Exploring Cultural Appropriation Through A Chocolate Tasting

Over the course of the semester, I’ve found myself chiefly concerned with the  appropriation of Indigenous cultures within the production of goods for non-Indigenous consumption. To be clear, my concern is not with the sharing of culture, taste, and economies of people across land and oceans. Rather, the dilemma with chocolate exists in the historical institution of slavery and continued poor labor conditions ingrained in its industry, as well as the present appropriation of culture evident specifically in craft or artisanal chocolate and its advertisements. In order to observe how this subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, appropriation of culture interacts with the modern day consumer, I decided to host a chocolate tasting party and record the social and individual responses. I found that, regardless of the individual’s personal connection, chocolate served to highlight the importance of food both as culture and as shared community in their connection to sense memory; additionally, the chocolate tasting also revealed how food reflects the transformation of culture in displaced communities that have experienced forced assimilation and adaptation.

Maya glyphs depicting cacao tree (center of photo)

As this class knows by now, the theobromine cacao tree originates from the equatorial region, primarily within 20 degrees north and south of the equator (Presilla 8), that encapsulates modern-day Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. From this magnificent tree, the Indigenous peoples from the region were able to use cacao from the pods that grew on the theobromine’s trunk to produce chocolate. You might be thinking, “So what? Some Indians figured out how to make chocolate products.” We’re not talking about a discovery of plant use and food product within the last hundred years; we’re talking about the use of a plant to make chocolate products by, at least, 300 B.C., which dates chocolate production and consumption by more than 2,500 years. Anthropologists and researchers have found that the Olmec civilization (1200 B.C. to 300 B.C.), from the southeast coastal area of what is now Mexico, were most likely the first peoples to regularly use cacao for commerce, food, and religion. (Coe and Coe, Fash, Presilla). The Maya, who wielded great influence throughout the region from about 250 A.D. to 900 A.D., learned much about cacao from the Olmecs and continued to rely on it for their commerce, short and long distance trade, ceremony, and food. Their connection to cacao and chocolate is well-documented via burial chambers, pottery (including pottery from Chaco Canyon in the southwest U.S.), glyphs, and stories that survived European invasion and colonialism. (Presilla, Fash)

Chocolate vessels  http://www.maya-archaeology.org/pre-Columbian_Mesoamerican_Mayan_ethnobotany_Mayan_iconography_archaeology_anthropology_research/Theobroma-cacao-beans_trees_plants_cocoa-chocolate_Maya-kakaw-pataxte_Verapaz-Peten-Guatemala-Belize-Honduras-Mexico.php

The Aztecs (more accurately known as the Triple Alliance) who politically and militarily dominated much of present-day Mexico at the time of Spanish arrival, intensified the reliance on cacao as an economy, using it for actual currency and building a highly stratified system wealth around cacao. The evidence is clear: cacao and chocolate predates European contact with the America, and was deeply embedded in the lives of Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas for their consumption, economies, and ceremonies.

Maya glyph for cacao

When the Spanish arrived, they quickly gleaned that cacao was highly valued within Indigenous society. Ever interested in political, religious, and economic dominance, Europeans quickly organized to control over the region and, in particular, cacao. In Bernardino de Sahagun’s “Historia general de las cosas de nueva España,” chocolate was observed to be grown at a large scale, used as money, and, under Aztec leadership, was limited for consumption by only nobility and those who were granted permission. (Presilla)

High level officials pictured with drinking chocolate

More accounts would be written and documented: the 1544 presentation of chocolate to Prince Phillip by a delegation of Kekchi Maya nobles; the first large shipment of cacao from Veracruz to Seville in 1585; an English traveler, E. Veryard, and his account of the production of chocolate; and the general, widespread European fascination and inclusion of chocolate across its courts, medicine, art, and social settings. (Coe and Coe) Europeans encountered chocolate in a big way; they fell hard for chocolate and “sought to re-create the Indigenous chocolate experience.” (Norton 1) In fact, Presilla writes that “within fifty or sixty years, the [habit of drinking chocolate] had spread to France, Italy, England, and most parts of Europe.” (24) Of course, this intense spread of chocolate was powered by the trading and brutalization of Indigenous and African peoples in the transatlantic slave trade. (Mintz) Although the chapter on slavery and colonization in chocolate’s history is critical, I have previously written on it and will continue to focus this paper on the exploration of appropriation.

Chocolate, like any other food, is an edible heritage, a tangible thing that we can savor, smell, bond over, learn from, and have deep feelings about. (Mintz) It is a vehicle through which we can remember the past and create a future. People all over the world have tied their well-being, income, and sense of community to it. Today, the craft chocolate industry has seemingly awakened from a long history of unethical practices, and is creating space within the industry to produce goods in a sustainable way and to employ fair labor practices. While this is a welcome shift in paradigm, this ethical or fair trade and organic chocolate movement has brought with it an inclination toward “Aztec” or “Mayan” chocolate making. At best, chocolate makers are paying homage to Indigenous traditions, and, at worst, they are appropriating Indigenous culture for capital, as has been common practice since Europe encountered the Americas. To explore this problem of appropriation, I conducted a chocolate tasting with some friends. The following chocolates were sampled:

Chocolates for the tasting

  • Cadbury’s Royal Dark;
  • Nirvana’s Aztec Chocolate;
  • Hershey’s Milk Chocolate;
  • Ritter Sport Milk Chocolate with Hazelnuts;
  • Chuao’s Spicy Mayan Chocolate;
  • Three Taza Chocolates from their Chocolate Mexicano sampler pack (specifically, Pura Cacao, Cinnamon, and Guajillo Chili).

The four people surveyed covered a range of tastes and habits around the consumption of chocolate:

  • Person 1 stated that they did not care for chocolate;
  • Person 2 said they prefer 80% dark and fair trade chocolates;
  • Person 3 said they love chocolate and crave it often;
  • Person 4 consumes chocolate a few times a week, mostly as the sweetener to their coffee.

Each person saw the chocolate and the packaging before sampling. As they ate, I asked them to be cognizant of the feel or snap of the chocolate, the smell, the texture, the taste, and after taste of the chocolates.

Though they had clear instructions to analyze the flavors, textures, and smells they experienced, my tasters were more eager to talk about how the chocolate made them feel. Amidst all of the mmm’s and ew’s, one of the more interesting responses was from a Native American female from White Earth, Minnesota, whose favorite chocolates were the Ritter Sport and the Nirvana. Here is her response:

“[The Ritter Sport] reminds me of home, and growing up on my father’s reservation, harvesting hazelnuts.  I didn’t realize how expensive they were until I arrived here [Cambridge] and had to buy them for the first time. They grow naturally in White Earth, and in where I went to high school on the Lac du Flambeau reservation. Every August, usually in the second week, the hazelnut trees (which look more like overgrown bushes) start getting ready to drop the clusters. That’s when you want to grab them, when the leaves covering them have turned from green to brown, but before they drop to the ground. My father and I would take these giant burlap sacs and go and fill them up; my favorite spot by the refuge has almost an entire acre of them. It’s a hassle to harvest them, and most of the time we leave them raw in their shells in order to savor them until next year’s harvest.

I also liked the Mayan chocolate for much the same reason–I grew up with the flavors. My mom is a spice nut, so if something isn’t spicy it’s not in our house. She says it’s from going to boarding school in New Mexico and having to learn how to cook with what you’re given out there. We still have relatives who live in the Southwest and ship us ingredients on the regular.”

When prompted to comment on the fact that the spicy Mayan chocolates were not, in fact, made by Mayans, a chorus of “UGH” ensued. One Native American male commented that hearing that didn’t surprise him and that the clothing industry appropriates Native American culture often. Another taster, a Mexican-Native American female said, “I love the flavor of this chocolate, and that I can go buy this whenever I’m in the mood for spicy chocolate, but I do wish that it was actually Mayan chocolate.” I mentioned that Taza chocolates are also not Mexican made and that the factory is right down the street. The fourth taster responded, “It doesn’t bother me that they are White-owned, but I do wish they gave back to community that they got this product, or method of chocolate making, from. Like, don’t appropriate, please. Native people are still around.

While I didn’t observe the overwhelming negative reactions to instances of appropriation as I expected, I did observe how ingrained issues of identity are in our every lives. They may not be explicit in their connection, from a broader perspective, but these instances reveal some of the long-standing effects of interactions between communities and their cultures. For instance, the woman from White Earth preferred, over all others, the chocolate with hazelnuts, as it took her home, in her mind, to a place that is deeply involved with long-standing traditions around harvesting nuts. Maybe my findings point more to issues of being directly involved with one’s culture versus being a product of a multicultural environment. Or perhaps at this day and age, we’ve become so comfortable with cross-cultural exchange that we are not always mindful of which products are Indigenous modeled instead of Indigenous made. We might also be so inundated with examples of cultural appropriation, that having to identify whether or not our foods are examples of appropriation would make it impossible to feel comfortable or at ease in our own neighborhoods. Either way, in my ideal world, the craft chocolate or bean-to-bar companies would do more to serve the Indigenous communities that remain connected to this delectable food and culture that we seem to love.

Author’s note: If I were to do this again, I would want to shift perspective and explore the preconceptions and misconceptions of chocolate in connection to Indigenous roots and Latin-American usage. I would also use more than just chocolate bars, and incorporate foods like traditionally made mole and pozol!

Works Cited

Fash, William. Entry on the Maya. Moctezuma’s Mexico: Then and Now Course Reader.

Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books, 1986. Kindle Version

Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics” American Historical Review: The Oxford Journal, 2006. Online. Accessed March 17, 2014

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised: A cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print

Multimedia

Cacao vessels: http://www.maya-archaeology.org/pre-Columbian_Mesoamerican_Mayan_ethnobotany_Mayan_iconography_archaeology_anthropology_research/Theobroma-cacao-beans_trees_plants_cocoa-chocolate_Maya-kakaw-pataxte_Verapaz-Peten-Guatemala-Belize-Honduras-Mexico.php

Cacao glyphs: http://ajourneythroughguatemala.blogspot.com/2010/05/chocolate-food-for-gods-speciality-of.html

Making cacao in the traditional way: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vC4dq69rqE&feature=youtu.be

Product websites

https://www.thehersheycompany.com/brands/cadbury/royal-dark-chocolate.aspx

http://www.tazachocolate.com/store/Products/MexicanoSampler

http://www.ritter-sport.de/en_US/products/detail/Whole-Hazelnuts?categoryIndex=0&categoryLabel=100g%20bars&filter=all

http://chuaochocolatier.com/chocolate-bars/bars/spicy-maya.html

http://www.hersheys.com/pure-products/details.aspx?id=3480

Nirvana not longer sells their chocolate on their website, but you can find their online site here: http://nirvanachocolates.businesscatalyst.com/index.html#organic

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