Exploring the Origins of the Chocolate We Drink (and Eat) - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Exploring the Origins of the Chocolate We Drink (and Eat)

Chef Selena Cadenas stands before the comal, gently roasting cocoa seeds and cinnamon that will become part of pinole. The beverage is flavored with cacao, a colorful fruit filled with juicy, sweet pulp enrobing bitter seeds. These seeds are scooped out of thick pods, then fermented, dried, and processed into a comestible loved the world over: cocoa and chocolate.

But Cadenas’ appreciation goes deeper. Cacao is not merely the roots of a confection; it’s a substance that flows through her life and is a vital part of her lineage. Cacao grows in a thin belt around the Equator, but was domesticated in Mesoamerica, in a region that is part of modern-day Mexico. The fruit was nourishment, and also used as currency and medicine, and in rituals honoring deities, the sacred feminine, and cycles of life and death. “Pinole is a tradition coming from my home, passed through the hands of my great-grandmother, to my grand-auntie, and on to me. It is part of who I am.”

The 25-year-old restaurateur is based in Mérida—a vibrant city in the Yucatán Peninsula celebrated for its rich Maya history and culture—but she was born and raised in Tabasco, in Southeastern Mexico, a region foundational to cocoa and, later, chocolate.

Before humans ate chocolate in solid form, they drank it. Recent archaeological findings confirm the Mokaya people (based in what is now Guatemala and the Soconusco region of Chiapas, Mexico) were harvesting and drinking cacao as early as 1900-1700 B.C.E. Afterward—roughly 3,000 years ago—the Olmecs prepared, roasted, and ground cacao seeds—kakaw in their native language of Zoque—into a paste that was used as the base for atole, a hot beverage flavored with chili and spices and thickened with corn.

A variety of corn-based drinks featuring cacao were consumed by the Olmecs, and by subsequent civilizations including the Maya and Aztecs. Maya civilizations mixed fermented and dried cacao seeds with water and chili peppers and seasoned them with ingredients including vanilla and native flowers. The thick drink was poured between containers to increase aeration, and later frothed with whisk-like wooden tools called molinillos. The Aztecs pressed cacao into portable spheres they could carry into battle and created a foamy drink mixed with water they called xocolatl, credited as the precursor of the drinking chocolate we savor today. “There are many, many variations,” says Ana Rita García-Lascuráin, the founder and director of the MUCHO-Chocolate Museum in Mexico City. “It can get confusing! Atole, for example, is a basic drink of water and corn, but it has evolved into so many other drinks—it’s almost like a generic term.”

From that base of water and corn, Mesoamericans made pinole, champurrado, and other nourishing beverages created for sustenance. This is why García-Lascuráin makes a distinction in terms: “Chocolate is only one of many forms of beverages made from cacao. I prefer to use the term ‘drinking cacao’ to identify all that we imbibe.”

Her nomenclature is not universal, but what is consistent is that the deep origins of these Mesoamerican beverages, still widely consumed throughout Mexico and Central America, are the precursor of every hot chocolate, drinking chocolate, and chocolate bar we consume today. “And Tabasco is the birthplace,” says Eduardo Correa, the coordinator for Mexico’s Slow Food Youth Network. The biodiverse region continues to produce most of the country’s cocoa and, along with Chiapas, are the only areas where, Correa says, “cocoa is still produced in an important way.”

Chocolate is only one of many forms of beverages made from cacao. I prefer to use the term ‘drinking cacao’ to identify all that we imbibe.” —Ana Rita García-Lascuráin

Although production levels are low compared to countries such as Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Indonesia, which supply large-scale industrial manufacturers, Tabasco’s cocoa is valued for its quality, not yield. “It’s the genetics,” Correa says. “And that the cocoa has a high quantity of fat.”

Cacao seeds are roughly 50 percent fat and 50 percent nib, which contributes to cocoa and chocolate’s creamy mouthfeel. The high fat composition also enhances flavor, as the aroma compounds suspended in the fatty part of the cocoa bean release with intensity when cocoa is warmed, or chocolate starts to melt. Cocoa beans from Tabasco, Correa says, are comprised of about 60 percent fat.

Separating seeds from cacao pods. | Photo by Cuna de Piedra.

“When I was little, maybe 6 or 7 years old,” Cadenas recalls, “my grandmother would take me to visit my great-grandmother, who lived very near our home in Tabasco. She was in the next state, in a small village in Chiapas.” Although the modest house didn’t have running water, it felt abundant, set on a lush parcel of land with towering trees and a river crossing. Cadenas was also a frequent visitor to the house next door, where her grandmother’s sister lived. “She was the one who grew cacao. It may have been 50 trees or 500—I was a child and just remember it felt like so many.”

Cadenas spent some of the most cherished afternoons of her youth running between the trees, taking respite under their cool shade, and then returning to her great-aunt’s house for refreshment: “She would give us glasses of agua fresca made from mucilago—cacao pulp—and sweetened with panela [unrefined cane sugar]. They were amazing.” Once she drained the pulp, Cadenas’ great-aunt would use the leftover cacao seeds to make pozol, a creamy drink of dried, ground corn treated with lime (nixtamalized) to facilitate coagulation.

The young chef carried these memories into her restaurant, Pancho Maiz. (In mid-January, just as this issue was being prepared for press, Cadenas ended her relationship with the restaurant.) The cacao-corn drink she shares— pinole—is made with roasted heirloom corn she grinds into a fine powder and flavors with cacao that her family sources from the same trees her great-aunt once tended. Customers can enjoy the beverage with their meal, and also buy small packets of pinole to take away—a taste of her home she hopes people will carry into their own.

Pancho Maiz is warm and intimate, a sunlit space with an open kitchen where Cadenas and co-chef/co-founder Xóchitl Valdés worked to elevate their country’s other foundational offering: corn. Named Best New Chefs of 2020 by Food & Wine en Español, the women served dishes made with landrace varieties that they directly sourced from smallholder farmers who are dedicated to preserving the biodiversity of the crop.

Chef Selena Cadenas at Pancho Maiz in Mérida. | Photo by David Flores.

Corn (maize) originated, and was domesticated, in Mexico. “It was the most important plant food in Mesoamerica, and second was cacao,” García-Lascuráin explains. “Together, they are superfoods, intertwined to everything in our lives.” It’s a connection that holds true not only for what we drink and eat, she stresses, but for life. “For ancient cultures, everything was related to nature. It was impossible to separate everyday usage from the metaphysical. You could not separate cacao from maize, or your everyday life from divinity.” This relationship is evident in every aspect of ancient consumption: from the shapes of serving vessels and molinillos, to iconography and documentation on how cacao was used, to the beverage itself, from liquid to foam.

In his research on symbolism of cacao, for example, anthropologist Oswaldo Chinchilla writes, “Mesoamerican peoples associated cacao with human sacrifice, and cacao drinks with sacrificial blood, in ritual and symbolic contexts. The frequent addition of red-colored achiote to cacao drinks probably accentuated the underlying metaphor.” While in “Feasting with Foam: Ceremonial Drinks of Cacao, Maize, and Pataxte Cacao,” scholar Judith Strupp Green explains ancient Zapotecs believed the foam on cacao beverages “was alive with the vital force … present in all living things, and therefore had to be approached ritually.” The foam was collected from beverages and later spooned onto warm atole as an expression of the sacred union between corn and cacao.

This veneration is familiar to Cadenas. As she prepares the toasted corn, cacao, and cinnamon for milling, she explains, “My grandmother is very Catholic, but would burn a blend of cacao, dried chilis, white copal, and cinnamon in her house to clear it of bad energy, and she would also put out small baskets of maize and other grains that she said angels fed on.” The fragrant smoke, she says, protected and purified their household.

Ground powder for pinole. | Photo by David Flores.

And this profound connection of cacao and corn, body and soul, continues to offer sustenance. These crops—revered around the world—not only add to Mexicans’ sense of pride, Correa explains, but have the potential to transform local economies. “Earlier on, there was little chance that small-scale cacao producers would have access to fair markets. [They would] have to sell cheaply to large cacao concentrators.” But the growing interest in cacao from younger generations could create “a new culture and different ways of consuming cacao,” he says, that could revitalize local industry and increase appreciation for traditional cacao culture. “A serious movement of new makers is beginning to blossom.”

Among them is Cuna de Piedra, a craft chocolate maker based in Monterrey, the capital and largest city of the northeastern state of Nuevo León, Mexico, that has just released its first line of cocoa beverages—what co-founder Enrique Pérez calls chocolate de mesa: chocolate of the table. He adds, “We cannot talk about Mexico without talking about our drinking chocolate,” a beverage as diverse as the country itself. “Every village, every town, every area has their own recipes—the same name for one beverage can have so many versions.” To Pérez, this is liberating, reminding him that “there is not a supreme way of doing a recipe, or naming a beverage or a dish. It’s confusing, but it’s part of a diversity which is beautiful.”

In that spirit, the company just released its first edition of chocolate de mesa, small discs of chocolate sourced from small farmers growing cacao in Chiapas and Oaxaca. They’re prepared as they have been for generations, with cacao seeds that are lavado—washed of pulp—and have not undergone fermentation. An additional line from Soconusco, where cacao was domesticated, features cacao that has been fermented. “We are respecting the tradition and bringing it forward.”

“We believe in remembering the beauty of our traditions and sharing them to all the corners of Mexico and the world.” —Enrique Pérez

The name of the company also conveys their commitment to both crop and country. “We believe in remembering the beauty of our traditions and sharing them to all the corners of Mexico and the world.” Cuna means cradle in what Pérez describes as “a more philosophical way. It’s a remarkable place where somebody, or something, was nurtured in its life.” De piedra—of stone—refers to the stone-grinding of cocoa. The company packages its chocolate de mesa with a handcrafted, modernized version of a molinillo that can be used to blend the discs melted into hot milk or water and then create foam. Each package includes enough chocolate to share, as communion is another vital connection to the beverages’ heritage.

“It’s important that people know this is about more than just drinking a beverage,” the 35-year-old chocolate maker says. “It’s a ritual about people connecting and being in conversation, one that always involves community and family. Of course, you can enjoy the drinks by yourself, but [in Mexico] we associate them with being together. The pot in which we usually prepare the chocolate de mesa, you will never find it for one. The traditional ways involve being together.”

Cadenas agrees. The cacao she savored was enjoyed with her whole family. A few pods sated many. “I don’t know of a recipe made for just one person. Pinole, champurrado, chocolate … they’re made to be celebrated—and shared.”

Reporting was made possible in part by the Fund for Environmental Journalism of the Society of Environmental Journalists

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