Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics

Marcy Norton is an Assistant Professor in the History Department at George Washington University. She is completing a book on the histories of tobacco and chocolate between 1492 and 1700, forthcoming from Cornell University Press in 2007. She will continue investigating the intersections of culture and nature in her next project, which concerns dogs and people in the early modern world.
When the Spanish and Portuguese arrived in the Americas, the inhabitants there made a cacao liquor which was diluted in hot water seasoned with pepper and other spices ... all these ingredients gave this mixture a brutish quality and a very savage taste ... The Spanish, more industrious than the Savages, procured to correct the bad flavor of this liquor, adding to this cacao paste different fragrances of the East and many spices of this country [Spain]. Of all these ingredients we have maintained only the sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon.

Figure 1: Codex Tudela, fol. 3r. From a manuscript painted in New Spain ca. 1553, this image depicts a Nahua woman, of high social rank (as suggested by her fine cloak), frothing chocolate by pouring it from a height. A similar representation of chocolate-frothing occurs on a ceramic piece used for serving chocolate by Maya from the Late Classic period (a.d. 600–900).

Figure 2: Girolamo Benzoni, La Historia del Mondo Nuovo (Venice, 1572), fol. 104v. This engraving, which also appeared in the 1565 edition, depicts Mayan revelers. Although disdainful to Benzoni, chocolate was integral to keeping the Mesoamerican celebrants awake for the nocturnal festivities. In the lower right corner, a figure froths the chocolate.

Figure 3: Codex Mendoza, fol. 47r. Although this manuscript was commissioned and compiled ca. 1541–1542, the tribute lists that it includes are thought to be based on pre-Hispanic prototypes. The loads of cacao and chocolate-drinking vessels were among the items that the Aztec ruler levied from tributaries.

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