Theobroma Cacao: "Food of the gods"

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In 1753, Carl von Linne, more commonly known as Linnaeus, gave the scientific name to the cacao tree. As a chocolate lover, Linnaeus named the cacao tree Theobroma cacao; the first part he took from the Greek meaning "food of the gods." As a chocolate lover myself, I chose Theobroma cacao as my topic to explore the sociocultural history of the flavorful product made from the cacao bean, chocolate. The word "chocolate" is said to derive from the Mayan "xocoatl" and cacao from the Aztec "cacahuatl." Chocolate begins with a cacao bean. It has been mashed and eaten for centuries. The cacao bean's popularity has not dwindled since before the time of Christ when it was prized in Mesoamerica. This paper will trace the sociocultural history of the cacao bean and it's product, chocolate, from it's beginnings in Mesoamerica to it's spread throughout Europe. The Olmecs was the America's first civilization to use cacao (Topik, 1996). Some linguists have reconstructed the word "cacao" originally pronounced kakawa as a vocabulary item in the prot-Mixe-Zoquean by about 1000 BC, just when the Olmec civilization was at its height (Empty, 1997). The Olmecs passed kakawa on to the Maya. The ancestors of the Maya entered the lowlands of northern Guatemala around 1000 BC. Until then, they lived in the highlands of Guatemala and the Mexican state of Chiapas where cacao must have been very rare, if known at all. If they found a use for the wild cacao they found growing in the lowlands when they arrived, they must have had another word for it. It was not until some time between 400 BC and AD 100, they used the word kakawa (Empty, 1997). Approximately AD 600, the Central American Maya tribe migrated deep into South American's northern region and established the first cacao plantations in Yucatan. The fruit of the cacao tree played an important part in ceremonial rituals and cacao beans were offered to gods during puberty rites, marriages and funerals. Before the sowing of the crop, the tillers of the soil slept apart from their women for 13 nights so that the night before planting they could fully indulge their passions. As the first cacao seed was placed in the soil a chosen few were appointed to sexually perform at the same time. Perhaps this ritual has some bearing on the fact that chocolate was considered an aphrodisiac for many years. It was believed that Tonacatecutli, the goddess of food, and Calchiuhtlucue, the goddess of water, were guardian goddesses of cacao. Each year the Maya performed human sacrifices for the goddesses (Godiva, 1997). This unfortunate victim was served a cup of chocolate which supposedly turned his heart into a cacao bean; the heart was then ripped out and offered to the gods (Anonymous 1, 1997). Because cacao beans were valuable, they were given as gifts at ceremonies such as a child's coming of age and at religious ceremonies. The Maya had very many complicated religious beliefs with many gods. Ek Chuah, the merchant god, was also closely linked with cacao and cacao fruits were used at festivals in honor of this god (Cadbury, 1997). Chocolate was a luxury among the Maya, not only in life, but also in death. Even in death the Maya nobles should not miss chocolate. Vessels containing chocolate drink were found in a tomb at Rio Azul, Guatemala (Empty, 1997). The drink called "xocoatl" was made from roasted cacao beans, water and a little spice. It was their most important use, but cacao beans were also valued as a currency (Cadbury, 1997). Ransoms were paid and purchases made in cacao beans. A pumpkin cost 4 cacao beans, a rabbit 8, a good slave 100, but a prostitute was worth just 10 cacao beans (Annonymous1, 1997). Maya farmers transported their cacao beans to market by canoe or in large baskets strapped to their backs. When Christopher Columbus encountered a large Maya trading canoe in 1502, he knew he had stumbled upon something of value. Some of the Maya traders "...dropped almond-like objects and began to furiously scramble to pick them up as if their eyes had fallen out of their heads (Cadbury, 1997)." These curious beans were known in Mayan as kakawa. Wealthy merchants traveled further employing porters to carry their wares as there were no horses, pack animals or wheeled carts in Central America at that time. Some ventured as far as Mexico and the land of the Aztecs, so introducing them to the much prized cacao beans (Cadbury, 1997). The Aztecs were an ancient nomadic people who took over control of Mexico and the surrounding areas around AD 1200. They founded the great city, Tenochititlan, in 1325. In most books about chocolate, it is the Aztecs who are given the credit for domesticating the cacao tree and inventing the chocolate drink. As we have already seen, this is not true. The Aztecs have however, played a great role in the development of the use of cacao in "The New World" (Empty, 1997). Because of their dry climate, the Aztecs were unable to grow cacao trees themselves so they had to obtain supplies of cacao beans from tribute or trade. Tribute was a form of taxation paid by provinces conquered by the Aztecs in wars (Cadbury, 1997). Chocolatl was consumed in large quantities by the Aztecs as a luxury drink. The Aztec version of this much prized drink was described as "finely ground, soft, foamy, reddish, bitter with chili water, aromatic flowers, vanilla and wild bee honey (Cadbury, 1997)." To the Aztecs, cacao was considered to be a stimulant, intoxicant, hallucinogen, and aphrodisiac. The drink also served as a cure for anxiety, fever, and coughs. Warriors would count on cacao's caffeine to steel them in battle. Others would drink fermented chocolate and feel intoxicated by the beans, especially if they were still green and consumed in conjunction with the psilocybin mushroom as in some religious festivities. And men such as the Emperor Montezuma would imbibe the potion before going to make love with their many wives (Topik, 1996). Montezuma would consume up to 50 cups of xocoatl a day before repairing to his harem. Cacao beans were so precious they were also used as money. Since the Aztec's economy mostly was on the basis of face-to-face barter, cacao represented an important opening to monetarization. That cacao really was thought of as a form of money was demonstrated by the fact that cacao beans were sometimes counterfeited. Empty cacao shells were filled with clay. It might seem absurd to have money growing on trees, but in fact, the Spanish continued this tradition in central Mexico for decades and in parts of Central American for centuries (Topik, 1996). The Aztecs were very superstitious; they had many gods and believed that their world was constantly threatened by catastrophe. One story says that one of these gods, Quetzalcoatl, creator god and provider of agriculture, was particularly associated with cacao beans. Quetzalcoatl is further linked with the story of cacao and chocolate (Cadbury, 1997). An old Mexican Indian myth explains that Quetzalcoatl was forced to leave the country by a chief god, but he was lovingly remembered by his devoted worshippers who hoped that we would return. Until that time they still had his legacy, the cacao tree (Cadbury, 1997). Great temples were built to honor him in Tenochititlan. Montezuma particularly revered him. Another legend has it that cacahuatl was first cultivated on earth by the Aztec man-god, Quetzalcoatl, from seeds he carried out of the lost paradise of the children of the Sun (Van Epen, 1996). Another ancient chronicle reports that the Aztecs, believing that the god Quetzalcoatl traveled to earth on a beam of the Morning Star with a cacao tree from paradise, took his offering to the people. They learned from Quetzalcoatl how to roast and grind the cacao seeds, making a nourishing paste that could be dissolved in water. They added spices and called this drink chocolatl, or a bitter-water, and believed it brought universal wisdom and knowledge (Godiva, 1997). Yet another story is of an Aztec myth that the feathered serpent god of light, Quetzalcoatl, came to earth as a fair-skinned man with a white flowing beard. He bestowed upon his worshippers the cacao bean and taught them how to make the divine chocolate drink. The human trait of growing old horrified this glorious god, so he returned to heaven and took the cacao tree with him, promising to return to earth again. By unfortunate coincidence, 1519 was predicted as the year the god Quetzalcoatl would return to free the Aztecs from the terrible burden of having to perform human sacrifices in order that the sun would continue to rise (Anonymous 2, 1997). Cortes' white skin and beard fulfilled the legend of the return of Quetzalcoatl, as well as the year of his return, and the local people truly believed he was the reincarnated god (Anonymous 1, 1997). Which ever story is correct, Montezuma and the Aztec people welcomed Cortes. Hernando Cortes, while conquering part of Mexico, was most impressed by the cacao bean. Lured by visions of wealth, he established plantations in Mexico, Trinidad, Haiti, and generally all over the Caribbean to grow money in the form of the cacao bean. When Cortes first landed he was received with great reverence by the Aztec Emperor Montezuma because he was thought to be Quetzalcoatl returning. It was Montezuma who introduced Don Cortes to his favorite drink, xocoatl, served in a golden goblet. The Spaniards were dazzled by the splendor and mystique of Montezuma and they basked in the glory of being the group of a god returned to earth. All the cacao beans consumed by the Aztecs were grown on the Yucatan peninsula by the Mayas, who were subjects of the Aztecs by AD 1200. Within a year, Cortes had repaid the Aztec's hospitality by imprisoning his gracious host and declaring the country a colony of Spain. The conquistadors returned home in 1528 and introduced the cacao bean and its preparation as a drink to the royal Spanish court. Chocolate's Introduction to Spain The conquistadors were not the first to bring the cacao bean to Spain. In 1502, Christopher Columbus is said to have brought back cacao beans to King Ferdinand from his fourth visit to "The New World." Columbus, himself, did not enjoy chocolate in this form. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella did not care much for it either, and dismissed it as a bizarre native drink (Anonymous 2, Joffray 7 1997). Cortes brought chocolate back from Mexico to the royal court of King Charles V. Monks, hidden away in Spanish monasteries, processed the cacao beans. Monks, 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 chili pepper was omitted and it was discovered that chocolate tasted even better served hot. Soon chocolate became a fashionable drink enjoyed by the rich in Spain. It made a profitable industry for Spain, which planted cacao trees in its overseas colonies. It took nearly a century for the news of cacao and chocolate to spread across Europe as the Spanish kept it a closely guarded secret (Cadbury, 1997). An Italian traveler, Francesco Carletti, was the first to break the Spanish monopoly having visited Central America where he saw how the Indians prepared the cacao beans and how they made the drink. The drink still contained hot peppers and spices (Anonymous 2, 1997). By 1606, chocolate was well established in Italy (Cadbury, 1997). From there, the drink quickly spread to the aristocratic societies of Germany and Austria. Chocolate, in any form, was still to much of an expensive South American luxury to be consumed by the working class. Anne of Austria, a Hapsburg-Spanish princess who married Louis XIII of France in 1615, introduced many Spanish customs to the sophisticated French court, including drinking chocolate (Anonymous 1, 1997). History repeated itself in 1660, when the Spanish Princess Maria Theresa was betrothed to Louis XIV of France, she gave her fiance an engagement gift of chocolate, packaged in an elegantly ornate chest. Their marriage was symbolic of the marriage of chocolate in the Spanish-Franco culture (Godiva, 1997). The French court adopted this new exotic drink with great fervor and it was considered to have medicinal benefits as well as being a nourishing food. The spread of chocolate from the French court to the rest of French high society took no more than a few years. The supply of cacao beans to the French market greatly improved after 1684, when France conquered Cuba and Haiti and set up their own cacao plantations (Cadbury, 1997). By 1687, there were at least three chocolate makers in Paris, selling their hand-made wares in their own shops, and by 1692, French wine merchants were complaining that chocolate was cutting into their business (Anonymous 2, 1997). While the royal courts of France ensured its success, across the Channel, an enterprising Frenchman opened the first chocolate shop in Bishopsgate Street, London in 1657. At the same time famous London coffee houses serving Spanish-style cakes and rolls containing chocolate to their learned and wealthy clientele. Only the rich and noble could afford to drink chocolate. Chocolate increased in popularity not only as a drink, but also as a flavoring for other foods (Anonymous 1, 1997). By the eighteenth century, chocolate was indelibly associate with decadence, aristocracy, and the Catholic Church. Chocolate was considered a Catholic drink just as coffee was first a Muslim drink and then a Protestant beverage (Topik, 1996). Pope Pius V was served a cup of chocolate and found it so disgusting that he could not imagine anyone wanting to drink it. He therefore declared it permissible to drink though the Lenten feast. Fashionable women of the day could not last through Mass without a cup of chocolate, and it was a common sight to see legions of maids serving chocolate to their mistresses, thereby interrupting the Mass (Anonymous 1, 1997). Chocolate could also effectively disguise poisons. The Bishop of Chiapa Mexico tried to ban the practice of drinking chocolate during Mass, but soon after met an untimely death. Some gentlewoman poisoned his own morning cup of chocolate (Anonymous 1, 1997). Chocolate also appears to have been used as a medicinal remedy by leading physicians of the day. The king's doctor, Henry Stubbe wrote a book praising the beneficial qualities of chocolate, called The Indian Nectar. He advocated that one ounce of chocolate contained more fat and nourishment than a pound of meat and he wrote medical prescriptions made from chocolate. He also wrote that chocolate "becomes provocative to lust upon no other account than that it begets good blood." Coincidentally, a French medical student wrote a thesis "On the Healthful Uses of Chocolate (Anonymous 1, 1997)." Christopher Ludwig Hoffmann's treatise Potus Chocolate recommends chocolate for many diseases, citing it as a cure for Cardinal Richelieu's ills (Godiva, 1997).

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