Día de Muertos is making its presence known around town again. Glorious cempasúchil blooms (Aztec marigolds) are appearing everywhere. Decorated skulls adorn shops and homes alike. Tamales are steaming and making mouths water all over the Old Pueblo at the same time Mexican bakers are busy taking orders for heavenly pan de muertos.
And tied to all the festivities of this 3,000-year-old custom of honoring our dead is the offering of chocolate on the altars of remembrance.
Approximately three thousand four hundred years before there were Hispanics or other Europeans rampaging through Mexico, there was chocolate. Luxuriant, heavenly, decadent, deep, and delicious. No matter how you describe it, there are few experiences as sensual as chocolate.
On the Pacific Coast of Chiapas, Mexico, the Mokaya, one of Mexico’s earliest village-dwelling people, were sipping cacao/chocolate around 1900 BC from ceramic vessels according to residues discovered by archaeologists. The pre-Olmec residents of Mexico’s Gulf Coast area were enjoying their cacao fixes as far back as 1750 BC—far earlier than the evidence found in either Belize, 600 BC, or that found in Honduras, 1200-1100 BC.
The Aztec emperor Montezuma drank 50 golden goblets of chocolate a day before Cortés showed up brandishing his sword.
When chocolate was introduced to Europe, the old world went mad. The Catholic Church conducted investigations so as to ascertain if it was sinful to drink this heathen beverage. Many of the clergy condemned chocolate because they believed it promoted promiscuity among their otherwise godly flock. Nevertheless, chocolate houses sprouted everywhere. Sugar was substituted for the honey the Aztecs and Mayans were using, and the people were ecstatic. The European colonists set up their own chocolate shops when they settled New England. It was so popular that chocolate was provided as part of the rations for soldiers during the Revolutionary War.
Today in Colonial Williamsburg, you can see people grinding chocolate nibs on a stone over fire exactly as the people of Mexico have been doing for millennia.
The agricultural engineers of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica also provided the world with vanilla, tomatoes, and all true beans including the French-sounding haricot vert. The fava was the only “bean” Europeans ate before the Columbian exchange. Also unknown on the other side of the Atlantic were all the squashes, peanuts, pineapples, corn, chili peppers, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tapioca, avocados, pecans, guavas, passion fruit, chia, sunflowers, Jerusalem artichokes/sunchokes—even chewing gum! The list of tropical fruits and vegetables filling the food stalls of Tenochtitlan (modern day Mexico City) would have made European chefs swoon.
Evidence such as this reminds us that there were many rich, complex civilizations before the arrival of Hispanics. The word “Hispanic,” by its very definition, excludes the descendants of the Aztecs, Mayans, and other ancient peoples living in the Americas today. The concept of “Hispanic” ignores our indigenous roots, languages and traditions. So instead of National Hispanic Heritage Month, we would like to recognize all the scientific, culinary, and cultural contributions of the indigenous civilizations of the Americas by celebrating a more inclusive Mes de la Cultura (Month of the Culture—ALL of Mexico's cultures).
Read more about the history of chocolate in Britannica Library online and check out some of these titles: