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Chocolate in Early America

Cacao was well known to the classic Maya, whose remarkable civilisation flourished and died in Yucatan and Guatemala in the first millennium AD. Alongside deceased Maya dignitaries were buried implements for use in the after-life, including jars and bowls for chocolate. The identification of the word ka-ka-w in the inscriptions on these pots was a breakthrough in the decipherment of Maya phonetic writing. Moreover, traces of theobromine and caffeine, two active constituents of chocolate, have been found in some of them. An 8th century painted vase shows chocolate being poured from a cylindrical jar, held high, into a bowl, thus demonstrating how the Maya raised froth in their chocolate: the froth was the most desirable part of the drink. They sometimes flavoured chocolate with chilli, with vanilla, with Clerodendrum ligustrinum, Maya itsim-te, and with other ingredients less easy to identify. They probably liked to drink their chocolate hot, as the Maya did in Spanish colonial times.

Linguists believe that cacao is in origin not a Maya but a Mixe-Zoque word (reconstructed *kakawa), suggesting that the Maya learnt to use the product from the earlier Olmec culture, which flourished in Vera Cruz and Tabasco provinces of Mexico between 1500 and 400 BC. Olmec hieroglyphs have not been deciphered, so we cannot read what they themselves said of cacao. No linguistic or archaeological evidence allows us to trace cacao or chocolate further back than this. The successor Izapan civilisation spread Olmec culture, and perhaps cacao cultivation, to the Pacific littoral of Mexico and Guatemala: it was perhaps from the Izapans that the Maya would have learnt of chocolate.

Cacao will not grow everywhere where central American civilisations flourished. Thus cacao beans would become a commodity of trade, an object of warfare, and also a currency. By later Maya times the Chontal or Putún, who were long distance traders, had brought knowledge of chocolate to distant parts of Yucatan and also to the Valley of Mexico, far to the west, where the Nahuatl-speaking Aztec were to establish their power. In due course cacao became a major source of the wealth of the Aztec merchants, the pochteca.

Aztec 'puritanism', linked with their reputed origins as poverty-stricken migrants from the north, led to an ambivalent attitude towards chocolate. One legend told of an expedition to retrace their steps, at the end of which the powerful emissaries of the Aztecs were told by the aged goddess of their ancestral home: 'You have become old, you have become tired because of the chocolate you drink and because of the foods you eat. They have harmed and weakened you.' But they did not stop drinking it, and huge quantities of cacao beans arrived as tribute in the Valley of Mexico each year, both for use and for storage. It came chiefly from Soconusco on the Pacific coast (even in the 19th century the best cacao was said to come from here) and from Chontalpa, the modern Tabasco province, to the north on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. It was said that the Aztec Royal Palace at Tenochtitlan required 2,744,000 cacao beans a year.

Like the Maya, the Aztecs frothed their chocolate by pouring it from vessel to vessel. They drank it from calabash gourds, or from cheaper earthenware; they liked it cold rather than hot, and invented new ways of flavouring it. By adding honey to their cacao they were apparently the inventors of sweetened chocolate, which almost the whole world now prefers. To the Aztecs, chocolate was a drink for warriors and the elite. The drinking of chocolate, like the smoking of tobacco, did not take place during a meal but immediately after it. Aztec soldiers on campaign were supplied with tablets of ground cacao, to be stirred into water as 'instant chocolate'.

Chocolate lent itself to flavour mixtures. Both Maya and Aztecs mixed ground cacao with maize to make pinole, and made a different drink by mixing cacao butter with maize. Modern Mexicans still flavour chocolate, as the Aztecs did, with the petals of the 'ear flower', Cymbopetalum penduliflorum. The Aztecs liked to add the leaves or seeds of acuyo, Piper sanctum; the petals of two varieties of Magnolia mexicana, and several other herbs and flowers. Modern Mesoamerican peoples sometimes add black pepper, allspice, or annatto: the latter not only contributes flavour but colours the drinker's mouth red, a reminder of the link sometimes made in Mesoamerican thought between chocolate and blood.

To the Maya and the Aztecs the ceremonial importance of chocolate was profound. It was provided generously at the banquets at which noblemen and merchants displayed their wealth. It was offered to the gods, and was used to anoint newborn children on the forehead, face, fingers and toes in a rite resembling baptism.

On his third voyage to the New World, on 15 August 1502, Columbus captured a Maya trading canoe laden with cacao beans and other produce. He may have learnt that the beans were money but he never found out that a drink was made from them.

However, when the Spaniards under Cortes invaded Yucatan and then the valley of Mexico itself, between 1517 and 1526, they soon realised the full value of the black 'almonds' (as they at first called them) of which so many millions were stored at Tenochtitlan. At first disgusted by the frothy, dark beverage that was present at every Aztec banquet and festival, the conquistadores soon learned to appreciate it. Rumour credited it with aphrodisiac properties (perhaps simply because it was taken in late evening, when the meal was over), and long argument would centre on the question whether chocolate was a food sufficiently nourishing to be ruled out during Lent. In contrast to the Aztec view of it as a drink for warriors, chocolate has sometimes been seen by Europeans as a woman's drink. This may have something to do with the fact that the conquistadores were taught to like it by their Mexican wives, concubines and domestic servants. By 1590, 'the Spanish men -- and even more the Spanish women -- are addicted to it,' wrote José de Acosta of his Mexican observations.

It was from an innovation of this period that the name chocolate originally comes. Hot water with a mixture of ground cacao and ground sapote kernels, maize and other flavourings, made a refreshing drink first described by the Spanish scientist Francisco Hernández in the late 16th century. Its new name, chocolatl or chocolate, appears to be a Spanish-inspired blend of Maya chocol 'hot' and Nahuatl atl 'water' -- an appropriate formation for the melting-pot of cultures that was colonial Mexico. The word was soon applied to all the products of cacao.

The Spaniards in Mexico also appear to have invented a new means of producing the much-loved froth of drinking chocolate. Where Maya and Aztecs had achieved the effect by pouring, colonial Mexico developed the molinillo or swizzle stick, which required a chocolate pot with a well-fitting, pierced lid. Meanwhile cane sugar, introduced to America in early colonial times, became an ever more popular flavouring in chocolate drinks. Other flavourings, including cinnamon and anise, were also tried.

The reputation of chocolate travelled faster than the substance itself. It is mentioned in many early European works on botany, but this does not mean that it was actually available in Europe. Hence the dates that follow are later than those that will be found in some other reference books.

Chocolate is known to have reached the Old World by 1544, when a party of Kekchi Maya from Guatemala, led by Dominican friars, paid a visit to the future Philip II of Spain. They brought him chocolate, maize, liquidambar, sarsaparilla and chillis. As a commodity of trade cacao beans began to reach Spain in 1585.

Extracts contributed by Andrew Dalby to the article 'Chocolate' in Alan Davidson's Oxford Companion to Food (1999) also published as Penguin Companion to Food; based on Sophie and Michael Coe, The true history of chocolate (1996)


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