On Chocolate

and its unique role in food-system education.

Chocolate has forever been the foodstuff about which I am most precious. As a child, I would put on the VHS of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and sometimes hide my own eyes during the opening credits, while liquid chocolate went through the titular factory to become candy. The longing it produced in me was so intense, unlike anything I would experience until the unfortunate onset of puberty and the first time I saw the face of Duncan Sheik. That there was no chocolate in our house when I was watching this movie repeatedly felt like utter torture, and I vowed that when I was an adult, I would always have chocolate in my house (I’ve kept this promise). I would thrill for occasions like a school concert or dance recital because I could rely on my grandfather bringing me a gold box of Godiva, back when they felt special. The sense memory of a milk chocolate pair of ballet slippers, a delicacy that I tasted only once but never forgot, is so strong that it almost puts me back in a tutu. 

This intense love and longing didn’t take long to turn into my becoming a chocolate aficionado, or what others might casually call “a snob.” I still could only dream of having the palate I have for chocolate when I sip a glass of wine. With a good bar or confection, the tasting notes—both obscure and obvious—pop right into the forefront of my mind. Not only was chocolate my first love, though, it was also my introduction to how the global food system works: cheap or slave labor, industrial production that foregrounds quantity over quality, and an artificially low cost that allows consumers to believe that a product isn’t special or worthwhile, leading as well to the cultural, political, and socioeconomic understanding of growing nations as neither special nor worthwhile by association. It’s all by capitalist design. It’s also by capitalist design that by caring about ecological health, proper pay for farmers, and flavor quality that I become a “snob.” (The best books about the chocolate industry, to my mind, are Bitter Chocolate: Anatomy of an Industry by Carol Off and Cocoa by Kristy Leissle.)

“In the 19th century even, the cacao pod was part of the chocolate marketing,” Michael Laiskonis, former Le Bernardin pastry chef and now the creative director of the Institute of Culinary Education, who heads their Chocolate Lab, where (among other things) he brings in working pastry chefs in to give them a real appreciation for the labor that goes into chocolate-making. The pod disappearing was a step in the process of divorcing the idea that the chocolate or cocoa powder one snacked on or kept in a kitchen cabinet came from a plant that had to be cultivated and farmed. 

“Because it's so cheap,” he says, “we consume so much of it. That's why the craft chocolate world, for all of its valiant efforts, is such a tiny, tiny, tiny drop in the bucket.” A tiny, tiny, tiny drop that is carrying the bulk of the weight for undoing the sins of Hershey’s—which bought Scharffen Berger, understood as the first U.S. craft chocolate company, in 2005—and other massive industrial chocolate producers. The FDA only requires a bar to contain 10 percent cacao; much of what’s available in any major supermarket is barely going to surpass that.

For Karla McNeil-Rueda, founder of Cru Chocolate out of Sacramento, California, the appreciation and understanding of the significance of cacao has always been present in her life. Growing up in Honduras, drinks of chocolate and corn were a near-daily occurrence. After working in the specialty coffee industry, she and her partner Eddie Houston decided to start making stone-ground chocolate in their garage in 2015. Despite her own love, appreciation, and knowledge she has found that the average chocolate-buyer still doesn’t care about where it comes from.

“When I started it, I wanted people to understand where it came from and that whole colonial thing, which is still a big part of what we do,” she tells me. “But I feel like each talk has its audience. Regular people aren’t interested in social issues.” She persists, though, in trying to have these conversations—it’s only these conversations that will grow the market for craft chocolate, which Eli Curtis of the Bay Area’s Bisou Chocolate says still isn’t capable of supporting the number of craft chocolate-makers who have emerged in the U.S. over the last decade.

“I constantly advise newcomers not not to try to make chocolate for a living,” he tells me. “Craft chocolate is, I think, a really good thing. But it's all about building the market.” That’s why Bisou has focused on direct sales. In non-pandemic times, they would sell at farmers’ markets in order to be ready for the conversations with customers about what made their product special.

Chocolate is an interesting food precisely because of how education-intensive it is: Will someone buy a $14 chocolate bar just because they like the taste of it? Not likely. It requires background information—it requires justification, despite the fact that most people in major urban centers wouldn’t blink at dropping that much money on one cocktail or glass of wine. 

Colin Gasko, the former chocolate-maker behind the renowned Rogue Chocolate, which he shut down last year, became deeply sick of eating chocolate himself, but still believes it can be an entry point into broader thinking on the food system.

“Chocolate has—so many different many foods are this way as well—but chocolate in particular is so richly connected to so many different disciplines,” he tells me. “The history of it is really rich; production is very complex and involves some fairly technical concepts that you would need to understand to really make chocolate well. With all these things, it's an entry point for a really rich area of learning and engaging with the world through chocolate. And one of the things is that because chocolate is known as having labor issues since, say, the 2000s. That's an entry point for people to think—so many products have labor issues, of course, tomatoes have a history of horrible labor issues, but it just does not connect for people in the way that it does for chocolate. There's this direct line between not only the labor issues of today, but the history of colonialism and the continuation of much of that history into the present. So, yeah, I think it's a very rich entry point, and it holds people's attention, because they have such a fondness for it that can keep them there long enough that they will actually engage with those issues in a way that it would not with other things.”

Sienna Trap-Bowie of Fortuna Chocolate out of Colorado, echoes Gasko. “People, for the most part, kind of have a cloudy awareness that there are some issues in some African countries around growing cacao,” she says. “There might be some child slave labor involved or something—people kind of have that nebulous idea. And so then when we have the conversation, ‘well, why is cacao being grown in Africa? How did that even start? And how is it grown in some of these other countries?’ Very quickly you can make the connection between colonization and imperialism. And then the conversation goes into a much, much more profound direction.” Her own interest in making single-origin Mexican chocolate derived from cultural anthropology studies and meeting her now-husband and business partner, Aldo Ramirez Carrasco. Their business is as much about cultural and historical education about chocolate’s origins in Mexico and Central America as it is about the chocolate itself. 

It’s this unique need for education and justification around craft chocolate that is what interests me: Basically every maker of it I’ve ever spoken to is as interested in being transparent about where they source their cacao and the production process as they are with giving you something delicious to eat. This doesn’t guarantee that everything going on is perfect or even good, but it is a unique approach to creating a ubiquitous product. (There are parallels in coffee, yet the love for that comes later in life and manifests differently; it’s associated with productivity, not necessarily leisure—at least in the U.S, where we tend to stamp out all joy.) Chocolate produced at massive scale has done terrible things at its origins, all to make people of the Global North smile. Fixing it requires taking something long considered frivolous utterly seriously.

While thinking about this—the overlap of the necessity of fixing a bad system and the fetishization that can happen—I turned to Harry G. West’s “Artisanal Foods and the Cultural Economy: Perspectives on Craft, Heritage, Authenticity, and Reconnection.” He writes about the recent rise in interest in artisanal foods is about “the preservation of cultural heritage … rooted in experiences of and responses to modernity.” When chocolate comes up, it’s in the context of France’s craft chocolate emerging as a reaction to “‘McDonaldization’ and the invasion of the French market by Belgian franchises selling chocolates ‘mass-produced from cheap substitute ingredients.’”

In the United States, there really is no national cultural craft heritage—bourbon and whiskey are contenders—especially not around chocolate. The McDonaldified chocolate is the standard, against which craft has been pushing, and so the response is a different one that I’d theorize comes from a fear of “difficult” bitter chocolate, chocolate’s association with women (which always confers lower status in the U.S.), and the idea that cheap and mass-produced is truly “better” than something made with care in small batches because it’s more in line with a capitalist ethos. Craft chocolate is counter to American values.

Knowing the slim margins, the labor involved, and occasionally the difficulties even getting cacao across borders and through customs, it’s obvious what a labor of love it is, must be. Just as chocolate was my introduction to the inequities baked into the global food system and the ways in which colonialism and imperialism have affected nearly everything we eat, it has also been my introduction to what it looks like when food-makers really give a shit. Craft chocolate definitely won’t save the world, and it probably won’t even save the chocolate industry as a whole, but it will continue to be an entry point. Sometimes chocolate is just chocolate; sometimes it opens up the world.  

On Wednesday, in the paid-subscriber discussion, let’s talk about your favorite chocolate-maker or chocolatier!

Friday’s paid-subscriber interview will feature Carla Martin, the founder and executive director of the Fine Cocoa and Cacao Institute and a Harvard University lecturer.

Stuff on Tenderly! Just generally read Tenderly. I have done a lot of interviews lately but I don’t think anything’s come out.

I’m catching up on my magazines and thumbing through The Handbook of Food and Anthropology because I am my own food studies professor. Right now I’m copyediting a print magazine, so my eyeball energy is going toward that.

Batata gnocchi. Coconut cake with parcha curd. Salad, a lot of it, with tahini dressing and my favorite balsamic dressing, the recipe for which will soon be up at… Tenderly! Oh, and tahini brownies, too! They came out great—I’ll be giving every chocolate thing a tahini swirl from now on.