Chocolate and Divinity

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But long before the good lady ever raised a cup of chocolate to her lips cocoa had existed - or rather cacahuaquchtl, a tree four to ten metres tall growing in the virgin forests of Yucatan and Guatemala. Cacahuaquchtl means not only cocao tree but simply, and principally, just 'tree'. it was the Tree the tree of the Mayan gods.

The gods, whoever they are and whereever they come from, do not eat the food of ordinary mortals. In Greece, they bed on ambrosia. in Mexico and Guatemala they devoured a decoction of the seeds of the fruit of the Tree, and it was not made like any ordinary tisane. You took the seeds later described by the unimaginative Spanish as 'beans') of the cocoa pods, called cabosses in Frenchm from Spanish cabeza 'head', a word perhaps suggested by the long, narrow heads of the Amerindians. You roasted them in an earthenware pot. You crushed them between two stones. You then mixed the powder you had obtained with boiling water and whisked it with little twigs - chac-chac, choc-choc, went the twigs as they whisked up little bubbles. You could add other things to this boiling liquid (tchacahoua, as it was called in Mayan, or tchocoatl, in Aztec): either chilli, musk and honey, or ground maize when you were going to war and needed additional calories. Then you drank it.

You drank it because the gods were good and in certain very specific circumstances allowed mortals to taste their sacred food. This is one of the usual features of a sacrifice; there can be no question of the actual physical matter of the foods involved because lost to human consumption, it is the religious intention that counts. The Mayas, like other peoples, took that attitude.

Who exactly were the Mayas? Towards the beginning of the fourth century AD the Maya people, who had come down from Alaska in the course of the millennia, occupied Yucatan, an enormous peninsula situated between Mexico and Guatemala. Around the year 900 their remarkable but bloodthirsty civilization was suddenly extinguished. We still do not know why, their cities, some still being built, were abandoned, with temples, pyramids, paved roads and all. The Mayas went into the all-concealing virgin forest and never came out again. It was in this forest that the Tree grew. When the Spanish penetrated Central America for the first time in 1523 there was nothing left of the Mayas but a few primitive tribes, as if they had forgotten everything they once knew. Meanwhile first the Toltecs and then the Aztecs of Mexico, who had come down from north America in their turn, had occupied the territory, sending expeditions not always of a peaceful nature into the forest to get various provisions which included stocks of the beans of the Tree. The Aztecs loved tchocoatl as much as the Mayas had liked techacahua.

Now Quetzalcoatl, the great bearded god of the forest, was also the gardener of Paradise. it was to him that mankind owed the Tree, cacahuaquchtl, giving both fortune and strength, for he even allowed the seeds of his tree to be used as money. However, in time the Aztecs found themselves in great and lasting distress, and it was all his fault.

One day, no one knew just when - perhaps at the time of the decline of the Mayas? - the sun god had boarded a raft and gone east across the ocean, towards the rising of the sun. Ever since then his people had been impatiently awaiting his return. It would be a day of great rejoicing. everyone would whisk tchocoatl to a froth and drink it till they could drink no more.

Text from: pp 174 - 175, History of Food, Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat Translated by Anthea Bell
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