Instagram, Yelp, and Tastings: The Sociality of Consumption and the Return of Artisanal Chocolate

Food consumption has long been part of the social human experience. When discussing the industrialization of food, anthropologist Jack Goody focuses on how changes in preserving, mechanization, retailing, and transport impacted today’s food supply (Goody 72). According to this theory, the aforementioned technological improvements worked to shape the post-Industrial Revolution chocolate experience and fostered the rise of industrialized chocolate. However, contrary to what Goody might have expected, there has been a recent growth in artisanal chocolate. Thus, I argue that Goody overlooks how the sociality of consumption also affects the culinary landscape. The shift from group to solitary chocolate eating in the West after the nineteenth century enabled the popularity of industrialized convenience chocolate, and the resurgence of fine chocolate today reflects the reintroduction of sociality to chocolate eating.

Tracing historical patterns of chocolate consumption in the West, I find that group consumption is intricately linked to fine chocolate’s elite status in Baroque Europe. In the European courts and salons, chocolate eating was a social practice that allowed men of a higher class to mingle. For example, at upper class Spanish social gatherings, known as refrescos, guests were treated to “cups of chocolate, confitures, biscuits…” (Coe 209). According to Coe, gentlemen and nobles would attend these gatherings, even if they despised the taste of chocolate in order to present themselves in a favorable social light (Coe 208). Similarly, in England, chocolate houses were popular in the seventeenth century as sites for meeting and discussing politics. Chocolate was intricately prepared in the European courts, often with opulent instruments. For example, Louis XIV was gifted with “equipment in gold and silver for producing and consuming the chocolate drink” (Coe 157), exemplifying how chocolate was consumed lavishly. Since chocolate was a status symbol to be flaunted among peers, it is hard to imagine someone in Baroque Europe casually eating chocolate alone in his bedroom as we often see today. Thus, I argue that the pomp and exclusivity in Baroque European chocolate consumption shaped the demand for fine chocolate in this era.

During the Industrial Revolution, mass-production made chocolate accessible to the masses and gradually altered how Westerners ate chocolate. Van Houten’s hydraulic press enabled “easily prepared, more easily digestible cocoa…and made possible the large-scale manufacture of cheap chocolate for the masses” (Coe 235). In the early 1900s, Milton Hershey pioneered the bite-sized candy trend, producing “huge quantities of a few varieties and prices none higher than a nickel” (D’Antonio 121). As the accessibility of chocolate lowered is social significance, chocolate shifted out of refrescos and into part of the regular Western diet. Chocolate could be found in areas as banal and unceremonious as the rations of soldiers on WWII frontlines. Chocolate bars were created in convenient sizes to refuel the everyman and no longer needed to be exclusively consumed in extravagant group gatherings.

Therefore, the accessibility and convenience of chocolate products enabled a shift in chocolate eating patterns: solitary consumption. Whereas Westerners still culturally eat meals or drink fine wine in groups, there is no longer a social mandate to eat chocolate together. This change in chocolate consumption can be seen both in advertising and modern practice. Chocolate marketing generated a new image of chocolate consumption where an individual is enveloped in a private chocolate eating experience. For instance, the following commercial utilizes the stereotype of a lone woman eating chocolate, which has become a recurring theme in chocolate advertising. Because chocolate consumption is portrayed as an individual experience, chocolate transformed from elaborate artisanal fare into something more appropriate for solitary enjoyment.

These chocolate consumption habits influenced by new consumer priorities justify the popularity of industrialized convenience chocolate after the Industrial Revolution. If Baroque Europeans ate chocolate in groups to symbolically proclaim their social status, modern Americans consume chocolate in light of psychological benefits. In times of stress or heartache, Americans often turn to eating chocolate in private as consolation, as seen in this clip from the Legally Blonde movie. In an anonymous survey of 33 Harvard students, I also found that this sample mainly ate chocolate as a “comfort food,” which contrasts with the socialized, Baroque perception of chocolate as a status symbol. Although the sample is not likely representative of all American consumers, this survey supports the fact that many consumers eat chocolate alone and seek convenience chocolate. Because these customers frequently seek chocolate for comfort, they reach for whatever chocolate substances are most accessible and convenient, resulting in demand for affordable and industrially produced brands. Thus, the idea that chocolate is often eaten alone is compounded by the perception that chocolate consumption is associated with comfort.

Survey Results
Survey Results

To investigate modern eating habits further, I examined the relationship between chocolate and dining habits at Greenhouse Café, a popular and centrally located café at Harvard University. Here, chocolate items were readily accessible by the checkout counter and the snack areas of the café. There is limited social interaction in the café because food is often purchased and eaten on-the-go as students sneak a bite between classes or while they cram for exams. To fit this manner of consumption, the café only carried bulk chocolate, such as Reese’s and M&Ms, and even their more expensive options, such as the Odwalla chocolate protein shake, were also mass-produced and conveniently packaged. Bulk chocolate producers enjoy enormous market share, not only in Harvard cafés but also the American chocolate landscape more broadly. Therefore, the pattern of unsociable consumption corresponds with the success of the industrial chocolate.

Greenhouse Cafe
Greenhouse Cafe
Odwalla Drink
Greenhouse Cafe Refrigerator

Thus far, the sociality of chocolate seems to provide the same conclusion of industrialized food that Goody proposes. Goody claims the developments in production and retailing allowed for “homogenization of food consumption,” so “differences in income, class, and status have to manifest themselves in other ways” (Goody 85). However, there has been a recent growth in artisanal chocolate’s popularity that appears contradictory to Goody’s perspective of world food industrailization. Goody’s argument that improvements in food preservation, mechanization, retailing, and transportation shape the food landscape falls short in explaining the contemporary popularity of non-industrial foods. Can trends in the sociality of consumption better justify why both industrial and artisanal chocolate are popular in 2015?

Firstly, as sharing one’s food experiences online becomes a growing trend, eating has become social again. Because these social media platforms have become “a barometer for popularity, friendship status, and self-worth” (Simmons), using these channels to simulate interactive food consumption has generated a modern intersection between class, socialization, and eating. The use of social media apps demonstrates a highly class-based practice through the possession of smart phones and stable data or Internet access. On Instagram, photos filed under “#chocolate” demonstrate how consumers have incorporated social media into food consumption habits to reestablish artisanal chocolate’s social importance. Eating fine chocolate links a consumer to a higher class due to the pricey nature of the food, the more sophisticated palate associated with enjoying the taste, and the requisite knowledge of chocolate. Thus, manifested distinctions in income, class, and status can be conferred through apps like Instagram in today’s chocolate landscape. The majority of chocolate photos on Instagram (when I previewed the hashtag) featured artisanal chocolate (e.g., boxed truffles from expensive stores) demonstrating how people used social media to share moments of chocolate luxury; unsurprisingly, virtually nobody shared photos of bulk chocolate. Similar to attending eighteenth century refrescos, posting photos of one’s expensive chocolate appears to promote a more social consumption experience that differentiates an elite consumer from the masses.

Similarly, popular apps like Yelp allow people to share their eating excursions through writing public reviews, checking in, or sharing pictures. Even when chocolate is eaten alone, the act of consuming fine chocolate (i.e., chocolate worthy of social media sharing) can be flaunted to people who are not in attendance. Class has become engrained in Yelp’s social dynamics; accumulating a certain number of “check-ins” can make a user a “Duke”, “Baron”, or “King,” and those who are most active on the site annually are deemed “Yelp Elite.” Thus, it is important for users to convey a certain class status through the foods that they review, paving the way for increased interest in artisanal chocolate. For example, the 821 reviews, 264 photographs, and countless check-ins on Yelp for the L.A. Burdick Chocolate location in Harvard Square underscore how consumers are deeply engaged in broadcasting their presence at fine chocolate establishments. Contemporary social media usage counters the post-Industrial Revolution concept that chocolate consumption is unsocial and classless, and these social practices to justify the return of craft chocolate’s popularity.

Secondly, chocolate manufacturers are finding ways to make consumption more interactive. Manufacturers are building success through “targeting their local communities at markets, events, and their own retail locations and combining that with a factory tour and tasting experience” (Williams and Eber 156). By purposely including social interaction with chocolate eating, this strategy allows craft chocolate to shift away from the solitary eating experience associated with mass-produced convenience chocolate. As craft chocolate companies promote these interactive tours and tastings, the connection between sociality and artisanal chocolate consumption is strengthened. Generating a social culture around craft chocolate consumption mirrors the interaction in chocolate houses and refrescos that foster an in-crowd of chocolate “foodies” who attend these events. Hence, these strategies harken back to Old World interactive eating customs and enable artisanal chocolate to regain its social importance.

My experience at Taza Chocolate, a craft chocolate manufacturer in Somerville, MA, encompasses both these trends related to contemporary chocolate customs. On the chocolate tasting tour, people discussed what they liked and did not like about the flavors and their thoughts on chocolate generally—a social experience that contrasted with the unconscious, everyday consumption of bulk chocolate. In addition, I noticed many people using Instagram and Facebook to share photos of their experience. Thus, the prevalence of these newly introduced social customs justifies why more consumers are now interested in artisanal chocolate. By focusing on the technological developments of food in preserving, mechanization, retailing, and transport, without the sociality of consumption, Goody’s argument can only provide a stagnant picture of the food landscape. However, if we include discussions about the social, or unsocial, nature of food consumption, we can better understand how the food supply is perpetually in flux.

When discussing the development of food, scholars would be remiss if they ignored how changes in the population’s consumption habits also transform the experience of food. As these patterns can provide insights on the social implications of food, tracing trends of consumption enables a better understanding of how the food landscape shifts. Although fine chocolate was once the food of elite Baroque European gatherings, mass consumption and the need for comfort and convenience led to a boom in bulk chocolate. Nevertheless, modern use of social media as well as new interactive marketing tactics by chocolate manufacturers have re-established the sociality of chocolate consumption and thus help to explain the recent resurgence of artisanal chocolate.


Works Cited

Butler, Stephanie. “D-Day Rations: How Chocolate Helped Win the War.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 06 June 2014. Web. 05 May 2015. <http://www.history.com/news/hungry-history/d-day-rations-how-chocolate-helped-win-the-war&gt;.

“#chocolate • Instagram Photos and Videos.” Instagram, n.d. Web. 05 May 2015. <https://instagram.com/explore/tags/chocolate/&gt;.

Coe, Sophie D. and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. Revised [and Updated Ed.]. ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2007. Print.

D’Antonio, Michael. Hershey : Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. Print.

“Dove Chocolate Commercial – Senses.” YouTube, 06 May 2013. Web. 05 May 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwPwQ4S4op8&gt;.

Goody, Jack. “Industrial Food: Towards The Development Of A World Cuisine.” Food and Culture : A Reader. New York: Routledge, 1997. 72- 90. Print.

“LA Burdick Chocolate.” Coffee & Tea. Yelp, n.d. Web. 05 May 2015. <http://www.yelp.com/biz/la-burdick-chocolate-cambridge&gt;.

“Legally Blonde “Liar!”” YouTube. YouTube, 03 Oct. 2011. Web. 06 May 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGauMKoX3JE&gt;.

Miles, Jo. “What’s Really Scary on Halloween.” Food Water Watch. N.p., 31 Oct. 2013. Web. 05 May 2015. <http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/blogs/whats-really-scary-on-halloween/&gt;.

Pierson, David. “Artisanal, Hand-crafted Chocolate Is a Growing Niche.” Business. Los Angeles Times, 28 Feb. 2015. Web. 06 May 2015. <http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-artisan-chocolate-20150228-story.html&gt;.

Simmons, Rachel. “The Secret Language of Girls on Instagram.” Opinion. TIME, 10 Nov. 2014. Web. 4 May 2015. <http://time.com/3559340/instagram-tween-girls/&gt;.

Williams, Pam, and Jim Eber. Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate. Vancouver: Wilmor Pub., 2012. Print.

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