No other Western holiday is more closely identified with chocolate than Valentine’s Day.
The seasonal aisles in stores and supermarkets are filled with chocolate, and food companies spend vast sums of advertising dollars trying to persuade us to celebrate by consuming it in large quantities. It is no secret that chocolate is associated with pleasure and celebration. Yet the association between chocolate, romance and sex did not originate in Europe, but rather in the ancient cultures of the North American continent.
Chocolate was a sacred ceremonial food for two of the largest Mesoamerican indigenous civilizations: the Aztecs and the Mayas. It was usually royalty and the wealthy who used chocolate on special occasions such as engagements, marriages and religious festivals.
The ancient Mesoamericans consumed chocolate as a frothy beverage, mixing it with corn or various aromatic herbs such as vanilla and sweetening it with honey. Women were in charge of preparing chocolate, and they achieved the greatly prized foamy consistency by transferring the liquid from one vessel to another. In indigenous culture, the cacao plant and its seeds were identified with femininity and in some cases with women’s sexual organs.
The Spanish conquistadors and settlers quickly adopted the custom of drinking chocolate. Given that very few European women traveled to the Americas early in the conquest, many men married indigenous women or took them as concubines. These women then introduced their food customs to the Spaniards.
Spanish memoirs written immediately after the conquest did not record all of the particular indigenous ritual uses of chocolate, but early chroniclers nonetheless understood that chocolate was special. For example, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a Spanish foot soldier, popularized the idea that Emperor Moctezuma used chocolate as an aphrodisiac.
Chocolate began acquiring different meanings during the colonial era, even mystical qualities. The Catholic Church worked to eradicate local indigenous beliefs, but it was not entirely successful. The records of the Inquisition authorities in Central America contain numerous stories of indigenous or mestizo women accused of using enchanted chocolate beverages to control men.
Women and men of all walks of life visited these ‘witches’ or healers and asked them to prepare chocolate drinks to attract lovers, break up marriages or improve sexual performance. The Church tried to ban chocolate, but people in the Americas were too attached to it. Instead, religious orders began to accept the beverage and erase or ignore any sexual connotations.
Spaniards brought chocolate to Europe as an exotic gift. Chocolate drinks became popular in the palaces and exclusive gathering places of the rich in continental Europe. At first, Europeans put a lot of effort into preparing the beverage exactly as indigenous people did, trying to re-create the flavor and the experience as much as possible.
Thanks to technological change and the opening of trade routes, chocolate became a mass product. Instead of a drink, chocolate was transformed into candy. It was sweetened with sugar instead of expensive honey and spices. Manufacturers began promoting chocolate as an affordable gift to accompany love notes on Valentine’s Day. A famous English chocolate company even suggested ditching the love letters and instead urged people to ‘say it with chocolate.’
Today, chocolate maintains it sexy allure. Modern scientists have discovered that it has many properties such as essential amino acids and organic compounds that improve our mood. Chocolatiers are now experimenting with different flavors, even going back to the spicy, frothy drinks of Mesoamerica. Putting more care into the preparation of chocolate and lowering its sweetness has allowed people to enjoy the experience more and challenge their taste buds.
But perhaps what is most interesting is that the main importance of cocoa in ancient cultures was not the substance itself but the ties it created between people. Chocolate does taste better when you share it with someone.
Pilar Zazueta is a lecturer in the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News , Austin American Statesman , Waco Tribune Herald and the Rivard Report.
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