Chocolate, chocolate, and more chocolate.
This course has delightfully transformed me into a chocolate crazed connoisseur! I am fascinated by everything cacao – the botanical and natural history, the ethics of fair trade, and the economics of slave trade. So much so that I have decided to throw a chocolate dinner party! Imagine an intimate, romantic five course dinner with delicate chocolate appearances for young, married couples under the trees and lights of an outdoor garden that reveals the truths and mysteries about one of the world’s most highly consumed delicacies. I’ve decided to host a chocolate event as a way of concluding my most inspirational class yet – Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. I feel compelled to share, with as many people as possible, the historical and social value of cacao and what a true bean to bar experience tastes like through an elaborately planned and informative dinner. Also, who doesn’t look for a great excuse to splurge on gourmet chocolate for a good cause? So, join me in the preparation of May 14th’s most delicious extravaganza!
As guests arrive, they’ll notice each place setting with a custom made chocolate tasting mat. I really want to start the dinner off with the bean to bar experience as it’s so fitting for the theme of our party; to carefully make our way from the origin of cacao to its place in the world today. Inspired by Professor Carla Martin’s choices in chocolates, I too have selected a few from her collection, as well as a personal white chocolate favorite of my own. We’ll begin with the transformation from cacao to chocolate as we begin our first course with cacao pulp. The past is too far complex to assume that cacao just transforms into chocolate. The botanical and natural history of cacao is so deep-rooted into the South American lowlands, we’ll need to take a look at the logical green anarchy in order to make the connection from cacao to chocolate. From choreographing life on a plantation to the passing of quality tests, cacao must undergo an extensive journey before finally arriving to a chocolate factory. Cacao trees are no exception to the tedious farming of crops. Farmers don’t just plant the trees, they also choreograph their surroundings. “Some plots simply make use of existing forest cover, but there comes a time when new cover trees have to be created from scratch” (Presilla 46). The beginning stages of a cacao tree’s establishment in its sector are imperative to its growth success. The blossoming and bearing of fruit depend on the tree’s healthy habitat. Everything from proper shading to the insect life that helps pollinate are imperative in this stage.
Fermenting is another important step in the historical cacao to chocolate process. After picking out anything that doesn’t belong, the pulp is placed on wooden bins to begin an interesting transformation. “The temperature of the mass rises while the pH goes down, which cause the hulls and the germ tip to soften and allow acid to penetrate. These factors together kill the germ or embryo within the bean. Meanwhile, the semisolid baba spontaneously melts into a liquid vinegar that drains off of its own accord to leave the slightly darkened beans free, though still full of moisture” (Presilla 55). The cacao beans are now experiencing a chemical process that changes the flavor from bitter to not so harsh, which is important for quality’s sake. After proper aeration of the fermented beans has completed, the drying stage begins. Since rain is typically expected at some point during this time, drying on mobile wooden shelves or platforms is encouraged. “During this period, they are periodically turned with wooden rakes. At night they are pulled into sheds for protection or covered by clear plastic roofing materials. In about five to six days, the chemical changes within the beans gradually slow down and then stop when the moisture content has dropped to less than 8 percent by weight” (Presilla 56). How scientific! With the lack of technology to handle such intricate details, one could easily conclude these farmers knew their stuff.
We’re not finished yet. Classification according to size for trading begins after the beans have fermented and dried. “This is an important moment in the life of chocolate. The trade classifies beans according to size and quality. Only specialty or high-quality beans are sold at premium prices. The assorted beans are then placed in burlap bags and weighed” (Presilla 59). The burlap bags will then eventually make their way into the hands of prospective buyers who will sell them to a chocolate company to produce their version of chocolate. This is the part in the dinner where we will sample the cacao nibs and different selections of chocolate. As we go through the samples of chocolate, I’ll impart the same taste testing knowledge as Professor Martin did when we sampled chocolates during class. My go-to samples will be Sommerville Chocolate’s White Chocolate with nibs from Belize, Green & Black’s Dark 85% chocolate, Theo Chocolate, Whole Food’s Chocolate, and Taza Chocolate. I will also be offering apple slices and crackers for the in between bites as palate cleansers so my guests can truly get the most out of each savory tasting!
As we go through each piece of chocolate, I intend on going through each of the certifications and their meanings. “Fair Trade is but the most recent example of another sophisticated ‘scam’ by the ‘invisible hand’ of the free market. This noble endeavor for the salvation of the free market was tamed and domesticated by the very forces it wanted to fight” (Sylla 17). I’ll go into what exactly Fair Trade is and what Fair Trade USA promises as well as how it promotes itself. Common critiques such as how little money reaches the developing world, less money reaches the farmers, and the cost of the Fair Trade certification that is shouldered by the farmers is quite high will all be mentioned and expounded upon. “All Organic” is a popular lifestyle in here in California so it will be my pleasure to enlighten my guests the meaning behind the seal. According to the USDA National Organic Program (NOP),
“Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled as “organic” a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet the USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too.”
After I give that lengthy PR statement, I’ll speak about the Organic certification critiques such as the obstacles to small independent producers, the manipulative use of regulations, and the false assurance of quality. My goal when discussing these certifications is not to deter my guests from buying food with these labels but instead to inform them of the other side; the one that doesn’t always get shown to the average consumer.
So, at this point in the dinner the chocolate taste testing of each sample has been concluded. I will now allow my guests to talk amongst themselves as they enjoy a Spinach and Strawberry Salad with Chocolate Balsamic Vinaigrette. After they’ve once again cleansed their palate, this time with a scoop of lavender sorbet in a chocolate cacao pod mold, we’re well on our way to the main dish: Duck Breast with Cherry Chocolate Sauce on top of a bed of Risotto and Sugar Snap Peas. It’s at this moment that I will talk about a topic close to my heart: slave labor.
What began as a food of the gods has turned into a food of the slaves. Herman Merivale, the prominent British colonial administrator, wrote “Every trader who carries on commerce with those countries, from the great house that which lends its name and funds to support the credit of the American bank, down to the Birmingham merchant who makes a shipment of shackles to Cuba or the coast of Africa, is in his own way an upholder of slavery: and I do not see how any consumer who drinks coffee or wears cotton can escape from the same sweeping charge” (Merivale 113). It’s this concept of which everyone is implicated. In relation to cacao, we’re all intertwined in the involvement of inequality.
Mintz writes, “We must struggle to understand fully the consequences of that and kindred events, for upon them was erected an entirely different conception of the relationship between producers and consumers, of the meaning of work, of the definition of self, of the nature of things. What commodities are, and what commodities mean, would thereafter be forever different. And for that same reason, what persons are, and what being a person means, changed accordingly. In understanding the relationship between commodity and person, we unearth anew the history of ourselves” (Mintz 214). Mintz is referring to the indigenous slaves being forced into cheap labor. He is arguing the way people have altered their relationship with goods by commoditizing them. Conditions of production and the conditions of consumption can vary and when people or companies don’t have an understanding of labor abuses going on in order to make that commodity achievable, it then becomes a “false commodity”. The slaves were also purchased and sold for their capacity to yield another generation of enslaved “people-commodities.”
Even years after the abolition of slave labor, inequality and cheap labor still exist. Perhaps we can’t title it “slavery” because it doesn’t quite fit the mold, but our lack of public knowledge holds us all captive to the cruelties of this billion dollar industry. My goal with this dinner is to break the chains of ignorance and shed light on this issue. If we could just consider how much any of us can claim to know about the productive forces that help give shape to our lives, the products we consume, and the living conditions of the producers, maybe then we can finally break free. Somewhere along the line, we stopped looking at where cacao came from and how chocolate came about because of the negative connotation that drew from its history.
Dessert and coffee has been served as the sun has gone down on our dinner party. A low murmur of conversation can be heard as couples exchange insights and opinions with the new truths and mysterious of cacao. My goal for this dinner party is to shed light on those truths but to also offer both sides of a chocolate story. Hopefully, my guests can now make educated consumer decisions since I have shared a few of the historical and social values of cacao and what a true bean to bar experience tastes like through an elaborately planned and informative dinner. Besides, who doesn’t look for a great excuse to splurge on gourmet chocolate for a good cause?
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, NY: Viking, 1985. Print.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. Print.
Robinson, Cedric J. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. London: Zed, 1983. Print.
Sylla, Ndongo Samba., and David Clément. Leye. The Fair Trade Scandal: Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich. Print.