When Boris Yeltsin visited a supermarket in the US in 1989, he was floored. The nondescript Randalls in Houston ended up being more powerful than the “screens, dials, and wonder at NASA.” The trip ended up “shatter[ing] his view of communism.” If the Russians back home got wind of American supermarkets, “there would be a revolution” he confided in his comrades (Hlavaty, 2016).
Nearly thirty years later, supermarkets continue to amaze. Visitors to Haiti, where I have lived for the past 8 years, continue to be amazed by Caribbean Supermarket, a family business founded in 1995 that has Haiti’s largest selection of local and imported goods. I had first written about Caribbean when I worked at Peace Dividend Trust (now called Building Markets) as part of the project’s Agribusiness Case Study Series. Interviewing the procurement manager, I had discussed the store’s stockage of over 300 local products, and Caribbean’s continued push to buy Haitian goods (You can read the whole thing here). When I received the class assignment for Chocolate Class, I was interested to go back to the store to see how cacao, a historically prominent crop in Haiti, was portrayed and displayed.
As a note, Haiti tends to be a lightning rod for political, sociological, economic, botanical – well just about every type of commentary there is. A recent book about Haiti opened by quoting Ira Lowenthal, an anthropologist who has been in Haiti for 40 years, as saying: “Haiti is the most studied developing country in the world, and least understood” (Schwartz, 2017, Epigraph). As such, there are many things this post will NOT cover. The “right” or “wrongness” of having a US-style supermarket in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Whether a supermarket in Haiti is less authentic than going to a local marché (market). Whether the assignment should have been conducted in the rural zones and not the capital of Port-au-Prince. As Mr. Lowenthal suggests, there is nothing if not continued, sustained interest in the country, and I will leave such topics for further dissection by Haiti’s active local and international blogger community.
What this is then, is an overview of how Caribbean Market, situated in Petionville (a wealthy suburb of Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti) that serves both upper and middle class Haitians , as well as foreigners (including diplomats, missionaries, and NGO workers), serves as a microcosm in which to view the history of chocolate, particularly the way in which chocolate was hybridized as a result of the encounter between the Old World and the New. For if supermarkets are indeed a revolution, then how does cacao and chocolate get portrayed in one situated in the only country to be created from a successful slave revolution that defeated the French, English and Spanish? Let’s find out.
History of Chocolate in Haiti:
As Sophie Coe and Michael Coe write in The True History of Chocolate, “chocolate was invented almost four millennia ago” (Coe, 2013, p. 214). As for Haiti, my previous post for Chocolate Class, described how Hernando Cortez started Haiti’s first cacao plantation in the 1500’s. While not initially successful, Haiti’s cacao production did eventually flourish from the 17th to the early 19t century, at which point Haiti was producing 10x more cacao than Venezuela. However following the Haitian revolution of 1804, there was a precipitous decline in production due to political infighting and redistribution of land that saw a smallholder farmer model replace the larger plantation systems of colonialism. (Should you want to learn more, the rest of the blog can be read here).
Modern Haiti has worked to revitalize their chocolate industry, producing a nascent chocolate trade (Another shameless plug for my last blog), while continuing their very Mesoamerican chocolate habits of drinking what C-Spot.com called the “champagne of the empire,” and Haiti calls Haitian spiced hot chocolate (Chery). Modern Haiti also has a very complex series of trade relationships with the world around it; a former French colony, the country’s largest trade relationships (Trading Economics, 2018) are not with the colonizer but rather with the United States (Miami is a 90 minute flight from Port-au-Prince), and the Dominican Republic, a former Spanish colony with which Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola. Going into Caribbean, I was interested to see how all this played out in how chocolate and cacao were displayed and portrayed.
Going to Caribbean:
Entering Caribbean, one must first prove their fearlessness by battling it out for a parking spot in the often packed 75+ space parking lot. Only a fool would go on a Saturday, or even certain Sundays, so to hedge my bets I go on a Thursday afternoon. Sliding easily into a prized vacancy, I hike up the hill (Haiti comes from the Arawak word for mountains) to the store’s entrance. Hiking through the parking lot also offers an opportunity to define the audience of Caribbean. (While I could just go into Caribbean and start photographing customers, the guards are armed, and I would prefer not to start any kerfuffle.) The cars show the mix of the middle-class and upper-class Haitians and foreigners who peruse the market. As shown in the photos below, you can see older cars (such as the Hyundai Accent) that are 10-20 years old (probably valued between $5,000-$15,000) as well as the more expensive Toyota Land Cruiser Prados (which start at $75,000).
Cacao was first encountered in drinkable form – and as Amanda Fiegl writes in her 2008 article, “A Brief History of Chocolate,” for the Smithsonian, for about “90 percent of chocolate’s long history, it was strictly a beverage, and sugar didn’t have anything to do with it.” According to INAFORESTA’s “History of Cocoa,” the “Olmecs (1500-400 BC) were almost certainly the first humans to consume chocolate, originally in the form of a drink.” The Olmecs would grind the cacao beans and mix them with water, and then add spices, chiles, and herbs to the mix. The Aztecs and Mayans soon got in on the action, and in 1528 AD cacao was first brought to Europe (Spain) by Cortez. Cocoa then made its way to France in 1615, and England (1650), and continued to spread throughout Europe (INAFORESTA).
Thus for a country situated in Latin America, and colonized and/or invaded by France, England, and Spain (see Philippe Girard’s 2010 book, Haiti: The Tumultuous History for a complete history), it is no surprise that the drinking chocolate selection at Caribbean is plentiful. Upon entering the breakfast aisle, one encounters at least 20 different types of drinking chocolate, including breakfast drinks such as Carnation Breakfast Essentials, Ovaltine, Milo (Nestlé), Carlos V (Nestlé), Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate, Nestle Hot Chocolate, and Choco Listo, all which are produced outside of Haiti. The two Haitian chocolate options that are available are Choko Toro, and Chocolat Jeremie. The price ranges for breakfast chocolate drinks go from 110htg (a little under $2) for the local Choko Toro (3 cacao balls), to 615 htg (a little under $10) for an 18oz Ovaltine container. Those watching their weight can get a can of SlimFast Chocolate-flavored drink, but it’s going to cost you 1,800htg (~$27) for an 18oz container.
For those who don’t have time to prepare their chocolate beverage, you can purchase a ready-made, locally produced Chocolate Blast Ti Shake for 35htg (~$.50), whose packaging proudly boasts 9 grams protein and Vitamins A+D. Or if you have money (and fat) to burn, you can purchase a Myoplex Chiseled Chocolate Protein Shake for a heftier 365htg (~$5). There is also the Dutch-owned Chocomel (flavored chocolate milk) for a little over a dollar, the Nestle-owned Milo drink out of the company’s Australia division (available for the same price as the Chocomel), and Mrs. French’s AK-100 Vanilla Corn Drink Accassan,(which is a Haitian corn-based drink similar to others in Latin America and the Caribbean -see the Mangeons Lakay blog for more information).
Of particular interest in the drinking chocolate aisle is the branding. One of the local Haitian brands, Towo (which is a division of the Weiner Brand in Haiti) uses the creole word for bull (towo) to portray a product that gives one strength, or force as one would say in Haiti. The brand Towo additionally produces coffee as seen below, to further tie the stimulant properties of the cacao and coffee together. As Marcy Norton writes in her 2006 article, “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics”, for the Mesoamericans, drinking chocolate “invigorates one.” And according to INFORESTA, historically drinking cacao was shown to be a “strengthening, restorative, aphrodisiac” (Another interpretation for the bull perhaps-Europa anyone?) (INFORESTA). The “strengthening” motto is reinforced by the Milo brand as well, which shows a soccer player forcefully kicking a ball. Other brands, such as the Colombian Choco Listo, emphasize vitamin content, additionally hearkening to the invigorating properties.
Another item to note is that there is not a lot of flavoring in the drinkable chocolate aisle, besides sugar and dried milk (and of course the depiction of chocolate itself as a flavor to enhance drinks). The chocolate flavor that harkens the most back to the pre-colonial times is instead a chocolate paste placed in the peanut butter aisle and produced by Haitian brand FnF S.A. FnF S.A makes Chocolate Butter with Peanut Butter and Honey which includes cinnamon, salt and ginger. These are flavors (save for the peanut butter) that are common in traditional Haitian hot chocolate-see recipes here, here, and here. As Norton writes, “Spanish colonists modified traditional Mesoamerican chocolate by adding or substituting spices esteemed in the Old World—cinnamon, black pepper, anise, rose, and sesame, among others—in place of the native flower spice complex, achiote, and chili peppers” (Norton, 2006). Although once again, the addition of spices is really just seen here in the Chocolate Butter. All the other chocolate items are either in their natural state (the local cacao) or complemented with the Old World’s biggest influence on chocolate-sugar (all the imported drinking chocolates).
So should you need to slim, to energize, or to improve your health, the beverage aisle has an option for you. As Norton explains, “Europeans in the New World selected the cacao beverages that best fit their needs or temperament,” and at Caribbean, your drinking chocolate options are wide and varied indeed.
Chocolate bars originated in England in 1830 (INOFRESTA), and soon spread throughout the world. The Caribbean chocolate bar aisle has a wide range of these worldly chocolates- American childhood staples such as Hershey’s Kisses, M&M’s (plain and peanut), KitKats, as well as higher end European and American chocolate products such as Ferraro Rocher and Lindt LINDOR Truffles. There are also gift boxes, chocolate tins, and premium chocolates, such as multiple varieties of the Chocolove brand and Vanuatu Kakaw, a Mexican chocolate company looking to revitalize that country’s cacao industry. Prices range from $1 for the M&Ms-level chocolates to $5 for the Chocolove/Vanuatu bars. The bags of Lindt and boxes of Ferraro start at $7 and can go up to ~$30, depending on how many gold foils you are looking to unwrap (or what you have to apologize for).
However, most noticeable in the chocolate aisle is what’s not there: any Haitian chocolate. There are no bars from Haiti’s first bean-to-bar company, Askanya, and the Haitian origin tablets of Taza are nowhere to be found. Yet, it is not clear that Caribbean is to blame for this- as there have been many discussions of issues of the Haitian chocolate industries growing pains (final plug for my last blog post here). That being said the absence of any Haitian chocolate bars is noticeable, and it is the hope that the bars made in Haiti will be able to be sold side-by-side with the imports. Much of what has been discussed this semester in Chocolate Class is about a return to chocolate becoming more equitable, and away from the dichotomy that the raw product was taken from the New World and turned into something “civilized,” so being able to see Haitian chocolate bars represented in the chocolate bar aisle is an important step to balancing and re-framing perceptions.
Other Chocolate Items:
As INOFORESTA writes, “Industrialization has had a marked democratizing effect on chocolate, transforming it from a rare delicacy reserved for royals, to a widely available and readily affordable treat for the masses. Not surprisingly, a plethora of new chocolate products began appearing as it became more popular, including chocolate with dried fruits, with liqueurs, fondu, praline, stuffed chocolates, powdered, spreads, frostings, pastes, hard candies, soft drinks and many, many others. Either hand-made or as a fast food, it is now an established part of the world’s vocabulary and diet” (INOFRESTA). This we see as we explore the other chocolate items of Caribbean.
For example, there is the chocolate-flavored Kremas (a typical Haitian liquor-see more here), and a slew of chocolate baking mixes, including a wide range of Ghiradelli Brownie Mixes, as seen below. There’s also Bakers Chocolate and Nestle chocolate morsels, Hershey’s Baking Cocoa and a blend of Natural and Dutched Cocoa from The Saco Pantry, which works with Kiva to support micro-finance loans through sales of their products. These items are priced between $5-$10, of course, providing you can buy just one unit.
There are also several locally-made chocolate ice cream options (along with the assorted foreign brands such as Breyers, Ben and Jerry’s, Hagaan Daaz and Blue Bunny). One flavor, Deliciously Dark, is an Italian-style gelato made in Haiti by the restaurant Portofino, which sells the ice cream in supermarkets throughout Port-au-Prince. The Deliciously Dark flavor is shown in its current state of consumption below.
Thus in the “other” chocolate items, there is a stronger representation of the hybridization of cacao and chocolate, offering both products that were innovations in other countries (See “Brownies: The History of a Classic American Dessert” by Carla Martin) as well as innovations within Haiti through alcohol and ice cream.
I go to Caribbean Supermarket probably 3-5 times a week to buy everything from baby formula to baby wipes to baby food (my children eat up a large part of my budget), but going through the supermarket looking specifically at the cacao and chocolate was an eye-opening experience. The types of chocolate were broad, from the numerous types of drinking cacao (from pure cacao to sugar- and vitamin-infused chocolate powder, and whatever goes into making the flavor Chiseled Chocolate) to the most “authentic” spiced cacao product, which was the Chocolate Butter with Peanut Butter and Honey. There was a wide array of chocolate bars, as well as chocolate baking mixes, chocolate alcohols, and chocolate ice cream. Chocoholics entering Caribbean are in good hands.
That being said Chocoholics with a taste for Haitian chocolate will need to consume their chocolate in something other than bar form, which is something that will hopefully change in the future. There’s been a strong effort in Haiti to improve local purchasing and local production from both the government and the private sector, and hopefully this will result in local bars and other new chocolate innovations being available at the supermarket.
Regarding price points, there are certainly products that are priced out of range for most (the $27 Slim Fast, and the $5 Vanuatu bar), however there were many products placed under a $1 that would allow the middle class and emerging middle class to take part of, to borrow from Yeltsin, the “revolutionary” supermarket experience. As Haiti continues to develop, it is expected that more supermarkets will expand and more people will have access to these products.
“In the early sixteenth century, the use of cacao in beverages was a unifying trait of linguistically and geographically diverse communities encompassing Mesoamerica, and perhaps even extending beyond its frontiers” (Norton 2006). Caribbean Supermarket shows this by having an array of chocolates from Colombia to Belgium; from Mexico to most importantly, Haiti. You have chocolates such as Hershey’s and Mars that source from the ancestor countries of Haitians in West Africa, chocolate from colonizers such as France and Belgium, and chocolate from those in which trade relationships have begun to replace the uneven relationships of the past. Walking through Caribbean Supermarket, one gets the feeling that the knowledge and issues to explore within cacao and chocolate in Haiti and abroad are endless. And who wouldn’t want to study chocolate for life?
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