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For The Mazatec, Chocolate Not Just About Candy


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It is Valentine's Day and we want to bring you a little sweetness for your celebration. In a moment, we'll hear from the unlikely owners of the D.C.-based cupcake bakery The Sweet Lobby.

But we want to start with a little taste of chocolate and, as you dig into that heart-shaped box of candy that we hope somebody special gave you, we wanted to dig into the history of chocolate.

To learn more, we're joined by Natividad Estrada. She is Mazatec, which is part of an indigenous group from Northern Oaxaca in Mexico. She spoke this past weekend at the Power of Chocolate event at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian.

Also with us is her daughter, Diana Xochitl Munn. She is a botanist who has studied the tree that produces the seeds that eventually become chocolate.

Welcome to you both.


MARTIN: Diana, first, let me ask you to pronounce the official name of the cacao tree.

MUNN: The scientific name is Theobroma cacao, which actually means food of the gods.

MARTIN: And I completely agree. So let's clear up a common misunderstanding. We're talking about cacao, which is not cocoa. So, Diana, what is the difference?

MUNN: Right. So the term, cacao, derives from a Mayan term and cocoa is a British variant and so all of these products are from the seeds of this tree, Theobroma cacao.

And so cacao is a term that could be used for many different things. You can use it to refer to the seeds, which are sometimes referred to as beans. And then cocoa, people refer - you know, when they talk about - let's make hot cocoa. Right? They're talking about that beverage and then they're thinking about the powder, but the powder comes from the seeds of this tree.

MARTIN: Natividad Estrada, the cacao has a spiritual purpose.


MUNN: Will you tell us a little bit about that?

ESTRADA: For us, in the Mazatec people, the cacao was used as money. We pay a few favors that the Mother Earth have give us. We make an offering bundle. For example, if a person is sick, we have to use a curandera to do the offering bundles.

MARTIN: Curandera, we would translate as faith healer?

ESTRADA: That is a healer. Yeah.

MARTIN: And the cacao is used to, say, make an offering to those who would heal?

ESTRADA: We pay. We have to pay to the lord, to Mother Earth.

MARTIN: Do you still eat it and make beverages and stuff?

ESTRADA: No. We don't in Huautla.

MARTIN: Does it bother you that other people eat it or drink it?

ESTRADA: Not at all. Not at all because they are so good that I think it's very nice to share it.

MARTIN: True. But are there other people who use it as - I know that, among the Mazatec, it's only used as kind of currency with the healers, but that it is a part of ceremonies with other groups.

MUNN: Well, actually, there are pictographic books that were produced by different indigenous groups in Southern Mexico. We don't really know how to interpret a lot of the images that are found in these books, but images that we can find are of people who are clearly engaged in a wedding ceremony. In the middle of a couple, for instance, you will find a vessel. There's this little design above the vessel that's symbolic of the froth.

So there's plenty of archeological evidence that people at the time were using cacao seeds to make beverages, so instead of, say, using champagne for a wedding ceremony, they would have used this beverage. And this beverage was mainly consumed by the elite. It was something that was not for the rest of society, so we're very lucky today to have the privilege to be able to eat chocolate.

MARTIN: Well, I completely agree. It is a privilege. Diana, finally, before we go, what would you like us to know about chocolate instead of just, like, grabbing it off the shelf at the supermarket? But what would you like us to think about when we enjoy our chocolate today, as I think many people will?

MUNN: I think it's important for people to remember that chocolate is a plant product. Right? It comes from a tree and, sometimes, that baffles people. They really don't know where chocolate comes from. So the chocolate tree is a tropical tree that is native to the Americas, but in fact, most of our chocolate comes from other regions in the world, mostly African countries and the tropics.

So it's important to think a little bit about where products come from. I think that always surprises people and it's relevant and I think that something really interesting to remember is this notion that, in ancient times, cacao beans were a form of money. You know, this tradition is still continuing in this culture, which is pretty amazing.

MARTIN: Diana Xochitl Munn is a botanist. She was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio, along with her mom, Natividad Estrada. She is part of the indigenous people from northern Oaxaca in Mexico. And she spoke at this weekend's Smithsonian Institution National Museum of the American Indian of Power of Chocolate event.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

ESTRADA: Oh, you welcome.

MUNN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.