Exoticism and the Gentrification of Chocolate: From Confectionary Competitions to Peruvian Explorations

During my trip to Peru this spring break, I was fascinated by plethora of stores selling locally-grown Peruvian chocolate and related derivative beverages. In afternoon excursions to local chocolate shops, I stumbled upon a store called “ChocoMuseo” carrying Peruvian-made chocolate goods including soaps, lotions, and of course all kinds of chocolate bars. Over 40 varieties were found on shelves spanning different regions of Peru: dark, milk or white chocolate with embedding choices such as nibs, coffee, nuts and fruits. Although the experience was fascinating, I quickly ran into several other locations of ChocoMuseo with the exact same logos, offerings and prices. What I had originally associated as a unique local store, was actually a large corporate chain with branches in Nicaragua, Punta Cana, Cusco – countries which are not even top exporters of cacao beans. Although I was slightly disappointed, foreign tourists from North America and Europe flocked to the store.

Figure 1

Figure 1. All the different kinds of chocolate bars produced by ChocoMuseo including 70% dark chocolate, milk chocolate and white chocolate with different kinds of embedded ingredients such as salt, nibs, coffee beans, and M&Ms.

Figure 2

Figure 2. A variety of products covered by ChocoMuseo including body lotion, Chocolate oil, chocolate soap and chocolate essence.

Although disappointed by my discovery, I was intrigued by the tourist fascination with these foreign goods while there were no locals browsing any of the stores, most likely due to the prohibitive prices. In this way, I had stumbled upon the idea that this product had become gentrified in the heart of the source. From lecture, personal research, and some basic experiments, I decided to explore this phenomenon which I believe is a combination of exoticism and gentrification of chocolate taste in developed nations. As I gazed at all the luxury perfumes, soaps, lotions, cooking oils all at premium prices in this ChocoMuseo store, I was fascinated by this idea of gentrification of taste and the role that exoticism plays in our social habits related to consuming food. In this final essay, I explore the sociohistorical background regarding this phenomenon, which I henceforth term “exotic gentrification” and the social implications for how we now interact with others about our food. I explore three assertions in how exotic gentrification impacts society including how it adds a dimension for people to judge their food, not from taste or presentation, but rather from knowing where their food originated; it has driven stratifications and attempts to put a subjective taste into objective and quantitative measures; finally, it has exacerbated the inequality present between the producers and consumers of these exotic goods.

Today, the most prominent examples of this exotic gentrification can be found in chocolate competitions made to judge all kinds of rare and exotic cacao as well as popular trends such as eating foreign-specialty vegetables and meats such as Kobe Beef. However, the origins of this phenomenon can be traced back to the beginnings of colonialism. For instance during colonialism from the 1600 to 1700s when more than “seven hundred thousand pounds of cacao and chocolate” were transported to Europe, “the reality was that Europeans unwittingly developed a taste for Indian chocolate, which involved not only bodily changes but also the absorption and fascination with cultural material” (Norton 2004). Just as Spaniards learned to “replicate the taste of Mesoamerican chocolate, they also learned to internalize the association between chocolate and noble distinction” (Norton 2004).

Figure 3

Figure 3. Cavalier and Lady Drinking Chocolate indicating the status the requisite status of people drinking chocolate in the colonial era.

However, these associations quickly faded as chocolate production began to modernize through the industrial revolution. While today people are drawn to Swiss and Belgium chocolate for its quality and individual character, the Swiss and other chocolate industries all across Europe, experienced rapid industrialization in the 1800s as they “equipped with vast factories provided with the newest machinery worked by the cheap force of nature, decreased the novelty of chocolate (Farrer 1908). This process made it easy for the twentieth century “rising industrial chocolate makers (Hershey, Mars, Cadbury, Nestle) [to] thoroughly efface any links with the sweaty, tropical farms whence their primary ingredient came” (Leissle 2013). This starkly contrasts today’s consumer environment which not only wants to know what they are eating, but where their food comes from and how it was made.

An example of exotic gentrification is indeed my excursion to Peru and these chocolate stores that are purely in place to engage wealthy tourists from foreign nations. However, a less extreme example of this can also be found in fascination regarding single origin bars, chocolate made from beans from a single region, country or plantation, which has been experiencing “increasing demand along with organic, local produce” (Leissle 2013). An illustrative statistic tells us that “in 1997, there was one bean-to-bar artisan chocolate maker selling commercially in the U.S. – Sharffen Berger” and today “there are at least thirty-seven” (Leissle 2013). With a clear resurgence in healthy eating, locally sourced foods, and all-natural products, we also see extremes of this all co-mingled with a touch of exotic gentrification of food items.

More importantly, how does this exotic gentrification affect the social context of consumption of chocolate today and how we interact with each other when we consume such foods? I explore three assertions in how exotic gentrification impacts society including how it adds a dimension for people to judge their food, not from taste or presentation, but rather from knowing where their food originated; it has driven stratifications and attempts to put a subjective taste into objective and quantitative measures; finally, it has exacerbated the inequality present between the producers and consumers of these exotic goods.

First, the exoticism alters our perception of food, not to taste, but to the associations behind it. Although this can yield benefits in situations where people can support a cause for fair trade foods, focusing on information can also distort our actual taste and feelings toward an object to an extreme. Primarily, I argue that this type of exoticism and gentrification of chocolate leads to flawed perceptions regarding the quality of a chocolate based not on its taste, but rather due to the associations regarding a food item. To test this hypothesis, I utilized several bars of the ChocoMuseo items I had brought from Peru to conduct a basic experiment.

After gathering particular information regarding the award-winning “Tumbes” region chocolates I had purchased from my trip, I conducted basic taste tests and interviews with friends and students about how this chocolate tasted. For one group, I provided the full information regarding the background of the chocolate saying that it was locally produced in Peru and had received an award from a prestigious French competition, there was indeed a more positive reaction with the most frequent response being, “I can really taste how different it is from regular chocolate!” However, for students I did not prompt any background and just a blind taste test, the most frequent response was that it “tasted the same as regular chocolate”. These results are highly indicative of the views that we have towards food today including the idea that people can often distort their actual tastes and feelings toward a certain food just based on knowing particular information. In this particular example, exoticism seems to produce irrational results with little practicality and I would argue that distorted perspectives can have negative implications.

Figure 4

Figure 4. Unique chocolate bars proclaimed “Best Cacao of the World” based on the award-winning cacao from the Tumbes region of Peru.

Another common avenue we can see this exoticism appealing to unsuspecting tourists is readily reflected in tourism advertisements targeted at the wealthy luxury traveler from more developed nations for “authentic and exotic experiences” such as in this advertisement from a partner of ChocoMuseo:

Figure 5. An advertisement from the Luxury Peru Travel Company for an “exotic” experience of being hosted at a cacao farmer’s home and learning about how to make chocolate and coffee.

Second, gentrification of taste in chocolate consumption can now be used to construct social stratifications of both foods and people in the same way as some other activities now do such as wine or opera. A unique example that I explore is the impact that various confectionary and chocolate competitions have as the ultimate manifestation of turning a taste, which is in its purist form a subjective pursuit into an objective pursuit with quantitative measures. Away from the purview of the mass consumer market, chocolate competitions perpetuate a culture of couture consumption – luxury goods out of reach for the common man or woman. For example, in my browsing of Peruvian chocolate from ChocoMuseo, store associates often recommended a bar of award-winning “Tumbes-region” chocolate costing $8 USD. Reflecting gentrification, this price is somewhat palatable to some of our tastes, but was this was prohibitively expensive by local Peruvian standards. After buying a couple bars given the strong recommendation, I checked whether the story matched up. Indeed, “cacao producers from Tumbes were awarded the International Cacao Award at the Salon du Chocolat in Paris” (Chase 2013).

Figure 6

Figure 6. Lionel Clement, French born chocolatier is a U.S. Candidate at the World Chocolate Masters competitions.

Throughout ChocoMuseo, articles espoused the discovery of rare chocolate species that had recently been found in Peru, which drove demand due to a combination of rarity and exoticism (Hall 2013). Unsurprisingly, powerful chefs and food influencers also perpetuate this cycle. When Fortunato, the world’s most rarest cacao found in Pure Nacional, in the high altitudes of Peru, was discovered, “Van Gerwen, owner and chief chocolatier at the House of Anvers…[obtained the] exclusive rights to sell the world’s most sought after chocolate to the Austrian market” (Hall 2013). With bars sold at a steep price of 10 dollars, this is just one example that underscores some of the exotic gentrification that occurs when selling a rare good leading back to the ancestral roots of Peruvian cultural heritage and cacao biological origins. To herald in a seemingly new era of opulence for chocolate consumption, Van Gerwen states “This is what chocolate would have tasted like when it was being enjoyed by European royalty” (Hall 2013). When related to the international stage for wine, where thousands of wine magazines and competitions award medals and scores on hundred point scales, chocolate appears to be following in a similar direction. As mentioned, however, it is nearly impossible to fit a subjective pursuit into an objective rubric. Studies suggest that wine competitions showing “little concordance among judges across nearly 13 U.S. wine competitions and 4,000 wines” (Hodgson 2009).

Figure 7

Figure 7. One of the largest competitions of American wines in the world, Cloverdale Citrus Fair Wine Competition hosts distinguished judges scoring wines on a 1 to 100 scale.

Third and finally, the most damaging effect of this gentrification is that it disconnects workers from the actual product they produce, creating both social and financial disparities. Not only does this phenomenon underscore the income inequality between consumers and producers of such a good, it also contributes to undue exoticism, fascination, even humor without an appreciation for the deep historical meanings for a culture (Terrio et al. 2005). To examine the income inequality issue, we can refer back to a video we watched in lecture regarding Ivory Coast chocolate workers. With increase in demand for such goods, income disparity issues become exacerbated as higher demand grows for these exotic foods (Leissle 2013). Additionally, the divergence in perspectives between producer and product are clearly present when we see chocolate workers in the Ivory Coast tasting chocolate for the first time:

Figure 8. A video from Metropolis showing Ivory Coast cacao farmers tasting chocolate for the very first time, indicating the true disparity between farmers and the consumers of the final good. Though exaggerated, it reflects a reality of producers and consumers of some types of fine exotic chocolate.

Just as important, exoticism often breeds humor rather than understanding and appreciation. For example, in 2013, Anthony Bourdain took a trip to Peru travel to “Chiclayo to see the rare chocolate trees that produced their $18 chocolate bars” (Shankman 2013). During the process, he visits a “shaman who blesses both chefs and prepares a mixture to bless the beans” and the writer claims that “Bourdain is amazingly able to keep a straight face throughout the shamanic exercise, even when soda is spewed on his face” (Shankman 2013). I argue that this attitude is representative of developed nation populations at large, reflecting the perception of certain exotic and disconnected cultures as archaic and oftentimes humorous. To the extent that exoticism and gentrification cultivates this kind of disconnect, there is a great need to narrow this income gap, enforce fair trade mechanisms and decrease gentrification for exotic goods.

Figure 9

Figure 9. Anthony Bourdain getting a traditional ritual treatment from a local shaman in his journey to find rare Peruvian cacao trees in the Andes.

Ultimately, exoticism and gentrification produce some concerning implications for how we interact with our food in a social context. For those whose perspectives are distorted due to information regarding a food, it can lead to irrational preferences or incorrect beliefs. For those who attempt to objectify tastes that are inherently subjective, chocolate can create stratifications for quality and people based on their knowledge of the food. Finally, the cultural and financial expense of the gentrification of foods is clearly reflected in the disparity between producers and consumers of fine exotic chocolate today. The ground is ripe for change in the chocolate industry, and reversing this process of gentrification with a greater understanding for the cultures and origins of this storied food item is the way to start.

Multimedia Sources: 

Chase, Rachel. “Peruvian Cocoa Wins Award in Paris, France.” National. Peru This Week: Living in Peru, 7 Nov. 2013. Web. 06 May 2015.

http://www.peruthisweek.com/news-peruvian-cocoa-wins-award-in-paris-france-101362

“Cusco Peru Chocolate & Coffee Plantation Tour” by the Luxury Peru Travel Company

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qYcN6KQdCn4

“First Taste of Chocolate in Ivory Coast” by VPRO Metropolis

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zEN4hcZutO0

Hall, Terra. “The World’s Rarest Chocolate Discovered in Peru.” Features. Peru This Week: Living in Peru, 23 Aug. 2013. Web. 06 May 2015.

http://www.peruthisweek.com/food-the-worlds-rarest-chocolate-discovered-in-peru-100726

Shankman, Samantha. “Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” Episode 7 Recap: Chocolate in Peru.” Digital. Skift, 03 June 2013. Web. 06 May 2015.

http://skift.com/2013/06/03/anthony-bourdains-parts-unknown-episode-7-recap-peruvian-chocolate/

“World Chocolate Masters Competition” by Janet Rudolph

http://dyingforchocolate.blogspot.com/2009/10/world-chocolate-masters-competition.html

 

Works Cited:

Farrer, A. Muriel. “The Swiss Chocolate Industry.” The Economic Journal (1908): 110-114.

Hodgson, Robert T. “An analysis of the concordance among 13 US wine competitions.” Journal of Wine Economics 4.01 (2009): 1-9.

Hodgson, Robert T. “An examination of judge reliability at a major US wine competition.” Journal of Wine Economics 3.02 (2008): 105-113.

Leissle, Kristy. “Invisible West Africa: The Politics of Single Origin Chocolate.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 13.3 (2013): 22-31.

Norton, Marcy. “Conquests of Chocolate.” oah Magazine of History 18.3 (2004): 14-17.

Terrio, Susan J., J. L. Watson, and M. L. Caldwell. “Crafting grand cru chocolates in contemporary France.” The cultural politics of food and eating: A reader (2005): 144-162.

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