Chocolate was once very expensive. Almost every store today will offer chocolate right at the counter, at very low costs. But there is a high cost associated with the entire process of making chocolate, which is oftentimes unrealized because it is figured in a social cost. In the course of chocolate’s (un)celebrated history, there have been few periods where chocolate was as inexpensive as it is now, whether the costs are figured in terms of capital, labour, or social currency. As chocolate has become integrated in cultures worldwide, the advance of technology has propelled this shift from a monetary cost towards one that is far more socially punishing. Chocolate’s social value has grown from once being a food for the elite, to being a widely accessible part of the human diet.
To begin at the start of the chocolate-making process, growing cacao is extremely labour intensive. The cacao tree is hard to grow, and requires particular weather conditions that aren’t too sunny, too shady, too cold, or too hot. Cacao is a finicky tree to grow. In the Aztec society, the Aztecs could only obtain cacao beans through the efforts of Pochteca merchants. These merchants carried cacao from the Mayan lowlands to the Aztec highlands, but at great costs because upon arrival they were celebrated with elaborate feasts. (Martin, Feb 4). Simply put, merely obtaining cacao in early Mesoamerican culture was a considerable cost in terms of labour and money.
Once available in the Mesoamerican markets, cacao was valued very highly, to the point where it was a viable form of currency. But chocolate was also appreciated in a social sense – the Mayans had the word “chokola’j”, meaning “to drink chocolate together” (Coe & Coe, 61). The Mayans valued not only chocolate, but the act of drinking with another person. Interestingly enough, in Aztec culture the chocolate drink was also favoured as a social alternative to octli, a “mildly alcoholic” beverage (Coe & Coe, 75). However, chocolate was still “an ambrosia from the rich and exotic lands of Anahuac, not something to wash down one’s food” (Coe & Coe, 95). Thus, chocolate clearly did have a social value early on in its history.
That social value grew more prominent once chocolate spread to Europe and was hybridized. Food is inherently a social activity, and chocolate even more so. Chocolate even had social value after it was popularized in Europe. At first, there was still “the association of drinking chocolate with high social standing” (Presilla, 25), but soon the taste for chocolate had spread to the masses. In the 1600s and 1700s, chocolate houses were fashionable places where people could meet their friends to enjoy various rich chocolate drinks, as seen in the image below.
In today’s society, chocolate is still very much a social activity. We go out for hot chocolate, socialize over the fires making s’mores, and delight in fondue with friends. Chocolate has become so very cheap to buy. Every holiday seems to be accompanied by massive sales of themed chocolate. If you enter a store today, you will undoubtedly find an aisle overflowing with Easter candy.
But even chocolate that is sold at relatively low prices can have high social value, especially in today’s society. We gift chocolate like no other – according to Nielsen research from 2009, consumers were expected to purchase more than $345 million in chocolate candy for Valentine’s Day. That figure shows how much value we place in giving and receiving chocolate, which is not even considered expensive today. We think that chocolate is inherently valuable as a social good, and so we continue to give and get, fueling the industry and our sweet addiction to chocolate.
– Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
– Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. Print.
– Professor Carla Martin. Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. 4 February 2015.
– “U.S. CONSUMERS SHOW THEIR LOVE FOR CHOCOLATE ON VALENTINE’S DAY.” Nielsen. N.p., 02 Apr. 2009. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.