Cacao, Cocao, Cocoa: The Deification of Chocolate in an American Household

Chocolate has fallen from its archaic divinity; as industrial chocolate manufactures, such as Hershey, Ghirardelli, Cadbury, Mars, L.A. Burdick and the multitudes of other small and large confectionary manufactures have strategically subverted religion and evaded the creation of a static definition of what can be classified as health food (Off, 2008). This has been done on a global scale (Allen, 2010). Yet, for all of the exploitation of natural and human labor resources in the mad capitalist race to net exponentially larger profits, methods of chocolate consumption have changed. Chocolate has invaded every home in America and continues to spread into even the most remote regions of the world were chocolate is merely grown as a exported market good (and the farmers have never tasted the finished product) (Leissle, 2012) (Martin 2016) (Stuckey, 2012). Modern chocolate consumption has continuously increased and transformed from a relished delicacy into an addiction, one that has fostered a cultic fanaticism in its omnipresence in American culture (Martin, 2016). Chocolate addiction has been fostered by dynamic consumption practices, various health benefits, ideals of beauty, sexualization of female chocolate consumption, and the reframing of sales advertisements to secularize and/or create holidays revolving around chocolate consumption (Leissle, 2012) (Howe, 2012) (Robertson, 2009) (Martin, 2016). Addiction is an all encompassing cultural mindset which has gone further in the continued liminal state of chocolate’s meaning to contemporary American society (Benton, 2004) (Robertson, 2009). Average American households often are not aware that their chocolate consumption is irrevocably linked to the various external methods of ideological implantation of chocolate as a religious iconographic good. A brief ethnographic analysis of an average New England household, comprising of my future in-laws, engenders a radical deviation from chocolate as a coveted, addictive necessity and furthers chocolate’s ideological transformation by coming full circle to again reify chocolate’s worship as a physical manifestation of divinity.

Cacao, or Kakawa, is a substance similar to maize, corn, in its purveyance in Mesoamerican culture and religious iconography (Coe & Coe, 2013). Cacao is also shown in Mayan iconography to have been conflated with the Maize god, this has rendered archaeological interpretations of cacao as the food of the gods (Coe & Coe, 2013). Ancient associations of cacao with the food of divinity has not been lost in modern methods of advertisement (Leissle, 2012). Even analyses of chocolate advertisements can be interpreted to illustrate that chocolate and divinity are intrinsically linked. Capitalism has not so subtlety transformed and secularized religious holidays by constructing the consumption of chocolate as a ritualized activity, in which participants (consumers) will be glorified and feel euphoria through acts the giving and receiving chocolates (Martin, 2016) (Robertson, 2009). Valentine’s Day, Christmas, and even the forty days of Lent have all become associated with chocolate consumption (Coe & Coe, 2013). Lent is the most indicative of chocolate’s association with divinity, through its construction as a vice (particularly for women) which should be avoided so as to liken oneself to the divinity of Christ’s fast and then temptation by Lucifer in the desert. My fiancée’s (F) family is traditionally Irish-Catholic, like much of the greater Boston area, and has their roots firmly set in the nomenclature of religious etiquette. However, like many religious followers, they merely retain a religiously linked ethnic identity. This is not to say that they do not follow a set of religious rituals that underpin their daily lives, but the god (chocolate) to which they devote both cognitive and subconscious worship, is revealed through the family’s vocalization and ritualization of chocolate consumption. Through almost a year of total emersion into their household I have observed both passively and actively their emphasis on the  importance of ritual chocolate consumption. By cooking, and baking, with the father (FD); observing F’s sister’s food habits (FS); and through consensual approval to inquire about their chocolate habits during informally structured interviews, I have captured a snapshot of the ethnographic phenomenon by which chocolate has been re-deified.

Anonymity Disclaimer: all proper names are changed to protect anonymity and personal privacy.

This is a clear over exaggeration, but illustrates the extent chocolate is incorporated into their diet.

The demographic biological sex ratio in my fiancée’s family, including myself, is three females to two males. I entered their household in June 2015, as it was the most convenient way to save up money for our wedding and attend school. My fiancée and her sister both have severe cases of mental illnesses, and have self-proclaimed themselves vegetarians, which has inhibited their ability to consume a wide variety of food products. Prior to my debut, F’s family cooked for and brought FS any food that FS desired, while FS was unable to leave her bedroom due to severe agoraphobia. During this period and into the first several months of living with the F-in-laws, the father (FD) and mother (FM) brought FS mass quantities of sweets (per her request)- the vast majority of which contained chocolate in some form. These sweets were then incorporated into FS’s daily diet through both home cooked treats and purchased delicacies. So pervasive was chocolate into the kitchen and pantry, I could not open the refrigerator without stumbling upon 8 out of 10 items containing chocolate. Even F considered pancakes unsatisfying is they did not contain chocolate chips, accompanied by chocolate milk, and chocolate croissants, from FD’s crafting or purchased from the local French bakery. Upon my alien perspective into this near total emersion of chocolate into every aspect of nutrition, as I prefer recipe purity without the forced inclusion of chocolate, F’s mother (FM) made it quite clear that the extant to which chocolate was considered medicinal. Even long-standing family recipes, such as their grandmother’s scone recipe, that originally contained fruit changed to substitute chocolate chips; this was celebrated not only by F’s immediate family but the extended relatives as well. F, FD, and FM prefer dark chocolate; FS prefers milk chocolate. Methods of dietary consumption are among the easiest to witness, but also the amount to which F’s family purchases or crafts feminine hygiene products known to contain cocoa butter, and the amount of objects, utensils, and other paraphernalia used in the consumption, production, promotion, or distribution of chocolate.

Saying that their mass consumption of all things chocolate is a product of the historical engendering of chocolate as healthy for dietary consumption limits the extent to which FM’s concept of medicinal use resonates with the subjectivity of healthy consumption (Albritton, 2012) (Watson, Preedy, & Zibadi, 2013). FS suffered tremendous weight gain from overconsumption of carbohydrates and sugars (Albritton, 2012), most in the form of chocolate pastries and confections, but FM continued to supply these “medicinal” chocolates. In accordance with popular conceptions of the medicinal use of chocolate, it historically has been linked to a healthy state of mind and postulated to aid the treatment of mental illnesses such as “hypochondriac melancholy“(Watson, Preedy, & Zibadi, 2013). FM’s utilization of chocolate as a medical ritual to expedite the healing of FS’s mental faculties echoes: the Mesoamerican use of cacao as a restorative of the deities, the early European adoption of cacao as a similar but secularized restorative devoid of divine embodiment, and contemporary literature on chocolate’s ability to illicit pleasure responses from the brain. Contemporary concepts of chocolate’s medicinal use illuminate the chocolate industry’s persistent norms of advertisement and the increase of processed sugar consumption and sugar additives into nearly all forms of processed foodstuffs. Yet FM’s use goes beyond these analyses and parallels the sentiments that “‘chocolate is a divine, celestial drink, the sweat of the stars, the vital seed, divine nectar, the drink of the gods, panacea, and universal medicine'” (Coe & Coe, 2013: 206). While FM’s use may be a product of the historical connections of chocolate and sugar with pleasure and medicine, through the incorporation of chocolate into the entirety of the family’s diet, chocolate has been ritualized and elevated beyond the simple medicinal binary to that of a religious deity, with whom daily worship will foster inner-peace, health, and happiness in its followers. FM’s deification of chocolate retains striking parallels to the Christian description of a personal daily relationship with God, as advertised by the Bible.

A example of the cultural stigma concerning chocolate as addicitive.

F’s family’s ritual utilization of chocolate’s medicinal benefits are the product of historical polemics concerning the increase of sugar consumption, the socio-economic shift of chocolate from Mesoamerican stable to European luxury to plebian stable, and subliminally engendering advertisements (Coe & Coe, 2013). Sugar has been directly linked to diabetes, obesity, and increasing addictive behaviors, akin to drug addiction, through it’s association with pleasurable reinforcement as a reward (Benton, 2004)(Mintz, 1985). The historical shift in utilizing sugar as a preservative (Goody, 2013) directly led to the chocolate industry’s use of sugar as a stabilizing agent which also happened to increase sweetness aka. desirability, and thus “unintentionally” producing a method of engendering consumer addiction for chocolates at a early stage of industrialization (Brenner, 1999) (D’Antonio, 2006: 107) (Mintz, 1985). By keeping in context the link between sugar and addiction, the increase of sugar in chocolate opened new possibilities of advertising. Not only was chocolate now sweet, it also had been historically constructed as medicinal; it could now be produced in vast quantities previously unavailable until the industrial revolution (Brenner, 1999) (Coe & Coe, 2013). Chocolate could now be produced cheaply, containing adulterated products and sweeteners, masking the purity of the roasted cacao bean’s savory nature, and enabled new advertising strategies, informed by chocolate’s newly found socio-economic versatility (Stuckey, 2012) (Allen, 2010). These advertising campaigns have been able to pander to chocolate’s versatility in its ability to render multiple positive responses from consumers. F’s family utilization of chocolate as a restorative “cure-all” is the product of sugar’s addictive qualities, but their daily, weekly, monthly consumption of chocolate as a dietary necessity (only in the manner to which it produces a mental release of endorphins via the sugar and the Pavlovian association of chocolate with sugar) goes beyond this sweet binary to echo the mental and physical rejuvenation that religious ritual produces (Benton, 2004).

Chocolate cookies meant to imitate those taken during communion, as well as to celebrate the taking of communion. This reinforces the rewards gained upon participating in religious rituals.

Mars’ Snickers campaign “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry, Snickers Satisfies” illustrates the multi-faceted approach that the Mars company takes in its marketing (Brenner, 1999). Mars’ advertisements embody the concept of satisfaction through one of it’s original marketing strategies to simply make a larger candy bar cost the same as the competition’s small one, through the incorporation of peanuts, caramel, and nougat (the primary ingredient of two of these is sugar)(Brenner, 1999). The campaign simultaneously engenders the concept that the Snickers’ bar will satisfy the physical manifestation of hunger and that the consumption of the candy will elevate the psyche back to normalcy (Benton, 2004). This engenders the ritualization of chocolate consumption as a divine facilitator of both inner (mental) and outer (physical hunger) peace; thus similarly paralleling the act of taking communion at Catholic Mass, this advertisement reifies a foodstuff to miraculously facilitate the divine restoration of the mortal self. F’s family reflects this theological embodiment of chocolate consumption as a canonized ritual, yet this advertisement does not alone explain why the three women are so captivated by chocolate’s allure.

cacao tree maize god
The Maize god is here depicted as apart of a cacao tree (Coe & Coe, 2013: 39).

Hershey’s Dove chocolate campaign (above) has a clear agenda engendering a gender stereotype of women being the primary consumers of chocolate (Robertson, 2009). F’s family represents this as the three women (F, FS, and FM) are the primary consumers of chocolate, while FD is the primary facilitator of consumption through his production of meals and snacks that prominently incorporate chocolate. This stereotype of women as chocoholics is rooted in historical contexts and has long been debunked as an “[addiction not] to chocolate but to sugar” (Robertson, 2009) (Coe & Coe, 2013: 260) (Benton, 2004). However, no matter the scientific or psychological realities of sugar addicts (Benton, 2004), this advertisement embodies chocolate’s reconstructed relationship with divinity by directly linking the consumption of Dove chocolate with the Mesoamerican concept of deification of oneself through the consumption of divine foodstuffs: particularly in their artistic conflation of the Maize god with cacao trees (Coe & Coe, 2013: 39), and through Mayan recipes mixing maize and cacao (Tokovinine, 2015). The Maya considered all objects to be of divine embodiment (Tokovinine, 2015), particularly those containing maize, which they believed was the physical embodiment of their physical selves as they were created from sacred Maize, stated in their sacred origin text the Popul Vuh, and were also divinely given the sacred crops of maize and cacao for consumption (Coe & Coe, 2013). By conflating the Maize god with a cacao pod the Mayans set a ritual precedent for the divine consumption of chocolate as enabling humanity to transcend into a divine state of epiphany. The Dove advertisement then conflates this ancient cultic practice with the more modern concept of women as the primary consumers of chocolate. Women, constructed in the advertisement as the downtrodden and oppressed gender (Bourdieu, 2001), can escape this existence through consuming chocolate and experiencing their own “moment” or existential epiphany outside of this oppression (Robertson, 2009). F’s family’s near unilaterally gender-stratified consumption of chocolate represents the religious epiphany of transcendental existence, which also reinforces the earlier discourse concerning chocolate as a parallel of Communion. Chocolate consumption now enables modern humanity to embody divinity.

Hershey furthers this gender binary of chocolate consumption through Dove’s “Only Human” advertisement campaign, which in chocolate consumption provides and escape from being female (Benton, 2004). The women are shown to be weak and “Only Human,” but Dove chocolate then provides a “real” comfort from the harsh realities of femininity (Benton, 2004). Going beyond this advertisement’s sexist engenderment, chocolate can now be associated with another of religion’s coveted abilities: the offerance of sanctuary. Chocolate makes the difficulties of human existence tolerable by offering brief sanctuaries, at the ‘moment’ of consumption, meta-physically separated from the human experience. The sanctuary that chocolate provides in these ‘moments’ parallels the sanctuary offered to praticioners of prayer, which provide a ‘moment’ with divinity meant to rejuvenate and make right the pain of a human existence. F’s family’s incorporation of chocolate into nearly all foodstuffs is now clearly representative of ritual prayers for protection from the evils and difficulties of a modern human, explicitly female, existence.

Other modes of ritual chocolate consumption are woven throughout the family’s daily lives: that of hygienic products. It has been well documented that cocoa butter, made from hydraulically pressing cacao liquor (Coe & Coe, 2013: 255), is highly effective in the treatment and prevention of various skin, and hair ailments. Placement of cocoa butter into hygienic products echoes both Baptism and the Catholic ritual of the Anointment of the Sick. Both of these religious rituals engage in a ritual purification of the body and soul. Chocolate can be religiously vindicated through the purification of the human existence, and divinely heal the physical manifestations of the human condition. Dissenters, who would disagree with this statement, are to be reminded of the Christian Science movement, whose belief in the healing power of prayer is thought to heal all physical ailments (thought to be sins’ physical manifestations), and scientific medical treatments are spurred as sinful disregard of God’s will (Norton, 1899). Thus a conflated argument to be made is that the consumption of chocolate is equal to prayer, regardless of the science behind cocoa butter’s ability to remedy topical ailments of the skin and hair. Even through dissent, contemporary chocolate consumption has reified itself as divine through F’s family’s hygienic self anointment with sacred cocoa butter.

LA Burdick
The exact type of ceramic serveware that F has at home.

Ritual can be identified easily through archaeological interpretation of material culture- that is to say, the artifacts by which rituals are carried out with. Chocolate manufacturing has built megalithic structures dedicated to the continual production of chocolate, such that entire communities sprung into existence to support its cultic fanatical production. Milton Hershey’s factory communes illustrate this quite succinctly (Brenner, 1999)(D’Antonio, 2006). Even the consumption of chocolate has ritual implements, such as: stylized porcline serveware, chocolatière, and the appropriated Mesoamerican molinillo (Martin, 2016). F’s family does not have all such ritual implements as modern technology’s updated versions of the chocolatière and molinillo (serving kettle and whisks), but they do have stylized ceramic ware for the sole consumption of chocolate, indicated by the imprinted logo of L.A. Burdick (a chocolatier company). F’s house has designated chocolate cabinets for the storage of preserved “instant” chocolate beverages, edible chocolates, and hygenic cocoa products; while this cabinet space is shared with similar items for drink, eating, and hygeine, the totality of chocolate’s combination with these other products merely increases the variety by which chocolate’s ritual artifacts are incorporated into daily life.

Chocolate’s transtitional state speaks to the originial liminal state by which the Mayans contextualized their existence around divinity. Chocolate has come full circle in the historical utilizations and perperonderances by which chocolate consumption has been stereotyped, redefined, and ritualized. Through the analysis of F and her family’s cultic ritual habits of chocolate, they are revealed to be the ultimate by-product of a centuries-long polemic that has created a new world religion focused on the ritualized production and consumption, based on an engendered, constructed faith that chocolate is divinely able to elevate the human condition out of the mire of oppression, through psychological and physical restoration of peace, harmony, happiness, and self-satisfaction.



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