History of Chocolate

The History of Chocolate: An Elite Sweet Treat

The history of chocolate dates back millenia. For much of this history, chocolate played a more crucial role in various societies than helping to satiate a sweet-tooth. With roots, both literally and metaphorically, in Mesoamerica, chocolate played economic roles for the Aztec, Maya, Toltec, and many others.

But, for this post, I’d like to fast forward a bit. Let’s begin our story in the early sixteenth-century, on the eve of Cortez’s Mexican landing.

Mexica(n) Chocolate

In the years preceding Spanish arrival in Mexico, the Aztec, or, as they called themselves, the Mexica, dominated Mesomerica. At its height, the Aztec Empire encompassed five to six million people, and controlled 500 smaller polities. As one would expect, the Aztec demanded typical empire-y things as tribute from these conquered peoples (gold, precious stones, etc.). But, the Aztecs also listed cacao beans among their demands. And the cacao they couldn’t get their hands on via tribute they traded for.1  

Like today’s chocolatiers, Mesoamericans came up with a variety of ways to create different flavors. Unlike today, Mesoamerians always served chocolate as a drink. The importance of the Aztec in the history of chocolate shines through here, as many of the names for aromatic flowers used to flavor chocolate came down to us through Nahuatl, the Aztec language. These included (and stay with me here, because these are pretty tough to pronounce): tlilochitl (vanilla), mecaxochitl, and xochinacaztli. Apart from these flowers, people across Mesoamerica liked to mix cacao powder with water, achiote, chili peppers, and honey to create a “finely ground, soft, foamy, reddish bitter,” yet slightly sweet, concoction.2  

As with most fine things in the sixteenth-century, the elite reserved chocolate for themselves. Emperors and their nobility, well-to-do merchants, and high-ranking soldiers made up the chocoholic aristocracy. Indeed, the only way it seems commoners could easily get their hands on the stuff (for consumption, that is; the elite weren’t gonna make it themselves you know) was to join the army and go on a long distance march.3 The Aztec used dried cacao cakes to help fuel their warriors on campaign.

Another good way to tell cacao was reserved for the fabulously wealthy is that it was also used as currency. So, they literally drank money. 

The Spanish Step Into the History of Chocolate

Europeans first encountered chocolate in 1502, when Columbus and crew captured a Mayan trading canoe off the coast of Honduras. But, like most of what Columbus ‘discovered,’ he had no idea what they had stumbled upon. It took another 17 years for the Spanish to reach Mesoamerica and realize the importance of chocolate. But, even then, they didn’t fully embrace it. 

When Cortez and his retinue of would-be war criminals came ashore in 1519, it didn’t take long for Moctezuma’s envoys to reach them. Fully in control of one of the most advanced empires in history, the Aztec emperor no doubt knew about the Spanish and their imminent arrival in his lands long before the Iberians had heard the word Tenochtitlan. A curious man, Monteczuma seems to have tried to lure the Spanish into the heart of his empire, where he could examine them safely surrounded by soldiers and loyal subjects.

So, on the shores of Veracruz, his envoys presented Cortez with gold, jewelry, and food – including chocolate. But, “when the time came to drink the chocolate that had been brought to them, that most highly prized drink of the Indians, they were filled with fear. When the Indians saw that they dared not to drink they tasted from all the gourds and the Spaniards refreshed themselves with chocolate, because in truth, it is a refreshing beverage.”4

Cortez’s men were not the only Europeans to find their initial encounter with chocolate shocking, if not revolting. Chocolate was certainly an acquired taste. “Those who had not grown up [with chocolate] could not have a taste for it,” the Jesuit missionary Jose de Acosta recounted. Acosta himself didn’t care for chocolate, as the drink had a layer of foam and bubbles that looked “like feces.”5

Acquiring the Taste

From the very beginning of their time in Mexico, the Spanish conquistadors had been in contact with Native elites. Through their diplomatic meetings with the Aztec, and then their efforts to form an alliance against the empire centered in Tenochtitlan, the Spanish no doubt noticed the elite status of chocolate. They may have even developed a taste for chocolate through these meetings.6

After several years of brutal warfare with the Aztec Empire, the Spanish took control over large swaths of Mesoamerica, with more to come in the following years. Despite the huge Native death toll from war with both the Spanish and their pathogens, they still vastly outnumbered the conquistadors. By 1570, “Spaniards and their ‘pure’ descendants made up only 5 percent of the population in Mexico City.” Over the next eight decades, that number only rose to 10 percent.7 To control this vast new territory, the Spanish attempted to slide into the space the Aztec once occupied, and take advantage of the amazing infrastructure and trade networks the Mexica had built.

The Creolization of Chocolate

Themselves all too familiar with the rigidity of Spain’s still rather medieval social structure, the men who took up arms against Moctezuma craved status. To that end, they portrayed themselves as elite through terms readily understood by the people of the recently deceased Aztec Empire – the consumption of chocolate. Determined to lay claim to a tract of land, many of these men stayed in New Spain for the rest of their lives. They took Aztec women as brides, which only reinforced their newfound love of cacao. And the children of these marriages, known as mestizos grew up drinking chocolate, cementing its place in an increasingly creole society. Jose de Acosta later noted that “the Spanish men – even more the Spanish women – are addicted to the black chocolate.”8 

As more Iberians began crossing the Atlantic to Mexico, the elites of New Spain generally stopped marrying native women. These women, however, played a large role in the Spaniards’ growing love of cacao. As domestic servants, native women prepared all the meals of the household. Here they blended their traditional foodways with those imported from Spain. The continued cultural influence of native Mesoamerians on the culture of the Spanish colonists created a large enough schism with their Castilian cousins across the Atlantic that new arrivals from Spain “balked at the peculiar habits and tastes” of their colonial compatriots. In turn, the residents of New Spain “squirmed under the derisive condescension of haughty peninsulares.”9 

Chocolate Takes on Europe

The history of chocolate very much came to mirror the history of the Atlantic World. Merchants and missionaries who made the return journey home to their madre patria brought chocolate with them. Sometimes they were even accompanied by Mesocamerican experts in cacao. Whether or not these Mesoamericans made the journey to Spain under their own volition (my guess would be not always), their sweet and spicy drink was a hit among the well-to-dos of Seville and Madrid. As Spaniards developed a taste for the brown beverage they intensified its production back in Mexico. But, of course the Spanish didn’t lift a finger themselves – that’s what they conquered all those people for. 

While colonists and smallpox traveled from Europe to the Americas en masse over the next several centuries, foods, including chocolate, potatoes, pumpkins, and tomatoes, made their way from the Americas to Europe. Well, so did syphilis, but that’s not as fun to write about. As elites across western Europe got hooked on chocolate, they attempted to mimic the flavors of Mesoamerica using the spices and sweeteners they had at hand – the big substitution being sugar for honey.

Just as in New Spain, elites in old Spain adopted the Aztec’s uses of chocolate as a designator of aristocracy. They built themselves ‘chocolate rooms’ to entertain and impress their fellow well-borns, and monarchs used chocolate in ceremonies of state.10 Eventually, England, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, and France got the taste for chocolate too. The meaning of chocolate as a symbol of wealth and power successfully traversed the Atlantic. 

Sources on the History of Chocolate:

  1. Norton, “Conquests of Chocolate,” 14
  2. Ibid
  3. Coe and Coe, 95-96
  4. Diego Duran form “Conquests of Chocolate,” 15
  5. Norton, Conquests of Chocolate, 15
  6. Gershon, “How Chocolate Came to Europe
  7. Marcy Norton, “Tasting Empire,” The American Historical Review, Vol 111, No. 3 (New York: Oxford University Press): 676.
  8. Jose de Acost from Coe and Coe, The True history of chocolate, 114
  9. Norton, “Tasting Empire,” 668
  10. Gershon, “How Chocolate Came to Europe

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  1. Fascinating! I went to Hampton Court Palace recently and saw George I’s chocolate kitchens – he used to enjoy a cup of it every morning. Interesting to see how chocolate grew into such a valued food.

    1. Thanks! Food history is one of the more fascinating ways to study the past that a lot of people aren’t introduced to in school. A lot of other foods westerners know and love, like potatoes and tomatoes, also came over from the Americas.

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