In both Mayan and Aztec civilizations chocolate was not only considered as a delicious and invigorating drink, but also as a form of currency: this partly explains why chocolate was drunk by mostly rich and noble men. Also, in the Maya culture only, wealthy men deemed chocolate an important part of engagement ceremonies and weddings: ‘one of the things that people did at such festivities was to chokola’j, “drink chocolate together”’(Coe 63). Not only drank the ancient Mayas chocolate at weddings, but the exchange of cacao beans between the bride and bridegroom was also part of the ritual itself, exchanging grains of cacao (Coe 63).
It is not by chance, then, that in Hombres de maíz (1949) Miguel Ángel Asturias (1899-1974) should make one of his characters mention “wedding’s chocolate”:
She looked for her ointment against buboes. Though maybe it was nausea. She lay down. Why did she have to drink chocolate? But wedding chocolate was so delicious. Christening chocolate. All great occasions are celebrated with chocolate and bird-cake. (Men of Maize 220)
Here Asturias witnesses that the Mayan custom of drinking chocolate at weddings was still alive in more recent times in Guatemala, and has also been extended even to christenings. This use of chocolate instead of champagne may taste weird for the European palate; still, as anthropologist Deborah Lupton in Food, the Body and the Self has argued, in Western cultures chocolate -together with sweet things- is usually given to women by men as a way of giving in to indulgence and temptations (105), an act of love to satisfy women’s gratification, which is not too distant from the Mayan ritual.
Chocolate for the Mayas symbolized power, and was effectively used as currency: wealthy people only could afford to ‘drink their money’ (Coe 93). For this reason, in Asturias’ El Señor Presidente (The President) the Judge Advocate General drinks precisely chocolate, managing to create a very powerful yet humorous description:
The Judge Advocate General finished drinking his chocolate with rice, tipping the cup up twice so as to drain it to the dregs; then he wiped his greyish moustache on the sleeve of his shirt, and moving closer to the lamp, peered into the bowl to see if it was really empty. […] When he looked up from the chocolate bowl which he had been exploring with his fingers to see if there was any left, he saw the servant […].
“You don’t mean to say you’ve drunk your chocolate already?”
“Yes, and God bless you for it, it was delicious! I always love feeling the last of it slip down my gullet.”
(The President 130)
If this sequence somehow represents the ancient custom of important people drinking chocolate, it also manages to ridicule the whole character by making him wipe away the dirt from his moustache with his arm, and by making him look again and again inside his cup, like a child.
But let’s move to the perhaps best-known Latin American writer of the twentieth century, Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014), who provokingly has priests drink chocolate, although in ancient pre-Columbian civilizations they could not drink chocolate, as they were ‘expected to lead lives of high austerity and penance’ (Coe 94). In El otoño del patriarca (The Autumn of the Patriarch), the patriarch uses chocolate as a treat to try and seduce an apostolic nuncio and convince him that the patriarch’s mother should be canonized:
[…] he came out of the mist of his mourning, he came out pale, hard, with a black armband, resolved to make use of all the resources of his authority to attain the canonization of his mother Bendición Alvarado on the basis of the overwhelming proofs of her qualities as a saint, he sent his ministers of letters to Rome, once more he invited the apostolic nuncio for chocolate and cookies in the shafts of light under the pansy bower, he received him in a familiar way, he lying in his hammock, shirtless, fanning himself with his white hat, and the nuncio sitting opposite him with the cup of steaming chocolate, immune to the heat and the dust inside the lavender aura of his Sunday cassock, […] he took measured sips of the vanilla chocolate, chewed the cookies with the modesty of a bride trying to delay the inevitable poison in the last sip […] (The Autumn of the Patriarch 118-119)
The patriarch offers chocolate to the apostolic nuncio as a temptation, in its anthropological meaning of ‘giving in to indulgence’ (Lupton 105), and also because he does not consider the nuncio much of a man: chocolate is anthropologically a kind of food for women and children (Lupton 105), it should not be a food for “big, powerful men”. It is significant that the patriarch does not join the nuncio, but remains at a certain distance (on the hammock) and just watches him drinking his cup of chocolate, and that the nuncio is described as drinking and eating in a bashful way, like a virgin or bride. This episode gives chocolate again its mythical pre-Columbian status of an elitist drink, which people at the highest top of the social ladder only could afford, as the chocolate is offered directly by the patriarch as a sign of his power, and chocolate is added the new, modern meaning of being a “treat”, a “temptation”, and a sweet thing for the weak. García Márquez’s hint at the apolostic nuncio being like a “novia” can also be a reference to the already mentioned ancient custom of drinking hot chocolate as a part of the Mayan wedding ritual (Coe 63). In both episodes (from El Señor Presidente and El otoño del patriarca) is that neither the judge nor the apostolic nuncio want their chocolate to finish: they want to savour it till the end. They both linger to drink, and indulge in the pleasure of drinking it very slowly, and looking for its last traces in the cup, till it is finally over.
But the apostolic nuncio is not the only priest drinking chocolate in Gabriel García Márquez’s works:
“Just a moment,” he said. “Now we shall witness an undeniable proof of the inifinite power of God.” The boy who had helped him with the mass brought him a cup of thick and steaming chocolate, which he drank without pausing to breathe. Then he wiped his lips with a handkerchief that he drew from his sleeve, extended his arms, and closed his eyes. Thereupon Father Nicanor rose six inches above the level of the ground. It was a convincing measure. He went among the houses for several days repeating the demonstration of levitation by means of chocolate while the acolyte collected so much money in a bag that in less than a month he began the construction of the church. (One Hundred Years of Solitude 85-86)
In this passage from Cien años de soledad García Márquez describes a priest drinking chocolate and then beginning to fly. The writer himself described this literary choice in such terms:
You yourself believe that Father Nicanor Reyna rises ten centimetres above the level of the ground because what he drinks is a cup of hot chocolate. Think of any other drink and you will see that he does not rise. […] When I was a child, I heard many times the story of a country curate levitating when he finished to drink the chalice. I tried to narrate this story in a novel, but I could not believe it myself until I swapped wine for a cup of chocolate. [Nico’s translation, Cien años de soledad 178-179].
García Márquez himself acknowledges how the whole passage would be much more different with any other drink instead of chocolate. Chocolate gives the episode that unique magic that allows the priest to fly: chocolate’s scientific name is namely Theobroma cacao, with “theobroma” meaning “food of the gods”. This name was invented precisely by Carl von Linné (or Linnaeus) in 1753 (Coe 18): chocolate has never been considered a divine food directly by the Mayas, although it is true that Mayan and Aztec sources show that chocolate was indeed used during religious rites (Coe 100). Chocolate for the Mayas was often associated with blood: a scene in the Madrid Codex, an ancient Mayan book, describes four gods piercing their ears and scattering their blood over some cacao pods (45). A similar identification between cacao and blood was also typical of the Aztec religion: apparently, ‘[t]he intelligentsia – the priests, poets, and philosophers – liked to speak in metaphors composed of two words or phrases which, when uttered in sequence, had a third, hidden meaning. One of these metaphors was yollotl, eztli, “heart, blood”, an esoteric figure of speech for chocolate.’ (Coe 101).
If we consider the episode of the levitating priest narrated in Cien años de soledad under this light, it does not seem accidental that chocolate should work better than wine, to García Márquez’s mind: wine in Catholicism is a symbol for blood, too, and precisely for Christ’s blood. So the replacement does not appear unequal: both chocolate and wine have the ritual meaning of symbolizing blood. The priest just could not have drunk orange juice instead! After all, food and the act of eating is to be considered specifically as a ritual activity (Mary Douglas in Lupton 9) and in this case, the already ritualized act of consuming chocolate is added a second, religious and pagan acceptation: reviving an ancient pre-Columbian belief through a man of Christian faith could be a way of trying to make identify one religion with another one. Bringing Catholicism to new lands was part of Columbus’s project of discovering new territories and together with Spanish, the new language, Catholicism was imposed on the local American people. And so, a Latin American priest cannot possibly perform any miracle in his country with wine: chocolate makes the identification of Christian religion with the true Latin American culture and reality (cacao plantations instead of the vineyards) possible, and so the miracle is ultimately performed, and the priest can fly.
We have come to the end of our whistlestop tour of four hundred years of chocolate consumption. We began with the arrival of the strange, bitter cocoa bean in Europe in the sixteenth century, and its later consumption by the wealthy elite in London’s fashionable chocolate-houses. Chocolate has never quite lost the connotations of luxury and sexiness given to it by the moralists of the Restoration period. We have found out how the discovery that chocolate could be turned into a solid bar revolutionised its production and consumption – suddenly democratised, chocolate became the snack of the masses. And finally, we have shared with you our recipe for a cup of hot chocolate which will make you fly!
Asturias, Miguel Ángel. Men of Maize. London: Verso, 1988.
Asturias, Miguel Ángel. The President. London: Victor Gollancz, 1963.
Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.
García Márquez, Gabriel. The Autumn of the Patriarch. London: Penguin Books, 1996
García Márquez, Gabriel. One Hundred Years of Solitude. New York: Avon Books, 1970.
Lupton, Deborah. Food, the Body and the Self. London: Sage Publications, 1996.