Ancient Mayan mythology attributes the creation of human beings to cacao. According to the creation story, the god of gods desired a companion that he could engage with and that would adore him in return. In his first attempt, the god used wood to make this being, but found wood too dull. Next he tried using stone, and found that being unintelligible. After many attempts, he finally succeeded in making the most perfect human being using various materials in nature, including cacao. For the Olmec, Mayan and Aztec civilizations, the gods had sent cacao— hence the scientific nomenclature Theobroma cacao means “food of the gods cacao.” As such, cacao was held sacred and used in rituals, celebrations and sacrificial offerings. It was also used medicinally, healing both on the physical and spiritual bodies. Traditions of ritual and ceremony around cacao continue today.
Instead of time traveling back to ancient Mesoamerica, I take the subway through the concrete jungles of Manhattan and head to a cacao ceremony in the tea room of The Assemblage John Street. Out of the elevator and onto a floor cushion, I find a seat amongst a circle of others who have also been transported away from the outside frenzy of New York and into a calming lull. As the lights dim and the faces in the room soften, ceremony steward Florencia Fridman commences the gathering by pouring a cacao drink she has personally prepared into ceramic bowls. Alongside her are several instruments, including a glockenspiel, hand drum, singing bowls and chimes, which are all commonly used in sound meditation practices.
When a serving of cacao reaches me, I immediately bring the bowl to my nose and inhale. The scent is herbaceous, earthy and warm.
We drink. The warmth of the cacao touches my lips and a velvet coat of earthy, smooth bitterness coats my tongue with a hint of caramel and vanilla. As the group discusses flavor, Florencia tells us to get comfortable and close our eyes. The chattering of my mind subsides with the steady pulse of the hand drum. The warm velvet coat then blankets me entirely, and I am cocooned by the sounds of indigenous song.
Before getting too far into my experience, allow me to provide some background information as to how I found myself lullabied into this cacao cocoon. Every week, Florencia Fridman of Cacao Laboratory hosts cacao ceremonies throughout New York, including The Assemblage of which she is a member. Along with her brother Eric Fridman, Florencia co-founded Cacao Laboratory to bridge the ancient cultures of indigenous communities with the rest of the world through the tradition of cacao. I sit with the siblings to understand the layers behind this complex plant. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
Genevieve Kim: Let’s start here: what is cacao?
Florencia Fridman: It’s a complex medicine that has been used for 5,000 years. On a physical level, it’s one of the richest foods of magnesium and allows the nervous system, muscles and joints to relax. It also has a very active component known as theobromine, which opens the blood vessels and gets the blood stimulated, Anandamide, known as the bliss molecule, and serotonin.
On a physical level, it prepares the body for relaxation to be aware and sensitive to our energies and surroundings. From that space, we’re able to go deeper into our own journey. But cacao isn’t really taking you anywhere, like other plant medicines. It brings you closer to yourself.
Genevieve Kim: Can you tell me what got you interested in cacao?
Florencia Fridman: Three years ago while in Guatemala, I took a course on lucid dreaming to help me deepen my meditation practice. I was in a small village called San Marcos Lello Wilna, which attracts people from all over the world to find healing. There are cacao ceremonies held every day. In these ceremonies, ancestral wisdom is celebrated along with messages of simplicity and nature intertwined. This really called me.
EF: To be honest, the first time I tried ceremonial cacao, I didn’t like the taste. But I learned how to make it taste amazing, and my appreciation for cacao has grown in the last few years. It’s made me a better man. I am more empathetic, calm and increasingly aware and awake for longer periods of time.
GK: What is it about cacao that offers such a powerful experience for people?
FF: Many indigenous communities see cacao as a sacred food and connection to the divine. The essence of the cacao connects us to the dream world. For many of these communities, the dream world is where there are no physical limitations, so we’re able to explore beyond certain walls. As cacao connects us to the dream world we can use the material—cacao—to understand what’s happening on a human level while becoming aware of what’s happening beyond.
EF: Without going into the list of compounds that Florencia just mentioned, I think there’s more to this plant than we can see in the physical manifestation.
GK: Can you give an example of the magic that you’ve experienced from cacao?
EF: I can tell you that my relationship with my sister has drastically changed since working with cacao. In so many ways we stopped taking things personally. Or at least we are more empathetic with each other.
For example, when we first started working together, we would take each others’ comments as ‘put downs’ in the face of challenges. Nowadays we take each other’s feedback for what it is, and we both grow from it. Partly it’s because we are more kind with each other but also because we are more open to what the other person has to say.
FF: It’s been so beautiful to see the evolution of those working with cacao regularly. People become more open and receptive. They begin listening with more awareness and clarity. Curiosity of old projects, ideas, or passions is reignited. This time the fears quiet down, and they allow themselves to express their deepest desires and go beyond what they thought possible.
GK: What is the mission of Cacao laboratory?
FF: The mission of Cacao Labs is to serve as a bridge between indigenous communities and modern culture, and how to bring forth the wisdom of these communities in a practical way.
EF: We believe that ceremonial cacao helps us connect with nature and ourselves deeply. Cacao is a powerful tool to spur change and to save us from destroying our planet.
This week we launched a kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a short documentary we are filming in partnership with Daniel Garcia, a filmmaker who is on a mission to film indigenous communities whose livelihood is threatened by environmental destruction, including cacao.
GK: What message are you trying to bridge?
FF: Understanding the simplicity of what it is like to connect to nature and bring forth respect to the elements of nature. It’s also about honoring the ancestral wisdom of indigenous cultures.
GK: Why is ancestral wisdom important?
FF: If we don’t know who we are then how can we know where we’re going? By understanding where we come from, we can actually understand what our purpose is. And once we know what our purpose is, we have a mission. So everything that is thrown at us, we know that if it’s not bringing us closer to ourselves or to our mission, then it’s not necessary.
GK: Which communities do you work with to source the cacao for Cacao Laboratory?
EF: Florencia and I traveled to Guatemala on a whim. After visiting several farms, including a regenerative farm, we ended up connecting with an elder named Marina from the Tzutujil tribe. The Tzutujil tribe is one of the communities that have been working with cacao since the beginning of time and are considered the guardians of cacao. The moment I met Marina I could see all the wisdom in her eyes and asked her to work with us. She said yes. Connecting with the communities that we work with was in divine order.
GK: Why drink cacao in a ceremony setting?
FF: It’s creating a moment in time to become aware of how we’re showing up and how we’re arriving. The cup of cacao is an invitation. Like at the Aniwa gathering [that took place in New York in October] there were over 30 elders, and though each one of them had a different way of creating ceremony, they shared the connection to the elements and the essence of coming back to the source.
GK: How can we incorporate ceremony into the every-day of our lives?
FF: Everything is a ceremony. If we can take that idea, take a moment to listen and then respond, then we’re continuously living our whole life as one big moment of awareness.
EF: I think of even when I’m drinking coffee now. I make it a point to think about what I’m ingesting. It’s conscious consumption. Even putting cream on your body should be a moment to be with yourself. It’s a very intimate moment right in the early morning.
GK: Any hopes or wishes that you have for people who come to one of your cacao ceremonies at The Assemblage?
EF: If I had to hope for one thing for anybody who comes, it would be to become more aware, more human.
FF: The remembering of who they are and how to express it.
Remember indeed. As I sat in the afternoon cacao ceremony with Florencia and listened to her play the drum, I slipped out of the concrete reality of downtown Manhattan and slowly dropped into a silent calm. I found myself dreaming of a far away place, atop a mountain overlooking a valley of tall green grass. Even if for a brief moment, I was reminded of my own desire to travel through East Asia to trace and photograph my ancestral roots. Coincidence or magic of the cacao gods? Why not come to a cacao ceremony with Florencia at The Assemblage to find out?