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Pods, Pots, and Potions: Putting Cacao to Paper in Early Modern Europe

Christine Jones explores the different ways the cacao tree has been depicted through history — from 16th-century codices to 18th-century botanicals — and what this changing iconography reveals about cacao’s journey into European culture.

Lauded as the “food of the gods” (Theobroma) by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1753, the cacao plant (Theobroma cacao) has always elicited a certain amount of scientific curiosity and mystical reverence from Europeans. Tucked away under the canopy within the planet’s narrow equatorial zone, the only environment in which it grows, and first cultivated in the lands that now constitute Guatemala and Belize, cacao had spent centuries well hidden from Continental eyes. However, after Hernán Cortés and his army took Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire, for Spain in 1521, cacao was among the first marvels they wrote home about to describe the new world bounty they’d won for the Castilian crown. Conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote down in his record of conquest that frothed chocolate was “the best thing they have to drink”.1 Others hailed it as the key to Moctezuma’s famed virility. Cacao, the base ingredient in chocolate, was also used as currency in Mesoamerica. It was not long before colonists took a keen interest in this fortifying drink and the money that grew on trees.
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 As the century elapsed, and botanical novelty turned to social curiosity, the plant’s image began to change accordingly. In the 1671 Usages du caffé, du thé et du chocolate (translated, The Manner of Making Coffee, Tea, and Chocolate, 1685), Philippe Dufour first explained chocolate alongside the two other steeped beverages served hot in Europe and also known for their curative effects: coffee and tea. In the frontispiece to the section on chocolate, a disembodied branch floats above the ground, upon which the seeds contained in the pod (lower left) and a vanilla bean, an indigenous ingredient commonly found in early Mesoamerican recipes for chocolate, lie in wait. Above them stands an “American” in Aztec dress and characteristic bow, with the utensils used for preparing and serving the drink at his feet.

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