While at Baja Fresh last week, I noticed a basket of saran-wrapped cookies near the register. Each label said "Aztec Chocolate Chunk Cookie" and the lady who just rang up my steak tostada looked at me and swore, "They are really, really good." The ingredients didn't look too 13th century Aztec: enriched bleached wheat flour, dextrose, palm oil, high fructose corn syrup. There was one mention of "spices" near the bottom, but nothing specific about chili peppers or aromatic flowers, an integral part of the original Aztec recipe.
Cinnamony and buttery, the cookie was good—the lady was right—but not necessarily Aztec-y. According to folklore, the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl descended from heaven with a cocoa plant and since sugar wasn't around, the Mesoamericans used hot chili peppers to zazz up the otherwise dull brown beans. Baja Fresh, on the other hand, embraces modern sugar availability (both brown and white are listed), and the chili pepper content is questionable. Would Quetzalcoatl be ashamed of this and other packaged renditions of his ancient treat?
In the same vein, Häagen-Dazs attempts an Amazon Valley Chocolate flavor that promises "notes of chili" and "spiciness (that) lingers on the tongue long after the chocolate has melted away." But the ingredients only list: cream, skim milk, sugar, cocoa powder, egg yolks, chocolate.
What makes Aztec and Mayan chocolate authentic in your eyes?
About the author: Erin Zimmer, our Washington, D.C., correspondent, is a new media analyst and frequently writes for Washingtonian, DCist, and other local publications. While Georgetown's food columnist, she investigated the cafeteria's omelet station, Hoya coffeeshop's cultish pumpkin muffins, and what exactly the basketball players ate.