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Elaine González Key Note Speech
RCI Annual Convention 2010
Lexington, KY
“Chocolate: Mexico’s Living Legacy”

written by Elaine González

Chocolate’s botanical history is dark and mysterious, rooted in ancient mythological tales. It is said that Quetzalcoatl, the benevolent "Feathered Serpent" god, took human form, descended to earth and presented the ancient people of Mexico with a gift from the garden of Paradise: the cacao tree. He showed them how to plant the tree, harvest the fruit, and prepare his favorite drink, Xocolatl. He instructed Tlaloc, the god of rain, to nourish the tree; Xochiquetzal, the goddess of love, was told to adorn it with flowers and infuse it with her spirit.

Linnaeus, the great 18th century botanist, memorialized the legend by naming the tree Theobroma cacao L, “Food of the Gods,” from the Greek words theo (god) and broma (food). Many botanists believe that the first cacao trees grew wild in the Amazon basin or in the Orinoco Valley of South America. The domestication of the cacao tree, however, did not begin until it reached the lush tropical lowlands of Central America and southern Mexico over 3,000 years ago.

The Olmecs, the oldest civilization of the Americas (1500-400 B.C.), were probably the first users of cacao. Though few written records survived their swampy terrain environment, recent linguistic findings suggest the word “cacao” is derived from the word kakawa in Mixe-Zoquean, believed to have been their language. The Olmec presence is still evident in Tabasco, Mexico, in the colossal heads they left behind.

The chocolate legacy passed from the Olmecs to the Maya, one of Mesoamerica’s most advanced civilizations. The Maya built cities and temples, mastered astronomy and mathematics, and consumed cacao-based drinks made with beans from their plantations in the Chontalpa region of what is now eastern Tabasco. Archaeologists have discovered drinking vessels, elaborately decorated with chocolate illustrations that contain traces of ceremonial chocolate drinks dating from 250 to 900 A.D. Today, in the same Chontalpa region, descendants of the Maya still grow and harvest cacao and prepare Chorote and Pozol, cacao-corn-based drinks similar to those consumed by their noble ancestors.

Cacao beans were so valued in ancient Mexico that the Maya and later (Toltec and Aztec) civilizations used them as currency to purchase small household items and pay for various services; a large tomato was worth one bean, a rabbit 10 beans, and a slave 100 beans. Taxes levied against conquered tribes were also paid in cacao beans, but by the sack, each containing about 24,000 beans.

Some cacao beans were also sold in markets for consumption by the elite – the nobility, warriors and long-distance merchants. Today, vendors in markets all over Mexico sell cacao beans to those who still grind them at home.

Moctezuma, the great Aztec emperor, loved chocolate so much that he consumed 50 cups each day at his sumptuous 300-course banquets. Then he adjourned to his harem (presumably to celebrate his accomplishment). Pity the poor cook who had to prepare all those drinks! First she toasted the beans on a clay comal (griddle) over an open fire. Then, hunched on her knees over a three-legged, slanted stone metate, she laboriously ground the beans until a stream of liquid chocolate trickled off the metate’s edge and filled an earthen bowl. Finally, she added water for a coarse mixture, which she flavored with one, or more additions of honey, dried flowers, vanilla, achiote (annatto - for color), chili, allspice or finely ground corn.

Many indigenous people in rural Mexico still prepare their chocolate this way. Today’s hot cocoa is a far cry from the exotic chocolate drink that Hernán Cortés first sampled at Moctezuma’s table when he arrived in 1519. The drink repelled the Spanish at first, but when their wine ran out, they overcame their distaste.

The Spanish quickly transformed Moctezuma’s brew by heating it and adding ingredients they had brought with them to the New World: sugar, cinnamon, ground almonds, milk. This mestizo recipe is still used today in most of the Spanish-speaking world and in homes that preserve the old traditions.

(Customarily, churros, pieces of bread or crispy cookies are dunked into steaming hot chocolate, thus preventing many a burnt lip).

Tradition dictates how the drink, Chocolate Mexicano, should be made. In Oaxaca, where more is consumed than anywhere else, it is cooked in a specially shaped pot and whipped until frothy with a molinillo, a long wooden stick with rings at the bottom that spins when the stick is rolled between the palms.

Mexican-style hot chocolate is always served with a cap of foam, partly to minimize the skin that forms, but also because the foam is said to embody the spirit of the chocolate – and the energy of the person who made it. In rural Mexico, women go to great lengths to achieve that foam cap. If the molinillo doesn’t produce enough froth, they hold the pot high above the head and pour the hot chocolate back and forth from pot to drinking cup, just as their ancestors did.

Some time during the 17th century, upper-class Spanish women of San Cristólbal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, became involved in a conflict with the bishop over their conduct during Mass. The ladies, it seems, suffered from such weak stomachs that they could not survive without a cup of very hot chocolate in the middle of the service. This disruptive practice provoked a ban on food and drink in the House of God. The women, unyielding, vowed never to attend Mass in the cathedral again, rather going to church in the convents.

Subsequently, the Bishop of Chiapas was found poisoned – with a tainted cup of chocolate in his hand and a little smile on his face. It was the first recorded case of “Death by Chocolate.”

Long before chocolate became synonymous with confections, 17th century colonial cooks in equatorial America were using it as an ingredient in stews and sauces. The most famous savory chocolate recipe was born in the kitchen of the Santa Rosa Convent in Puebla, Mexico. Sor Andrea de la Asunción was instructed by the bishop to prepare a special dish for the visiting Viceroy of New Spain. She assembled nearly 100 of her best ingredients for a sauce befitting the prize turkey she had selected. Why she added chocolate to the sauce is a mystery. Was it deliberate, to offset any deficiencies in the sauce, or, as a charming folk tale suggests, did an errant breeze blow some into the pot? Some historians believe that Sor Andrea simply borrowed the idea from local Indians. In any event, Mole Poblano de Guajolote went on to become Mexico’s national dish.

The aroma of chocolate permeates the air around the local cacao-grinder’s shop in Oaxaca as the Days of the Dead (October 31 – November 2) approach. Chocolate tablets, personalized chocolate skulls, and chocolate-spiked black moles are prepared to adorn festive home altars for October 31, All Hallow’s Eve, when the dead souls return to feast on their favorite foods. The festivities blend ancient and modern religious rituals in a mixture of reverence, revelry, and mockery of death itself.

Chocolate has always played a role in Mexican life and death rituals. Early civilizations considered the “food of the gods” the perfect offering during human sacrificial rites because they believed the cacao pod symbolized the heart, and chocolate the blood. Festive celebrations also included chocolate, as they do today.

As October draws to a close, families in Oaxaca converge on local cemeteries to clean the tombs and gravestones and decorate them with flowers and candles in preparation for the arrival of the souls of the dead. Late in the afternoon on November 1 they return with food and drink and chocolate, freshly ground and shaped by hand, which they place on the graves for the communal celebration which will last until dawn.

The people of Mexico have honored their dead with gifts of chocolate for centuries. To sustain them on their journey to the afterlife, ancient nobles were buried with a drinking vessel filled with chocolate, as well as a handful of cacao beans for use as payment on arrival. In remote villages in southern Mexico, a gourd of chocolate is still included in every burial to soothe the dead spirit in its new life.

Quetzalcoatl’s legendary gift of chocolate has transcended time and geographic boundaries to become one of the world’s most cherished foods. Advances in the manufacture of chocolate, combined with the talents of master confectioners, have transformed the rustic, unrefined, ground cacao of the Maya into the exceptionally smooth, velvety chocolate products we relish today. As we enjoy these great accomplishments, let us acknowledge with deep gratitude the contributions of generations past, whose primitive methods and passion for chocolate created a sacred legacy that has enriched us through the ages.

An Interview with Elaine González