At first glance, the curious implement—a carved, hand-painted wooden stick, 11.5 inches long, with a slender handle at one end and a knob at the other—appears unprepossessing enough. Yet the kitchen tool, currently on display as part of the "Mexican Treasures of the Smithsonian" exhibition at the S. Dillon Ripley Center in Washington, D.C., represents the history of a culture and the epic story of a passionately desired product. The molinillo, or stirrer—this one dating from the 1930s—is a utensil with a certain flair, used for centuries to whip up a foam on hot-chocolate drinks in Mexican and Central American kitchens.
Perhaps as long as 2,600 years ago, Mesoamerican peoples began using the beans of the wild cacao tree to brew up a bitter, caffeinated drink to which they added various spices. The Maya took up the practice and passed it on to the Aztec, but had you walked the streets back in the days before the Spanish conquistadors came barging in, you would not have seen just anyone enjoying a morning mocha. In fact, those privileged few drinking a cup of the dark elixir were likely members of the high priesthood or royalty. The difficulty of harvesting cacao pods from the rain forest and processing the seeds into the paste that was the basis for the chocolate, and its stimulating effect, elevated the drink to the province of ritual and riches. According to Ramiro Matos, a curator for Latin America at the National Museum of the American Indian, even the implements used in the making and drinking of chocolate took on special importance.
Diana Kennedy, an authority on Mexican cuisine who has lived in the state of Michoacan for 50 years, says that cacao is still adored in that country—as it is almost everywhere in the world. "Though it's not easy making chocolate from scratch," she says, "I do it, and many people do. They don't think of the process as arduous." Some Mexicans, Kennedy adds, buy commercial chocolate, but she considers store-bought varieties to be too sweet. Kennedy, whose most recent book is From My Mexican Kitchen: Techniques and Ingredients, also does her own stirring. "There are lots of molinillos in my house, and I use my favorites when I have guests."
The Institution's molinillo is made of wood, bone and brass. "The handle is used as a rotational axis, turned between two hands placed palms inward," says Ramiro Matos. For a pot of melted chocolate and milk, heated together, the molinillo is used to beat the liquid until it froths. (The foam, according to tradition, embodies the spiritual essence of the chocolate.) Matos adds that the implement has "very pleasant associations. In Mexico, children would watch chocolate being stirred and sing songs."
Chocolate's charms were not lost on the conquistadors. Spain had something that the Americas lacked—sugar—and this addition may have been what turned a bitter drink into the stuff of delight and desire, eventually the rage of Europe.
Perhaps this utensil still has the power to inspire thoughts of chocolate as an ancient symbol for the good life, and to remind us that not even this sought-after comestible is beyond the threat of our profit-obsessed age. According to a recent article in the New York Times by Mort Rosenblum, author of Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light, the Food and Drug Administration has been petitioned by an association of industrial confectioners "to replace cocoa butter with cheaper fats and still call the resulting product ‘chocolate.'" Fanciers of authentic chocolate will always know where to go to satisfy their cravings, although at rising prices, no doubt. But what of generations to come? Will they know only a debased substance that is chocolate in name only? Will children in Mexico still have a reason to sing songs to a cup of morning glory? Has the time at last come to take up our molinillos and head for the barricades?