Top of the Food Chain, Top of the Social Ladder

HTS 2051
October 8, 2018
Chocolate: Top of the Food Chain, Top of the Social Ladder
The Aztecs imbued cacao and chocolate with associations of luxury and status that
ultimately lasted far beyond the empire’s collapse after the Spanish conquest. Though initially
weary of the strange drink suddenly offered to them, European hesitance to chocolate shortly
gave way to widespread acceptance and enjoyment of the beverage. Aztec women dominated
early colonial domestic life, acculturating Spaniards and Spanish Creoles to indigenous flavors;
meanwhile, Spanish missionaries assimilated the customs of indigenous populations – their
targeted converts – into the Church. Wealthy merchants and clergy who returned to Spain
stimulated early European demand, acculturating other Europeans to the tastes and attitudes that
they had developed in New Spain. As chocolate moved between cultural contexts, it retained its
original Aztec cultural associations, ingraining them in colonizers and eventually the rest of
Europe. The transmission of not just chocolate, but also its cultural associations, from preconquest Aztec society to its adoption in 17th century Europe represents an inversion of the
expected direction of cultural transmission between conquered and conquering peoples. Despite
the devastating loss of both Aztec population and cultural artifacts, at least one legacy of Aztec
culture – the legacy of chocolate – persisted through time.
Unique among other agricultural products in pre-conquest Mesoamerica, cacao beans
functioned both as a currency and as the raw material for chocolate, a ritualistic drink reserved
for the nobility1. Images from the Classic Maya period regularly show a dark frothy drink being
1 Throughout this essay, cacao will refer exclusively to cacao beans, while chocolate will refer to the prepared
consumed amid scenes detailing royal courts and couples during marriage ceremonies2
Chocolate also played a secular role, frequently featured at the end of “feasting rituals that
cemented social and political alliances”3
. In addition to special occasion chocolate, a more
commonly consumed chocolate-maize mixture yielded a quick, filling drink that satisfied all of
one’s daily caloric needs4. Networks of long distance trade allowed cacao and Maya culture to
penetrate central Mexico from the Yucatán Peninsula5. Historians note that the Aztecs – migrants
from the northern part of Mexico – likely absorbed the culture of the people already living in the
region around Teotihuacán 6. Coe counts the “mercantile system of the Putún Maya, centered
upon cacao”7 as the most critical of these cultural elements, explaining cacao and chocolate’s use
within the Aztec empire.
The Aztecs largely continued the traditional recipes and production methods of the Maya,
though they procured cacao beans through a tribute system. Only two classes of the Aztec social
order received the privilege of consuming chocolate: nobility and great warriors8. While
chocolate had long been the drink of the elite, chocolate’s consumption by warriors signifies the
centrality of warfare to Aztec society, and their reverence for those who engaged in combat. The
highest echelon of elites consumed a more flowery and spiced form of chocolate, whereas
chocolate-maize beverages were likely consumed on a more typical daily basis9. These
differentiated beverages show the differentiated positive associations for the Aztecs; chocolate
2 Grivetti, Shapiro. Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage, pg. 3.
3 Ibid.
4 Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, pg. 50.
5 Ibid, pg. 69
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid, pg. 95.
9 Norton, “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics”, pg. 686
was a sacred luxury and fortifying beverage, reserved for elites and never to be consumed
lightly10. Women almost exclusively prepared chocolate, as Franciscan friar and early
ethnographer Bernardino de Sahagún describes the process:
She grinds cacao; she crushes, breaks, pulverizes the. She chooses, selects, separates
them. She drenches, soaks, steeps them. She adds water sparingly, conservatively; aerates
it, filters it, strains it, pours it back and forth; she aerates it; she makes it form a head,
makes foam; she removes the head, makes it thicken, makes it dry, pours water in, stirs
water into it.11
Chili, flowers, vanilla and maize were commonly dried, powdered, and added to the chocolate,
with honey used commonly as a sweetener; given the myriad spices mixed into the beverage,
there was not “one” chocolate but many drink varieties12. The preparation of chocolate required a
considerable amount of effort and knowledge, giving women authority in this one – albeit
narrow – area. The production of chocolate remained largely unchanged through the arrival of
the Spanish, at which point, nearly everything changed.
Early European responses to chocolate were often unfavorable, though seemingly
destined to evolve to enjoyment. While conquistadores were pleased to encounter cacao as
another form of wealth, they were initially confused and repulsed by the drink; in turn, their
hesitation at a prized offering baffled Indians13. Given chocolate’s earlier uses in diplomatic
relations, Aztec nobility unsurprisingly presented Europeans – whether conquistadores or
missionaries – with a cup of chocolate. In his History of the New World, Italian Girolamo
Benzoni summarizes this progression in opinion, writing:
[Chocoalte seemed] more suited for pigs than for men. It was upwards of a year in that
country without ever being induced to taste this beverage; and when I passed through a
10 Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, pg. 95.
11 Quoted from volume ten of Bernadino de Sahagún’s seminal General History of the Things of New Spain.
Sourced from Coe, America’s First Cuisines, pg. 103. 12 Coe, America’s First Cuisines, pgs. 104-106.
13 Ibid, pg. 110.
tribe, if an Indian wished occasionally to give me some, he was very much surprised to
see me refuse it, and went away laughing. But subsequently, wine failing, and unwilling
to drink nothing but water, I did as others did. The flavour is somewhat bitter, but it
satisfies and refreshes the body without intoxicating: the Indians esteem it above
everything, wherever they are accustomed to it.
Despite Benzoni’s initial hesitance, he acknowledges the fortifying qualities of chocolate,
critically while also noting and accepting Indian perceptions of chocolate’s value. Missionary
Bartolomé de las Casas concurred, remarking that the beverage was “very substantial, very
cooling, tasty and agreeable”15. Indeed, Europeans marveled at chocolate’s revitalizing qualities
even during the conquest, with one “Anonymous Conqueror” who accompanied Cortés to
Mexico noting that “the drink is the healthiest thing, and the greatest sustenance of anything you
could drink in the world, because he who drinks a cup of this liquid, no matter how far he walks,
can go a whole day without eating anything else”16.
After the initial conquest, Spanish colonizers found themselves “enveloped within an
Indian cultural milieu and were susceptible to native acculturation”17, even with the dramatic
collapse of the native population. Spanish efforts to generally maintain the existing Aztec
political and labor structures resulted in a “continued material dependence on Indians”,
particularly during the early colonial period18. The creolization of Spanish and Aztec cultures
affected members of each heritage, a fact observable in Spanish speakers’ adoption Nahuatl
14 Benzoni, Girolamo, W. H. Smyth, and Hakluyt Society. History of the New World, by Girolamo Benzoni, of
Milan, pg. 150
15 Quoted from Fray Bartolomé de las Casas’, Apologética histaria de las Indias. Sourced from The True History of
Chocolate, pg. 96. 16 Quoted from a 1556 publication titled Relation di Alcune cose della Nuova Spagna, e della gran città Temestitan
Messico written by Anonymous Conqueror. Translated by Coe and Coe; Sourced from The True History of
Chocolate, pg. 84. 17 Norton, “Tasting Empire”, pg. 676.
18 Ibid., pg. 677.
terms for plants and animals, or the indigenous adoption of domesticated animals19. Looking
specifically at dietary changes among Spaniards, indigenous women strongly influenced Spanish
acculturation. In the early years of colonization, efforts to cement relations with natives by
creating familial ties and a severe dearth of Spanish women made Spanish marriage to native
women common20. Alternatively, wealthy Spaniards kept indigenous women as household
servants, in particular, cooks; others kept concubines. As Coe writes, “in many a ‘Spanish’
kitchen of early Colonial Mexico, the housewife was an Aztec”, eventually resulting in a
generation of Spanish Creoles raised on the staple crops and flavor profiles of Mesoamerican
cuisine. These Spanish Creoles ultimately grew to consume more maize than wheat, and
moreover, craved chocolate in its traditional preparation21. Outside of the domestic sphere,
women continued to exert influence over the chocolate exchange. Local market places, like
mixed race households, provided another opportunity for the transmission of cultural tastes. In
this context, women continued to exert a dominating role. As women almost exclusively
prepared chocolate in pre-conquest times, they remained the major producers and sellers at local
markets22. By essentially monopolizing the knowledge of chocolate production, indigenous
women (and sometimes also black women) inverted the colonial power structure, carving a niche
of authority, while “Spaniards were the seekers and buyers”23. Though Indians occupied the
bottom tier of the early colonial social hierarchy, the role of indigenous women in domestic life
19 Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, pg. 112.
20 Norton, “Tasting Empire”, pg. 677.
21 Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, pg. 113.
22 Norton, “Tasting Empire”, pg. 679.
23 Norton, “Tasting Empire”, pg. 679.
and at the market facilitated the transmission of taste “in the opposite direction, from the
colonized to the colonizer”24.
While native tastes and cultural associations had infiltrated Spanish merchants through
their domestic life, chocolate also became popular in the Church. Just as natives greeted Spanish
colonists with chocolate, natives served clergymen the beverage as well25. The sustained
conversion efforts of missionaries mirrored the environment of consistent contact with native
culture that occurred in mixed race colonial homes; thus, the same transmission of taste could
occur. Convent and monastery records corroborate the adoption of chocolate by the clergy;
moreover, its use as an extraordinary gift to visitors or to reward pious behavior show how
chocolate continued to be a marker of high status. A 1645 document tallying the expenses of the
Jesús María Convent in Mexico City notes that during Lent they offered “chocolate as a gift for
the persons that come to visit the convent”26. Documents covering the expenses incurred by the
Santa Clara Convent in Mexico City from 1697 to 1702 note purchases of chocolate for: the visit
of the wife of the Viceroy and the Archbishop27; gifts to priests that assisted in the burials of
nuns28; and gifts to the chaplain29. The nuns also received an annual gift of 925 pounds of
24 Ibid, pg. 670.
25 Ibid, pg. 678.
26 Archivo General de la Nacion (AGN). Temploys y Conventos Vol. 158, exp. 92, f. 1003f. – 1004f. The relevant
entry states: “And during Lent we give 5 pesos for the three meals of the vigil and as an extraordinary expense we
offer chocolate as a gift for the persons that come to visit the convent.” Sourced from Chocolate: History, Culture,
and Heritage. 27 AGN. Archivo Historico de Hacienda (AHH), Vol. 1403, exp. 3, fs 100-107v, pp. 102v-103r. The relevant entry
states: “For extraordinary expenses of the Mother Abbess and of the Mother Contadora for celebrations made when
the wife of the Viceroy and the Archbishop visited the convent: sweets, waters, and chocolate – 326 pesos.” Sourced
from Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage. 28 AGH. AHH, Vol. 1403, exp. 3, fs 100-107v, pp. 102v – 103r. The relevant entry states: “For burials… chocolate
for the religious that were present and assisted with the burials of nuns that died during this period.” Sourced from
Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage. 29 AGH. AHH, Vol. 1403, exp. 3, fs 100-107v, pp. 106r – 106v. The relevant entry states: “Chocolate for Father
Vicente and our Chaplain, 4 times a month, each month – 483 pesos.” Note how the male leaders of the convent
chocolate (shared among them), presented on Lent and Palm Sunday30. Warfare existed as a
central institution for the Aztecs, with celebrated warriors earning chocolate; the Church, a
central institution in New Spain, rewarded its foot soldiers in kind. The Church’s gifting of
chocolate again reflects the inversion of the expected direction of cultural transmission, with the
drink of the native “heathens” appropriated and employed by the Church with near identical
cultural associations.
Though the Church adopted chocolate, some controversy remained around the drink.
Chocolate appeared regularly in Inquisition records through the 17th century, frequently as a
vessel for love potions. In a 1626 case, a woman confessed to the Inquisition after the failure of
one such love potion. According to the case file, a local Indian woman advised her to “take some
of her menstrual blood and mix it with chocolate” and give it to the man whose affection she
hoped to win31. Women were not alone in their amorous attempts; a 1690 case covers a man who
attempted to seduce a Spanish woman by giving her a chocolate mixed with “certain powders”32.
Chocolate’s physical qualities made it an ideal vessel for such spells; its thick texture and strong
taste could thoroughly mask any suspicious additives. Moreover, the exchange of chocolate had
become socially normalized by this time, with chocolate being offered to “acquaintances,
friends, and even enemies as tokens of hospitality”33; such exchanges between men and women
were common place in New Spain and beyond. In spite of chocolate’s occasional ties to

receive chocolate with dramatically higher frequency than the nuns (see below). This again confirms the status
associations of chocolate. Sourced from Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage. 30 AGH. AHH, Vol. 1403, exp. 3, fs 100-107v, pp. 102v – 103r. The relevant entry states: “Chocolate for the nuns
that is given once a year during Lent and on Palm Sunday; 36 arrobas ½ chocolates [925 pounds] and 36 arrobas
of sugar [900 pounds] – 543 pesos and 3 tomines.” Sourced from Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage. 31 AGN. Inquisición. Vol. 356, exp. 78, f. 115r – 155v. Interestingly, after she confessed, she was ostracized so
severely that she began attending church in another town. Sourced from Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage. 32 AGN. Inquisición, Vol. 520, exp. 168 f. 266v.-267v. This man purportedly confessed to the Inquisition under
immense pressure from his confessor. Sourced from Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage. 33 Grivetti, Shapiro. Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage, pg. 3.
witchcraft, continued consumption of chocolate by clergy served as an endorsement for its
continued role as a “tradition of hospitality”34. The assimilation of chocolate into the Church –
particularly considering the institution’s centrality to and authority in colonial Spaniards life –
affirmed chocolate as a custom and encouraged conformity to these customs35. In this way, the
Church’s adoption of chocolate ultimately reaffirmed Aztec norms governing its consumption
affirmed its cultural associations as a luxury and reward for the deserving.
Now that chocolate had conquered colonial palates, it could move to Europe; though
eventually modified somewhat from its traditional form, chocolate still carried its Aztec cultural
legacy. Chocolate did not become a regular export to Europe until the 1590s. By the 1620s
though, Spain received thousands of pounds annually36. As discussed earlier, merchants and
clergy maintained the continuous contact with natives necessary for the acculturation of their
tastes. When members of these groups gradually returned to Spain, they became advocates for
the introduction of chocolate in the Old World. Returned clergy continued to consume chocolate
in Europe, however representatives of religious orders also often gifted it (along with gold and
precious gems) to secure politically motivated favors37. Similarly, the presence of small
shipments of chocolate to Seville’s wealthiest merchants suggest it was intended for household
consumption38. As chocolate artisans began populating Madrid in the 1630s, so began European
efforts to “maintain – not change – the sensory impact of chocolate”39. Substituting cane sugar
34 Norton, “Tasting Empire”, pg. 679.
35 Norton, “Tasting Empire”, pg. 679.
36 Norton, “Tasting Empire”, pg. 680. The exponential growth in chocolate shipments continued, with Venezuela
alone exporting over 31,000 pounds of cacao and chocolate between 1620 and 1650, and more than 7 million
pounds between 1650 and 1700.
37 Ibid.
38 Ibid, pg. 681.
39 Norton, “Tasting Empire”, pg. 684.
for honey, black pepper for chilies, or anise and rose for New World flowers could create an
approximation of the prized New World chocolate beverages, however with the much more
common, accessible, though admittedly “inferior” Old World spices40. Maize fell out of use in
European chocolate beverages, thus more closely resembling the chocolate consumed by Aztec
elites. Noting this change in the type of chocolate consumed and considering how associations of
luxury and status followed chocolate into the Church, European chocolate consumption (like
colonial consumption before it) became a reflection of Aztec chocolate consumption. Whether
chocolate as the drink of the elite for both pre-conquest Aztec society and European society from
the 17th century onward41.
When Aztec leaders introduced chocolate to Spaniards, they introduced chocolate’s
luxurious and high status associations as well. Capitalizing on their historical role as chocolate
producers, Aztec women in the home and in the market acculturated Spaniards, developing their
taste for chocolate. Simultaneously, the Church adopted chocolate as a status symbol and as a
reward, much like how great Aztec warriors merited chocolate. Though the consumers of
chocolate changed overtime, the cultural associations established by the Aztec and Maya before
them remained constant. While many aspects of Aztec culture were undoubtedly lost during the
Spanish conquest and population collapse, perceiving colonial cultures and economies as
dominated by Spanish customs and desires oversimplifies the multicultural exchange inherent in
40 Norton, “Tasting Empire”, pg. 684.
41 Of course, at least until chocolate became an increasingly popular, simple, and cheap commodity during the
colonial New Spain; moreover, this oversimplification diminishes the legacy of Aztec culture
and its continued influence on today’s culture of chocolate42.
42 Imagine receiving an Easter basket filled with vanilla rabbits, or treating a loved one to a box of peanut brittle.
Certainly these hypotheticals require many cognitive leaps and rely on some oversimplification as well. Regardless,
most would likely be surprised to be on the receiving end of those gifts today.
Benzoni, Girolamo, W. H. Smyth, and Hakluyt Society. 2010. History of the New World, by
Girolamo Benzoni, of Milan: Shewing His Travels in America, From A.D. 1541 to 1556:
With Some Particulars of the Island of Canary. Works Issued by the Hakluyt Society.
Surrey [England]: Hakluyt Society.
lebk&AN=507987&site=ehost-live. Coe, Sophie D. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed.
London: Thames & Hudson, 2013.
Coe, Sophie D. America’s First Cuisines. 1st ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.
Grivetti, Louis., and Howard Yana Shapiro. Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage.
Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2009.
Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican
Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review 111, no. 3 (2006): 660-91.

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