Interview with a Chocoholic: Seeing Course Themes in Conversation

In analyzing how chocolate interacts with social spheres, it seems intuitive to interrogate how people interact with and around chocolate. Such an investigation can be done in a number of ways – examining the chocolate section of a grocery store or supermarket, for example, or hosting a chocolate tasting among friends and noting their observations and preferences.

This post focuses on an interview with a family friend about their thoughts on chocolate, the role chocolate has in their life, and how their relationship with chocolate has changed over time. In the process of discussing this individual’s general relationship with chocolate, preferences in chocolate consumption, and experiences with chocolate as a social phenomenon, I will discuss how salient parts of their story relate to themes discussed in class, including but not limited to chocolate and sweets as they relate to children, hallmark characteristics of chocolate, single origin chocolates, and chocolate as a marker of social status.

An early introduction to chocolate

The interviewee’s reaction to being interviewed about chocolate was enthusiastically affirmative. Chocolate and sweets have been an integral part of her life ever since she was a child.

“I don’t have an earliest memory of chocolate,” the interviewee said. “It’s just always been there. My dad has a massive sweet tooth, and for as long as I could remember we just had chocolate around.”

The interviewee is not alone in being exposed to chocolate and sweets from a young age. Candy and other food commercials often explicitly and implicitly target children directly, indoctrinating fans early on and contributing to the childhood obesity epidemic (Martin, slide 29). Halloween has, for children, become synonymous with free or exorbitant amounts of candy, while brands have been competing for children’s loyalty for at least decades.

However, the interviewee’s most vivid childhood memories of chocolate have nothing to do with advertisements. Instead, she recounts a family ritual with her father and sister: “We had this routine every Sunday where my dad would go to the store to buy the paper,” the interviewee said with a smile. “My dad would go get his paper, and we would tag along with him. Afterward, he would buy a bag of fancy chocolates while we could each get a bar of chocolate.”

As a child, the interviewee’s tastes tended toward the super sweet, with a memorable favorite being Cadbury Dairy Milk bars. “I was a kid, so I had a sweet tooth, so of course I went for milk chocolate,” she said with a laugh. She seems to agree with social perceptions of children favoring sweetness (Martin, slide 24), commenting, “The older I get, the darker my chocolate tastes get.” But as a kid? “I’d go for the super sweet milk chocolate!”

“Since when is it horizontal? I remember when they printed it vertically. So much more they could do with the packaging!”

Nowadays the interviewee’s sweet tooth has moved on to other sweets. “I like my chocolate to be bitter,” she said. “I like my chocolate real, real dark. I don’t know [how it happened], it just evolved over time. One day during Sunday, instead of picking up a Cadbury I picked up some slightly-darker-than-milk chocolate. It was still really sweet but it didn’t have the dairy sweet of the chocolate… I realized the darker I went, the less sugar there was to disguise the subtler notes in the chocolate’s flavor.”

While her tastes in chocolate have changed drastically since those formative days, some of the interviewee’s chocolate preferences are permanently influenced by the Sunday ritual. Her favorite chocolates from her father’s bag – when she managed to coax one out of him – were “the goopy ones,” she said, the kind with raspberry jelly or orange paste, and as an adult she still loves chocolates with goopy fillings. Caramels are a special favorite.

But the interviewee now has a permanent soft spot for the subtler flavors more obvious in dark chocolate. “Once you notice the little hints and coughs and smudges of flavor that are hidden just below the surface, you can’t go back,” she said. “You feel like you’re doing yourself and the chocolate a disservice. It’s like listening to a song but filtering out one of the instruments.” The complexity of flavor she references seems a large reason for chocolate’s wide appeal across cultures (Martin, slides 36-38).

Good Chocolates and the Things that Make Them Possible

The interviewee claims not to have many preferences on chocolate, saying, “There’s expensive chocolate and there’s cheap chocolate, and I eat it all.” However, she does have favorites and particularly strong dislikes. This section will discuss first her distaste for a popular brand of chocolate, then  her criteria for evaluating chocolate, as well as innovations in the chocolate industry that make such criteria possible.

For starters, there is one brand that some consider a synonym for chocolate but that the interviewee cannot stand. “Hershey’s isn’t chocolate,” she said. “It’s chocolate-flavored candy.” She identifies two separate factors that make Hershey’s chocolate intolerable: texture and flavor.

“The thing that throws me off the most about Hershey’s is the texture,” the interviewee said. “It’s more gloppy and chewy because it has a candy texture, almost like a taffy texture, but somehow more cloying.” She describes chocolate as breaking with a snap and being smooth as it melts, two qualities she does not associate with Hershey’s.

She finds the flavor of America’s most iconic chocolate underwhelming as well. “Flavor-wise, Hershey’s is dusty to me,” the interviewee said. “It doesn’t taste like the cocoa powder is well incorporated into the mixture. It tastes like you can taste the powder… which is also why I say it doesn’t taste like chocolate, because in actual chocolate the flavor would be more seamless instead of just milk and cocoa butter and cocoa powder.”

In contrast, the interviewee also described characteristics of good chocolate. She sums up a good chocolate bar as “basically, fundamentally, a single mouthfeel experience.” A piece of chocolate is smooth in flavor as well as texture – one uniform flavor across the tongue instead of different pockets of flavor next to each other, and creamy and rich when pressed between the roof of one’s mouth and one’s tongue.

Chocolate’s smooth flavor and texture are not only the two main criteria by which the interviewee evaluates chocolate but also due to crucial parts of the chocolate-making process. For flavor, chocolate made from unroasted cocoa tastes brighter, fruitier, and more bitter, whereas roasting the cocoa produces a richer and less bitter flavor (Martin, slide 51). In addition to roasting, one can also treat cocoa powder with alkali, resulting in what is called “Dutch process cocoa.” While naturally occurring cocoa powder is slightly acidic, Dutch process cocoa powder has a pH level of 7, which is the same as water (Velie 2019). The natural acidity in cocoa is responsible for citrusy and fruity flavors in chocolate, whereas treating cocoa with alkali mellows this tartness into earthier flavors and gives the cocoa a more consistently woodsy or nutty flavor (Velie).

Chocolate’s signature smooth texture, on the other hand, is thanks less to chemical treatments and more to physical manipulations of cocoa.  To begin, chocolate owes much of its smoothness to the milling process in chocolate-making. Chocolate that is being milled is crushed and pressed until its particles are of a size between 15 and 30 microns wide, the perfect range for the silky smoothness of chocolate (Martin, slide 59). While particles wider than 30 microns feel sandy or gritty, particles of less than 15 microns wide cause a slimy or silty texture. Once the particles in chocolate are in the right size range, they undergo a process called conching to ensure even incorporation of dry and wet ingredients throughout the chocolate (Dand 268). While scientists don’t agree what about this hours-long incorporating step gives chocolate its smoothness, conching is nonetheless now considered a critical part of chocolate production (Dand 283). Finally, tempering is a process of forming smooth crystalline structures in chocolate by melting and reforming it to specific conditions (Martin, slide 63). When done well, tempering can improve both flavor and texture, as well as help chocolate’s shelf life (Martin).

So several factors contribute to chocolate’s signature mouthfeel, but once flavor and texture were ensured the interviewee did have more to say on her chocolate preferences, particularly by way of flavor and origin.

Terroir and Taste

When asked how she decides what makes a good dark chocolate, the interviewee quipped, “Obviously, my notes depend on origin. Obviously, it depends where you get the chocolate for what the subtle notes [of flavor] are.” Her comments are representative of a common approach to food consumption known as terroir, which can be loosely defined as the qualities of a food that can be attributed to local ingredients, environmental factors, and other noteworthy characteristics related to the place where the food is produced (Martin, slide 45). In other words, terroir can be thought of as the flavors or textures in a food that are uniquely related to how or where the food is produced. Cacao-producing countries use the concept of terroir to brand their cacao as having flavors particular to their region, such as the idea that chocolate made from Ghanaian cacao has a uniquely Ghanaian flavor (Martin, slide 47). Terroir is understudied, especially with chocolate, and an imprecise science thanks to its subjective nature and subtle differences between even foods produced from the same ingredients in the same ways (Martin). Nonetheless, it is key for many chocolate connoisseurs who place both warranted and unwarranted weight on cacao origin.

But terroir wasn’t always an important part of selecting chocolate for the interviewee. As a former student of Harvard College, she was formally introduced to single-origin chocolate at the nearby chocolate shop L.A. Burdick, which sorts and sells its chocolate bars almost exclusively according to their cacao’s countries of origin. After copious amounts of experimentation, the interviewee decided she had two favorite chocolate flavors, which she named by country.

“I thought my favorite [chocolate flavor] was Ecuadorian dark chocolate,” the interviewee said. “But over time it’s evolved a bit – it’s now a toss up between the Brazilian and the Ecuadorian.” She describes the Ecuadorian as earthier and heavier, not spicy or chili-flavored but somehow still “almost peppery,” whereas she remembers the Brazilian as more vegetal with a fresher and cleaner flavor, almost like apple or pear.

Now that she has graduated from Harvard, the interviewee cannot so easily access single-origin chocolate. “I don’t look into chocolate origins so much anymore,” she said. “But if it [the chocolate bar] does say a country of origin, if it’s a country of origin that I like, then I’ll get it because it’s good chocolate. Or at least it’s historically been good chocolate in my experience.” That is, the interviewee does not necessarily choose chocolate based on country of origin and instead uses this information to make educational guesses on what other chocolate is also to her liking. Ultimately, she cares more about trying new chocolate than staying loyal to a particular bar. “If it’s a bar I’ve never had or from a place I’ve never had, I’ll prioritize it over a bar I know I like. And then I save one spot for a bar I know I like in case the other ones are duds.”

Sweets and Socialites: Chocolate as a Status Symbol

As much as she loves chocolate and sweets, the interviewee does not love holidays associated with candy. More specifically, she has distinctly unpleasant memories of Valentine’s Day from her high school days. As a secular institution the school had to avoid emphasizing religious holidays, and with a shortage of secular holidays the student council embraced Valentine’s Day as “an uncomplicated secular holiday focusing on love,” the interviewee said.

“They were selling everything you could imagine,” the interviewee said. “Roses, singing telegraphs, chocolate, balloons. You would pay to receive a rose or chocolate or balloon or send it to a friend. People went all out – it became a status thing to receive lots of roses or lots of balloons…especially among girls. People would send roses to their friends so that no one didn’t have roses. Then it became, are you really friends if you don’t send a rose?”

The commodification of affection through gifts extended to chocolates and balloons and telegrams too. As a result, the interviewee said, chocolate became a status symbol at school for one day out of the year as long as it was visibly a gift from someone else. “That one day a year was the cashing out of social credit,” the interviewee said. “You’re flaunting your social money bags, all on that one day.”

Though an alarming example of the commodification of human affection, the situation at the interviewee’s high school is far from unusual. My own elementary and high schools boasted similarly unofficial popularity contests around Valentine’s Day, measured by cards, flowers, and candy. More surprising is perhaps the fact that such use of chocolate as a measure of influence or power is historically precedented. Ancient Mesoamericans paid taxes to their rulers in the form of cacao beans, a system that continued into the 17th century (Martin, slide 20), and chocolate spread from the Americas through European spheres of influence specifically as an ingredient among the upper class until industrialization and modernization made mass-produced chocolate affordable and accessible to all (Martin, slides 37-38).

At the Heart of It: Simply Delicious

Ultimately, the interviewee’s thoughts on chocolate are fairly straightforward. As a person who loves food, she has a softness for sweets, and her sweet tooth has a weakness for the unique taste profile that chocolate has. While advertisements paint chocolate as a sensual experience – “You want to sell chocolate? Make people think chocolate and sex are fundamentally interlinked” – at the end of the day chocolate is still a food, particularly one with a rich and diverse flavor, irresistibly smooth texture, and countless cultural adaptations. Researching and tasting different chocolates are only helpful insofar as they contribute to the creation of ever better chocolate. After all, as the interviewee said, “Sometimes you just want something really decadent, and nothing feels as decadent as chocolate.”

Works Cited

Dand, Robin. “Cocoa Bean Processing and the Manufacture of Chocolate.” The International Cocoa Trade. Amsterdam: Elvesier, 2011.

Martin, Carla. “Chocolate Expansion.” AAAS 119x: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. 13 February 2019. Harvard College. Lecture.

Martin, Carla. “Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Class in Chocolate Advertisement.” AAAS 119x: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. 3 April 2019. Harvard College. Lecture.

Martin, Carla. “Sugar and Cocoa.” AAAS 119x: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. 20 February 2019. Harvard College. Lecture.

Martin, Carla. “The Rise of Big Chocolate and Race of the Global Market.” AAAS 119x: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. 13 March 2019. Harvard College. Lecture.

Velie, Marissa Sertich. Serious Eats. “What’s the Difference Between Dutch Process and Natural Cocoa Powder?” Last modified March 15, 2019. https://www.seriouseats.com/ 2014/08/difference-dutch-process-natural-cocoa-powder-substitute.html.

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