Artisan Chocolate Maintains the Elite Status of Chocolate

At its creation chocolate was deemed a choice food item for the elect of Mesoamerica. It was held in such high esteem in cultures across Mesoamerica over other foods that it was effectively imbued with power and attributed divine. Moreover, after the introduction of chocolate to Europe from hands of New World explorers, chocolate became a specialty food and was found almost exclusively in royal courts and homes of the rich. This type of elitist chocolate consumption steadily ceased to be the case with the Industrial Revolution as chocolate transitioned from a specialty product to a commodity due to the innovation and mechanization of chocolate processing and dissemination. Nevertheless, in this 21st century the human desire for elitism and hierarchical structure has paved an avenue for artisanal chocolate production to reinstate chocolate as both a divine and elite experience as a dominant manifestation by which people interact with chocolate.

In Mesoamerica, chocolate was a premium food item amongst the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica including the Mayans and Aztecs. The Mayan and Aztec people esteemed especially the cacao tree, which bears fruits that is the primary constituent of chocolate. The cacao tree was believed to be a portal, or gateway, to the divine realms. Swedish scientist Carl von Linné even named this tree Theobroma cacao—“food of the gods”— which alludes to its sanctity and divinity. Thus, being derived from the cacao tree, chocolate has maintained the essence of divinity attributed to the cacao tree (Presilla, 5). Indeed, chocolate in its most luxurious form as a beverage with a frothy top was an elite item reserved in ancient cultures either as a libation for a sacred offering or as a table food for the governing elites (Presilla, 9,13).

It is known that, over a long course of repeated interactions with the native peoples, European explorers to the New World with the authority of their respective nation stripped the natives of their treasure, resources, and way of life. Chocolate was one treasure that these explorers “discovered” and promptly introduced to Europe in the early 16th century as an item observed to be held in high esteem by the natives of the New World. However, it was not until the 17th and 18th centuries of the Baroque Age that chocolate gained high popularity and subsequently spread throughout Europe as an elite item such that culinary invention and innovations such as the French chocolatière were generated to boost or accentuate the chocolate consumption experience.

French silver chocolatière: an extravagant pot developed specifically to produce, contain, and serve a frothy chocolate beverage.

Coe interestingly illustrates it this way: “[I]t was in Baroque palaces and mansions of the wealthy and powerful that [chocolate] was elaborated and consumed. It had been an elite drink among the copper-skinned, befeathered Mesoamericans, and it stayed that way among the white-skinned, perfumed, bewigged, overdressed royalty and nobility of Europe” (Coe, 125). Despite its transatlantic voyage and its transmission throughout the European continent, chocolate maintained and perhaps increased its status as an elite food that was utilized as a marker for prestige of the consumer.

The Industrial Revolution, which was most active from the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries, marked the transitional period of chocolate transforming from a costly beverage for the elite and rich, which it had been for over 2000 years prior, to a cheap solid food; and by the 19th century, chocolate had become a commodity available for all (Coe, 232). Specifically, the innovations produced by Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes Van Houten like the hydraulic press of 1828 was the catalyst that caused the abrupt transition from chocolate as a foamy beverage to chocolate as a scalable item for mass consumption in both powdered and solid form.

Hydraulic cocoa press: a machine that removed most of the cocoa butter out of chocolate to form a solid cake that can be pulverized into powdered called cocoa

Building from these starting point after the Industrial Revolution, chocolate has made sweeping gains that have contributed to its mass accessibility and consumption in the 19th and 20th century. According to Goody, the globalization of chocolate can be attributed developments in product preservation, mechanization, retailing, and transport (Goody, 72). Previous to this, in Mesoamerica chocolate was reserved for special honorific occasions of sacrifice and celebration with nobles, and in Europe during the Baroque Age chocolate was consumed as a fine sign or indicator of one’s elite status. Now, however, a return to an elitist perception of chocolate is returning. This is seen most clearly in the production of what is being called artisan chocolate. The Fine Chocolate Industry Association offers the following definition for artisan chocolate: “This term refers to chocolate produced by small chocolate makers–artisans–who understand their craft intimately. Artisan chocolate must be made under the care and supervision of a knowledgeable chocolate maker who could be defined as an artisan.” Goody through his work would suggest that food industrialization including that of chocolate would be of sweeping and lasting popularity. The paradigm of the 20th century is that foods that were produced via mechanization attain the public’s stamp of approval as a product that can be assured of a high, repeatable, and standardized quality. This paradigm has not pervaded very far into the 21st century but has counterintuitively shifted in the opposite direction such that, in the public opinion, food items that are created via industrialized processes are not seen as necessarily bearing an acceptable standardized quality but instead are seen as being a neglected, imperfect item composed of untraceable and potentially harmful ingredients. Therefore, a desirable solution at least in the case of chocolate is the consumption of artisan chocolate, that is the consumption of skillfully crafted chocolate not produced by industrialized processes but instead by minimally invasive machining supervised by a skillful human knowledgeable in the art of chocolate making.

Mindo Chocolate Makers: artisan chocolate makers ensure premium quality of chocolate bars that are up to 21st century consumers’ standards

As demand increases for a more manually ensured quality of chocolate, which in comparison to industrialized chocolate is of low supply, economic dictates that the price of this product will be high, greater than standard industrialized chocolate. As the desire for artisan chocolate continues to rise, what will be created is a hierarchy of chocolate products with the finest, purest artisan chocolates at the apex of the hierarchy and price scale. The resultant stratification based on value determined by wealth is just the reemergence of elitism as seen in Mesoamerica and Baroque Europe but now just in a 21st capitalist society. An interesting question to consider is why it is that this hierarchy would exist. It would be based upon class: only those with the resources to purchase more expensive artisan chocolate can indulge while those without must make standard bars suffice. Social dominance theory could shed light upon the dynamics displayed here. Social dominance theory, generally speaking, explains how and why dominant groups stratify their resident population such that the dominant group is at the pinnacle of the hierarchy to experience and receive the most and best resources. One may choose to believe that the history of chocolate was established upon the fact that chocolate in all of its forms was and continues to be an elite food solely based on itself as a product. However, a poignant consideration to make is that man is the author of chocolate’s history, and as is done to other items or foods, chocolate was lauded and aggrandized by the rich for the express purpose of using chocolate as a centerpiece around which to construct a classist hierarchy.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

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

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. Print. Revised.


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