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The Origins of
by Earth & Fire Erowid
Nov 2004
Citation:   Erowid E, Erowid F. "The Origins of Chocolate." Erowid Extracts. Nov 2004;7:4-8.
In the United States and Europe, chocolate is almost synonymous with decadent pleasure. A nearly ubiquitous sensory delight, it can be purchased at every grocery store, convenience store and gas station, not to mention impulsebuy racks at clothing and electronics stores. It is found in solid bars, candy flavorings, elaborate desserts, and hot or cold beverages; available as milk chocolate, dark chocolate, semi-sweet chocolate, Swiss chocolate, chocolate nibs, and endless other varieties.

Fig 1. Whole cacao beans.
Yet, despite its seeming integration into our lives, visiting one of chocolate's traditional homes highlights that it is not a native part of Euro-American culture. How many people know what a cacao tree looks like or have any sense of how cacao beans are turned into the chocolate they eat? How many have tasted the sharp-tasting beans before they have been transformed into the sweet candy?

Chocolate has a long history of use in Mexico and the incorporation of cacao into modern ritual, culture, and religion is preceded by a rich narrative of over 2,000 years of mythology and tradition. This history provides a context for the modern consumption of chocolate a perspective that is largely lacking in other parts of the world. It also contributes to the local perception of what chocolate is.

In Oaxaca, Mexico, chocolate occupies a different niche in the diet than it does in the United States and Europe. Though not much cacao is grown in Oaxaca these days--most of the beans are imported from Tabasco or Chiapas--it is regularly consumed there and, if possible, it is even more omnipresent than in the U.S. While North Americans generally use chocolate in candy or dessert, in Oaxaca chocolate is a staple food, purchased whole or freshly ground as a cooking ingredient rather than as a highly-processed final product. In open air shops and markets, whole cacao beans are found in large piles or sacks alongside dried pinto beans, cornmeal, chiles, and flour. The coarsely ground meal can be found alongside the meat and vegetables. It is used regularly as an ingredient in cooking and drunk daily as a hot and cold beverage. Restaurants and families alike order it in bulk for all their cooking needs. Travelers learning of Oaxaca's renowned chocolate moles and its many chocolate shops will discover that not everyone shares the same idea about what constitutes proper use of the cacao bean.

The difference between the world view of chocolate as candy and the highland Mexico view of chocolate as staple raw material elicits a comparison with other products that were subject to colonial resource extraction. Comparing the purchase of freshly ground cacao beans with buying a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup® in the checkout line at a gas station brings to mind the gulf between the use of raw coca leaf in South America and the modern use of refined cocaine in Europe and the United States. Their parallel problems of compulsive over-consumption highlight the risks of extraction and processing, and the loss of traditional context and customs.

Theobroma cacao (family Sterculiaceae) is a small 20-40 foot tall understory tree native to Central and South America. It grows best in hot humid lowlands with plenty of rainfall. Its oblong, melon- sized fruit grow directly out of the trunk or main branches and turn from green to yellow to red as they mature. Each fruit contains a viscous, sticky goo that encases about 30-50 ivory-colored, almond-sized beans that are the source of chocolate.

Fig 2. Cacao grinder in la Soledad chocolate shop.
After the fruit is harvested, the beans and their surrounding pulp are scooped out and left to ferment for five to six days. During this time, the mass heats up, the pulp turns to liquid and drains away, and the beans turn brown and begin to develop a richer flavor with less astringency. After fermentation, the beans are allowed to dry in the sun for about two weeks and which they are briefly roasted to augment their flavor. At this point, the cacao beans are ready for processing into chocolate.

Until only a few decades ago, cacao beans were processed in the home, ground by hand on a 3-legged grinding stone, or metate. Today, most chocolate processing in Oaxaca takes place in small storefronts located in all but the smallest of towns. In Oaxaca City, these shops are concentrated on Calle de Mina, a few blocks south of the zocolo (city center), and in the large market area on the west side of town. Open to the street, most of the shops are just large enough to house a set of grinding machines, a small counter, and a shelf full of packaged chocolate for sale.

Shelled cacao beans are poured by the bucketful into the grinders, emerging as a thick dark paste called "cacao liquor" or "chocolate mass". To most batches, copious amounts of sugar are added and the mass is passed through the grinder again, which mixes the sugar with the ground cacao beans, creating "chocolate". Depending on the desires of the purchaser, almonds, chiles, or cinnamon might also be added. The resulting chocolate is a course, grainy material with the consistency of brown sugar. In some shops, the same grinders are used to grind chiles and tomatoes into salsa--just a quick rinse with a hose and the grinder is ready for the next job. Standing nearby when they're grinding chiles is like standing in a cloud of pepper spray.

During peak hours, salespeople stand in the doorways of these shops, ready to dump a pile of the warm, freshly-ground chocolate into the hands of passing shoppers. Walking by, the nutty, warm smell of cacao combines with the comforting smell of vanilla and the spicy aromas of cinnamon and chile to create a uniquely pleasant sensorial experience.

Fig 3. Freshly ground cacao beans mixed with sugar and spices.
Modern Oaxacan Preparations#
Most of the chocolate processed in Oaxaca will never make it into a bar or candy; instead it is used in traditional chocolatebased preparations such as mole sauces and beverages believed to be closely related to those used by the Aztecs.

Perhaps the most familiar of these beverages is hot chocolate. Every café and restaurant has Oaxacan-style hot chocolate, often including vanilla, cinnamon, or other spices, most of which are quite tasty. A variation of this is champurrado, a warm thick drink made with chocolate and atole (a corn gruel made from corn meal and water).

To the uninitiated, tejate might appear unappealing; it looks most like a bowl of dirty dishwater with globs of soap foam floating on top. But to the locals, it is a refreshing, invigorating beverage once said to have medicinal and aphrodisiacal properties.

Tejate is made from toasted corn, cacao, cinnamon, mamey seed, and the flowers of Quararibea funebris (also called the "cacao flower"), which act as a thickener.1 This cold, and spicy drink is plentiful in the markets and food stands, where local women sell homemade batches from large tubs. Its foamy consistency is most often achieved with the use of a molinillo, or chocolate whisk. So common is this drink that molinillos are widely sold on street corners as souvenirs.

Although wary travelers may avoid tejate for fear of drinking the local water (or anything made from it), they may miss out on the drink of kings. Tejate is a signature beverage of the Mexican highlands that is believed to have changed little in the past 1,000 years.2

Chocolate Bars#
"Well made chocolate is such a noble invention that it, rather than nectar and ambrosia, should be known as the food of the gods."
-- Dr. Bachot (1662)
17th century Sorbonne scholar
Oaxacan chocolate bars are another matter. Those used to the smooth, creamy texture of a high- quality Swiss chocolate bar, or the waxier pleasure of a Hershey bar, might have a hard time accepting the Oaxacan variety. Though cacao beans contain about 50% cocoa butter (the fatty part of the cacao bean), the chocolate bars we are accustomed to contain extra cocoa butter and milk to make them smoother.3 U.S. and European chocolate is also "conched", a process of heated mixing which increases creaminess. Oaxacan-style chocolate bars are not conched or creamed, and, when first tasted may seem old and stale. Dry, brittle, grainy, and full of undissolved sugar, they taste like chunky hot-cocoa mix in a bar.

Mole Negro#
Though Oaxacan chocolate may not compare to more refined chocolates for use in bars and candies, it is perfectly suited for this delightful local dish. Oaxaca is well-known for its moles and nearly every restaurant offers a mole negro ("black mole") that includes chocolate and chiles as main ingredients.

Some moles are smooth and very chocolaty, while others are spicy with only a hint of chocolate earthiness. They range from mediocre to fantastic (a majority are good) and are most often served atop chicken dishes, although they are equally well suited to a cheese enchilada for the vegetarian. These uninspiring chocolate bars, delicious chile-chocolate sauces, and unfamiliar chocolate drinks reinforce the notion that chocolate's history is more alien than familiar.

Fig 4. Aztec sculpture of man with cacao pod
(c.1200-1521). Brooklyn Museum of Art.
Food of the Gods#
The beans of the cacao tree have been used to make chocolate for more than 2,600 years. Archaeological evidence for this is found in the form of cacao residue in Mayan cooking vessels from approximately 600 BCE.4 Later chocolate vessels have also been found that bear the Mayan glyph for cacao. Some chocolate scholars argue that cacao was cultivated and consumed earlier than 1000 BCE.5

The Latin name for the plant--Theobroma cacao--literally means "food of the gods", a name given by Swedish naturalist Linnaeus in the seventeenth century. This reflects the myth that Quetzalcoatl, one of the most important gods of the Aztecs, stole a cacao tree (called cacahoaquauitl in Náhuatl)6 from his fellow gods, the "sons of the Sun", in paradise. He then traveled to earth on a beam of the morning star and gave cacao beans (cacahuatl) as a gift to the people of Mexico.6 Quetzalcoatl specifically taught women (not men) to roast and press the cacao beans and prepare a beverage that was believed to bring knowledge and wisdom.

Several other Aztec gods are also associated with cacao. Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain and fertility, was asked by Quetzalcoatl to nourish the cacao tree with water after it was planted. And Xochiquetzal, the Aztec goddess of love, was tasked with adorning the cacao with flowers; some depictions of her include a vessel of cacao beverage, adorned with flowers.7 Unfortunately, because most of the pre-Columbian writings of southern Mexico were destroyed by the Spanish, much of what is known about early uses of chocolate is based on cryptic archaeological evidence (such as the residue in early pottery) and writings from the sixteenth century. Images of cacao trees, cacao pods, and cacao-related glyphs appear on Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec frescos, pottery, and stone carvings from the late pre-Classic period (250 CE) onward.8

The Spanish Meet Cacao#
Christopher Columbus ran across cacao beans on his fourth voyage in 1502, when he captured a trading canoe carrying cacao beans among its cargo. The beans were valued so highly that they were used as a form of currency by the Aztecs.4 According to Spanish historian Francisco Oviedo y Valdés, in 1513 a slave could be purchased in "New Spain" for 100 cacao beans and a rabbit for ten.9 These numbers suggest the extraordinary value of cacao beans; cacao did not grow well in the Mexican highlands and the beans are thought to have been mostly imported from other areas. Although the value of cacao beans certainly varied dramatically over time and from places to place, evidence of counterfeit cacao beans also reflects their value. According to Sahagún's Florentine Codex:
"The divine drink, which builds up resistance and fights fatigue. A cup of this precious drink permits a man to walk for a whole day without food."
-- Hernando Cortés (c. 1520)
"The bad cacao seller [...] counterfeits cacao. [... With] amaranth seed dough, wax, avocado pits he counterfeits cacao; he covers this over with cacao bean hulls, he places this in the cacao been shells. The whitish, the fresh cacao beans he intermixes [...] Indeed he throws in with them wild cacao beans to deceive the people."10
Though Columbus was aware of the existence of cacao beans as a valuable commodity, it was Hernando Cortés and his crew who first documented their consumption. In 1519, they observed Moctezuma II, emperor of the Aztecs ("Montezuma" in English), drinking a thick and foamy dark red beverage, mixed with spices and served cold, called cacahuatl ("cacao water").
"The emperor took no other beverage than the chocolatl , a potation of chocolate, flavored with vanilla and other spices, and so prepared as to be reduced to a froth of the consistency of honey, which gradually dissolved in the mouth and was taken cold. This beverage, if so it could be called, was served in golden goblets, with spoons of the same metal or of tortoise-shell finely wrought. "11
The Aztec leader was said to drink more than 50 cups a day of chocolatl, as the beverage was also called, often reportedly before adjourning to his harem, a practice that helped distinguish chocolate as an aphrodisiac.

This chocolate drink was a sacred brew in southern Mexico. In Aztec society it may have been reserved for royalty, priests, and honored soldiers, or perhaps it was simply too expensive for commoners to afford. The beans were used as offerings to the gods and the drink was incorporated into religious ceremonies.

Drink or Mousse?#
Fig 5. Aztec sculpture of man with cacao pod (c.1200-1521). Brooklyn Museum of Art.
There is evidence that a number of different preparations for cacao drinks were in use before the arrival of the Spanish, though no documented recipes have survived.6,10,12 What is clear is that many different herbs and spices were used as admixture plants, including hot chiles, vanilla, and others that rendered the drinks unpalatable to the Europeans who first wrote about them. Virolano Benzoni, author of La Historia del Mondo Nuovo (Venice, 1572), for example, opined that cacahuatl was "a beverage fit more for pigs than for men". 6

Many modern texts say the chocolate drinks were never sweetened, but this is disputed by Ott and seems to contradict the venerable Florentine Codex, which states that the seller of fine chocolate mixed it "with wild bee honey".

The thick foam was made by frothing the watery cacao, flowers, and spice mixture. Before Spanish contact, this was achieved by pouring the drink back and forth between two vessels. In the sixteenth century the Spanish invented and introduced the use of the molinillo, or chocolate whisk, used to more effectively froth the drink (see photo). It is said that the froth is the best part of the drink: The higher the froth, the better the drink, and the cook.

Tejate, the whipped and foamtopped cacao drink of modern Oaxaca, bears a striking resemblance to Moctezuma's "beverage". The major exception is that tejate is liquid with a foam topping, while cacahuatl is described solely as a froth. The similarities are so strong that we pondered whether perhaps the early European chroniclers, put off as they were by the strange new taste, merely failed to get through the thick layer of floating foam to reach the actual beverage underneath.

"The seller of fine chocolate [is] one who grinds, who provides people with drink… She grinds cacao; she crushes, breaks, pulverizes them. She chooses, selects, separates them. She drenches, soaks, steeps them. She adds water sparingly, conservatively; aerates it; she makes it form a head, makes it foam; she removes the head, makes it thicken, makes it dry, pours water in, stirs water into it. She sells good, superior, potable chocolate: the privilege, the drink of nobles, of rulers--finely ground, soft, foamy, reddish, bitter; [with] chili water, with flowers, with ui nacaztli, with teonacaztli, with vanilla, with mecaxochitl, with wild bee honey, with powdered aromatic flowers. Inferior chocolate has maize flour and water; lime water; it is pale; the froth bubbles burst. [It is chocolate] with water added--Chontal water… [fit for] water flies."
     -- Florentine Codex
Cacahuatl Psychoactive?#
At least some of the cacahuatl imbibed by the Aztecs was a psychoactive intoxicant. This is reported by several European chroniclers, including Sahagún:
"This cacao, when much is drunk, when much is consumed, especially that which is green, which is tender, makes one drunk, takes effect on one, makes one dizzy, confuses one, makes one sick, deranges one. When an ordinary amount is drunk, it gladdens one, refreshes one, consoles one, invigorates one. Thus it is said: "I take cacao. I wet my lips. I refresh myself.'"10
According to Jonathan Ott, many of the reported psychoactive properties were due to the inclusion of psychoactive admixture plants. Along with the more common spices, chocolate beverages were used as the vehicle for other ingredients including psilocybin mushrooms and Datura species.1 It is difficult to take enough chocolate to make one "dizzy" or "confused", so it is an intriguing question as to what Sahagún's Náhuatl informants had in mind when they described it this way.

During a presentation at the Mind States Oaxaca conference, Ott presented an updated version of his thesis that some traditional cacahuatl potions contained other psychoactives. Using the Spanish codices and the few extant Mayan and Aztec glyph codices, Ott posited that the symbols used in the depictions of cacahuatl suggest a wide variety of admixture plants, including Datura stramonium, a plant from the genus Solandra, a plant from the genus Hypericum, possibly DMT-containing Virola barks, a Piper genus plant, psilocybin mushrooms, and many others.

The question of what was mixed with cacao to make intoxicating drinks could overshadow the fact that cacao itself contains active levels of caffeine and theobromine, both stimulants. The actual amounts vary by cacao source and preparation method (fermentation and cooking seem to increase caffeine and theobromine content), but the beans hover around 0.2-0.29% caffeine and 1.2-2.5% theobromine content by weight. Twenty fermented, dried beans weigh about 20 grams (including the shells) and contain 40-60 mg of caffeine and 240-500 mg of theobromine, quantities definitely above perceptible threshold.12 Apart from whatever effects the various admixture plants may have had, any strong cacao drink would have been a psychoactive stimulant in its own right.

Introduction to Europe#
It is unclear whether Cortés himself ever introduced anyone in Spain to cacao. The treasures he brought home no doubt included some cacao beans, but the first record of a cacahuatl beverage in Spain dates to 1544. In that year, a group of Dominican friars brought a delegation of Kekchi Mayan nobles to visit Prince Philip of Spain. The Mayans presented gifts of beaten cacao, mixed and ready to drink.14

Before American contact, Europe was badly in need of stimulants. During the first century after contact, Europe was introduced to tobacco, coffee, and chocolate, and around the same time, the tea trade began and grew rapidly. Very quickly, "chocolaté" became a popular drink for the Spanish upper class, but cacao drinks required some changes before they could become popular in Europe. As Joseph Acosta noted in his Historie of the East and West Indies in 1604:
"The chief use of this cocoa is in a drincke which they call chocholaté, whereof they make great account, foolishly and without reason; for it is loathesome to such as are not acquainted with it, having a skumme or frothe that is very unpleasant to taste."15
Fig 6. Molinillo.
To make it more palatable, the Spanish prepared their cacao with vanilla and added sugar.16 Cacao was kept a relative secret by the Spanish royal court for some time after they began to enjoy it, an interesting mirror of the restrictions on the use of cacao in Aztec culture.

Cacao Goes Global#
As cacao use grew in Europe over the next several centuries, it was involved in the growing pains of a culture attempting to integrate all of the imported products it was acquiring through colonialization. Important questions needed answering, like whether drinking chocolate would break a Lenten fast. The Jesuits argued it did not break the fast, while the Dominican Order argued that it did. Pope Gregory XII declared that chocolate beverages, like coffee, could be drunk during fasts. 14

It was not until the nineteenth century and C.J. Van Houten's invention of two major processing methods for cacao that it became a world-wide favorite. First, Van Houten's development of high- pressure expelling made it easy to isolate cocoa butter for food and cosmetic use. Second, his "dutching" process of treating the cacao with alkali allowed for cocoa drinks that were readily water-soluble and which did not result in large amount of "skumme".

Moctezuma's Return#
Shelled and unshelled cacao beans are now increasingly present in the U.S. and European market and there is a growing interest in non-candied cacao as a "health food". The burgeoning "raw food" trend touts chocolate as one of its discovered gems and in October 2004, an article in The New York Times Magazine points out that the M&M/Mars company has recently patented certain health applications of chocolate including its use "in the maintenance of vascular health" and as an "anti- platelet therapy".17 They appear poised to bring chocolate products full-circle by marketing them as healthful.

As a global commodity, chocolate is so tightly linked to luxuriously high fat and sugar contents that it is primarily associated with sensual decadence. Moctezuma II's fifty cups per day may seem absurd, but chocolate addiction is common enough to warrant frequent jokes about "chocoholism" and research into its etiology. One journal article by W. Michener and P. Rozin even suggests that "chocolate craving [is] the most common craving in North America".18 It is, of course, difficult to separate culture from business sales interests, but chocolate, far from the bitter inebriant and sacred wisdom-food of the Aztecs, still has an evocative, almost magical, mystique.

In modern Mexico, cacao has maintained its place of respect. It not only occupies a regular place in the highland Mexican diet and found in U.S.-style candy bars, but cacao beans are still involved in birth, marriage and death ceremonies and are frequently used as altar offerings. Although often belittled and poorly understood outside its native lands, cacao still deserves its title of Food of the Gods.

A Brief Timeline of Early Chocolate History
1500–400 BCE Olmecs believed to have cultivated Theobroma cacao.
600 BCE Cacao beans are used to make a warm beverage in pre-Columbian America.
350–650 BCE Cacao tree painted in murals in Teotihuacan near Mexico City.4
300–600 CE Cacao beans are used as currency.
600–900 Nobles buried with ceramic cacao vessels.
c. 1550 Popul Vuh mentions cacao.
1502 Columbus encounters cacao beans.
1519 Cortés witnesses Moctezuma II drinking a cacao beverage
1544 A group of Dominican friars brings a delegation of Kekchi people to Spain who present Prince Philip with a chocolate beverage. Chocolate begins to gain popularity amongst Spanish nobles.
1569 Pope Pius V declares that chocolate beverages are not a food and therefore may be drunk during religious fasting. This ruling was later confirmed by Cardinal Brancaccio in 1664.
1585 The first official shipments of cacao beans began to arrive in Seville from Mexico.
1600–1700 Chocolate use spreads outside of the Spanish nobility and throughout Europe.
1712 European-style chocolate makes its way back to North America.
c. 1750 Linnaeus names the plant Theobroma cacao.
1828 C.J. van Houten patents "dutching", an extraction process, creating modern "cocoa powder".
present An estimated one billion people worldwide eat some form of chocolate every day.

References #
  1. Ott J. Lecture on Cacao. Oaxaca, Mexico. Sep 2004.
  2. Parr L, Parr B. "Tejate, a Traditional Oaxacan Drink." 2003. Accessed Oct 21, 2004.
  3. Unknown. "A Brief History of Chocolate, Food of the Gods." Athena Review. 1999; 2(2).
  4. Hurst WJ, Tarka SM, Powis TG, et al. "Archaeology: Cacao usage by the earliest Maya civilization." Nature. 2002.
  5. Coe SD, Coe MD. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 1996.
  6. Ott J. The Cacahuatl Eater: Ruminations of an Unabashed Chocolate Addict. Natural Products Co., 1985.
  7. Cobo B. Historia del Nuevo Mundo. c. 1653.
  8. Gasco J. "The Social and Economic History of Cacao Cultivation in Colonial Soconusco, New Spain." Chocolate: Food of the Gods. Edited by A. Szogyi. Greenwood Press, 1997. p 156.
  9. Oveido y Valdes F. Historia General y Natural de las Indias. 1535.
  10. de Sahagún B. General de las Cosas de Nueva España (Florentine Codex). Sixteenth century.
  11. Prescott WH. History of the Conquest of Mexico. 1519.
  12. Pendell D. Phamakodynamis: Stimulating Plants, Potions & Herbcraft. Mercury House, 2002.
  13. Pura Naik J. "Improved high-performance liquid chromatography method to determine theobromine and caffeine in cocoa and cocoa products." J. Agric. Food Chem. 2001; 49:3579-3583.
  14. Kilham C. Psyche Delicacies. Rodale, 2001.
  15. Acosta J. Historie of the East and West Indies. 1604.
  16. Cobo B. Historia del Nuevo Mundo. c. 1653. Accessed Oct 20, 2004.
  17. Gertner J. "Eat Chocolate, Live Longer?" The New York Times Magazine. Oct 10, 2004.
  18. Michener W, Rozin P. "Pharmacological versus sensory factors in the satiation of chocolate craving." Physiol Behav. Sep 1994; 56(3): 419-22.
  19. Jamieson RW. "The Essence of Commodification: Caffeine dependencies in the early modern world". Journal of Social History. Winter 2001.