A Review of Her Cup for Sweet Cacao: Food in Ancient Maya Society

Savoring the Maya Past

by | Jan 13, 2022

A Review of Her Cup for Sweet Cacao: Food in Ancient Maya Society, edited by Traci Ardren (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2020)

Every now and then, a book review request lands at just the right time to contemplate, even savor the work. I read and mused over Her Cup for Sweet Cacao as part of my journey from the United States to the United Kingdom and then, after landing in my new neighborhood, as a companion during my survey of cafés in central London. I was seeking ideal spots to bide my time between seeing my son off to school and the opening of the British Library at 9:30 a.m. The view from the upper deck of London’s iconic red double decker buses was perfect for spotting good candidates. A steaming cup of the beverage of the day kept me focused on the issues of the book: experiences of eating and drinking.

The large and small differences from one café to the next in their selection of food, serving style and sources for their offerings was a counterpoint to the same points the book explores about the ancient Maya. The title of the book invokes three major issues: her—gender; cup—materiality; sweet—flavor; and cacao—specific substances. Combining these individual words into the phrase further conjures meanings of personal tastes, enjoyment of gastronomy and social distinction claimed by a noble individual through the act of having her preferences written on a bespoke vessel.

The specificity of the title may make someone browsing titles think that cacao is the focus of the volume, while the secondary title, “Food in Ancient Maya Society” indicates that it concentrates on food (as opposed to drink, thus slightly dissonant with some forms of cacao consumption). Cacao appears in different chapters, to be sure, but the scope of examples is much wider, with detailed discussions of comestibles such as dogs and fermented drinks. The most consistent note sounding throughout the volume is an interpretive emphasis on feasting as a crucial factor in the construction of identity and social power.

I always tell my students that the organization of a book says much about the goals of the editor and authors. This book begins and ends with luminaries who help define the scope of the collection. Within these bookends, Traci Ardren, the volume editor, admits that the rest of the chapters are in chronological order. One chapter to the next is a move forward through time that is familiar and expected in archaeology. The book’s aim is to show the insights possible with an emphasis of food in archaeological study.

In his one-page preface, eminent Mesoamerican archaeologist (who helped write the go-to book on cacao and chocolate) Michael Coe declares “the study of Maya foodways has advanced to maturity” (p. ix).  In contrast, food scholar Jeffrey Pilcher charts out paths for further development, viewing archaeological evidence from a culinary perspective, whereas the chapter authors largely do the reverse. Pilcher’s last word in the concluding chapter raised many of the questions that occurred to me as I read the book (and sipped my beverage). He gives a nod to the slow acceptance of culinary studies as legitimate subject in itself rather than as a means to a disciplinary end, a wider scholarly trend echoed within Mesoamerican studies and outlined nicely in Ardren’s introductory Chapter 1.

Ardren lays out key themes: “social interdependencies that emerge from daily meals” and how foodways create and maintain identities, with special emphasis of feasting; the kinds of evidence; and how subsequent chapters advance understanding of ancient Maya foodways. I view with caution the phenomenological argument that culinary choices and sensory experience help “blur the boundaries between past and present” (p.2). Ardren and other authors recognize the powerful creation and maintenance of memory/forgetting and nostalgia through food and drink; those experiences are situated in the myriad of social and historical contexts that the authors elucidate. A person’s palate and food and drink preferences are a fascinating convocation of individual experiences (including in the womb), social dynamics (such as gender), biochemistry (such as how vanilla changes the perception of mouthfeel and levels of acidity), and the historical moment. Drinking pulque today is a different experience than in a Late Classic Maya royal court; it is the generations of people and subtle and dramatic variations in this choice and experience of drinking pulque that is both fascinating and at the same time a testament to the depth of its history. I believe that Ardren’s bottom line that culinary practice “constitute a shared social imaginary of Mayaness” (p.15) is right on target.

Many chapters interpret evidence in terms of feasting. In Chapter 2, M. Kathryn Brown and Carolyn Freiwald’s evaluate whether competitive ritual feasting took place at Blackman Eddy, Belize. The location, variety, and quantity and condition of ceramics, plant, animal and marine remains seem to suggest so. The presence in these deposits of marine shell fragments and objects such as beads evoke a watery underworld so important in Maya cosmology and ritual practice. However, I think that the shell beads might also be serving as currency—a way to “pay” the debt owed to deities who made the bounty of a feast possible or to transfer wealth as part of the social negotiations of communal events.

In many chapters, authors recognize multivalent meanings of what social actors consume and how they do it, but perhaps even more meanings are in play in such potent situations. Julia Hendon (Chapter 8) compares feasting evidence of the Late to Terminal Classic periods, finding contrasting motivations and outcomes: feasts at Copán reinforced hierarchy while those in the Lower Ulúa Valley nourished heterarchy. The common routes to these distinctive ends to construct and maintain identity and power were values, practices, and knowledge of local cuisine. At La Corona (Chapter 9), feasting again is the focus, but this time how feasts are a form of communication in dialogue with the speech and other symbolic messages shared during the event. Maxime Lamoureaux-St-Hilaire pays careful attention to the reciprocal nature of as well as the spatial requirements for feasting. He points out that the special environment of a royal feast (with different spaces that offered different degrees of privacy) fed a network of reciprocal obligation and “particularized trust” that fostered the structure of regimes (p.262-263). Pilcher’s final critique is valid: authors discuss feasting more than everyday home cooking but continued investigation of “relationships between taste as physical experience and as social distinction” will give cooks and farmers the attention they deserve.

Chapter 3 is a fascinating assessment of a special kind of context—caves, which are conceptually linked to mountains and water—to evaluate relationships of food and drink to ceremonies that were not feasting. Authors Jon Spenard, Adam King, Terry Powis and Nilesh Gaikwad evaluate absorbed residues in bone tubes and ceramics from four caves in the area of Pacbitun, Belize. The results are exciting because they reveal expected substances (cacao) in unexpected combinations (with datura and willow) or vanilla on its own. Even more fascinating is that the most common substance was salicylic acid, a chemical found in willow trees (which we use today as aspirin) and that atropine, a psychoactive compound found in Datura species, was found. These residues are direct evidence of less commonly noted plants that point towards new insights about the complexity of Maya ritual practices.

Some chapters focus on one or a few comestibles, some familiar, others less so. In Chapter 6, Petra Cunningham Smith, Ashley Sharpe, Arrianne Boileau, Erin Kennedy Thornton and Kitty Emery investigate the role of dogs as food across the Maya world and through time. Their evidence indicates shifts in time for ritual versus culinary uses. Another analysis of animals as food (Chapter 11 by Marilyn Masson, Timothy Hare, Bradley Russell, Carlos Peraza Lope and Jessica Campbell reveals dramatic inequalities in access to meat in Terminal Classic and Postclassic house lots near Mayapán. Multiple rural families, who one would guess would be able to hunt game did not have any faunal remains, while downtown Mayapán, was “full of animals, tended, butchered, and consumed” (p.323).

Nick Carter and Mallory Matsumoto in Chapter 4 present an epigraphic analysis that is a good synthesis of research of Maya writing about eating and drinking, the vessels used for it, and the comestibles they contained, including an extended discussion of maize, cacao and pulque. I was glad to see that their independent assessment of cacao largely supports the conclusions I made in my own work about regional distributions of cacao descriptions, yet they stop short of recognizing this diversity as variations in taste, whether of the cacao itself or as additional ingredients to a cacao preparation.

But what if flavor is the point, not just for cacao, but for the whole food system? Morrell-Hart (p.127) suggests that “the emergence of key staple crops such as maize, beans, and squash was tied more closely to their flavors than to their caloric content.” The combined effect of Pilcher’s comments and discussions with phraseology in other book chapters makes me want to step onto my chocolate “soapbox.”  I could not agree more with his observation in the case of the titular cacao that “the cultivar-commodity dichotomy does not explain the full range of cacao’s meanings or the greater or lesser degrees of social distinction derived from it, even among cases surveyed in this volume.”  My forthcoming book on cacao as wealth (which deals with some of the contexts and time periods of this book) as well as the early modern intertwining of cacao, chocolate and race in my current Fulbright research at the British Library support these observations. We do not want to put cacao into a “chocolate box” (by calling everything that has cacao as an ingredient “chocolate”) but instead recognize the creativity and diversity of cacao in Mesoamerican gastronomy and social life in the past and the present.

The appearance at Xuencal of a new batterie de cuisine of molcajetes (grater bowls) and comales (griddles) implied new foods, tastes and circulation of knowledge that created a tangible and enduring connection to the political and economic center of Chichén Itzá. Pilcher stresses how mobility, “the movement of people, goods, and ideas” (p.370), evaluated in terms of the mode of travel, scale of movement, and barriers to mobility is crucial for understanding the development of cuisines and the connections they form. What meets cultural standards of being edible (or ingestible)—the boundaries of safety, danger, and deliciousness (topics explored in my co-edited volume Substance & Seduction), what constitutes a meal, and how that is foundational to the constitution of humanity highlight that “the circulation of recipes and culinary equipment could be as significant as commodity exchange in Mesoamerica” (p.371).

Although most chapters stress how the production, preparation, and consumption of comestibles nourishes human relationships, a couple consider the connectedness of human and diverse nonhuman actors. Chapter 12 examines epigraphic evidence of bees, honey and the fermented drink balché, made with honey and the bark of the balché tree. Gabrielle Vail and Maia Dedrick present impressive evidence to understand the ritual of u hanli kab’ (dinner of the bees), including detailed ethnographic examples of Yucatec balché and Lacandón god pot renewal ceremonies. They identify how different aspects of tending bees, preparing food and consuming balché is gendered, and that the ceremonies are done to repay debts owed to deities. The foaminess and flavor of the Lacandón drinks is important, both qualities enhanced by cacao (prepared by a woman). A major conclusion from this portion of Maya culinary and spiritual life is that “No step in the food system could be accomplished without supplication to the gods: not planting the fields, establishing a new beehive, constructing a bee home, or harvesting goods from field and forest…as gods initially supplied bees to the world, and in fact owned nonhuman actors such as bees, they could not be ignored as human reaped the benefits of their production” (p.361-362). Shanti Morell-Hart (Chapter 5) emphasizes that plants are equally part of the community and social actors within the Maya world.

Pilcher foregrounds the relevance of archaeology for the scholarship of gastronomy. He points out how archaeological evidence—the fragmentary remains of an ancient feast—is “a helpful reminder to the field of food studies, which congratulates itself on the breadth of its vision from ‘farm to fork’ but too often ignores the inevitable waste at the end of (and indeed all along) the commodity chain” (p.367-386). This ignored waste is the meat and potatoes of archaeology, yet archaeologists do not necessarily conceive of it exactly in this way—as an early exit from the food system (except in the case of ritual offerings that were considered fully consumed even if physically intact). Sometimes waste is not inevitable: the loci of food consumption at La Corona is hard to determine because of the lack of food refuse (p.254).

Her Cup of Sweet Cacao is clear about how a focus on food and drink can reveal important insights for archaeological information, but it is less clear about what archaeology can bring to culinary studies. The language in the volume at times loses sight of its focus on comestibles and ingestion: the phrase of comestibles and consuming being ideologically or socially “charged” repeats throughout the book, and less often, authors use unfortunate metaphors, such as food as a “social glue” (p.3, 188) or “cement” (p.14, 274, 280, even “cement in the belly”, 290). The focus is much stronger on consuming rather than producing, which loses sight of Sidney Mintz’s compelling case for the intimate interconnection of the two. Despite these concerns, Her Cup is a satisfying taste of ancient Maya foodways.

Kathryn Sampeck is a Professor of Anthropology at Illinois State University and an Associate of the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. She was the Central America Fellow at DRCLAS in 2016 and currently has a Fulbright at the British Museum in London.

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