Tales of the “Christmas Crack”: Cracking into the Not-So-Sweet History of Cacao and Sugar Production

At my family’s most recent holiday party, I spotted my favorite dessert: my mom’s famous salt, butter, and sugar of the Earth, homemade “Christmas Crack.” In other words, a chocolatey saltine toffee delight that seemed to have been sent to us by the Mayan Cacao God himself (Figure 1). I eagerly grabbed a piece, brought it to my lips, and closed my eyes in anticipation…only to have them fly open in horror, as I remembered that the hundreds of years of labor atrocities that plagued the production of its key components were anything but sweet.

Figure 1.1 The Mayan Cacao God, depicted on an ancient stone bowl. Some anthropologists argue that the deity is not a unique Cacao God, but in fact the Maize God embodying a cacao tree.1 The Mayans revered cacao because it “originated from the gods,” giving it economic value and ritualistic significance.1 Cacao was representative of power, a view that was strongly paralleled in Europe in the 1500s-1800s.2

Society perceives chocolate to be a comfort food and luxury, views that are perhaps reminiscent of its introduction to wealthy and noble Europeans in the 1500s-1600s.3 At this time, the lower classes desired the security of high-society individuals – likewise, they aspired to emulate their habits, and in doing so, associated the act of eating sugar and chocolate with happiness and wellbeing.3 Increasing demand for sugar and cacao amongst all social classes in Europe aided in the New World’s shift from indigenous forced labor to slavery, perpetuating a cycle of mass demand, mass production, and egregious human rights abuses until abolition in the mid-1800s.

Modern chocolate was born of the encomienda system in the 1500s in the Central American Izalcos region, which had the perfect combination of environmental conditions for the Theobroma cacao tree – and thus, forced labor – to thrive (Figure 2).4 Instituted by the Spanish crown, the encomienda system granted colonists the right to impose substantial production quotas on the indigenous people of the region, under the guise that it was payment for Spanish “protection” and “Christianization.”2 This system helped cacao output to grow, such that peak Izalcos production coincided with cacao’s high-priced introduction to the European market and diet around 1580.4 In this manner, cacao – and thus, chocolate – made its violent European high-society debut, leading anthropologist Kathryn Sampeck to claim that “the wretchedness of the Izalcos example was so extreme…because the Izalcos was a roguish, wayward economic frontier, the kind of frontier that created wildness so that some—and not others—may reap its rewards.”2 While Spanish colonists and nobles accumulated money and power, indigenous farmers endured “physical violence and extreme labor demands with almost no regard for human dignity.”2 Thus, the Spanish use of indigenous forced labor to extract tribute in the form of cacao beans enabled the European elite to derive power from the consumption of this expensive commodity; as chocolate became increasingly popular with the wealthy, it developed into a symbol of social status and financial security. Consequently, the masses began to associate chocolate with a sense of well-being, while failing to recognize that it was a product that was deeply rooted in forced indigenous labor on the other side of the world.

Figure 2.5 Cacao cultivation was widespread throughout Mesoamerica, thriving in shaded, humid regions with rich soil.4 While other high-yield regions such as the gulf region of Tabasco, the Soconusco region near the Pacific coast, and Suchitepequez produced notable cacao quantities, the Izalcos region is historically significant because the Spanish valued its superproducer qualities.4

Chocolate, however, was just a single component in the development of the European sweet tooth. The harsh conditions that laborers in the New World endured can only be fully explored when sugar itself is analyzed as a high-powered commodity, one that asserted its authority over the masses as its functions shifted from spicing up small-scale bonbons to widespread use as a preservative, and later, as a substantial caloric source.3 Like cacao, sugar was one of the crucial crops that fueled the rise of capitalism in Europe – and thus, the boom in slave labor in the Americas and the Caribbean. Increasing demand for the two commodities required that production increase at corresponding levels (Figure 3).3 There was only one problem – 80-90% of the native Central American and Caribbean populations were dying from exposure to European diseases, meaning that colonizers had to bring in laborers by the millions to sustain society’s increasing hunger for sugar.6

Figure 3.7 Sugar consumption in England, 1600-1850. Sugar was regularly consumed by noble and wealthy Europeans in the early 1600s; by the 1800s, the once-exotic substance had become a daily necessity that spanned across social classes, comprising roughly 14% of British caloric intake.3 Such an exponential increase in demand required that production, and thus labor levels, match that growth. Consequently, the lower class’ desire to emulate the wealthy aided in the shift from indigenous labor to a capitalistic use of slavery in the New World.

In this manner, slaves became yet another commodity, shipped in from Africa because this was the most economical and feasible location from which to source human bodies to match demand (Figure 4).6,8 From 1690-1790, Europe imported roughly 12 million tons of sugar– about the same number of African lives that were lost in its production; in this way, sugar became the “most notable addiction in history that killed not the consumer, but the producer.”6 Such a dramatic toll on human life was enabled by a scaling of economies that was perpetuated by the lower class’ desire to emulate the wealthy, who, in turn, were more than happy to comply if it brought them more money and power. Mass production became the European mindset – after all, money now grew on trees. With this shift to mass production came a capitalistic use of slavery, a labor source that was rooted in countless human rights abuses. Thus, growing demand for sugar and cacao in Europe, spurred by the lower class’ aspirations to obtain a sense of security enjoyed by the elite, enabled the shift from indigenous forced labor to slavery in the New World.

Figure 4.9 Colonists imported upwards of 15 million slaves from Africa in an effort to sustain production efforts for crops such as sugar and cacao.9 Slave conception was discouraged in the sugar industry and death rates were high, meaning that the only way to keep up with production needs was to continue importing slaves.6

On that note, I returned to the present day, toffee melting satisfyingly on my tongue, yet mouth open in disgust. How can it be that something so enchanting is rooted in such brutality? How did some conservative members of society consider chocolate to be sinful when it was first introduced to Europe, not because its production required barbarism and carnage, but because it was enjoyable?6 So, the next time you indulge in a chocolate concoction, pay tribute to its exploitative and cruel past, and remember that your favorite holiday treat may not be coated in dark chocolate chips, but instead in deceit.

“Christmas Crack” Saltine Toffee Recipe

Prep + Cook Time: 20 minutes


  • 1.5 sleeves saltine crackers
  • 1.5 sticks butter
  • 1.5 cups brown sugar
  • 2 cups chocolate chips


  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Spray with nonstick cooking spray.
  2. Line baking sheet with one layer of saltine crackers. Crush remaining crackers for later use as a topping.
  3. Place the butter and brown sugar in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a rolling boil, then carefully pour the mixture evenly over the crackers. Use a baking spatula to smooth the mixture over all crackers.
  4. Bake the crackers in the oven for 5 minutes, until the toffee is bubbling all over. Carefully remove baking sheet from the oven and let cool for 1 minute.
  5. Sprinkle the chocolate chips over the hot toffee crackers. Allow to partially melt, then use a baking spatula to spread the melted chocolate evenly over the entire sheet. Add desired toppings.
  6. Freeze the toffee for 30+ minutes. Once frozen, break into small pieces and enjoy!

References, Including Figure Sources

1. CHOCOLATE: Food of the Gods. Cornell University Albert R. Mann Library http://exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu/chocolate/morethanadrink.php.

2. Sampeck, K. Cacao and Violence: Consequences of Money in Colonial Guatemala. (2019).

3. Mintz, S. W. Sweetness and Power. (1985).

4. Sampeck, K. & Thayn, J. Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism. (2017).

5. Kaplan, J., Umaña, F. & Hurst. Cacao residues in vessels from Chocolá, an early Maya polity in the southern Guatemalan piedmont, determined by semi-quantitative testing and high-performance liquid chromatography. Jounrnal Archaeol. Sci. Rep. 13, 526–534 (2017).

6. Hobhouse, H. Seeds of Change: Five Plants that Transformed Mankind. (Harper & Row, 1986).

7. Hersh, J. & Voth, H.-J. Sweet Diversity: Colonial Goods and the Rise of European Living Standards after 1492. https://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=1402322 (2009).

8. Kahn, A. & Bouie, J. The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes. http://www.slate.com/articles/life/the_history_of_american_slavery/2015/06/animated_interactive_of_the_history_of_the_atlantic_slave_trade.html (2015).

9. The Transatlantic Slave Trade. Pilot Guides https://www.pilotguides.com/study-guides/transatlantic-slave-trade/.

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