Cardullo’s and the Simultaneous Distance and Exoticization Constructed through Chocolate

Cardullo’s has been a staple in Harvard Square since 1950, when Frank Cardullo and his family set up shop to bring rare treats and fine goods to the families and students in the historic area of Massachusetts. The Cardullo family was locally known for its love of great food and distant travel, passions they said inspired their “gourmet shop” and helped them locate only the finest global ingredients and products.[1] The shop positions itself as a global market of sorts – attracting and retaining those who appreciate anything from a $14 imported chocolate bar to Australian sodas and unique cheeses.

Photograph of the outside of Cardullo’s — From Boston City Voter/WGBH:

And yet while Cardullo’s self-describes as a global melting pot of tastes, terroirs, and social experiences, everything from the shop’s aesthetics to its product choices belie a culture of elite and exclusive consumption. Though certainly successful in sourcing ingredients from Canada to Cote d’Ivoire, the shop does little to meaningfully bridge the current or historical relationships between the various locales represented. Inherent to the shop’s design and product selection is an assumed white, Western, and wealthy audience, intrigued by the products of exotic and distant lands. The shop fails to encourage much global dialogue or to offer a glimpse into the lives of those living and working in the places from which its products arrive. Cardullo’s retail experience, particularly in its chocolate aisle, maintains a safe distance between white and elite food exploration and the realities lived by the black and brown bodies at the start of its many food chains.

Cardullo’s has crafted a specific social and shopping experience. The shop has a pin-stripe awning, displaying its name and adverts in stately (typically cursive) red fonts. The interior has a homey, old-time feel – featuring hardwood floors and the marked absence of any monitors or flashy technologies. Soft, wordless jazz music plays in the background. The shop caters to a mature and decidedly non-millennial audience. In good weather, patrons – most often women aged anywhere from 20-60—sit, chat, and eat sandwiches and desserts on the mini patio outside. The store is designed to transport you to a specific social and emotional context, evocative of 1940s and 1950s Americana.

However, Cardullo’s appearance and social experience is distinct from those embedded in their products, especially in the chocolate aisle. While the shop constructs a white and American physical identity, its chocolate selection relies on the eclectic combination of European sensibilities and hints of African exoticness. Most of its chocolate products hail from Europe-based chocolate companies celebrating Western social relationships and holidays. A large box of German chocolates named “Mozart-Kugeln” is sold prominently on the top shelf, displaying a portrait of famed musician Wolfgang Mozart. A small sign in the chocolate section reminds shoppers it is nearly Mother’s Day. Chocolates like the Italian treat “Baci” are marketed as an integral part of loving and familial relationships. The Baci are positioned centrally displaying the catchphrase “Say I love you the Italian way.” A large section of Kinder brand chocolates with packaging that portrays white, blue-eyed boys is conveniently located at eye-level for young kids. The Kinder chocolates embody this combination of European traditions – “kinder” is a German word for children, and yet the brand owners are part of the Italian Ferrero SpA Corporation.[2]

Cote d'Or Belgian Chocolates use the imagery of presumably African elephants as an indicator of exotic origin and luxury. Photograph by Antonia Hylton.
Cote d’Or Belgian Chocolates use the imagery of presumably African elephants as an indicator of exotic origin and luxury. Photograph by blog author.

These Europe-centric goods are placed side by side with chocolates that highlight the West African sources of their cacao as a selling point for uniqueness and quality. But without any context about the shop’s relationship with these companies, the ethical standards of the brands’ production, or the experiences of the producers in places like South America and West Africa, the act of comparing and contrasting Western cultural icons with “African” imagery does little else but tokenize black bodies as markers which enhance the luxury status of goods destined to be consumed by a primarily white audience. A featured chocolate brand Cote d’Or, for example, describes itself as an “authentic experience” of cocoa beans from West Africa and South America, making it “Belgium’s #1 Chocolate Brand.” The chocolates are imprinted with the company’s symbolic elephant – an animal that evokes a stereotypically African environment and topography. Even the name Cote d’Or is borrowed from West Africa, as it was the original name of contemporary Ghana. In addition, a brand named Michel Cluizel is marked as a “product of France,” but is promoted with the title “Plantation” and with packaging made of a map of Sao Tome Island (presumably where the raw cacao is grown). The visual contrast of West African symbols and with European tradition is jarring; the consumer is subtly reminded that cacao leaves the hands of faceless black laborers in West Africa, destined for the mouths of blue-eyed Kinder kids in Europe and the Americas.

The Kinder kid. Young blue-eyed, Caucasian boy featured as the target consumer of chocolate. Photograph by Antonia Hylton
The Kinder kid. Young blue-eyed, Caucasian boy featured as the target consumer of chocolate. Photograph by blog author.

As Emma Robertson argues in Chocolate, Women and Empire, European brands have historically used depictions of West African peoples to aid in “the construction of chocolate as an exotic commodity.”[3] West Africans served as the enslaved labor force under European colonization, producing the raw materials for coffee, tea, rum, and cocoa under harsh plantation conditions for European markets in the 16 – 19th centuries. Robertson explores the example of English confection company, Rowntree, which used black characters and stereotypically African imagery (i.e. jungles, cannibals) in its 20th century advertising to create a “visible difference” from European culture.[4] This visual and spatial difference, embodied by Rowntree’s black cartoon characters Honeybunch and Little Coco, helped create a unique identity and self-affirming esteem for Rowntree and English culture. In other words, chocolate’s appeal to Western audiences historically relied on the exoticization and generalization of African peoples. Though Cardullo’s markets itself as a shop celebrating global tastes and experiences, it does so at a similar distance. The shop is distinctly American with a strong affinity for European craft and ingenuity, which is in turn enhanced by mere hints of the mystique of African production. Africa, specifically West African cacao-producing nations like Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, are celebrated as little more than an interesting taste or a promise of quality.

A Rowntree advert featuring Honeybunch, a young black cartoon girl featured in advertisements to white, English consumers. Photograph from:
A 20th century Rowntree advert featuring Honeybunch, a young black cartoon girl featured in advertisements to white, English consumers. Photograph from:

The marginalization of the African contribution to chocolate is not simply a problem due of its parallels to slavery’s past; it is a contemporary condition that creates disparities from South to North, black to white, and local to multinational. Bama Athreya of the International Labor Rights Forum argues in “White Man’s ‘Burden’ and the New Colonialism in West African Cocoa Production” that to this day, chocolate corporations and NGOs are manipulating the cacao supply chain and depressing the prices received by producers in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana.[5] This, in turn, creates modern conditions of desperation, child labor, and enslavement. When challenged, these companies, including multinational, European-origin brands like Cadbury, have denied responsibility and claimed that it would be unfair to impose “Western stereotypes” and expectations on Africans engaging in exploitative labor practices.[6] Strangely, despite acknowledging a cultural gap, they have excluded farmers and producers from corporate negotiations and solutions. West African “difference” is constructed as intriguing and appropriate enough for marketing gimmicks, but unwelcome from global business decision-making. Such behavior is not a far cry from a colonial and imperial past; in denying responsibility for labor conditions, Western chocolate companies are complicit in a system that values West Africa as a cheap labor source, and not a as a business partner.

The contemporary conditions of the chocolate business add an additional layer of cognitive dissonance to the experience shopping in Cardullo’s. Blackness is invited in in controlled, symbolic instances – the flash of an elephant, the global coordinates of a plantation, a picture of Sao Tome – but is excluded from a greater global conversation. And in a shop like Cardullo’s, which is ostensibly trying to generate some level of global communication and access, the ironies and hypocrisies are especially clear. Brands engaging in Fair or Direct Trade – certifications that encourage either a set of specific sustainable labor practices and/or direct sourcing and negotiation with producers[7] – are not clearly marked and, in fact, many of the bars are left un-translated from multiple European languages. The brand Vosges Haut Chocolat exemplifies the confused messaging of many of Cardullo’s brands. One Vosges bar, the Red Fire Bar, offers no information about the source of the cacao, though it does hint at the Mexican origins of the chili flavoring. Instead, it focuses on offering the consumer instructions on “How to Enjoy an Exotic Chocolate Bar.” The consumer is coached to “Breathe… engage your senses… Take three deep ujjayi breaths, quiet the chattering mind and be in the present moment,” and is offered other flowery descriptors and instructions. Though the owner refers to the chocolate as “sustainable” there are no official trade or organic certifications and no indication of a close relationship with the cacao producers. The experience of Vosges chocolate is focused on cultivating the Western consumer alone. The parallels to yoga practice are targeted to a wealthy, white audience with the leisure time and money to experiment with other culture’s traditions and engage with chocolate spiritually. The consumer is taught that she can briefly and pleasurably engage with the elusive and exotic by simply focusing in on herself and her sensibilities – no need to exchange with the people behind the product.

The backside of the Vosges Red Fire Bar. Photograph taken by Antonia Hylton.
The backside of the Vosges Red Fire Bar. Photograph by blog author.

In her lectures on “Alternative trade and virtuous localization/globalization,” Carla Martin questioned who truly benefited from various organic, trade, and environmental certifications. She argued that the Fair Trade and organic certifications, in particular, were riddled with inconsistencies, sharing little of the wealth with the farmers, and/or often failing to improve labor conditions in the cacao-growing communities the brands partnered with.[8] The seemingly ethical marketing, higher pricing, and labeling for fine chocolate companies are often “a lot of talk, and little walk,” and the result is that they tend to assuage the guilt or concern of consumers whilst still obscuring the realities of cacao production. So when a company like Vosges, that is not even visibly certified, uses language on its packaging like “sustainable” and “bringing about awareness of indigenous cultures,” they are tapping into this trend which places the comfort and conscience of the Western consumer over meaningful dialogue with West African or South American people. In Vosges case, this is especially abhorrent because the company does not even participate in certified organizations. Vosges is simply mimicking socially conscious language in its efforts to enhance its own “exotic” and experiential brand.

Thus the consumer absorbs West African pictures and elements as part of the aesthetic experience of chocolate, but is not held accountable for the realities lived by the black and brown persons laboring to make the product’s raw materials. Carol Off writes in Bitter Chocolate that consumers have, for the most part, been able to ignore the uncomfortable fact that “Chocolate – the innocent, inexpensive little treat – came to North America from the hands of underfed, ill-treated African children who toiled in bonded servitude.”[9] Consumers primarily see the West African contribution to chocolate as an exotic accessory, exciting flavor, and distant intrigue, and not as a global partner sharing in the sorts of social relationships chocolate products are intended to build. Bama Athreya describes the chocolate industry as suspending the working class consumers of “industrializing countries” in an “ever-growing dependence” on its commodities and the repression they depend on. Westerners are at once distantly aware of chocolate’s West African origins and deftly unconscious of what that sociocultural distance means. Cardullo’s is adept at maintaining that very distance. The shop’s aesthetics and product selections in the chocolate aisle cater to an elite audience familiar with American or European tradition. There is little to no information and dialogue about the food chain, and black and brown voices, hinted at through small mentions, symbols, and pictures, are ultimately excluded from celebration of the final chocolate product.

– AAAS118x26, Wednesday Section

Works Cited

[1] “Frequently Asked Questions.” Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe. Accessed May 5, 2015.

[2] “Ferrero – the Most Famous Products: Kinder Chocolate.” Accessed May 5, 2015. Ferrero.

[3] Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009: 36

[4] Ibid., 41

[5] Athreya, Bama. “White Man’s ‘Burden’ and the New Colonialism in West African Cocoa Production.” Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts 5, no. 1 (2011): 51-59

[6] Ibid., 53

[7] Martin, Carla. “Alternative trade and virtuous localization/globalization.” Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. 6 Apr. 2015. Lecture.

[8] Martin, Carla. “Alternative trade and virtuous localization/globalization.” Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. 6 Apr. 2015. Lecture.

[9] Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. New York: New Press, 2008: 137-138


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