Made with a Feminine Touch: Beth’s Chocolate and the Larger History of Women Creating Chocolate

In the chocolate industry, there are just a handful of companies that produce over 60% of the world’s confections. They are nicknamed ‘the Big Five’ and are as follows: Hershey’s, Mars, Kraft, Nestle, and Ferrero (Martin, Introduction, Slide 5). These companies produce some of the candies we all know and love such as Hershey’s Kisses, Snickers Bars, Cadbury Eggs, and Kit Kats, just to name a few, and they were all founded by men. In fact, they are still run by men with the exception of Hershey’s who just elected its first female CEO in 2017. What does this mean for women? Have they never created chocolate because of gender and cultural barriers, or rather, are they just not recognized at the forefront of its production? In this article, I will argue the latter. Just last month, I had the pleasure to meet Beth Kirsch, a chocolatier in Newton Massachusetts and owner of Beth’s Chocolates. Beth is among a new wave successful female chocolatiers and chocolate producers in the 21st century, but we can find women making chocolate in almost every time period that chocolate has appeared.

Meet Beth

Beth Kirsch had an unusual route to chocolate. She spent the majority of her adult life as a children’s media producer for PBS, winning three Emmy’s for the series Between the Lions (Kirsch, Beth Kirsch Chocolatier). Beth always loved chocolate, however, and one day in 2012, she attempted to mold a chocolate bar into the shape of an Eiffel Tower; it was an utter disaster. The chocolate stuck to the mold, and when it finally did come out, it tasted terrible. Beth immediately decided she would learn to work with chocolate. She enrolled in a three-hour class at ChocoLee Chocolates, and it was here that she learned the process of tempering. A year later, she took a three-month internship at EH Chocolatier in Somerville, and after that, she enrolled in an online course at the Vancouver based Ecole Chocolat to earn a professional chocolatier certificate. Then, in 2016, she traveled to France to become a master chocolatier through the Valrhona Ecole Du Grand (Pyenson). With all this knowledge, Beth was able to make those chocolate Eiffel Towers she had once desired and much more. She decided to launch her own confectionary business from her newly certified kitchen, and thus, Beth’s chocolates began.

Beth is a chocolatier; she does not create her own chocolate from bean-to-bar but buys bars from others to use in her confections. Beth specifically likes to use Valrhona, a fine cacao chocolate brand from France that is known for its exceptional flavor and ethical sourcing (Kirsch, ‘Chocolate Tasting and Seminar’). By melting down these bars, she can add her own additional ingredients, re-mold them, and then decorate them into something else entirely- into Beth’s chocolates. For example, in the image below, you can see one of Beth’s most popular and award-winning bonbons called Fig-In-A-Box. To make this, Beth first creates a fig puree, adds aged balsamic vinegar, transforms the concoction into a French pate de fruit, hand dips it in Valrhona dark chocolate, and finally, brushes it with gold stripes (Kirsch, Chocolates: Fig-in-a-box). The chocolate coating itself may not be her own, but she invents the unique combination of flavors and the delicate design. Some of her other popular bonbons include Pomegranate, Cappuccino, Cognac, Ginger 3 Ways, Passion Fruit, and Salted Dark Caramel. In 2018 alone, Beth’s Chocolates won ten different awards, a huge achievement considering how new her company is (Kirsch, Beth Kirsch Chocolatier).

Beth’s Fig-in-a-box Bonbon (http://www.bethschocolate.com/product/fig-in-a-box/)

 Looking at her path into chocolate, Beth rose to prominence with the help of many women. She first took a class at ChocoLee’s in Boston, which was founded by Lee Napoli, a gifted female pastry chef and former chocolatier. EH Chocolatier, where she interned, is also run by two women, Elaine Hsieh and Catharine Sweeney. In my own conversation with Beth, I asked her about her experience as a female chocolatier (Kirsch, ‘Chocolate Tasting and Seminar’). She explained to me how in France where she once trained, almost all of the chocolatiers are men and the profession is like an exclusive gentlemen’s club. However, in the States and particularly Boston, she has seen an incredible opportunity for women to create chocolate confections for two reasons. Firstly, Beth pointed out how you can become a chocolatier with little to no formal training, although it certainly helps. Secondly, you can become a chocolatier at any time in life, even after pursuing a career in an entirely different field. Indeed, she began experimenting with chocolate confections after working in television for most of her life. Elaine and Catherine from EH Chocolatier had been a doctor and a Harvard administrator respectively. I turned to the FCCI to corroborate Beth’s information and was pleasantly shocked by howmany chocolatiers were women. According to the FCCI website, there are currently fourteen chocolatiers using fine cacao in the United States; of those, nine are independently run by women and an additional two are co-operated by a man and woman duo (Martin, ‘Map’). In the map below, you can see specifically where these various chocolateries are dispersed across the United States; just as Beth had mentioned, many are clumped together in New England- eight out of the fourteen to be exact.  Women’s current role as chocolate creators is not a new one, but rather, a more formalized one. If we turn to the history of chocolate, we can find them creating it in every era and often for men. 

U.S Chocolateries as registered with the FCCI (Me via Mapline)

Turning Back the Clock to Find Women Making Chocolate

In colonial times, women primarily created and served chocolate as a beverage. Chocolate consumption originated in the Olmec civilization, a people who occupied the modern-day Gulf of Mexico from 1400 to 400 BC (Leissle, 29). The practice then spread to the Mayan and Aztecs societies, both of whom enjoyed their chocolate as a drink made from crushed seeds. Farmers would grow, harvest, ferment, dry, and roast the cocoa beans, much like we do today, but from there, a woman would grind the beans on a stone, add water, add additional flavors like corn maize, and finally and most importantly, pour the beverage from one vessel to another in a highly symbolic fashion to produce a foamy head on it (Coe and Coe, Kindle location 872). It could then be served to a prominent Mayan or Aztec, perhaps a king, merchant, or warrior. We can find abundant evidence that women were primarily made these chocolate beverages in much of the art from this time period. For example, the Princeton Vase featured below is a piece of ceramics dated between 670-750 A.D. It depicts a Mayan god sitting on his throne, surrounded by female figures which are assumed to be his concubines. One of these women stands behind him in the bottom right corner of the image, pouring chocolate from one vessel to another to generate the highly desired foam. As captured by this vase, chocolate may have been consumed by mostly men in the Mayan and Aztec societies, but it was women who were responsible for its creation.

The Princeton Vase (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Princeton_Vase#/media/File:God_L_with_the_Hero_Twins.jpg)

In the Baroque Period, women still prepared and served chocolate drinks to men, but now, to European ones. This trend first appeared in New Spain when poor Spanish settlers would often marry native women. When these Aztec housewives would cook for their husbands, they brought many of their customary dishes and ingredients into the kitchen. This often included a chocolate beverage prepared in much same manner it was among their own people, but now, combined with old world spices such as cinnamon and sugar (Coe and Coe, Kindle location 1583). These hybridized drinks were later transported back to Europe, and by the 17th century, some of the first Coffee houses started to appear in England. Despite their name, coffee houses served a variety of foreign, imported beverages, but coffee, tea, and chocolate were the most popular among them (Coe and Coe, Kindle Location 2425). As can be seen in the image below, these were male-dominated spaces where men would convene to talk politics, culture, and most importantly, sip a cup of coffee or chocolate or tea while doing so. However, if you look at the far left side of the image, there is one single woman behind a bar; she is preparing the actual chocolate. So, although women were not welcomed as patrons, they appeared in coffee shops in subtler forms as owners, waiters, or cooks. In fact, 20% of coffee shops during this time were owned and operated by a woman (Cowan, 147). Women helped make chocolate accessible, solidifying and gratifying the European craving for it.

Drawing of a 17th Century Coffee House (https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=752544&partId=1)

Following the Industrial Revolution, women continued to serve chocolate as a beverage while also learning how to incorporate it into new foods. Throughout the 19th century, a variety of new machines were created to transform the cocoa bean into something else entirely. Two of the most important products that emerged from this context were Dutch cocoa powder and solid chocolate bars (Martin, Slides 60-69). A variety of cookbooks and cooking classes soon appeared that attempted to teach women how to bake with these new chocolate varieties. In America, for example, celebrity chef Maria Parloa alongside the Walter Baker Chocolate company published the 1909 pamphlet Chocolate and Cocoa Recipes and Homemade Candy Recipes that detailed a variety of different chocolate preparations from the classics like hot chocolate, chocolate milkshakes, and chocolate pudding, to more unique dishes like chocolate eclairs, cake, cookies and even jelly (Martin, ‘Brownies’). Just a few years prior, another famous chef named Fannie Farmer published her 1906  Boston Cooking School Cookbook that included one of the earliest mentions of brownies (Martin, ‘Brownies’). The recipe, which is included below, called for two squares of Walter Baker’s chocolate as well as chopped walnut meat, something that might surprise a modern audience today. These cookbooks did not just teach women how to prepare chocolate in new ways but encouraged them to serve chocolate more frequently overall. These women were helping to transform chocolate from an occasional indulgence to an ever increasing part of the American diet.

Fannie Farmer’s Brownie Recipe (https://archive.org/details/bostoncookingsch00farmrich/page/n563)

By the late 20th, and early 21st century, artisan chocolate bars began to emerge to differentiate themselves in taste and quality from the Big Five companies; many of these businesses are owned by women. For example, one chocolate that Beth Kirsch herself buys is Castronovo chocolate, founded by Denise Castronovo in 2013 in Florida. Castronovo directly sources fine heirloom cacao beans from South American farmers, and then roasts, winnows, grinds, refines, conches, tempers, and wraps the bars in her own factory packaged under her own last name (Balmaseda). Castronovo is one of the only women to have been recognized at the prestigious International Chocolate Awards, and as of today, she has a staggering 26 awards (Thomson). Another female-run bean-to-bar company is ‘57 Chocolate, founded in 2016 by sisters Kimberly and Priscilla Addison out of Ghana. In the 10-minute interview below, they discuss how they started the company to prove that Ghana is not just a country for growing and exporting cacao beans, but one that can create artisan chocolate itself. They are leading the way in this crusade, sourcing fine beans from local farmers and transforming it from their kitchen into truly Ghanaian chocolate bars (Addison and Addison). In fact, as mentioned in the interview, many of their bars feature different adinkra symbols, which were historically designed and used by indigenous Ghanaian tribes. Female chocolate makers are vastly outnumbered by male ones, but they are nonetheless present all over the world, and more are entering the profession every year.

Kimberly and Priscilla Anderson on ’57 Chocolate (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0SdUC6ajbU)

Back to Beth: One Woman Among Many

Beth Kirsch is just one example of a woman involved in the chocolate industry, specifically as a self-employed chocolatier. However, she is far from alone. As history has shown, women have always been involved in preparing chocolate, in different places, in different forms, and for different people. These women were often overlooked by society, but they always existed, and as the saying goes, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. Now in the 21st century, we can clearly see more and more women entering the chocolate industry as bean-to-bar makers or chocolatiers. Finally, they have the formal title they lacked for so long. Now, it is the job of other organizations to start recognizing their chocolate, awarding it, and bringing it into public knowledge. As previously mentioned, all of the ‘Big Five’ chocolate companies were started by men, but maybe in the future, we can see the rise of a sixth company, this one run by a woman.

Works Cited

Addison, Kimberly, and Priscilla Addison. “Our Story.” ’57 Chocolate, 2018, http://www.57chocolategh.com/about.

Balmaseda, Liz. “Tiny Chocolate Factory in Stuart Wins Huge International Awards.” Feast Palm Beach, 17 July 2015, feastpb.blog.palmbeachpost.com/2015/07/17/tiny-chocolate-factory-in-stuart-wins-huge-international-awards/.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2019.

Cowan, Brian. “What Was Masculine About the Public Sphere? Gender and the Coffeehouse Milieu in Post-Restoration England.” History Workshop Journal, vol. 51, no. 1, 2001, pp. 127–157., doi:10.1093/hwj/2001.51.127.

Kirsch , Beth. “Beth Kirsch Chocolatier .” Beth’s Chocolate, 2019, http://www.bethschocolate.com/about/.

Kirsch , Beth. “Chocolate Tasting and Seminar.” Women of Winthrop Speaker Series. Women of Winthrop Speaker Series, 24 Apr. 2019, Cambridge , MA.

Kirsch , Beth. “Chocolates: Fig-in-a-Box.” Beth’s Chocolate, 2019, http://www.bethschocolate.com/chocolates/.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.

Martin , Carla. “Introduction .” AAAS119x. AAAS119x, 30 Jan. 2019, Cambridge, MA.

Martin, Carla. “Brownies.” US History Scene, 10 Apr. 2015, ushistoryscene.com/article/brownies/. Accessed 30 Apr. 2019.

Martin, Carla. “Map .” Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute, Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute, 2019, chocolateinstitute.org/resources/map/.

Martin, Carla. “Sugar and Cacao .” AAA119X. AAA119X, 20 Feb. 2019, Cambridge, MA.

Pyenson, Andrea. “From Children’s Media to Chocolate Making.” BostonGlobe.com, The Boston Globe, 1 Dec. 2015, www2.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/food-dining/2015/12/01/from-children-media-chocolate-making/LIjH0TgDtHhGanjmoZHxYL/story.html.

Thomson, Julie R. “Surprise! Florida Makes Some Of The World’s Best Chocolate.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 3 May 2017, http://www.huffpost.com/entry/best-chocolate-florida_n_59088cf5e4b05c397682bc33.

Multi-Media Works Cited

British Museum. “Interior of a London Coffee-House.” The British Museum, The Trustees of the British Museum, 2019, http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?partid=1&assetid=290256001&objectid=752544.

Farmer, Fannie. “The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, 1906 .” Internet Archive, Boston, Little, Brown and Company, 2006, archive.org/details/bostoncookingsch00farmrich/page/n563.

Kirsch, Beth. “Fig-in-a-Box.” Beth’s Chocolate, 2019, http://www.bethschocolate.com/product/fig-in-a-box/.

Ostrover, Olivia. “U.S Chocolatiers.” Mapline, 30 Apr. 2019, app.mapline.com/map/map_4f4f4836.

Pyenson, Andrea. “From Children’s Media to Chocolate Making.” BostonGlobe.com, The Boston Globe, 1 Dec. 2015, www2.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/food-dining/2015/12/01/from-children-media-chocolate-making/LIjH0TgDtHhGanjmoZHxYL/story.html.

RAW AFRICA, director. The Two Sisters Reviving Ghana’s Chocolate Market with ’57 Chocolate . YouTube, YouTube, 23 Feb. 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0SdUC6ajbU&t=204s.

Robicsek, Francis. “Category:Princeton Vase.” Category:Princeton Vase – Wikimedia Commons, University of Virginia Art Museum , 2019, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Princeton_Vase#/media/File:God_L_with_the_Hero_Twins.jpg.

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