Xocolātl: The Magic of Chocolate

Chocolate is one of those foods that has an almost mystical, larger than life presence.  Even though it’s a luxury, very few people have a take-it-or-leave-it feeling about the stuff.  I’m a take-it girl, myself. So I decided to  look at chocolate’s magical history, and see whether the lore of cacao is as rich as its flavor. *

Chocolate originated in the tropical rainforests of Central America, where people have harvested it since a time before history.  Archaeologists have found the Mayan civilization to be a chocolate-coated one, with cacao trees in the back yards of ancient houses, and remains of both beans and cocoa pulp in excavated cooking dishes.  By the time of the Aztecs, cocoa beans were so highly valued that they were used for money. Ordinary citizens wouldn’t think of drinking it; it would be like shredding up hundred-dollar bills for salad greens!  Only priests, honored warriors, and nobles would actually drink cocoa.  Most people used the beans only for trade, or for offerings to emperors and gods.  There’s even evidence that dishonest merchants tried to pass off counterfeit cocoa beans.

Originally, cacao was made into a paste, then mixed with water to make a drink.  This wasn’t much like the drink we call “cocoa.”  The Maya didn’t used sweetener, and to them, the idea of adults drinking milk would have been almost as foreign as text messaging.  Instead, they often mixed their chocolate with vanilla, annatto, and chili peppers.    The Aztecs also used with vanilla and chili peppers, and also cornmeal and black pepper.

Xocolātl is one name associated with chocolate, though there are others.  (This is a topic of academic debate, and we’re definitely not going there!)  However they pronounced the word, the Maya had their own glyph (picture/word) for chocolate.  Artisans inscribed this glyph on ceremonial chocolate pots, alongside pictures of kings, gods and animals sipping cocoa.

What kind of magic did ancient people associate with chocolate?  Healing magic, for one.  Chocolate could help a person stay awake, though in the right cases it might also have a soothing effect.  Both the Maya and the Aztecs associated chocolate with blood, so it was natural for them to use it to influence human energies.

Chocolate was then, and is to this day, considered an aphrodisiac.  According to legend, Montezuma consumed 50 cups of chocolate per day–more if he was planning a romantic evening.  How well did this work for him? Well, scientists have also turned up a brain stimulant in chocolate called phenylethylamine, which can produce emotional highs.  The only problem is, you’ll get a heftier dose of it by eating pickled herring and sausage.  There are 300 chemicals in chocolate, which gives scientists a lot to work with.  Among them, they’ve found the ingredient theobromine has energizing and therapeutic properties. And research indicates that even the smell of chocolate produces theta waves, which help relax us.  On the other side, chocolate contains caffeine and plenty of calories.  Maybe that’s what helped keep Montezuma going.

Chocolate was used in ritual–as an offering, or as part of betrothal or wedding ceremonies.  The ancients seem to have universally associated it with blood.  They would drip the blood of sacrificial offerings onto cocoa beans, or sometimes burn the beans themselves.   Blood-red colored cocoa was best for ritual, and they used annatto to give the beans a reddish tint.  The Mayan god Ek Chuah was the patron of cocoa growers and merchants. Among the Aztecs, offerings of cocoa were holy to the god Quetzalcoatl, who got kicked out of paradise for giving chocolate to the human race.  Before that, the gods kept it for themselves.

Later, the history of chocolate is mixed with European conquest and enslavement, as chocolate became a cash crop grown in plantations.  When Cortez demanded Montezuma’s treasures, he receieved a lot of cocoa beans in with the gold he wanted.  He didn’t like it much at first, but he understood the commercial potential.  This is how he described it in his pitch it to people back in Spain:  “The divine drink that builds up resistance and fights fatigue.  A cup of this precious drink will enable a man to walk for a whole day without food.”  Later on, the Catholic Church used it as a fasting beverage. Its use spread in Europe when history’s first recorded chocoholic, Queen Anne, a Spaniard by birth, married King Phillip III of Austria.  As its use spread, so did its medicinal reputation; many believed chocolate would aid digestion, purify the blood, and induce sleep.

Nowadays, most cocoa beans are once again grown by hand by independent farmers in equatorial regions.  Small-scale farmers tend the plants, harvest the beans, and ferment, dry and pack the crop by hand.  In Mexico, chocolate is still used as an offering to ancestors during the Day of the Dead, in the form of a dish of cocoa beans or a bowl of cocoa. As far as medicinal benefits, pure cocoa has a good mixture of fats and won’t raise your cholesterol.  It’s also got antioxidants and flavonoids, as well as several micronutrients–all good stuff.

Okay, so it’s still got a lot of caffeine and calories.  But sometimes that pick-me-up is exactly the magic we need!

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