A Shift From Elitism to Convenience Store Staple
If you were to walk in to any grocery or convenience store today, chances are you would find a vast selection of chocolate at a relatively low price. At any given moment, it is safe to say that chocolate is within reach. For these reasons, we don’t seem to associate the consumption of chocolate with any form of elitism: eating chocolate is something that we’ve grown accustomed to in the United States. In fact, the average American consumes roughly twelve pounds of chocolate every year (Martin, “The Rise of..”, 2019). Despite playing such a huge role in our diet today, chocolate hasn’t always been accessible to everyone. Once reserved for only elite Europeans, we’ve seen chocolate shift to being consumed by a much broader audience. With this shift, however, we are left to question what led to our society’s chocolate craze; is it the rich, indulgent taste, or is it the sense of prestige that comes with it?
When chocolate was first introduced to Europeans, it looked much different than it does today. While we commonly associate chocolate as a food that we eat, chocolate was first consumed exclusively as an unsweetened beverage called “xocoatl” (Coe & Coe, 2000). This was a bitter drink that was created by brewing cacao beans (beans from the Theobroma Cacao tree) and played a major role in mesoamerican culture among groups like the Olmec, Aztecs, and Mayans. In mesoamerican culture, the cacao bean was thought to have many medicinal, spiritual, and even magical properties. Because of this, cacao was a major part of many religious ceremonies, sacrifices, and a key player in medical practices of the time (Coe & Coe, 2000).
While it is uncertain as to exactly when Europeans first came into contact with cacao, it is believed to have been offered to Spanish explorer, Hernando Cortes, by Aztec King Montezuma when he and his men first arrived in the Americas. Believe it or not, when the traditional beverage was initially tasted, the explorers hated it, describing it as, “a bitter drink for pigs”. This initial opinion of chocolate is ironic now because with time, and with the addition of sweeteners like honey or cane sugar, the drink soon became popular throughout Spain and eventually the rest of Europe (Fiegl, 2008).
Similar to how the mesoamericans thought of the cacao bean as having magical powers, a huge part of the success of chocolate in Europe can be attributed to the fact that it was believed to have many medicinal, nutritional, and aphrodisiac properties. At the time of its initial introduction in Europe, however, it was a luxury that only the rich could afford. This is because it had to be imported from the far-off chocolate growing regions of the world (Central/South America and later West Africa), and couldn’t be produced in large quantities. Because the ability to consume chocolate was directly linked to wealth, partaking in such activity came to be seen as a mark of status in an elite social class (Coe & Coe). Chocolate was truly a luxury.
As consumption of chocolate increased, so did production. This created a positive feedback loop, eventually making chocolate more affordable and therefore more accessible to a broader range of people. Several developments led to higher consumption of chocolate. First was the creation of “dutch cocoa” by a dutch chemist in 1828. He found that by removing the cocoa butter, or fat, from the pulverized cocoa beans, you could create a form of powdered chocolate, namely, cocoa powder. This led to an increase in chocolate consumption among a broader range of people because it allowed for the creation of solid chocolate that could be made from a mixture of cocoa powder, cocoa butter, and other additives like sugar and milk. This meant that chocolate became cheaper because manufacturers could make more product with the same amount of cacao (Fiegl, 2008). A second major development was made by Rudolphe Lindt when he created the chocolate conche: a mechanical way to distribute cocoa butter in chocolate and improve the overall palatability. The conche increased chocolate consumption by streamlining the chocolate making process, allowing it to be produced in higher quantities for a lower cost. By the end of the 19th century, chocolate was no longer only consumed by the elite, but it was also enjoyed by the general public (Martin, “Sugar and Cacao”, 2019).
The widespread consumption of chocolate across all socioeconomic levels can be attributed to advances in technology and increases in production, which led to decreases in price, but there is another factor that we must consider. Given that chocolate was once an indulgence that only the elite could afford, it is possible that people desire chocolate because they want to attain the same prestige that once surrounded the food. Ordinary people are able to treat themselves to a supposed luxury for as little as a dollar. The rich, decadent taste of chocolate could certainly be the main culprit in drawing so many people in, but it is definitely worth considering the desire to taste the finer things in life, or to see how “the other half” lives, as a driving force in the spread of chocolate consumption from the wealthy elite to broader audiences. As shown in the advertisement below, chocolate is still depicted as a food for the elite, even if we can buy it at any convenience store.
Works Cited :
Chocolate, ProXES, director. Conching Chocolate with STEPHAN Universal Machine. YouTube, YouTube, 2 Sept. 2018, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lTI3Ux9nsc.
Coe, Sophie, and Michael Coe. “The True History of Chocolate .” Goodreads, Thames and Hudson, 1 Oct. 2000, http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/88456.The_True_History_of_Chocolate.
Commercials, director. Ferrero Rocher Hazelnut Chocolate Truffles | Ferrero Rocher Commercial Ad. YouTube, YouTube, 27 Dec. 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ReCI64d34U.
Fiegl, Amanda. “A Brief History of Chocolate.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Mar. 2008, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-brief-history-of-chocolate-21860917/.
Hocking, Abby. Influential Candy Bars. 2018. (Cover Photo)
Martin, Carla. “Mesoamerica and the ‘Food of the Gods.’” 6 Feb. 2019, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University.
Martin, Carla. “Sugar and Cacao.” 20 Feb. 2019, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University.
Martin, Carla. “The Rise of Big Chocolate and Race for the Global Market.” 13 Mar. 2019, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University.