When the Spanish conquered Mesoamerica, they conquered cacao. Mixing the bitter cacao seeds with sugar and other spices – spices that were often also obtained through European conquest – the Spanish created a commodity that stimulated the European comestible market. Its luxuriousness grew first out of its expensiveness and rarity in early modern Europe. The inaccessibility of chocolate to most early modern Europeans meant it has not featured strongly in the longer history of European “aphrodisiacs” specifically, but the story of the ways that Europeans adopted the bittersweet central American drink as a sex remedy says a great deal about the history of sexuality, medicine, gender, economics, race, and imperialism. 


Hot for Chocolate: Aphrodisiacs, Imperialism, and Cacao in the Early Modern Atlantic

Written by Averill Earls, PhD

Averill: Of the many weird things that are supposed to get you horny, chocolate is unequivocally the best. (Change my mind). Surprisingly, it’s really hard to find histories of chocolate as an aphrodisiac. If you go to a library website and search for “chocolate aphrodisiac history,” you’ll get overwhelmed by a bunch of modern medical studies, rather than histories. It’s much easier to find distinct histories of aphrodisiacs, and distinct histories of chocolate, and then look where the two overlap. The disconnect, I think, is because the history of “aphrodisiacs” is tied specifically to early modern European medicine, and developed out of earlier traditions of comestible sex remedies that could be easily obtained by anyone. Cacao, from which Spanish chocolate was derived in the 16th century, is native to Mesoamerica. Among the Maya, Mexica, and other central American peoples, cacao was used for ritual, religious, and medicinal purposes. In some places it was even used as a currency! When the Spanish conquered Mesoamerica, they conquered cacao. Mixing the bitter cacao seeds with sugar and other spices – spices that were often also obtained through European conquest – the Spanish created a commodity that stimulated the European comestible market. But its luxuriousness grew first out of its expensiveness and rarity in early modern Europe. So the inaccessibility of chocolate to most early modern Europeans meant it has not featured strongly in the longer history of European “aphrodisiacs” specifically. But the story of the ways that Europeans adopted the bittersweet central American drink as a sex remedy says a great deal about the history of sexuality, medicine, gender, economics, race, and imperialism. 

I’m Averill Earls

I’m Elizabeth Garner Masarik

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig

Elizabeth: We want to be sure to give a big thank you to our Patreon supporters. We have a couple of new folks at our Auger and Excavator levels: Edward, Denise, and Eric, welcome! Thank you for supporting us! And to each of our patreons, but especially Iris, Maggie, Danielle, Peggy, Christopher, Colin, Lauren, Maddie, and Susan, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts. You make this show possible. 

Averill: Take a sleepy French village with lots of pent-up sexual yearnings and unfulfilled romances, mix in a bold single mother and entrepreneur of not-totally-white heritage, and then sprinkle in a few Roma nomads on riverboats, and you’ve got the lusty, bittersweet setting for the acclaimed 1999 novel and then 2000 film, Chocolat. First, if you haven’t seen it, get yourself an HBO Max subscription or rent it from YouTube immediately. I guess you could read the book, but then you’d miss the delightful performances of Juliette Binoche, Judi Dench, Alfred Molina, and Carrie-Anne Moss. And sure, Johnny Depp is in it too. I have seen this film approximately 1 million times. I bought the DVD from a Blockbuster sale when I was a sophomore in college and probably watched it weekly for a couple of years. What can I say… I used to be a romantic.

Elizabeth: Rom-com sentimentalities aside, this film actually provides convenient ties to bind today’s story together. If you’re unfamiliar with the plot, here it is in three sentences. An independent woman who wears colorful clothes and makes decadent and insightful chocolate moves to a French town right at the beginning of Lent with her illegitimate daughter, and she opens a chocolate shop. She wages a war of wills with the local Compt, whose wife has left him (though he hasn’t told anyone) and who resents the chocolatier for all that it represents: a headstrong woman, sexual freedom, and self-enjoyment, which apparently spits in the face of the Catholic church. The chocolatier has an affair with a handsome Roma man, helps the townsfolk rekindle their sex lives with aphrodisiac chocolate remedies, empowers women to live the lives they want to live and escape from abusive relationships, and eventually has to choose whether to flee the mounting conflict with the Compt or set down roots – which is exactly, it turns out, what she and her daughter need.

Averill: This film is certainly not without its flaws. That the director really leans into the sexualization and exoticization of the only fully non-white character in the entire film — Vianne’s South American mother (I don’t remember if they ever say where she was supposed to be from?) — is problematic. We don’t even have time today to get into why Johnny Depp decided that “Roma” (gypsy) meant extra tanned, because how else would one communicate ethnic difference? 

Chocolat Film Poster | Wikimedia Commons
Fair Use

Elizabeth: But these issues aside, Chocolat is actually a really useful window for looking at this history. For example, it captures European imperialism in little vignettes, like when Vianne’s white French father captures, if fleetingly, her Mesoamerican mother, or when the symbolically (if not actually) brown romantic riverboat traders roll into town with their wares and are harassed and even attacked by those most vested in maintaining the patriarchal and white supremacist norms. 

Averill: There’s also the central commodity of the film – the chocolat – which is presented in an almost religious way to rival the Christian norms of the town. Vianne gives folk medical remedies, to various customers, including a bag of chocolates that most definitely were intended to give the husband his mojo back. He eats a few sweets, goes in search of his wife, finds her kneeling on the floor, scrubbing away, her backside swaying alluringly, and the hot sex that will follow is implied by his flushed and lustful stare. But her unregulated disbursement of chocolate “cures” turns ugly, when she gives a hot sweetened chocolate drink to an older woman who asks for it whenever she visits the shop. While the older woman’s death is presented as having been “on her own terms,” I cannot help but contemplate the meaning behind the use of the original “chocolate,” which always came in drink form – bastardized though it was by the Europeans with added sugar and milk and any number of things.

Elizabeth: And while Chocolat is far from the only pop culture reference in which chocolate is linked to its aphrodisiac reputation, it is one of the only ones that I could think of that even attempts to reach out (however clumsily) for those Mesoamerican roots. If you, listener, can think of any other examples, send us a tweet, post on our facebook page, or send us an email at hello@digpodcast.org – we’d love to hear from you, as always, but also we’re genuinely curious if and where you’ve encountered the integration of Mesoamerican culture or heritage into the use of chocolate as a sex remedy!

Averill: Cacao – a foamy bitter beverage made from the seeds of cacao pods – reached its height of importance in Mesoamerican religious rituals, trade, medicine, as currency, and consumption in the Classic period (300-950 CE), and continued to be significant up through the Postclassic period, when the Spanish conquistadors arrived. Much about cacao is debated among scholars from various disciplines, who disagree on everything from the origin of the word, how the tree got to Mesoamerica – domestication or wild travel – and exactly how the seeds were used in ancient Mayan times – were beverages made from the pulp of the pods or only from the seeds? Among other things. “Cacao” likely comes from the Maya term kakaw, but as Cameron McNeil notes, that’s not a fact, just a hypothesis. 

Elizabeth: What we do know is that the trees that grow the cacao pods are native to South America. The species of tree the Mesoamericans preferred would later be named Theosbroma cacao, or “food of the gods,” by the famous Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus in 1753. The flowers grow directly on the trunk and branches, (just like that weird painting we did, Sarah & Elizabeth!) The tree itself thrives in river valleys with humid and hot climes. 

Averill: From sources like the Florentine Codex and indigenous art and artifacts, modern historians and archaeologists have been able to discern that cacao had immense significance in Mesoamerican culture. In Classic Mesoamerica, from around 600 to 950 CE, cacao and blood were closely linked. Mesoamericans often colored cacao beverages red with annatto seeds, and scholar Rosemary Joyce suggests that cacao’s role in marriage ceremonies signified the mixing of bloodlines. Ceramics and statuary from this period depict cacao pods being sacrificed like human hearts. Bleeding cacao pods are found throughout the Mixtec codices, and cacao necklaces have been identified draped around the necks of figurines representing captives. 

Elizabeth: In Mexico, at least, cacao in the Postclassic period (900-1520 CE) was reserved for the elite, warriors, and merchants. According to one story collected in the Florentine Codex, the ethnography of 18th century Mesoamericans compiled by Spanish Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, “If he who drank it were a common person, it was taken as a bad omen. And in times past only the ruler drank it, or a great warrior, or a com- manding general . . . if perhaps two or three lived in wealth they drank it. Also it was hard to come by; they drank a limited amount of cacao for it was not drunk unthinkingly.” Cameron McNeil suggests that though cacao was more readily available to elites, and according to some sources was supposed to be limited to the warriors and nobility, she suggests that the archeological and Spanish sources indicate that cacao was still used by common folk throughout Mesoamerica. But because it was so valuable, its significance was heightened for commoners, because it was only set aside for them at feasts, for religious ceremonies, for marriages, and the like. 

An Aztec sculpture depicting a man holding a cacao bean | Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA

Averill: The traditional preparation of cacao was largely women’s work. The pods would be gathered from the cacao tree, and then maybe fermented in pods for a day or more, dried in the sun. Then women would prepare them in special kitchens, grinding up the seeds, sometimes with the pods and sometimes without. Chocolate was most commonly prepared as a beverage, cacao powder or paste-cakes mixed with water, sometimes also with spices, or ground maize. Some groups used a special stirring stick to froth the drink up. Others prepared the froth by pouring the liquid mixture back and forth between two containers. In both cases, the drink produced was bitter and bubbly. 

Elizabeth: Hernan Cortez, the conquistador who decimated the Aztecs and claimed Mesoamerica for Spain, brought the first cacao beans back to Europe in 1525, presenting them to Charles V. Europeans were introduced to chocolate as an instrument of sexual arousal from the very beginning. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a conquistador who was present at some of the first meetings between Cortez and Moctexuma, the last Aztec emperor, wrote that “they brought [Cortez] some cups of fine gold, with a certain drink made of cacao, which they said was for success with women; but I saw that they brought more than 50 great jars of good cacao with its foam, and he drank of that; and the women served him drink very respectfully.” 

Averill: According to Donatella Lippi, at first, because the chocolate drink was known to be an aphrodisiac and could even induce euphoric like states, the Catholic Church decided it was an illicit substance to be avoided during Lent. But by 1662, Cardinal Brancaccio declared that liquidum non frangit jejunum (drinking liquid chocolate does not constitute a break in fasting), and since chocolate was still consumed almost exclusively as a beverage until well into the 18th century, it was acceptable. But the 1669 decision wasn’t the be-all end-all of the conversation.  Manuel Aguilar-Moreno’s work on cacao in colonial Mexico reveals that this conversation continued well into the mid-18th century. One Italian bishop wrote a thorough pontification about whether or not consuming chocolate during lent broke the fast. Though ultimately that bishop agreed that chocolate was like wine, which was permitted, like the stuffy Compt Reynaud in Chocolat, for some actual Catholic officials, chocolate was a temptation, one could lead one to sinfulness – or perhaps bring to light the sinfulness that was already there. Aguilar-Moreno notes that several priests stationed in Mesoamerica made a killing by amassing wealth through cacao seeds from the collection plates. 

Elizabeth: Cacao pods and chocolate, the frothy bitter drink preferred by the Mexica, Maya, and other central americans, have a long history of medicinal use. The earliest records include the 1552 Badianus Manuscript, which was written by an Aztec physician, Martinus de la Cruz, and the 18th century Florentine Codex. According to Donatella Lippi, de la Cruz listed a number of ailments that cacao and its derivatives were known to treat, including “angina, constipation, dental tartar, dysentery, dyspepsia, indigestion, weariness, gout, hemorrhoids.” Sahagun’s Florentine Codex spends more time describing the process of making the cacao beverage than on its medicinal properties, though he does suggest that the beverage could be invigorating, but must not be overused. In Book 11 of the Florentine Codex, Sahagún wrote: “This cacao, when much is drunk, when much is consumed, especially that which is green, which is tender, makes one drunk, takes effect on one, makes one dizzy, confuses one, makes one sick, deranges one. When an ordinary amount is drunk, it gladdens one, refreshes one, consoles one, invigorates one. Thus it is said: I take cacao. I wet my lips. I refresh myself.” Curiously, neither dwelled on the cacao’s use as a sex remedy. Conversely, other European medical texts written between the Badianus and the Florentine manuscripts spent considerable time invoking the arousing qualities of the cacao products.

Averill: It doesn’t seem that far-fetched to imagine that chocolate’s sexy reputation in Europe has as much to do with European eroticization of the mysterious central American Other as its actual stimulating properties. And so we circle back around to the parallels of this story with Chocolat. European hang-ups about sex, and deep-seated anxiety about one’s inability to perform or conceive, are very much present in the fictional French townsfolk of Chocolat. In early modern Western European culture, theren was a lot riding on sex, reproduction, and even pleasure. It should be no surprise, then, that medical experts and ordinary people alike developed an extensive list of remedies to deal with impotence and infertility.

Elizabeth: “Aphrodisiac” is a European term for a comestible home remedy for infertility, impotence, or some other sexual affliction. There are histories of aphrodisiacs, though not a lot of them. Angus Mclaren discusses aphrodisiacs extensively in a couple of his histories of early modern European sex and medicine, and Jennifer Evans has a great book that focuses on the use of aphrodisiacs in early modern England. If you’re interested in Mclaren’s work, Marissa did a great episode on impotence a little while ago that will be of interest. Of course, the idea that you can ingest certain foods or beverages to stimulate sexual arousal is by no means new, nor specific to Europe. There are even fewer histories focused specifically on sex and cacao, the seeds from which “chocolate” as we know it today is made. 

Averill: Sexual dysfunction, as Marissa discussed at length in her episode on impotence, has a history of being really scary to people. As historian Jennifer Evans points out, in early modern England and most Christian nations at the same time, fertility was central to marriages – morally, in that you were only really supposed to be boning in order to conceive babies, but also legal, in that a woman could sue for divorce or annul a marriage if her husband failed to perform his marital duties, and vice versa. Whether the cause may be chalked up to witchcraft or imbalance humors, early modern Europeans (like modern Europeans, and heck, folks today) went to some extreme lengths to try to remedy a flaccid penis or barren womb. 

Elizabeth: In the early 17th century, for example, the fourth Duke of Mantua and Monferrato sent an apothecary by the name of Evangelista Marcobruno on a journey around the world to try to find a miracle cure for the Duke’s erectile dysfunction. Poor Marcobruno searched for four years, going from Barcelona to Madrid, Segovia, Seville, and Cádiz, and then throughout the New World—including Cartagena, Portobelo, Panama, and Manta in Ecuador; Callao, Lima, Cuzco, and Potosì in Peru; and Chuquiabo (La Paz) in Bolivia. He was searching for new herbal and potential pharmaceutical compounds to bring back to his employer. Most early modern Europeans didn’t have access to the resources of the Duke of Mantua, and had to make due with more readily available remedies — like the aphrodisiac edibles. 

Averill: According to Evans, the language surrounding reproduction and sexual health in early modern England shifted slightly between the 17th and 18th centuries. Up until that point, the classic Greek texts on medicine were generally translated into Latin. Galenic humoral medicine and theories of the body were still the norm, but the language that physicians and medical scholars used was generally in Latin. When discussing sex, you will often see “venery” in pre-17th century texts – “venery” being, in this case, a synonym for sexual intercourse. As in: 

“When the husband commeth into his wives chamber hee must entertaine her with all kinde of dalliance, wanton behaviour, and allurements to venery: but if he perceive her to be slow, and more cold, he must cherish, embrace, and tickle her, and shall not abruptly, the nerves being suddenly distended, breake into the field of nature, but rather shall creepe in by little and little, intermixing more wanton kisses with wanton words and speeches, handling her secret parts and dugs, that she may take fire and bee enflamed to venery.” So notes the 16th century surgeon Ambrose Pare.

Elizabeth: By the 18th century, Evans argues, there was a shift in the etymology of medical terminology. Aphrodisiac entered the English lexicon in the 17th century, in the works of, for example, Swiss physician Theophile Bonet, 1684; Welsh physician John Jones, 1701; and English surgeon John Marten, 1709. For whatever reason, the original Greek of the Gallenic and other classical medical treatises were again popularized; Aphrodisiac is a term derived from Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love; venereal – as in venereal disease, or venery more broadly – comes from Venus, which is of course the Roman name for Aphrodite!

Averill: There were many foods common in early modern Europe that were considered aphrodisiacs. Gallenic humoral theory recommended that the affected consume foods that resembled sex organs were a good bet – so for penises, it was eggplants, broadbeans, and other phallic shaped goods. Early modern physicians and apothecaries also had their male customers eat pigeon, cock, pig, and the meat of other lascivious creatures. 

Elizabeth: Most of those aphrodisiacal foods were common, and commonly available. Everything from veal, new-laid eggs, oysters, crab, prawns, wine, and various beverages, like caudles – an eggnog-like drink – or posset, a milk and wine drink. But some aphrodisiacs were luxury comestibles, things attributed power in large part because of their rarity or expense. Chocolate was introduced to Europe by the Spanish as early as the 16th century.

Averill: Evans’ book on aphrodisiacs, though focused on early modern England specifically, makes a compelling case for the commonness of aphrodisiacs in early modern culture. She argues that by the 18th century, sexual appetite was considered essential to a healthy marriage and successful procreation. This common knowledge was due in large part to both the evolving opinions of medical experts and the growing influence of Protestantism, which privileged marriage over celibacy. So aphrodisiacs – foods and comestibles that stimulated arousal – were widespread in the early modern period. 

Elizabeth: Early modern Europeans sought out remedies for all kinds of illnesses – infertility, impotence, but also gout, intestinal issues, etcetera – from all kinds of places, including medical treatises and manuscripts, friends and relatives, and a range of medical practitioners, like barber-surgeons, physicians, midwives, and apothecaries.  Aphrodisiacs were supposed to increase fertility, curing impotence in men and barrenness in women, and help produce stronger offspring, by helping women climax. Certainly by the 18th century, sexual pleasure was widely understood to be an important part of conception. And people wanted to have stronger offspring, reflective of anxiety around the high infant mortality rate in the early modern period. 

Averill: Medicinal knowledge from the Americas took decades to penetrate Europe, even though kings and dukes sent their physicians to the Americas specifically to search for remedies. But Europeans were reluctant to try many of the commodities that were native to the Americas. You’re probably familiar with the range of goods that the indigenous Americans introduced to the Europeans. Tobacco, the “Three Sisters” of beans, squash and corn, pineapple and peanuts, potatoes, tomatoes, and, of course, cacao, were all given as gifts by the Americans or taken as plunder by the Europeans. 

Elizabeth: Some of these things caught on quickly as European consumer goods, particularly tobacco. For some of the other edibles, it took some expert marketing – and repackaging – to convince European consumers to ingest the products of the new world. It took centuries, for example, for Europeans to feed potatoes to anyone other than their livestock – and the ultimate association with the poor rural populations of Russia and Ireland didn’t give the spud a particularly cool-guy brand. 

Averill: In Mesoamerica chocolate was consumed as a very bitter frothy drink, generally unsweetened, except for those regions which crushed up the seeds with the sweet pod pulp. Chocolate didn’t really catch on in Europe until people started experimenting with additives, like milk, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, chilis, and other spices. The Jesuit José de Acosta, writing in 1590, commented on just how gross he thought chocolate was in its traditional form. “The main benefit of this cacao is a beverage which they make called Chocolate, which is a strange thing valued in that country. It disgusts those who are not used to it, for it has a foam on top, or a scum-like bubbling. . . It is a valued drink, which the Indians offer to the lords who come or pass through their land. And the Spanish men, and even more the Spanish women, are addicted to the black chocolate.” 

Still Life with Chocolate Service, 1770, Luis Egidio Melèndez | Prado Museum

Elizabeth: The Spanish rebranded the traditional cacao beverage consumed by Mesoamericans, mixing it with sugar and various spices, like chilis, cinnamon, or anise. By the early 17th century, Spain was producing its version of chocolate for distribution to its own citizens and other Europeans. It’s popularization was launched by medical treatises on the benefits of chocolate by experts like the Spanish physician Antonio Colmenero of Ledesma, who wrote Chocolate: or, An Indian Drinke. As Kate Loveland notes, the 1640s and 1650s were a crucial time for marketing chocolate to the British, French, and other Europeans. The famed Captain James Wadsworth prepared an appended and translated edition of Chocolate: or, An Indian Drinke for English readers to sell the beverage.  According to Wadsworth, “[Chocolate] it is an Indian word, compounded of Ate (as some say,) or (as others) Atle, which in the Mexican Language, signifieth Water; And Choco, the noise that the Water (wherein the Chocolate is put) maketh, when it is stirred in a Cup, untill it Bubble and rise unto a Froth:”

Averill: Like the Duke of Mantua several decades later, King Philip II of Spain sent his royal physician to the Americas in search of information about Mesoamerican medicinal treatments and herbs. 

Elizabeth: But he was certainly not the last. For 300 years after those early investigations of chocolate and its uses, Europeans regularly returned to the cacao tree as both a valuable commodity and a potential treatment for all kinds of illnesses – including, by the 17th century, impotence.

Averill: In his 1652 introduction, Wadsworth promises readers that Chocolate was truly something special. 

“…it hath beene universally sought for, and thirsted after by people of all Degrees (especially those of the Female sex) either for the Pleasure therein Naturally Residing, to Cure, and divert Diseases; Or else to supply some Defects of Nature, wherein it chalenges a speciall Prerogative above all other Medicines whatsoever…The vertues thereof are no lesse various, then Admirable. For, besides that it preserves Health, and makes such as drink it often, Fat, and Corpulent, faire and Amiable, it vehemently Incites to Venus, and causeth Conception in women, hastens and facilitates their Delivery: It is an excellent help to Digestion, it cures Consumptions, and the Cough of the Lungs, the New Disease, or Plague of the Guts, and other Fluxes, the Green Sicknesse, Jaundise, and all manner of Inflamations, Opilations, and Obstructions. It quite takes away the Morphew, Cleanseth the Teeth, and sweetneth the Breath, Provokes Urine, Cures the Stone, and strangury, Expells Poison, and preserves from all infectious Diseases.”

Elizabeth: And there it is: one of the earliest records in the English language identifying the ‘confection” of Chocolate as an aphrodisiac. But Wadsworth, of course, was trying in this introduction to sell a product. According to historian Kate Loveman, we must not take Wadsworth at his word even in his assertion that the drink was “thirsted after by people of all Degrees,” for in fact chocolate was not well-known in England at mid-century. It wasn’t until the 1690s that England had its first chocolate house. 

Averill: Similarly R. Brookes translated a French medical treatise on the health benefits of chocolate in 1725. The Natural History of Chocolate outlines how and where cacao is harvested, identifies which ailments might be treated by chocolate, and seeks to place chocolate firmly in the recognizable language of the Galenic humoral theory of medicine, but does not make connections to any associations with Venus. Henry Stubbe, Charles II of England’s doctor, wrote in his monograph in 1662 that chocolate was helpful as an expectorant, diuretic, and aphrodisiac. 

Elizabeth: Between the 17th and 19th centuries, an extraordinary number of medical treatises like these were written by Europeans. Not all agreed on chocolate’s usefulness or it’s appropriate application. But that’s to be expected. While the enlightenment brought more innovation in testing and observation  and the scientific method, medical expertise was only gradually regulated over the course of the 18th century. One physician might reject chocolate as too stimulating, likely to overwork the heart, while others lauded its stimulating properties. Not all agreed that it was a viable aphrodisiac, and one physician even endorsed it simply because it tasted good, which is nice for the patient, but does not inspire confidence. In the 17th and 18th century, various medical texts made recommendations both for and against the medicinal use of chocolate.

Averill: In 17th-century Europe, chocolate was a luxury item. Unlike the broader spectrum of aphrodisiacs, it was not readily accessible to all English folks or most other Europeans. While chocolate wasn’t necessarily a go-to aphrodisiac among Europeans for the first century of its introduction to Europe – that place of honor was left to eggs, oysters, and phallic vegetables – it gained a reputation as both a sexually exciting luxury comestibles, and a sex cure for the elite. In the 17th century, you likely wouldn’t get a chocolate prescription from your local witch. But that didn’t stop European chocolatiers from encouraging the publication of a range of medical treatises to sell chocolate as a cure for all kinds of ailments, including infertility. By the end of the 18th century, chocolate was schilled as a sweet cureall. And there’s a longer history here, of quacks and snake oil vendors, that we’ll have to leave for another day. 

Elizabeth: For chocolate in Mesoamerica, Chocolat got the women-centered practice of chocolate-making right. The way that cacao was prepared and served was ritualized, and gendered. According to Sahagun’s Florentine Codex, women did the mixing of the beverage, pouring vessels of cacao back and forth to create a foam, rather than whipping it up with a stick or other instrument. Like sex remedies in early modern Europe, scholars believe that the cacao pod was more closely associated with women than men because the pod resembled a vagina! According to Cameron McNeil, “Although both female and male ancestors are depicted reborn as cacao trees, portrayals of female figures with cacao growing from their bodies are more common than similar representations of males.” For Vianne and her mother Chitza to hold the secrets of chocolate making fits well with the mythologies and beliefs surrounding Mesoamerican preparation and consumption of cacao. 

Averill: So too does this charming film get the modern reputation of chocolate right. And by the beginning of the 19th century, the marketing campaign to sell sweetened chocolate as a remedy may well have worked too well, because the medical benefits of the cacao plant were quickly overtaken by their sweetened side effects.  The things that made it palatable to Europeans – milk, sugar, and spices – would also become associated with negative long-term health effects. When Judy Densch’s character dies from diabetes, a sugar-overload hastened by Vianne’s sweet treats, it’s reminiscent of the tainted reputation that chocolate accrued over the last two centuries. While it may have continued to stimulate the libido, it was also linked to dental decay, obesity, and a range of other health problems. It’s only very recently that Europens and Americans have even tried to rehabilitate the image of chocolate, retreating to higher cocoa-content dark chocolates with lower added sugar and little to no milk solids and fats. Today the “health benefits” of chocolate have returned to the public lexicon, but .

Elizabeth: Of course, in Mesoamerica, cacao in its unadulterated form continues to hold significance today. Though the Spanish decimated and pushed underground much of the traditional religious and spiritual practices when they conquered Mesoamerica, some of the cacao-based rituals of Mesoamerican religion were preserved in syncretic Christianity, a mix of traditional indigenous religious symbols embedded in the superstructure of Catholicism. Today, cacao is still consumed and made as offering in the surviving syncretic elements of Mesoamerican Christianity. But colonialism drastically changed the accessibility, meaning, and value of cacao from the colonial period on. The conquistadors decimated cacao’s users through the introduction of deadly diseases, forced religious conversions, and the conquest of the cacao-producing lands.

Averill: In a lot of ways, Chocolat is just a sweet reflection on life, love, and chocolate. But calling back to the Mesoamerican roots of chocolate sets it apart from the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other pop cultural references to chocolate as an aphrodisiac. It takes a moment – just a moment, but a moment nonetheless – to touch on the longer, bitterer journey of chocolate from Mesoamerica to Europe. If you let it, it will make you think about how Otherness and the exotic Other are embedded in the long histories of imperialism, but also the faces and structure of Hollywood, and the pop cultural reference points that shape how we see the world. But now I’m getting to deep in the theory, so instead let’s all break now, go turn on Chocolat for a first-time watch or rewatch, make a cup of hot chocolate, and be thankful that it’s the sweet kind, while also reflecting on its longer history, as a product of violent imperialism, and as an aphrodisiac. 


R. Brookes, A Natural History of Chocolate, (London: D. Browne at the Black Swan, 1725).

Jennifer Evans, Aphrodisiacs, Fertility, and Medicine in Early Modern England, (Boydell & Brewer, 2014). 

Martha Few, “Chocolate, Sex, and Disorderly Women in Late-Seventeenth- and Early-Eighteenth-Century Guatemala,” Ethnohistory 52:4 (fall 2005).

Valeria Finucci, ““There’s the Rub”: Searching for Sexual Remedies in the New World,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 38(3), (2008) 523–557.

Catherine Higgs, Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012). 

Donatella Lippi, “Sin and Pleasure: The History of Chocolate in Medicine,” Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, 63 (2015) 9936−9941.

Kate Loveman, “The Introduction of Chocolate into England: Retailers, Researchers, and Consumers, 1640-1730,” Journal of Social History v. 47 n. 1 (2013) 27-46.

Ed. Cameron McNeil, Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao (University of Florida Press, 2009).

James Wadsworth, Chocolate; or, An Indian Drinke, (London: John Dakins, 1652). Digitized by Project Gutenberg.


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