Chocolate and Social Class Identity in the United States

From the earliest uses of cacao in Mesoamerican empires, to the globalized chocolate of the 21st century, chocolate recipes and methods of consumption have mirrored the wealth and status of consumers. However, in America today, these differences are generally less pronounced than they have been throughout history. Chocolate is widely available and consumed in the US, with over $18 billion worth purchased each year.[1] That is slightly less than one-fifth of all chocolate consumed worldwide, as shown in the pie graph below. Yet most Americans consume mass-produced chocolate, with Hershey and Mars owning roughly 75% of the US chocolate market,[2] while craft and “premium chocolate” controls less than 12% of the market.[3] Given the dominance of cheaper, mass-produced chocolate in the US, and the relative rarity of finer and more artisanal chocolate products, I am interested in the question of how US chocolate consumption is affected by social class. This question became a major theme of an interview I conducted of a close friend. My interviewee is in her 50s, and throughout her life has changed social class significantly. She described how chocolate has changed meaning to her as she moved from lower-middle class to upper-middle class, and how chocolate was perceived differently by people she met. By placing her experiences within the greater context of research presented throughout this course, I aim to show how the experience of chocolate consumption among American consumers still reflects social hierarchies, though often with more subtlety than chocolate-based hierarchies throughout history.

choc1

The US represents roughly 18.1% of global chocolate consumption.[4]

Though chocolate consumption has become normalized in the United States today, chocolate has not always been available to people of lower social classes, and even today global chocolate consumption is skewed heavily toward Europe and the United States. Therefore, before I address the stories I learned from my interviewee, and the insights these stories provide, I will first briefly cover the history of how social class and chocolate consumption have been linked from the Maya and Aztec, to the U.S. and other countries in the present day.

The Maya and Aztec empires treated cacao beverages as foods of the Gods, and thus gave these foods a high position in societal hierarchies and religious worldview. Cacao beans were used as currency by the Aztecs, were fed to elite soldiers, and were often consumed by kings and other rulers.[5] Yet it is important to note that though cacao was expensive and prized, from as early as the Maya civilization there were versions of the beverage that were accessible to citizens of lower social classes.[6] These beverages were often mixed with corn or other add-in ingredients, using a lower concentration of cacao than what was found in the more religiously-important beverages.[7]

Though chocolate consumption changed forms when it was brought to Europe by colonizing powers, it remained linked to social hierarchies. Cacao beans were even used as currency by the Spanish, and the British used chocolate to symbolize wealth as well.[8] At first, Europeans continued to consume cacao as a drink, though they adapted all the materials necessary for doing so, using metal cups, molinillos, and metal tea pots.[9] The 1800s were a period of massive change as the system of corporate mass-produced chocolate that we are familiar with today first emerged.[10] By the end of this century, chocolate in Europe and the United States was a food available to people of all economic classes.[11]

Though chocolate was available to a greater range of social classes in Europe, there were (and today still are) huge class disparities between those who produce chocolate ingredients and those who consume the finished product. Sugar, a necessary component of European chocolate, as well as cacao, both relied on slaves shipped in crowded, dangerous, and dehumanizing conditions from Africa to South America and the Caribbean.[12] Once on sugar plantations, slaves were forced to complete dangerous and relentless labor on plantations that resembled factories in terms of their organization and output.[13] Even after the formal abolition of slavery, cacao plantations in Sao Tome and Principe were found to employ slave labor during the early 1900s.[14] These abuses are not just a thing of the past – even today there have been scandals unveiling the use of child labor on certain cacao plantations in Cote d’Ivoire and other major cacao-producing nations in Africa.[15] There is also huge economic and material disparity between the farmers who produce the majority of the world’s cacao in West Africa, and the European and American consumers who purchase the processed result of this labor.

Chocolate and social class have been linked throughout history, but the experience of my interviewee points to a type of consumption-class connection that has been little explored in the U.S. Though Americans of all classes consume chocolate in relatively large quantities, my interviewee shows how her understanding of chocolate and her patterns of consumption reflected her social class and differed from those of people she met who came from higher social classes.

My interviewee grew up as one of five children in a small, crowded, three-bedroom house. Her family lived on Long Island, in a town that served as a far suburb of New York City. Her parents both worked, and members of the family often didn’t see each other all together until the weekends. It was a busy existence and money was often tight.

One tradition that brought together my interviewee’s family was their weekend trips to visit their grandparents in Queens. The five kids and their parents would all load into the family station wagon and make the short drive over, stopping at a drugstore to pick up some snacks along the way. My interviewee distinctly remembers that each weekend they would buy a Whitman’s Sampler: a box of small chocolates of assorted flavors. Each weekend, the family would sit together and share the chocolates, guessing at the flavors and fillings that each would contain and comparing their favorites. It was a tradition that brought the family together and became a memorable part of my interviewee’s childhood.

The Sampler brought the family together and contributed to enjoyable weekend memories, yet there was another reason why it was the family’s choice each week. Whitman’s Sampler each week was a form of chocolate that could easily be afforded by my interviewee’s lower-middle class family, and easily purchased at pharmacies and other stores in the area. It was a bit of a luxury, a comforting food that they all enjoyed, but did not carry the exorbitant price tag that is often associated with craft and high-cacao chocolate today. The presentation of the chocolates in a Whitman’s Sampler is more elegant than the typical candy bars available as impulse-buys near the checkouts of convenience stores and supermarkets, but the price is still affordable for the average American family. Since 1907, Whitman’s Samplers have been available in convenience stores, and the product has consistently been one of the best-selling chocolate boxes in the country since 1915.[16]

choc2

Whitman’s Sampler[17]

My interviewee was accepted to an elite college and began her freshman year eager to meet her roommates and classmates. One week early in the year, she thought it would be fun to buy a Whitman’s Sampler to share with her new friends – to recreate the fun memories of her childhood. The friends, who were from wealthier families, laughed at her when she showed up with the chocolates – they could only assume that she had purchased the cheap chocolate as a joke. Their families did not buy convenience store chocolate. My interviewee recalled trying to play along, playing off the friend’s jokes that the chocolate tasted waxy and gross, or that the fillings were terrible. But the damage was lasting – the pain of the memory was easily apparent when I interviewed her well over 30 years after the experience.

Though her friends’ rejection of her most enjoyed childhood candy was painful, it wasn’t to be the only bad experience my interviewee recalled that associated social class with chocolate. A few years later in college, her roommate, who came from a very wealthy family, invited my interviewee to dinner with her family. The restaurant was so fancy that the menus did not list prices, and the family ordered multiple courses for each person. It was a shocking and intimidating environment, but my interviewee said a brief moment of calm came when, after the intro and main courses were finished, waiters brought plates with fancy chocolates to each diner. Finally confronted by a food she recognized and knew she enjoyed, my interviewee recalled having the thought of eating the chocolate at once, but quickly decided to follow the lead of her roommate. The roommate went to pick up the piece of chocolate, but caught a sharp glance from her mother, who said “remember, a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips” – a phrase which shocked my interviewee and chilled any thought she had of enjoying the chocolate before her. 30 years later, my interviewee still remembered how alien that comment sounded – her own parents would never comment on the nutritional value or aesthetic consequences of eating chocolate, especially a small piece like this dessert. To their family, chocolate was a delicious luxury that, when purchased, should be enjoyed guilt-free, and the nutritional value was of little consequence.

One lens through which to understand my interviewee’s experience is the perspective provided in the documentary Fed Up.[18] In this documentary, many middle-class and working-class families struggle with losing weight and find themselves making little progress, despite working out and trying to limit fatty foods in their diets. Their progress is limited because they do not recognize how damaging the high sugar content of their foods can be. Sugar is seen as the enemy of health, and is blamed for the obesity epidemic in the United States. The lower-income families that suffer from sugary diets are not educated about the potential harms about sugar – which could contribute to attitudes towards sugar, candy, and chocolate similar to the perspective that my interviewee’s family held. These health concerns are often quite severe – as Robert Albritton writes, “The addictive quality of sugar can be compared to that of cigarettes… but the so called ‘obesity pandemic’ with its frequent sugar fix may end up damaging more lives than the rapid spread of smoking cigarettes amongst the youth of developing and post-communist societies.”[19]

Yet this explanation does not fit with the experience conveyed by my interviewee. It was not that my interviewee’s family did not care about health, but rather that they saw chocolate as something different – as a way of coming closer together and having some enjoyment even in difficult times. Health was of concern during normal meals, but the consumption of chocolate during the weekends was a time to enjoy delicious food and spend uninterrupted time with family – health did not factor into the equation. The chocolate was special because it accompanied joyous social gatherings, not because it was a rare or lavish product. As such, no one at these family gatherings would discourage other members of the family from having another piece of chocolate – my interviewee perceived that type of behavior as restrictive and judgmental, rather than loving and accepting.

Ultimately, the interactions that my interviewee had with peers in college showed different interpretations of chocolate, largely based on different social positions. The richer students could not have imagined their families joining together over cheap chocolates, both because of their perceived taste and health effects. The richer students also did not value chocolate as much as my interviewee did – to them chocolate was easily acquired and was unhealthy. Chocolate consumption was economically easier for these students, yet they considered the vast majority of American chocolate to be inferior and not worth consuming. This divide was the main reason my interviewee associated chocolate with such positive memories in her childhood, yet such negative memories when confronted with class differences between herself and her friends in college.

Though chocolate is a widely-enjoyed food, one that Americans consume frequently, my interviewee’s lasting memories relating to chocolate showed me that there were notable class differences among Americans in the experience of consuming chocolate. Though it can be easy to focus on how chocolate has never in history been more available to a general population than it is in Europe and the U.S. today, it is worth analyzing how the experiences of consumers differ based on their socioeconomic backgrounds. If there is one lesson that can be taken from my interviewee’s experience, it is that among American consumers, social class and personal wealth have great effects on how chocolate is perceived, and even this widely available dessert can bear subtle signals of class status.

Bibliography

Multimedia Sources

Daniels, Jeff. “US Chocolatiers Looking for New Sweet Spot.” CNBC. April 7, 2016. http://www.cnbc.com/2016/04/07/us-chocolatiers-looking-for-new-sweet-spot.html

Khan, Lina. “Why So Little Candy Variety? Blame the Chocolate Oligopoly.” Time. November 1, 2013. http://ideas.time.com/2013/11/01/why-so-little-candy-variety-blame-the-chocolate-oligopoly/

Satioquia-Tan, Janine. “Americans Eat How Much Chocolate?” CNBC. July 23, 2015. http://www.cnbc.com/2015/07/23/americans-eat-how-much-chocolate.html

“The History of Whitman’s Candies.” http://www.russellstover.com/whitmans-history

Academic Sources

Albritton, Robert. “Between Obesity and Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry.” 2012. 342-254.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013.

Fed Up. Directed by Stephanie Soechtig. 2014. Atlas Films. Film.

Martin, Carla and Sampeck, Kathryn. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” 2016. 37-60.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. New York: The New Press, 2006.

[1] Janine Satioquia-Tan, “Americans Eat How Much Chocolate?” CNBC, July 23, 2015, http://www.cnbc.com/2015/07/23/americans-eat-how-much-chocolate.html

[2] Lina Khan, “Why So Little Candy Variety? Blame the Chocolate Oligopoly,” Time, November 1, 2013, http://ideas.time.com/2013/11/01/why-so-little-candy-variety-blame-the-chocolate-oligopoly/

[3] Jeff Daniels, “US Chocolatiers Looking for New Sweet Spot,” CNBC, April 7, 2016, http://www.cnbc.com/2016/04/07/us-chocolatiers-looking-for-new-sweet-spot.html

[4] Image from Satioquia-Tan, “Americans Eat How Much Chocolate?”

[5] Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 3rd ed. (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013), 81-82.

[6] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 62-63.

[7] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 62-63.

[8] Carla Martin and Kathryn Sampeck, “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe,” 2016, 41.

[9] Martin and Sampeck, “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe,” 42-43.

[10] Ibid, 49.

[11] Ibid, 49-50.

[12] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 192-196.

[13] Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power (New York: Penguin Books, 1985), 47-51.

[14] Martin and Sampeck, “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe,” 49.

[15] Carol Off, Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet (New York: The New Press, 2006), 120-127.

[16] “The History of Whitman’s Candies,” http://www.russellstover.com/whitmans-history

[17] Image from “The History of Whitman’s Candies.”

[18] Fed Up, directed by Stephanie Soechtig (2014; Atlas Films), film.

[19] Robert Albritton, “Between Obesity and Hunger: The Capitalist Food Industry,” 2012, 344.

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