec’s chief supplier of cacao, given as tribute and in trade for turquois by the Pre Conquest period (AD 1375-1521). Here the pochtecas acquired many luxuries for the Aztec royalty, including large quantities of cacao. In the Aztec kingdom, sumptuary laws restricted cacao use[vii].Map

However archeologist Fargher asserts that Tlaxcala adopted a form of council lead government rather than the kingships more common in the Aztec lands that surrounded them[viii]. This collective mindedness perhaps made the question of cacao use more a question of cash flow than breeding. By the time of our 1553 council meeting the Tlaxcalans, having allied themselves with Spain in the conquest of the Aztecs,[ix] were enjoying a measure of autonomy as payment for their cooperation; natives retained their property rights and lived apart from the colonists through the 16th century.[x] However they still found themselves under pressure by a tribute system craving cochineal and cocoa, all at the whim of the continent’s new European masters.

Considering that imperialism creates tension not only for the invaded peoples, but also for the invaders as they adapt to new foods, dress, social custom and language Chocolate historian Norton contests the notion that changes in the use of cocoa came immediately after its introduction to the Old World. Colonists and missionaries returning to Europe were initiated in the New World tastes, methods and culture of chocolate. These men, both parties that traded in cacao – Europe’s pochtecas – brought their New World experience of cacao to Europe, where only after considerable time did the chocolate culture take on a uniquely European flavor. Norton concludes, “The European taste for chocolate emerged as a contingent accident of empire [xi].”

Tlaxcala provides an example of the unforeseen pitfalls of alliances with people and with potions from far away places. Nevertheless, we are always in search of novelty. Ek Chua, with his staff and pack – perhaps loaded with cacao pods – continues his excursion around the world.

[i] (Kenneth Mills, 2002, p. 115)

[ii] (Kenneth Mills, 2002, p. 114)

[iii] (Kenneth Mills, 2002, p. 113)

[iv] (Pasztory, 1997, p. 40)

[v] (Clayton, 2005)

[vi] (Sophie D. Coe, 2013, p. 53)

[vii] (Sophie D. Coe, 2013, pp. 73-74)

[viii] (Lane F. Fargher, 2010)

[ix] (Alfredo López Austin, 2001, p. 191)

[x] (Kenneth Mills, 2002, p. 113)

[xi] (Norton, 2006)

Works Cited

Alfredo López Austin, L. L. (2001). Mexico’s Indigenous Past. (B. R. Montellano, Trans.) University of Oklahoma Press:Norman.

Clayton, S. C. (2005). Interregional Relationships in Mesoamerica: Interpreting Maya Ceramics at Teotihuacan. Latin American Antiquity , 16 (4), 427 – 448.

Kenneth Mills, W. B. (2002). The Evils of Cochineal, Tlaxcala, Mexico. In Colonial Latin America – A documentary history (pp. 113-116). Wilmington, Delaware, USA: Scholarly Resources, Inc.


Norton, M. (2006). Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics. American Historical Review , 111 (3), 660-691.

Pasztory, E. (1997). Teotihuacan – An Experiment in Living. University of Oklahoma Press:Norman.

Sophie D. Coe, M. D. (2013). The True History of Chocolate (3rd ed.). London: Thames & Hudson.




Customs & Convictions Concerning Chocolate

There are few things in this world that nearly all people, regardless of one’s personal background or cultural heritage, ubiquitously enjoy like chocolate.  In the modern world that we live in, there is no place on Earth where one does not have access to a mass produced bar of chocolate at an inexpensive price. Chocolate is a multi-billion dollar industry (Hawkins, 2008), yet it is something that most of the world had no idea existed until the beginning of the sixteenth century. It was one of many discoveries made by Europeans in the newly found American continents. Cacao’s origins are in South America, in the Amazon River basin (Presilla, 2009, p. 8). It had been enjoyed by the native people of the Central American region long before Europeans arrived. Cacao had a greater impact on pre-Columbian, Mesoamerican cultures than it does with other peoples around the world today; It was used in many exotic and unusual ways. Pre-Columbian customs and believes concerning chocolate and cacao were considered unorthodox by western standards. Although the indigenous people of Mesoamerica were the first to cultivate cacao,  few of their habits were adopted by the Europeans.

One of the more unusual customs  of the people of Central America was the use of cacao beans as currency. An early example of the value of cacao beans that Europeans witnessed was during Christopher Columbus’ fourth journey to the New World. In August 1502, Columbus and his crew landed off the coast of what is now today Honduras. His son Ferdinand, along with others, encountered a group of natives in two dug out canoes which were carrying many goods, including cacao beans. In a written account, Ferdinand Columbus described how the Spaniards noticed how the native people seemed to hold cacao beans in high regard. He went on to mention how whenever a bean dropped to the ground, it seemed as though the natives had lost an eye and all stopped to look for it. (Coe & Coe, 2013)  To the Spanish it seemed odd, but to the natives,  it was no different than you or me dropping  dollar bills on the ground today! The idea of using cacao beans as currency was deeply ingrained in the mindset of those who lived in Central America; in fact it was still an acceptable form of payment until 1750 (Presilla, 2009, pp. 17-18). Thankfully, this custom was not adopted by western society. The only real response would be to shake one’s head at the thought of withdrawing cacao beans instead of paper currency at the ATM!

Aztec example of what one could buy with cacao beans in their civilization. Jaguar pelt anyone?
Aztec example of what one could buy with cacao beans in their civilization. Jaguar pelt anyone?

Another suggestion why the indigenous people were upset was because their culture, cacao was an integral part of life. The interaction Columbus’ crew had with the natives was in the year 1502, and they landed close to the area where the Mayan civilization once dominated years earlier. By 1502, the Aztec civilization dominated the region,  which is most likely to whom these people were transporting goods. Both peoples, highly valued cacao (“The History of Chocolate,” n.d.), however both had different views whom exactly had access to it. In Mayan society, everyone had access to cacao. For the most part, it was something everybody used and consumed everyday. Aztecs believed only the elite should have regular access to cacao. Many people were involved in cacao processing, from those who cultivated the plants, to those who took the seeds to Tenochtitlan for the elite to use. Even though many individuals in lower class Aztec society worked with cacao, they were forbidden to consume it.  In fact, one could be killed if found consuming cacao! That might be why that missing bean was important to find; it could have literally been a matter of life or death! Europeans seemed to take a middle approach to who had access to chocolate, although that was not deliberate. If one could afford chocolate, one could have access to it, regardless of status in society. Naturally, the ruling classes had more access to consume chocolate, they had more money to acquire the cacao beans, but there are examples, particularly in the United Kingdom, where people of all classes met at chocolate houses to not only consume chocolate but to do business and catch up on gossip, usually after paying an entrance fee (“The History of Chocolate,” n.d.).

European Sipping Chocolate – A great example of how seventeenth century Europeans consumed chocolate

Although not the case today, one area where Europeans adopted a Mesoamerican custom was how to consume chocolate. Mayans and Aztecs consumed cacao as a beverage, this was also the case in seventeenth century Europe as well (Bensen, 2008). That was as far as adaptations went though, as Mesoamericans mixed bizarre and alien ingredients into cacao, even for today’s standards.  Europeans were keen on adding sugar to their chocolate. Both Aztecs and Mayans would mix things such as maize, chilies, vanilla, and even flowers into their cacao drinks (The Maya and the Ka’kau’, 2005). Mayans preferred their drinks hot, Aztecs preferred cold libations. Both peoples, as well as the Europeans, preferred their beverages to be as frothy as possible and went to great lengths to make sure they were.

Cacao was not the only plant unknown to Europeans when they arrived in Central America. Other crops unfamiliar to Europeans include Maize, Tomatoes, Potatoes, Vanilla, Tobacco, and Rubber.
Cacao was not the only plant unknown to Europeans when they arrived in Central America. Other crops unfamiliar to Europeans include Maize, Tomatoes, Potatoes, Vanilla, Tobacco, and Rubber.

Chocolate attitude and  etiquette has evolved over the last five-hundred years. It is consumed nothing like how it once was. It is truly and international food today, enjoyed in almost every country.  One can imagine how Mayan and Aztec people would feel if they knew how chocolate was used today.

 Work Sited

Bensen, A. (2008, March 1). A Brief History of Chocolate. Retrieved February 14, 2015, from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-brief-history-of-chocolate-21860917/?no-ist

Coe, S., & Coe, M. (2013). Encounter and Transformation. In The true history of chocolate (3rd ed., pp. 108-109). London: Thames and Hudson.

Hawkins, K. (2008). Chocolate! (p. 9). London: New Holland.

The History of Chocolate. (n.d.). Retrieved February 15, 2015, from http://thechocolatereview.com/history-of-chocolate/the-history-of-chocolate.html

The Maya and the Ka’kau‘ (2005). Retrieved February 12, 2015, from http://www.authenticmaya.com/cacao.htm

Presilla, M. (2009). Growing Up With Cacao. In The new taste of chocolate: A cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes (1st ed.). Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.

Multimedia Sources

First photo, using cacao beans as currency to buy a Jaguar pelt: http://exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu/chocolate/moneygrewontrees.php

Video on European Sipping Chocolate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JheYrxfq2BA

Second photo, plants and crops unfamiliar to Europeans: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Globalization#mediaviewer/File:New_World_Domesticated_plants.JPG

Drink of Choice: Mesoamerica to Europe

Mayans believed that the cacao tree was given to man as a present from the gods and used in many forms of food, drink, rituals and even a currency. However, the most important use of the Cacao Bean in Mayan Culture was for the creation of what they liked to call Chocolatl. Consumed very differently than how it is today Chocolatl was a thick frothy drink created by the mixing of roasted cacao beans, water, and spices served cold. The Maya “developed a body of skills and knowledge that they would transmit to other peoples, including the Aztecs” (Presilla, 11) making an chocolate beverage epidemic for cultures to come. Chocolate beverages became the drink of choice not only to the Aztec Empire but the Spanish and Europeans.

Mayan Lord featured with a frothy cacao drink (Chocolatl)
Mayan Lord featured with a frothy cacao drink (Chocolatl)

In the Aztec Empire the consumption of a chocolate beverage (Chocolatl) was regarded as a luxury. A luxury because “cacao was one of the most extraordinarily valuable items traded on the mainland, The large and powerful class of Aztec merchants engaged in long-distance trade bartered for cacao” because the region in which the Aztec Empire occupied was not fruitful for the production of cacao. The Aztec Empires consumption of the beverage was the first change to the basic, simple preparation the Mayans used. The Chocolatl of the Aztec Empire was regarded as “finely ground, soft, foamy, reddish, bitter with chilli water, aromatic flowers, vanilla and a wild bee honey.” (ChocolateHotChocolate) This new development of a more sophisticated version of the Mayan Chocolatl is not surprising due the advancement of the Aztec Empire. Aztecs maintained an extremely successful city as well as one which was affluent in culture. The new take on a chocolate beverage was necessary in order to show the sophistication of their city and culture. It was after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire that the popularity of chocolate and its use as a beverage would be realized.

Many individuals, like Christopher Columbus, had previously discovered cacao beans but they were not able to see their uses. It was the introduction of the chocolate beverage that Montezuma made to Don Cortes that would change the way future cultures would look at cacao beans.


After the Spanish concurred the Aztecs, Don Cortes took the cacao beans and the equipment used in the production of chocolatl back to Spain. This is when “chocolate and cacao soon became economic pillars of Spanish enterprise, and by degrees, people in Spain adopted the habit of drinking chocolate.” (Presilla, 24) Spain viewed chocolate as a modern beverage that would be consumed by the wealthy. Like the Aztecs the Spanish went a step further in order to direct the taste more to the liking of the individuals consuming it. So the “monks in monasteries known for their pharmaceutical skills were chosen to process the beans and perfect the drink to Spanish tastes. Cinnamon, nutmeg and sugar were added and the chilli pepper was omitted and it was discovered that chocolate tasted even better served hot.” (ChocolateHotChocolate) The knowledge of this beverage and use of cacao beans was kept from Europe for nearly another century because limited quantities of cacao were available making it one of Spain’s most kept secret.

Once it reached Europe, chocolate was the first introduction of caffeine (surprisingly coming before both tea and coffee). The Europeans regarded this tasty product as a “recreational drug” which could be used for medical benefit. Europeans saw far beyond the just the taste previous cultures enjoyed. Chocolate, the cacao bean to be exact, “contains numerous astonishing elements, such as theobromine- a stimulant, phenyl ethylamine- “the love chemical”, serotonin- depression-preventing, tryptophan- relaxing and pain-relieving and nature’s endorphin: anandamine which produces “chocolate high”. Cocoa beans also contain vitamin A, B, E and C as well as several important minerals.” (Gibran, Kahlil) It was then that Europe began to open Chocolate Houses as a place for individuals to both enjoy the taste of this delicious beverage but also they were used as a place to discuss politics, cure aliments and it was far less expensive than the cost of tea or coffee.

European Chocolate House
European Chocolate House

The power of cacao and the beverage developed by the Mayan Empire over 4,000 years ago is truly incredible. The Mayan people found a use for the cacao bean that individuals, such as Christopher Columbus, could not see. It has changed throughout empires and cultures but still holds the same principals from the very beginning. Chocolate as a beverage has become an everyday commodity and the drink once favored by nobility is now enjoyed by all individuals. The Mayan Empire in regards to chocolatl was able to influence future empires and the world as we see it today regarding chocolate.

Work Cited:

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

Gibran, Kahlil. Forest Generation: Cacao-Symbol of fertility and life. Web. http://www.forestgeneration.com/cacao.html

Chocolate – The Food of the Gods. History of Chocolate. http://www.chocolatehotchocolate.com/history-chocolate/

Westernizing Ancient Traditions

The early Europeans had comparably duplicated the early Mesoamerican use of cacao and chocolate documented in the Mayan book of the Popol Vuh (Book of Counsel) into five main categories:

  1. Trade
  2. Medicinal
  3. Cultural
  4. Social
  5. Religious

The first encounter of Europeans with the cacao product can be traced back to August 15th, 1502 when Christopher Columbus’s son, Ferinand Columbus, captured a Mayan trading canoe belonging to the Chontal-Mayal-speaking Putun. This encounter is significant in regards to how Europeans perceived and witnessed Mayan’s use cacao for trade. Ferinand noted that the group, held what he thought were “almonds” as he termed it but was in reality cacao, as a currency traded at great value.[1]

Pictured here are cacao beans covered with a gold rim to symbolize the value of the beans.                               cacaogold

On the other hand, Italian colonist Girolamo Benzoni wrote in his book History of the New World published in 1575 that the chocolate drink made from cacao that the Mesoamericans used for spiritual, social, medicinal, trade, and casual purposes was only meant for pigs but nevertheless, it was worthy to him due to its monetary value. (Coe & Coe 110) Therefore, the colonists were bound to use cacao as a currency in their stay in Mesoamerica.

The journey of cacao and chocolate should be described as it is relevant to how the products were used in Europe, not just by Europeans in Mesoamerica. Through hybridization of the Spanish and Mesoamerican culture, a new generation of “Spanish Creoles” were born in a region that was previously known as the Aztec Empire. It was in this context of hybridization that chocolate was taken to New Spain and then transported to the rest of Old Spain as well as Europe as they saw the product had values. (Coe & Coe 113) Spanish chronicler Lopez de Velazco had documented the first shipment of cacao products from La Guaira to Colombia which was a hub for trade with Spain, and then shipped directly to Spain which is important as various Latin American states came into contact with the product.[1] The product which would be a topic of controversy and pleasure of Europe had arrived in Europe.

Cacao and its byproducts had more serious uses as well. Chocolate was used for medicinal purposes by Europeans just as Mesoamericans. It was a Greek born physician who discovered a theory that for diseases which caused a “hot” fever, you needed a “cold” drug and vice-versa. Although the Spanish preferred their chocolate drinks “hot, Spanish Royal Physician Francisco Hernandez discovered that a “cool” chocolate drink would cure a fever and published in 1591; a treatise on New World foods by Juan de Cardenas found that certain chocolate such as “green” chocolate can have negative health effects harming the heart, causing fevers, etc but if toasted and mixed with atole gruel; digestion is strong. (Coe & Coe 121-123) Thus, the European use of chocolate for medical purposes was similar to the Mesoamerican use and more uses for the chocolate. We usually do not think of chocolate as a medicinal pharmaceutical or drug but this video might change your mind, courtesy of Ichan Medical School.


Chocolate soon spread to the British Isles via monks and eventually found its role in Royal Families — where the trend back in the day. (Coe & Coe 115) Chocolate beverages used in the French Royal Courts in the wedding between King Louis XIII to the Spanish Princess of Austria 1615.[3] As it was given the royal honors of being a product of the elite, the common people of Europe started to socially drink chocolate, including in countries such as the mentioned Spain and France but also, Greece, Italy, and Britain. In fact, chocolate became so custom in Britain that there were chocolate coffee shops opened in London during the mid-18th century![4] Chocolate is indeed sweet and as Sidney W. Mintz writes; “Indeed, all (or at least nearly all) mammals like sweetness.”[5] While there were initial doubts on cacao and chocolate as a fashionable product, this changed later as proven through the European customs of the product in cultural traditions such as weddings of Royal Families as well as casual usage in various forms.

Pictured here is a Chocolate Coffee Shop in London.


The question of the use of chocolate made its entrance into the ecclesiastical sphere related to the religious culture of Europe as well. There were debates among Spanish Catholic Churches if chocolate counted as a food and if it could be consumed during fasts. The end result of this internal debate amount the ecclesiastical community was that chocolate could indeed be consumed as decreed by His Holiness Pope Pious V who was a drinker of the product himself.[6] This decision had a great effect on the religious society of Europe as since it was justified by Catholic religious doctrine, more became comfortable with taking it including religious authorities.

Therefore, the early European use of cacao and chocolate very much resembles what the 5 customs Mesoamericans used it for.

[1] Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. 108-09. Print.

[2] Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. 28. Print.

[3] “Chocolate and Polyphenols in the Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease.” YouTube, 18 Nov. 2014. Web. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R5OPDAYRvMg&gt;.

[4] “The History of Chocolate | Blog – ZChocolat.” ZChocolat. N.p., 20 Oct. 2012. Web. <http://www.zchocolat.com/en/the_history_of_chocolate.asp&gt;.

[5] Green, Matthew. “The Surprising History of London’s Lost Chocolate Houses.” The Telegraph, 13 Dec. 2013. Web. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/uk/london/10515620/The-surprising-history-of-Londons-lost-chocolate-houses.html&gt;.

[6] Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1985. 16. Print.

[7] “History of Chocolate.” Spanish Food, n.d. Web. <http://www.spanish-food.org/spanish-food-history-chocolate.html&gt;.

Spanish Changes to Chocolate: Innovations or Adaptations?

Soon after arriving in the New World, the Spaniards realized the importance and value of chocolate to the Mesoamericans (Norton, 2004). Under Spanish rule, cacao production was increased, and soon it arrived in Spain, becoming a popular drink for the elite (Norton, 2004). Interestingly, there are many accounts that when the Spanish first tasted chocolate, they disliked the drink, finding it savage and not suited for Europeans (Norton, 2006). How, then, did chocolate become so popular in Spain? The Spaniards adapted the New World chocolate recipe to suit their tastes, adding innovative ingredients to make it more delicious (Norton, 2006). The Spanish were said to have hybridized the drink of chocolate, drinking it hot instead of cold as the Aztecs did, sweetening it with sugar, and putting Old World spices such as cinnamon and vanilla into the drink (Norton, 2006). The Spanish were thought to have appropriated the New World chocolate drink to make it suitable for European palates (Norton, 2006). However, I argue that many of these first accounts of Europeans disliking chocolate until it was more developed by the Spanish was created to mask the fact that a “sophisticated” culture enjoyed a drink made by “savages” (Norton, 2006).


A Mesoamerican woman creating a frothy chocolate drink by pouring it from one vessel into another from a substantial height (From Wikipedia)
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A Spanish painting depicting a molinillo, or chocolate frothing device, highlighting the presence of traditional Mesoamerican chocolate practices in Spain (From Norton, 2006)


There has been opposing evidence that the Spanish actually did enjoy the taste of the New World chocolate, and that adding sugar and other spices was the easiest way to recreate the New World chocolate flavor that they developed a taste for (Norton, 2006). In Mesoamerica, chocolate was consumed as a beverage, sometimes hot and sometimes cold, sometimes with maize, and often mixed with honey and other spices cultivated from the New World for flavor (Norton, 2006). It was also often poured from one container to the next to produce a froth (Norton, 2006). While the Spanish did change some of the ingredients of chocolate or ways it was consumed, it was all done to preserve the original flavor using ingredients more easily found in Europe (Norton, 2006). For example, Spaniards added sugar to the chocolate drink, which was just a modification from the Mesoamericans already adding honey as a sweetener to their drink (Norton, 2006). Sugar was not a revolutionary addition to chocolate, but simply a substitute for honey. Often many of the spices the Spaniards “innovatively” added to the drinks were trying to copy many of the flavors already added to chocolate in Mesoamerica; because New World flowers that were much harder to come by than spices already found in Spain, the recipe needed to be modified (Norton, 2006). Furthermore, Spaniards valued the customary foam of the Mesoamericans, and often used molinillos to froth their drinks to create a texture found in the traditional chocolate drinks of the New World (Norton, 2006). Finally, the Spanish seem to have even adapted the Mesoamerican social views of chocolate – in Spain, chocolate drinking was a social, and elite activity, just as it was in the New World (Norton, 2004).

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A Spanish painting of an aristocratic chocolate gathering, highlighting the presence of chocolate as a part of elite society (From Norton, 2006)


In conclusion, it can be argued that the desire for chocolate flowed “from the ‘barbarian’ to the ‘civilized,’ from the degenerate ‘creole’ to the metropolitan Spaniard, from gentry to royalty” (Norton, 2006). It is thought that the cultural bridge that allowed the taste for chocolate to infuse into the Spanish culture were the native women who served in the households of the Spanish men, some voluntary, some coerced, cultivating their taste in chocolate (Norton, 2006). Many chocolate encounters were also made in marketplaces in the New World, further introducing Europeans to the novelty and deliciousness of the chocolate drink (Norton, 2006). The common belief that the Spaniards improved the Mesoamerican drink of chocolate to make it fit to drink in Europe has evidence against it, as many of the Spanish adaptations were ways to recreate the New World flavor using common European ingredients. Perhaps this viewpoint was spread by the feelings of conquest over a lesser society, and that a drink had to be altered to be consumed by the more sophisticated culture. In reality, Europeans acquired a taste for Mesoamerican chocolate, and simply had to adapt it to the ingredients more commonly found in the Old World (Norton, 2006).



“History of Chocolate – Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.” N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. Accessed at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_chocolate.

Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review 111.3 (2006): 660–691. JSTOR. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. Accessed at: http://www.jstor.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/stable/10.1086/ahr.111.3.660

Norton, Marcy. “Conquests of Chocolate.” OAH Magazine of History 18.3 (2004): 14–17. JSTOR. Web. 20 Feb. 2015. Accessed at: http://www.jstor.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/stable/25163677

History of Cacao

Now-a-days chocolate is an every day thing that’s accessible almost anywhere. History shows that chocolate wasn’t always such a common product in the household. In fact, chocolate was used as a luxury item for only the elites in their respected eras and communities. If chocolate is made from Theobroma cacao then, and still made out of the same key ingredients now, what made the perception of chocolate change so much? Being more specific, how and why did the luxury status change from a delicacy to such common snack? Just as modernization has changed many things, it’s not the actual product that has changed rather it’s the ideologies and open-minded approach that has caused such a drastic change in its status. The answer behind the change has everything to do with the addition of sugars to the process.

            The Olmec civilization arguably was the first to introduce the use of cacao. Looking geographically where cacao is primarily grown, areas such as Chiapas, Guatemala, and the Yucatan previously had evidence of previous occupants who used cacao. Not much else is really known in detail about their usage of cacao but it definitely paved the way for the Maya civilization.


            The Maya civilization thrived from 250 to 900 CE. During this time, they used cacao beans throughout Mesoamerica as currency. Using something as currency obviously shows that the value of the item has an importance. The artifacts found from the Maya civilization prove that there were other reasons and usage for cacao beans. The consumption of chocolate was primarily for society’s elite. The tombs of Maya nobility contained pottery vessels that had hieroglyphs of cacao depicting the process of its preparation. The Mayan’s left traces of using chocolate as a drink rather than a solid. A key reason why it probably remained such a delicacy is because they never really added sugar. Sugar is addictive and could have changed the use of cacao if the Maya civilization went in that direction. Mayan’s culture and beliefs allowed chocolate to remain a luxury item on into the rise of the Aztec’s.

Cacao Glyph

            The Aztec’s took majority of the 14th century and created other ways of using chocolate. They adopted the use of cacao beans as currency and as a beverage from the Mayan’s. They actually created a currency system for the cacao.

An Aztec document containing a list of price equivalents designated the value of a tomato as one cacao bean, while an avocado was worth three, and a “good turkey hen” was worth 100 “full” or 120 “shrunken” cacao beans.


             It was also a popular drink among the upper class and those who could afford it. The Aztec’s served it after a feast in a special cup call xicalli. Just as the Mayan’s, the Aztec’s also had their own methods and flavorings to concoct their chocolate drink.  They used ingrediants such as chillis, hueinacaztli, achiote, vanilla, allspice, and honey in the preparation process of their luxurious drink. The Aztecs also used chocolate for their warriors. Along side the chocolate drink, they also made cacao wafers, issuing them to soldiers in order to fortify and energize them during marches and battles.

            Once the 16th century came around, the Europeans changed the preparation of chocolate to be more pleasurable. The black, bitter and spicy nature of chocolate wasn’t acceptable to them. They wanted to change some things to make the delicacy more enjoyable. The Spanish began to routinely add cane sugar and switched dark spices for the more modern and tastier vanilla and cinnamon. This led way for different medical uses for future users. This also opened the lenses to not only the elite, but also the common folk who began to seek out this tasty delicacy. Sugar is addictive but also beneficial to the body so it only makes sense that something tasting this good changed from a delicacy to an every day snack.

Work Cited

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

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

Image 1: http://www.d.umn.edu/cla/faculty/troufs/anthfood/afchocolate.html

Image 2: http://albanykid.com/2011/12/11/hot-chocolate-hot-cocoa-and-xocoatl/

Image 3: http://europeforvisitors.com/paris/articles/choco-story-museum-photos.htm