“Indulge,” urges the inside of my Dove chocolate wrapper, assuring me that I did the right thing, eating that chocolate. The idea of “indulgence” is key for how our American culture thinks about food, especially dessert, and it works on levels beyond the bag of dark chocolates I picked up at CVS. Dessert is an excess, by nature a luxury. So I thought, why not go for the best, why not go for real “indulgence”? What’s the fanciest dessert, the most chocolate pleasure that money can buy (on a student budget)? I decided to analyze some of the most “indulgent” desserts that I could find within walking distance of my dorm in Cambridge, MA: vs When I signed the bill at the end of these meals, what did I pay for? I paid for the experience, not just the food. Yes, a crucial part of the entire experience was consuming a delicious dessert, but I also paid for the service, the comfy chair, the music, the low lighting and the conversation floating around me from the other tables. Chocolate and other dessert foods hold a precarious position between sustenance and luxury. Chocolate is more universal, more sustaining and more widely available than real luxury consumables like wine and even coffee, and it does not share their psychological effects, despite common misconception (Benton, 213- 214). However, chocolate is more luxurious and extravagant than staple products like bread, meat, or rice. Chocolate tends to be sold as either luxury or staple, when in fact it occupies a space between the two that does not fit well in capitalist consumption practices. This essay will focus on chocolate dessert as a luxury by looking at the American fine dining experience, in order to show that the most elite consumers experience chocolate differently than the rest of society, because of how the experience becomes a commodity.
My first trip took me to Finale, a specialty dessert shop with three Boston locations. Finale strives to separate itself from mass produced chocolate and give the fine dining experience at a lower cost. Their sit-down restaurant features red table clothes, a prominent wine list, low lighting and soft jazz music. When I went in late on a Monday night, the restaurant housed me and three young couples that appeared to be on dates. The waiter couldn’t tell me the source of the chocolate in the “molten cake,” but he did tell me that in his three days working at Finale, he had learned that there were more different kinds of pastries than he had previously imagined.
“Just look how much of our menu is dessert!” he told me. Finale capitalizes on the desire to indulge in dessert. By offering a wide array, it allows consumers the luxury of choice, and while someone of middle-class means might not want to buy a fancy dinner, they might be persuaded to splurge on an indulgent dessert. Scholar Marcy Norton describes the “cultural-functionalist” model, proposed by historians such as Mintz and Bourdieu, as one theory for the popularity of chocolate in Western society. The theory states that those in power influence aesthetic and subjective decisions, or choices of taste. Under this theory, the upper classes are the tastemakers, and other consumers follow their lead. Norton does not believe that the theory is enough to explain the dessert’s popularity, but it does explain restaurants such as Finale, which sell the upper class experience at a lower price (Norton, 633). Finale’s menu describes the cake I ordered as “Our famous baked to order molten filled with a salted honey caramel sauce. Served with chocolate covered almonds and dulce de leche gelato,” and then lists a suggested wine pairing (Finale, Restaurant Menu). By pairing each dessert on the menu with wine, the restaurant again ties its products to other luxury goods, and sells a greater experience: not just the dessert, but the wine and cake together. I ordered (just the cake) and was quickly rewarded with the elegant presentation in the picture above. Typically, I would wolf down a dessert like this, loving the sweetness without focusing on the flavor, but for the first time in my dessert-eating career, I sat down to really evaluate the flavors and sensations of eating.
“Tasting,” in an evaluative way requires time, money, and knowledge. One must be taught to discern flavors and focus on all the senses while eating. Barbara Stuckey, a food tasting professional, published “Taste What You’re Missing,” a guide to tasting and understanding food like the experts. To those people with fewer taste buds who are less able to discern different flavors, she adds, “You can’t change the anatomy of your tongue, just as you can’t change your genetic makeup or height. But a height limitation doesn’t mean that you can’t teach yourself to be an excellent basketball player. And everyone-including you-can teach himself to be an excellent taster” (Stuckey, 27). Stuckey seems to say that anyone can learn to taste the way that she can, regardless of biological limits, but she doesn’t mention other limits, like time, energy, or lack of resources. Her book describes eating at some of the fanciest restaurants in the US, appreciating food like salmon, steak, and “soft, cherry-chocolate red zinfandel” (Stuckey, 15). Clearly, Stuckey has the resources to get the best food to taste recreationally, and also as a professional taster has spent years being paid to hone her tasting skills. Her book targets those given choices of what kind of food they eat, rather than needing to get the most sustenance per dollar.
This “tasting wheel” for chocolate describes the flavors that a trained, discerning taster might be able to pick up in a bar of the stuff. These are the elements of a luxury chocolate bar, not mass produced chocolate from big companies like Hershey’s or Nestle. Mass produced chocolate is sold to everyone, and there’s much less focus on flavor profiling or ingredients beyond “tastes good.”
The cake I tasted at finale seems to fall somewhere in the middle of the taste- satiation spectrum. Based on its presentation and the restaurant’s atmosphere, Finale seems to focus on the upper class experience of eating. I did find out online that the chocolate they use in the cake is from Valrhona, a French luxury chocolate maker. You can see from Valrhona’s website that the company focuses on many of the elements of luxury dining that Stuckey emphasizes. The company even includes a “how to taste” section, focusing on incorporating all of one’s senses into the “art of tasting”. “Chocolate is enjoyed.” Reads the page, “Grand Chocolat is experienced” (“Experience Our Expertise”). However, the dishes at Finale were engineered for an audience where fancy desserts are the exception, not the norm. While the cake I ate was sweet and delicious, the textures were somewhat muddy and indiscernible, and the flavors advertised, chocolate, sea salt, and caramel, were not very strong or balanced. The main tastes of the dish were sugar and fat, and the wafer on top was burnt. Perhaps my favorite part of the cake was the slice of pure Valrhona dark chocolate sticking out on top. The focus of this dessert on quantity of sweetness over quality of flavor, on filling the stomach over exciting the palate, seems to suggest catering towards mass marketed tastes.
My second dessert experience, however, was true fine dining. Harvest restaurant is staffed by award-winning chefs (including their pastry chef, Brian Mercury). Its price range is much higher than Finale. Compare $15.99 Short Ribs, the most expensive thing on the Finale Menu, with $40 Painted Hills Farm New York Striploin au Poivre at Harvest. The restaurant is tucked away behind other clothing stores, and despite sitting less than five minutes from my dorm, I never saw it until I went looking for it. Unlike Finale, the feel of Harvest is much more elite, and this is also reflected in the clientele. When I was there, the patrons were all much older than those at Finale, and seemed to be engaged in business meetings. Part of the experience of fine dining is the feeling of exclusivity, the experience of sharing space with those also in this elite group. Notably, the dessert that I ordered at Harvest, which was comparable in size and ingredients, actually cost me a dollar less than the cake at Finale. The price difference here shows that Harvest focuses more on dinner than dessert. That does not mean that the focus on sustenance at Harvest, and luxury at Finale. In fact, both restaurants sell luxury and indulgence, but Finale does so through luxury products and a luxurious atmosphere, while Harvest uses the principles of flavor and taste to turn any food into an extravagance. For example, at Finale, all the dishes are named in English, directed to a larger American public, instead of the complicated French terms that Harvest assumes its exclusive customers can understand.
Furthermore, the taste of chocolate, caramel and salt in the Crèmeux were very different than in the molten cake. Their online menu describes the dish as “house made sea salt, salted caramel brown sugar granola, milk chocolate malt sauce, vanilla mascarpone” (Harvest, Dessert Menu). The flavors in Harvest’s Crèmeux were much more intense, especially the bite of the salt, which balanced out the sweetness of the chocolaty mousse. The textures in the Harvest dessert were also more complex and provided a contrast to each other: the crunch of the granola, the almost fudgy Crèmeux, and the chewy caramel. The textural changes helped draw my attention again to the flavors, to really savor and think about what I was eating. I think it took me longer to eat that Crèmeux than any dessert I’ve had before. Intense flavors are often a sign of fancier or upper class food options, instead of the more “bland” food of the masses. Stuckey makes fun of her partner for his limited palate and preference for mild flavors. “How can you call yourself a foodie” she asks, “when all you eat is meat and potatoes?” (16). Although she learns to appreciate the subtlties of his palate, it remains a common conception that someone more sophisticated, elite or worldly would prefer bold flavors to analyze.
The Harvest Crèmeux follows the “local food” trend prevalent in high-class establishments. Local food and fair trade are relatively recent developments in the food world that highlight and attempt to close the gap between producers and consumers. Brian Mercury locally sources his on ingredients, even takes trips out to the seashore to collect his own salt, effectively controlling every step in the production of the food (Gelsomin).
The chocolate in the Crèmeux comes from Taza chocolate, a company that produces stone ground chocolate from direct trade beans in South America. Just as much of a luxury as Valrhona, Taza produces chocolate on a smaller scale with even more attention given to the experience of consuming the chocolate both in terms of taste (the texture of stone ground chocolate is very distinctive) and ethical purchasing (local and direct trade options make consumers feel better about their purchase). However, this means that it’s difficult to get large amounts of these ingredients, further contributing to the exclusive nature of Harvest and its food.
These movements grow out of the history of the commodities that make up the distinct flavors in the desserts: chocolate, sugar, and salt. Historians Sophie and Michael Coe wrote The True History of Chocolate, describing how it served as a luxury, sustenance, or medicine throughout the Americas and Europe. Anthropologist Sidney Mintz analyzes the history of sugar as a commodity in Sweetness and Power, and the crop’s ties to forced labor and colonialism. A group of Italian scientists wrote a “History of Salt” that ties the spice’s medical properties to its long history through cultures and conflicts. Each ingredient provides its own enticing properties as a food historically consumed in great amounts, for reasons as diverse as biology or cultural-functionalism. Food can never be a simple commodity because of its essential nature; we all need sustenance through food. These three ingredients have long, elaborate but mostly unknown histories that shape how Americans today view them as commodities.
All of this leaves us with food as a divisor in society, even though it is one thing that all people have in common. Food scholar Charles Z. Levkoe discusses the “commodification of human relationships” in regards to selling food, explaining how all people can be reduced to consumers under capitalism (Levkoe, 587). His ideas relate to the commodification of the chocolate experience: everything can be sold, not just objects. Economist Robert Albritton goes further and describes the history of food entwined with the history of capitalism, which today “promotes both hunger and obesity while at the same time undermining the earth’s capacity to support us,” (Albritton 350). When one tastes food, they are experiencing it in a fundamentally different way than someone who simply eats food. Additionally, food as commodity to be tasted, experienced, enjoyed, is a primarily reserved for the upper class.
Consumers are sold the act of indulging in these chocolate and fancy desserts. Americans are trained by advertising and by other members in society to want these experiences. If you’re mouth isn’t watering at the end of this essay, then I haven’t done a good enough job with either pictures or description of how delicious those desserts were. It’s because of the social and mental experience of eating it, not inherent properties of the food itself, that chocolate is associated with craving, guilt, and other psychological effects (Benton, 213-214). Due to its long history as an elite product, chocolate is a food on the edge, with some inherently luxurious properties. Because of this, it can be an “indulgence” even as a mass-produced product. However, the luxury of taste, the full sensual experience of fine dining is reserved for the upper class, and this extends to chocolate as well. Capitalism creates divides in society even in regards to food, and chocolate, which seem to be boundary crossers, by commodifying the seemingly intangible. When we walk into a restaurant, we’re sold more than just a dessert.
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