21st Century Confections: Culinary Modernism and Taza Chocolate

The production of chocolate and other confectionary foods can be traced back centuries to the Aztec and Maya civilizations, which used various tools and techniques to prepare their cacao-rich meals. For example, the use of a whisk-like tool called a molinillo allowed members of Aztec society to add froth to their hot drinks. Since then, many other technologies and policies have been invented that have not only accelerated the production of chocolate, but have also made it more accessible as well. As food becomes increasingly more ubiquitous throughout the world, Rachel Lauden’s concept of Culinary Modernism becomes more relevant than ever. Because Culinary Modernism revolves around the effects of industrialization on the food industry, we can use it as a framework for the numerous ways in which modernization has changed and continues to change the chocolate industry. Specifically, we will be analyzing the policies and technology of the craft chocolate producer, Taza Chocolate, in the hopes of learning one perspective on how companies handle the issues that plague the chocolate industry. Through this analysis, we will then gauge how well Taza fits Culinary Modernism’s definition. This multimedia essay argues that by employing large degrees of transparency and becoming more connected to customers through the internet, chocolate producers are better suited for tackling problems like child slavery, customer outreach, and transportation of goods over long distances.

One of the major challenges facing the chocolate industry is child slavery, which mainly manifests itself in poor, rural areas. There are many factors contributing to this tragic practice, and there are discrepancies between different countries. According to Amanda Berlan in her study Social Sustainability in Agriculture, one of the major causes of child slavery in impoverished countries like Ghana is womens’ lack of economic independence. To add some context, it is “very common” for a household in Ghana to experience a divorce, and typical single mothers “could not afford” spending money on their child’s education. The husbands also tended to not pay for the childrens’ education because “they did not want the [ex-wives] to ‘benefit’ from them financially” (Berlan, 8).  By depriving the children of any education, their options are limited, and because the job market is so limited, children are given no choice but to work in grueling sectors like the cacao industry in order to support themselves and their families. In this sense, the children are not exactly working against their will, but their predicament and limited employment options prevents them from having choice.

With this issue in mind, one innovative policy that Taza Chocolate has implemented in order to empower women in rural areas can be traced to Taza’s commitment in producing its annual Transparency Report. Through this lengthy account, Taza provides a detailed outline of where and how they source their cacao, allowing curious customers to personally critique Taza’s business practices. Some information that is particularly of interest is that the company procures its cacao from five partner farms in three different countries: Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Ecuador, which are known to be economically poor. Furthermore, we can tell that Taza places a considerable amount of attention to female farmers, because it dedicates an entire category in the Transparency Report to the number of “Female Farmers Benefited” as a result of the partnership. In particular, the women benefit from “a premium of at least 500 US dollars per metric ton above the NYICE (market) price”, and Taza never purchases cacao “less than $2,800 per metric ton”. In total, during the year 2017, 643 female farmers and 1608 other farmers benefitted from this relationship.

Similarly to what Berlan describes in her research on family life in Ghana, countries like Ecuador and the Dominican Republic (two of the three countries where Taza purchases its cacao), have experienced a surge in divorces and single-motherhood. In addition, of these single mothers, “between 20 and 50 percent… are not household heads”, thereby, showing that there is a shortage of independence for women within these countries’ borders (Kennedy, 2). Taza’s partnership with women in these countries provides some financial security, since these female farmers have a regular customer that is willing to buy their produce at sustainable prices. By focusing on these individuals, Taza is bolstering their economic and social independence, which should help to reduce the levels of child slavery, since children will not be pressured to work if their household is procuring a steady income.

Furthermore, the Taza Report is innovative because the transparency that it creates places a large amount of accountability on the company to continue maintaining this strong and healthy relationships with their farmers. It forces customers back at the stores to scrutinize the company’s practices, thus, administering pressure to continue working sustainably.  Furthermore, this report placed Taza in a cohort of craft chocolate producers who have placed an emphasis on sourcing humane cacao, which not only educates the general public about the atrocities that can occur in modern-day chocolate production, but also urges governments and other chocolate corporations to take action. We can see that there is a growing public awareness of these issues by looking at this article by the Huffington Post, for example, which not only explains some of the ways in which consumers contribute to child slavery, but also includes a petition at the bottom of the article to push Hershey’s corporate responsibility towards humane cacao, as well as other means by which the consumer can get involved in a humanitarian role. This shows that companies like Taza can have a genuine amount of influence on the consumer side as well through education that can eventually create change.

In addition to aiding the workers at the bottom of the production process, Taza Chocolate is now finding ways in which it can improve the customer experience as well. In this regard, the company has expanded into the e-commerce sector in order to increase the selling of their products and interact with customers outside of their local market. There are two mediums that Taza utilizes in order to engage in e-commerce: the company website and listings on Amazon.com. The website has existed since 2015 and company chocolate listings have been available on Amazon since 2016.

 

taza
Taza Chocolate is known for their disc-shaped confections. Some typical flavors one might find in their stores are cinnamon, chili pepper, and brown sugar.

 

According to a Taza representative that I interviewed, although the craft chocolate producer is now offering its wares online, it still gets a large majority of its revenue from its brick-and-mortar stores like the central one at Somerville, MA. Furthermore, the Taza representative also stated that, according to company records, the “typical” customer that participates in their e-commerce sector is very different from the customers that physically enter the stores. For instance, the customers entering the stores tend to be more adventurous and willing to try different kinds of exotic chocolate flavors during their visit. They also tend to order chocolates with higher sugar contents, because they want to encounter the “sweet chocolate experience”. In contrast, online shoppers tended to order more classic chocolate bars and flavors, such as Taza’s Amaze Bars. They also ordered more refined and dark chocolates than their brick-and-mortar counterparts, thereby, showing more interest in the quality of the cacaos’ preparation. In any case, Taza’s decision to utilize the internet has diversified its clientele, which provides more freedom and creativity in confectionary offerings.

As the internet continues to connect people at enormous scales, the dispersal of chocolate and other foods across national and international lines has taken the world by storm. This gives rise to a concept that the famous food historian, Rachel Laudan, dubs “Culinary Modernism”, a movement that embraces food that is “industrial, novel, and fast” and is “available more or less equally to all” (Laudan, 40). Taza Chocolate has contributed to this exponentially growing movement through the online interaction with its customers, which makes ordering chocolate more accessible throughout the country by simply being an option. The fact that anyone can purchase chocolate with a click of a button from anywhere inside of the United States eliminates various spacial boundaries hindering potential customers.

However, Taza and other craft chocolate producers that have the means by which to ship their products do not quite fit the modal presented by Laudan’s Culinary Modernism. For instance, Lauden’s definition mentions that food pertaining to Culinary Modernism has the qualities of being “processed” and “food of the elite at a price everyone could afford” (40). Taza prides itself in outputting high-quality chocolate that is made from fine cacao and other organic materials. According to the Wholesale page on their website, all of their chocolate is “Certified USDA Organic, Certified Gluten Free, Non GMO Project Verified, Kosher, soy-free, dairy-free, and vegan”, which contradicts Culinary Modernism’s view that the spread of food on a global scale has deteriorated food quality. Furthermore, the kind of products that Taza offers are quite expensive when considering that, according to Dr. Carla Martin, a professor at Harvard University in the Department of African and African American Studies, the maximum price at which average people would be willing to buy chocolate before drastically reducing the chances of purchase is $3.99. The cheapest product that Taza sells on their online store is $5.00, which pushes the limits of the $3.99 pain-point. This also does not account for shipping, which depends on the distance that the chocolate must travel. Because average people would not typically purchase chocolate at such high prices, this eliminates Taza’s chocolates as a commodity that “everyone could afford”. As such, it does not fit within the boundaries proposed by Rachel Laudan’s Culinary Modernism.

Although exposing customers to online chocolate has helped Taza with customer outreach, perhaps one of the most difficult challenges it faces is what comes after a customer clicks the “buy” button: transportation and delivery. Getting an object from point A to point B has been a perennial problem throughout mankind’s history, especially when dealing with perishables. According to Jack Goody, in the early nineteenth century, we made huge strides in this regard  with the revolutionizing invention of refrigeration and artificial freezing. The incorporation of this technology into vehicles widened the possibilities for food transport, and we saw the manifestation of this novelty when “the first refrigerated rail car brought butter from Ogdensburg, New York, to Boston, Massachusetts” (Goody, 78). Since then, the transportation of perishables, such as chocolate, has become more manageable. This rise of technological innovation in the transportation sector and the increased access to food is one of the causes for Rachel Lauden’s Culinary Modernism.

Chocolate itself is a particularly difficult commodity to preserve during transit. With such a low melting point, a chocolate producer must establish a lot of infrastructure in order to safely transport chocolate to its destination. The German Insurance Association states that some of the many factors contributing to the melting of chocolate in transit are: “season, the route, the duration of the voyage, and the container stowage space on board”. One of the only ways to properly ship chocolate in bulk is by using refrigerated containers that can maintain the delicate temperatures required to not only keep the chocolate solid, but to also ensure that the flavor within the wrapping is preserved. However, purchasing a refrigerated container can be quite expensive depending on the size of the container. The price range can go from $10,000-$15,000, which is a considerable amount of money for a small chocolate producer like Taza. For this reason, transporting chocolate in bulk is a barrier for Taza, but this has not stopped it from transporting its goods all over the country.

shipping-container-refrigerated-container-used-painted-20-foot-8
This is an image of a refrigerated container that a company would use to transport perishables, such as red meat, fish, and chocolate.

Shipping gets more challenging when it comes to personal delivery after a user purchases a chocolate from the online store. According to Taza Chocolate’s online policy, when shipping chocolates to destinations with “temperatures over 70ºF”, the shipment may be postponed in order to delay the transit time or they may even require customers to “select expedited shipping”, which adds an extra cost to the purchase. They also include ice packs and special insulated material that will reduce the chances of the chocolate melting. Perhaps because of the difficulty of transporting chocolate, Taza currently does not ship internationally, but as Taza continues to grow and technology continues to advance, we may find people tasting classic Somerville chocolate outside of the United States. The fact that Taza Chocolate has been able to expand beyond its local stores is impressive and proves that it is contributing to the ever-expanding wave of Culinary Modernism by giving customers, who would not normally have brick-and-mortar stores immediately available, access to the sweet Taza Chocolate brand.

In conclusion, Rachel Lauden’s concept of Culinary Modernism has provided a conceptual framework for how technology has shaped the food we eat. By analyzing the effects that Culinary Modernism has had on a company like Taza Chocolate, we can observe what challenges modernization has helped to solve within the chocolate industry, which include the plight of child labor, digital consumer outreach, and the shipping of perishables. The initiatives in transparency and e-commerce, in particular, have helped Taza grow as a company, and, looking forward, its future as a confections producer looks bright.

 

Works Cited
“2017 Transparency Report.” Taza Chocolate, Dec. 2017,           http://www.tazachocolate.com/pages/2017-transparency-report.
“Chocolate.” Lemons, http://www.tis-gdv.de/tis_e/ware/lebensmi/schoko/schoko.htm#container.
Goody, Jack. 2013[1982]. “Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine.” pp. 72-88
Gregory, Amanda. “Chocolate and Child Slavery: Say No to Human Trafficking This Holiday Season.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 7 Dec. 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/amanda-gregory/chocolate-and-child-slave_b_4181089.html
Kennedy, Sheela and Ruggles, Steven. “Single Parenthood and Intergenerational Coresidence in Developing Countries.” Single Parenthood and Intergenerational Coresidence in Developing Countries , University of Minnesota, 27 Sept. 2013, paa2014.princeton.edu/papers/141449.
Laudan, Rachel. “A Plea for Culinary Modernism: Why We Should Love New, Fast, Processed Food.” Gastronomica, vol. 1, no. 1, Feb. 2001, pp. 36–44., doi:10.1525/gfc.2001.1.1.36.

 

 

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