Beyond the Taste

A Paperless Post Invitation for the chocolate tasting

The Nitty-Gritty of the Tasting

We selected six different chocolate bars from six different brands from Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe in Harvard Square. All the chocolates were labeled as “dark” and all of them were marketed as unflavored – no nuts or filling. Our aim was to provide a range of chocolate bars that stretched across a spectrum of cacao percentage. The initial tasting was blind; the participants were only given the unwrapped chocolate to taste with no information about brand, packaging, or price. Each taster went down the line tasting each chocolate and provided initial feedback and thoughts on each chocolate. We asked them to describe flavor, texture, and to make a guess about cacao percentage. After they tasted all the chocolate, we asked participants to rearrange chocolates in order of estimated cacao concentration. Then we asked them to choose their favorite and least favorite and explain their decision. Our aim was to understand people’s different assumptions about chocolate as well as have them closely pay attention to the flavors, textures, and intensities of the different chocolate. We conducted the first part of the tasting blind as to not influence the comments with branding or commercial messaging. We then revealed the packaging/ cacao content and observed how people’s opinions shifted. After that, we then interviewed the participants about their history with chocolate and how the tasting influenced their perception or understanding of chocolate. The whole experience of the tasting and conversations with the participants organically highlighted a lot of the themes we have discussed in class including themes of gender, health, and luxury.

Listed below are the chocolates we used in the tasting as well as some of the initial impressions and comments from tasters:

Taza Stone Ground Bolivia 87% Dark

Chocolate #1: Taza Stone Ground 87% Dark Bolivia All of the participants noted that this chocolate felt “chalky” or “powdery”. However, there was a split when deciding whether this was a good or bad thing. Some tasters, like Annie, hated the texture while Victoria said she was drawn to the chocolate because of the texture. Three participants remarked that they tasted some sort of fruity cherry flavor. All of the tasters had a mildly positive impression of the chocolate. Cacao percentage guesses ranged from 60%-80%.

Alpaco Noir 66% Dark

Chocolate #2: Alpaco Noir 66% Dark – All the tasters immediately noted that they thought this chocolate was “yummier” than the first. Everyone said that the chocolate tasted sweeter and felt smoother. Both Annie and Adam used the word “accessible” to describe the chocolate and Anna said the chocolate felt more “commercial”. More on these descriptions in the analysis below. People guessed that the cacao content ranged from 60%-70%.

Cote d’Or Noir Noir

Chocolate #3: Cote d’Or Noir Noir People really engaged with the flavor of this chocolate. Most of the participants tasted some sort of espresso or coffee flavor that they said elevated the chocolate’s flavor profile. Anna described the chocolate as “earthen” and Victoria said the chocolate tasted, “funkier, but in a good way”. People thought that this chocolate was sweeter than its predecessors and estimated that the cacao percentage would be between 50%-65%.

Lake Champlain 57% Dark

Chocolate #4: Lake Champlain 57% Dark Immediately, people noted that this chocolate was the sweetest yet. Two of the participants, Annie and Amanda both said the chocolate was not melting in their mouths and it was difficult to taste the flavor of the chocolate. Anna summed up her thoughts by saying that the chocolate tasted like “hotel pillow chocolate”. Adam described the texture as dehydrating. People guessed the cacao content to be from 40%-55%

Hershey’s Special Dark

Chocolate #5: Hershey’s Special Dark Chocolate When asked about the flavor profile of this chocolate – all the participants simply said “sugary”. Annie said the chocolate was so singularly sweet that it was hard to taste the chocolate in the chocolate. Everyone said that the texture was really smooth and guessed that the cacao content was around 10%-30%.

Anitidote 100% Raw Cacao

Chocolate #6: Antidote Chocolate 100% Raw Cacao People really disliked this chocolate, many of them going as far to spit the chocolate out. Annie noted that she tasted “vinegar paired with playground wood chips” and Adam said that the chocolate reminded him of a “bad shot of vodka”. Everyone noted acidity and bitterness. More so, no one was able to identify a “chocolate-y” flavor. Anna went as far as to say, “if I ate this with a blindfold I would not be able to tell you that this is related to chocolate in any way”. People guessed the chocolate was 90%-100% cacao

For the most part, participants guesses about cacao concentration were accurate and they arranged the chocolate in mostly the correct order. Participant’s blind favorite chocolates were split between the Lake Champlain and the Cote d’Or. The conversations we had after the brands were revealed began to unpack their understandings of chocolate and what it means to consume it.

Gender

We asked all the participants to discuss their early memories of chocolate and how they experienced chocolate in childhood. Every single participant mentioned women in their memories. All of the respondent’s early relationships with chocolate were mediated by their relationships with different women in their lives. The different vignettes of memory illustrate the various ways in which chocolate interacts with societal conceptions of femininity and womanhood. In her Chocolate, Women, and Empire, Emma Robertson examines how chocolate advertising in the 20th century outlined new uses for chocolate beyond its nutritious or taste-based value: “Advertising has created, and reinforced, particular uses and identities for each type of product: so whilst a chocolate bar may be consumed as a source of concentrated energy to be carried on walking expeditions for instance), a box of chocolates may be bought as a gift (with all the social implications of the gift relationship)”[i] Chocolate consumption can help craft a performance of identity and relationships, and we see that especially with chocolate’s ties to femininity.

Chocolate, as a gift, acts as romantic signaling. One participant, Anna, mentioned that her childhood memories of chocolate center around her parent’s relationship: “My dad will always buy my mom chocolate when he does something to make her mad”. Anna’s comment highlights a lasting trope in chocolate marketing: gifts of chocolate can appease an angered women and demonstrate a man’s thoughtfulness and suitability as a partner. As Robertson explains, “Men are assured that their gift will symbolize their appropriateness as romantic partners”, and chocolate can serve as means of defining relationships between men and women. Advertisements for Rowntree’s Black Magic chocolate product launched in the 1930s illustrates how this gendered relationship was crafted through marketing. George Harris worked closely with the J Walter Thompson Advertising Company to launch Black Magic in 1933. Harris determined that Black Magic should be marketed as an affordable gift from a man to a woman. The advertisements for Black Magic demonstrate the romantic messaging that Rowntree relied on. Robertson quotes a 1934 ad, “He was so interested in his awful football match that he didn’t seem to notice me”. The ad offers a box of Black Magic as a remedy to a potential lovers’ quarrel. As Anna remembers, chocolate played this role in her own parent’s relationship. Chocolate performs a symbolic purpose and allows her parents to perform a chocolate-mediated heterosexual back-and-forth 85 years after Rowntree launched its marketing campaign.

A 1934 Advertisement for Black Magic. The young woman occupies the foreground as a man occupies the background, cigar in hand.

Both Adam and Annie’s gendered memories of chocolate involve domestic ritual. Annie fondly remembers eating dark chocolate with her grandmother as a foundational moment in her chocolate memory. She and her grandmother would share a bar of refrigerated dark chocolate every evening as a nightly ritual. Annie described these memories as formative moments in her relationship with her grandmother and chocolate provided a ritual on consumption that allowed them to connect across generations as women. Adam’s childhood memories of chocolate also highlight a domestic ritual. His mother would always make him a cup of hot chocolate after school in the winter. They would drink the cocoa together and hot cocoa remains his favorite vehicle for chocolate. This domestic cocoa ritual echoes some of the earliest messaging about chocolate’s role in the home. In the eighteenth century, chocolate moved from being a masculine product consumed in male-dominated spaces to being a domestic product mediated by women.[ii] In the nineteenth century, chocolate became more affordable and women of many classes were tasked with managing chocolates role in the home. Hot chocolate as a drink was marketed to be a nutritious and fortifying beverage that allowed children to prosper. Advertisements and marketing outlined women’s responsibility for the domestic distribution of chocolate: “women were charged with providing wholesome cocoa for the respectable consumption within the family”[iii] Adam’s memories of his mother serving him hot cocoa directly mirror the early advertisements that defined how mothers and housewives must involve chocolate in family life. Women – as mothers and housewives and defenders of domesticity – are tasked with practicing societal values and mediating products in the home. As Anna, Annie, and Adam explained, these early memories of chocolate in the home define their current understanding of chocolate and its role in their lives.

Luxury and Class

When discussing the Alpaco chocolate, people used phrases that relate to class and status. Annie and Adam described the chocolate as “accessible” and Anna said it tasted “commercial”. In the conversation after the tasting, Anna went on to say that choosing the Alpaco chocolate as her favorite would make her feel “uncultured”. This launched a broader conversation about chocolate and its often classist connotations. The participants said that the felt they were supposed to like the “fancier” (higher cacao) chocolate. The association of high cacao with luxury itself is an assumption about chocolate production, price, and status. Anna explained that when she realized that dark chocolate was the “classy” chocolate to favor over milk, she trained herself to like it. This association of different chocolate with differing levels of luxury and status, reveals the conception of luxury that paints a backdrop to chocolate consumption.

An advertisement for Schmitten Luxury Chocolate starring Priyanka Chopra. A beautiful woman prancing along idyllic European cobblestone streets while a decadent wave of chocolate chases her illustrates some of the central conceits of luxury marketing.

In the eighteenth century, chocolate became a product of domestic “luxury and leisure”[i] whose consumption was defined by class. Chocolate became more affordable in the nineteenth century, but many chocolate products and brands maintain a luxurious image (and price-point) today. The definition and experience of luxury itself has changed in the past few centuries. In many ways, luxury experiences and products are more accessible now to more people than ever before. Luxury services and products can be obtained with a few swipes on a smartphone. As Peter McNeil and Giorgi Riello explain, “luxury is today increasingly standardized and comes with a pegged price attached to it.”[ii] Many products, populate both high-end and low-end markets. McNeil and Giorgia illustrate how coffee is both marketed and consumed as a simultaneous commodity and luxury.[iii] I would argue that chocolate is in many ways the same. It is ubiquitous and easily accessible, yet certain niches of the chocolate market rely on luxury products and prices and do so successfully.

          Chocolate can be both a commodity and luxury because of both product differentiation and marketing. Marketing and advertising can determine what makes a product a luxury and in the past few decades there has been a “’luxurification’ of consumption through advertising, shopping, fashion, and media”[iv] This process of ‘luxirification’ played out in our tasting. At the end of the tasting, all the participants were asked to rearrange the chocolate in order of preference. Every single participant put the Antidote 100% Raw Cacao as their last choice. However, when we revealed the original packaging of all the chocolates we asked the participants which chocolate they would select of the shelf based on packaging. Three participants said that they would buy the Antidote chocolate because “it looked fancy” or it seemed like “a good luxury gift”. Annie went as far as to say “the packaging made it look like raw cacao is actually something I might want to eat”. The packaged advertising created an imagined demand in her mind for raw cacao, an expensive luxury product.

Chocolate is deeply entrenched in class dynamics and shifting societal perceptions of luxury. The tasting demonstrated how deeply those considerations influence taste and purchasing decisions.

Health

In the discussion after the tasting, some participants remarked that they did not feel that bad about eating so much chocolate first thing in the morning because “dark chocolate was healthy”. Both Annie and Anna said that they thought of dark chocolate as completely divorced from the world of candy or confection. Annie said that she thought of dark chocolate as an energy supplement and Anna cited chocolate’s anti-oxidant properties as a health benefit.

The belief that chocolate has medicinal properties has been around since the beginning. The earliest European documentation of chocolate records its medicinal uses. In Bernadino de Sahagún’s 16th century Florentine Codex, the friar wrote an ethnography of the Mesoamerican people he interacted with, the first record of its kind. The Florentine Codex includes descriptions of cacao and how the plan interacted with Aztec health. Sahagun describes the Aztecs concocting frothed drinks before battle to help aid with energy and strength. Over the next few centuries, Europeans adopted a belief in chocolate’s medicinal properties before interest faded in the 20th century.

Is chocolate really healthy?

In recent years, after a series of studies were published about chocolate’s proposed medicinal properties, interest has reignited. Many people believe that chocolate, especially dark chocolate, has medical value because of chemical compounds found in chocolate. However, many of these studies have projected claims that do not hold up when either repeated or scaled.

David Benton explains how many of these claims are either false or overblown. The chemicals that people cite as being helpful – methlyzanthines, caffeine, phenylethylamine – are found in too small quantities in chocolate to actually have a noticeable impact. Benton suggests that the positive effects of chocolate are more likely psychological rather than physiological and there is a large chance that chocolate makes us feel good because it tastes good: “The combination of sweetness and fat approaches the ideal hedonic combination”.[i] Benton is combatting a sizable societal belief that chocolate may be a miracle food with huge biological benefit. In his article, Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered, James Howe pushes against a popular anthropological belief that chocolate determined the healthy cardiovascular system of the Kuna people of Panama. How outlines how non-rigorous ethnography can lead to problematic associations between chocolate, nativity, and health.[ii]  

Conclusion

What was initially supposed to be a straightforward chocolate tasting exploring cacao intensity in chocolate turned into so much more. All of the participants were so excited to share their experiences with chocolate and their thoughts about the complex themes chocolate intersects with. All of the analysis in this post was driven by the comments of the participants and I think that their comments reflect widely held perceptions of chocolate. There are so many more aspects of chocolate to explore, including race and ethics, but I wanted the content of the conversation to be driven by the participants. Chocolate is such an uniquely amazing food in that just a few bites can lead to an hour’s worth of conversation spanning such large topics such as gender, class, and health.




[1] Emma Robertson, Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History, Studies in Imperialism (Manchester, England) (Manchester ; New York : New York: Manchester University Press ; Distributed in the United States exclusively by Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

[1] Emma Robertson, Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History 20

[1] Robertson 20

[1] Robertson 20 P 20

[1] Peter McNeil and Giorgio Riello, Luxury: A Rich History, 1 edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). 231

[1] Ibid 233

[1] Ibid 234

[1] Astrid Nehlig, ed., Coffee, Tea, Chocolate, and the Brain, 1 edition (Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 2004). 206

[1]James Howe, “Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered,” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 12, no. 1 (2012): 43–52, https://doi.org/10.1525/GFC.2012.12.1.43.

Works Cited

James Howe, “Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered,” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 12, no. 1 (2012): 43–52, https://doi.org/10.1525/GFC.2012.12.1.43.

Astrid Nehlig, ed., Coffee, Tea, Chocolate, and the Brain, 1 edition (Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 2004).

Peter McNeil and Giorgio Riello, Luxury: A Rich History, 1 edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Emma Robertson, Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History, Studies in Imperialism (Manchester, England) (Manchester ; New York : New York: Manchester University Press ; Distributed in the United States exclusively by Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)

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