April 6, 2011

Chocolate: Quetzalcoátl's Gift to Mexico and the World

With the approach to Easter, many people are out there buying up chocolate eggs or chocolate bunnies. Beyond the religious aspect, Easter means chocolate in homes throughout the world. But have you ever wondered where it came from? The clue is that it was once considered a gift from the god, Quetzalcoátl, and only the Atzec ruling classes and priests were allowed to consume it. It was not a candy for mere mortals. Yes, chocolate comes from Mexico.

Maya chief and chocolate
A Maya chief refuses chocolate to a commoner

Chocolate is a Spanish rendering of the Atzec word xocolātl, meaning sour (xococ) drink (ātl). An alternative theory is that the word was Mayan. Here it would come from hot (chokol) drink (ātl). As either interpretation highlights, chocolate was always used as a beverage in Mexico. It was only after the Spanish took it into Europe, that it became more commonly seen as a solid block.

The legend goes that, in 1519, Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador, was granted an audience with the Atzec Emperor Moctezuma. This took place in Tenochtitlán, which is the modern day, Mexico City. Cortés and his men entered to find Moctezuma sipping xocolātl from a cup. As honored guests, the group were all served xocolātl. It was reported that the drink had 'a very exciting nature'. Forget the gold! They had just discovered chocolate! Thus Mexico's secret was out and its Fate was sealed.

Mexico and chocolate

Chocolate literally does grow on trees in Mexico. At least the cacao beans do, which are then ground up and treated to create chocolate. Cacao trees have been cultivated since around 1400 BCE. The Olmec appear to be the first to have created their sacred bitter drink from its ground beans. The Maya were next, with archealogical evidence showing that they were drinking chocolate from about 400 CE. Cups have been found, with a chocolate residue, dating from this period. Digs, at their historical settlement sites, have shown cacao trees being grown in their backyards.

Quetzalcoátl and chocolateThe Atzec people saw chocolate as a divine drink. It was a gift from the feathered-serpent god, Quetzalcoátl, who had fetched the cacao beans from the Garden of Life.

As such a holy thing, chocolate was initially reserved only for the most ceremonial occasions. It was ritually prepared and drunk only within sacred areas.

Over the years, this was relaxed so that the higher echelons of society could imbibe it. However, it never lost its association with deity; so much so that, it was later at the center of a Christian scandal. The Catholic Church was brought into Mexico by the Spanish. It eventually become strong enough to start to eradicate the items and practices of the religions it had usurped. One bone of contention was that converts would bring chocolate drinks into Mass. The congregation were using it to honor the Catholic God, not Quetzalcoátl, but it made no odds. It was deemed as breaking the fast, in a Pagan way, and so the Church hierarchy banned chocolate outright.

Cacao Plantation
Cacao tree with pods full of beans

This did not go down well. As each Catholic priest prohibited chocolate, then the congregation would up and leave, moving onto more lenient institutions. It was a battle of wills that eventually resulted in the Bishop of Chiapas threatening excommunication to anyone drinking chocolate. (He was killed, shortly afterwards, after he drank a cup of poisoned chocolate. It was handed to him by the same group of noble women, who he had just banned from drinking the very same.)

Finally, in 1662, Pope Alexander VII had to personally intervene. He ruled, "Liquidum non frangit jejunum!" (For those with rusty Latin, that basically says that liquids do not constitute breaking the fast.) In short, the Mexicans could drink all of the hot chocolate that they wished and still be regarded as fasting. The church's chocolate ban was lifted!

Of course, now the Catholic Church is firmly on the side of chocolate. In Mexico City's Metropolitan Cathedral, there is a 16th century sculpture of Jesus Christ. It is called El Señor del Cacao (The Lord of Cacao).

El Señor del Cacao
El Señor del Cacao

The error has now been firmly corrected. It was not Quetzalcoátl who gave chocolate to the world, via Mexico; it was Christ Himself.

champurradoChocolate became popular, on a global scale, after a group of Mexican nuns thought to add vanilla and sugar to the chocolate mix. Overnight, it stopped being a sour drink and started becoming very sweet instead.

It is also a major ingredient in the Mexican national dish: Mole Poblano; as well as a stable of drinks, such as champurrado, and dips, to be used with churros.

Chocolate is still widely produced in Mexico, with cacao plantations stretching for miles. The World Cocoa Foundation estimates that 50 million jobs, internationally, rely upon cacao trees and the chocolate industry. Forget Willy Wonka. The real chocolate factories are scattered all over Mexico. Nestlé, Hersheys and Barry Callebaut are amongst the companies that create their confectionery here, before exporting them into shops near you. Chocolate is also created, straight from the tree, in many Mexican homes.

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