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Buying Chocolate at Cardullo’s: An Experiment in Social Conscience

 

Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe of Harvard Square has sold quality foodstuffs since 1950, offering both local and imported niche food items. Along with many other dessert foods, Cardullo’s has a significant chocolate inventory. Their chocolate bars range from ultra local Taza and Somerville chocolate, to imported European brands like Neuhaus and Milkboy. According to the owner, the chocolates are organized by brand location—America or Europe—and then largely by type of chocolate and cacao percentage, along with the organics being clustered together. Although the spread does not emphasize any particular brand, or contain much information about the bars other than what is on the wrappers, the owner stated that her customers generally know what they are looking for. As Cardullo’s has a boutique selection, this makes sense. Finally, when questioned on popularity of various brands, the owner concluded that the best sellers were Neuhaus, Godiva, and Taza. The chocolate selection at Cardullo’s captures a dichotomy in the consumption of chocolates—at a given price level, consumers seem to have to choose between haute patisserie and equitably sourced chocolate. In examining the differences between these chocolates, the factors underlying their price emerge from the mission of the brand and the intended audience.

I will spend the discussion on the most expensive chocolate brands, as this is where the most distinct differences between brands reveal themselves. At one of the highest price points of fifteen to twenty dollars, three choice categories emerge, providing a slight wrinkle on the dichotomy previously suggested but not invalidating it. First, there is the option of a small Taza chocolate assortment; second, a bar of Chocolate Bonnat; and third, a box of Godiva assorted chocolates. The Taza chocolate is visibly advertised as “Made in Massachusetts,” organic, and practicing direct trade. The Bonnat chocolate bars are more minimalist—their brand name occupies most of the bar’s cover, along with the silhouette of a cathedral in the background and the origin of the chocolate in smaller letters. The Godiva stands out gold and shimmery, with an oversized ribbon draped across. Thus, at this price point I would distinguish Taza as occupying the role of equitably sourced chocolate whereas Bonnat and Godiva share the spot of haute patisserie. What separates them, however, proves largely to be volume of product, but underlying that—and not immediately visible to the consumer—lies the truth that Chocolate Bonnat truly embodies the role of haute patisserie whereas Godiva does so mainly in appearance.

 

Taza chocolate commands a high price point because of the extreme care it takes in crafting its product with ethical concerns in mind, paired with a consumer base willing to pay a premium to support fair relationships with farmers and suppliers and to support organic agriculture.

Taza Transparency Report

Taza’s flagship program is the Direct Trade Certification. Taza Direct Trade, as outlined in the first page of the above Transparency Report, eliminates middlemen that would even be found in supposedly equitable programs such as Fair Trade. Taza directly purchases from select Certified USDA Organic and non-GMO cacao farmers, who “ensure fair and humane work practices.” Additionally, Taza pays at least $500 above market price for cacao, which equates to a 15-20% premium—much higher than the around 4% premiums given to Fair Trade farmers (Sylla, 2014). It is for this reason, along with Taza’s traditional methods of chocolate production at their Somerville factory, that Taza chocolate bars sell at a high price point. On the other side, however, are the consumers willing to pay for an equitable product. Some argue that companies touting fair trade are benefitting from consumers’ desire to feel good about themselves, and that, as Professor Martin notes, feel that “food as material culture can be consumed as a way to reflect one’s knowledge, worldliness and morality” (Sampeck & Martin, 2015, p.55). This can be problematic: for example, researcher Ndongo Sylla has stated, “Fair Trade is but the most recent example of another sophisticated ‘scam’ by the ‘invisible hand’ of the free market” (Sylla, 2014, p. 18). What Sylla argues is that the ‘invisible hand’ of the market indicated to suppliers that demand for equitably sourced product existed. So, certifications such as Fair Trade cropped up and companies changed their marketing strategies. But, Sylla thinks, these certifications and companies have not actually made a tangible change in shifting profit to farmers or bettering the living situations of impoverished suppliers; rather, they simply increase profit to companies. Taza’s Transparency Report proves an exception to this claim.

Although Taza chocolate is undoubtedly high quality, it does not (yet) occupy a niche filled primarily by European chocolatiers, confectioners, and chocolate makers. Though the word “haute patisserie” generally translates to a bakery that sells fancy products, when applied to chocolate, it refers to a product crafted with perfectionist attention to detail, extremely controlled ingredients and process, generally small batches, and a well defined desired effect, such as the notes of taste and smell and visual appeal (Eber & Williams, 2012). One could also instead use the more general designation, “haute cuisine.” Chocolate Bonnat epitomizes these qualities, with a price per bar to reflect it (Sampeck & Martin, 2015).

Chocolate Bonnat History

In fact, Bonnat has been at the forefront of a movement towards high quality, artisanal chocolates—in 1983, Bonnat pioneered the single-origin bar, with bars made from beans from one location only–see above multimedia link. Bonnat’s emphasis on taste provides results: for the past three years, Bonnat has won upwards of 5 gold and silver medals at the International Chocolate Awards (see below multimedia link for specific categories).

Bonnat Awards

What jumps out in comparison between the Bonnat and Taza bars themselves, however, is that Bonnat displays no information about the nature of its cacao sourcing, other than the location. One might find it surprising not to see “USDA Certified Organic” or “Fair Trade Certified” emblazoned upon such an expensive product. This, however, emphasizes the difference between haute patisserie product and an equitably sourced one: Bonnat seeks to sell to a consumer focused on the prime gustatory experience, whereas Taza markets to a consumer who values supporting equitable trade. In investigating Bonnat’s sourcing practices, it appears that they practice some sort of direct trade, sourcing cacao beans from meticulously researched farming outfits. This makes sense, because Bonnat looks expressly for the highest quality product and for specific varieties of cacao bean, and as such is intimately involved in the purchase of their cacao. As Professor Martin notes in a paper on chocolate in Europe, actions of “haute cuisine” artisans “reflected a return to interest in terroir, or the sense of a place, in chocolate” (Sampeck & Martin, 2015, p.53). According to Bonnat’s mission statements in the above multimedia link, Bonnat spends five months a year exploring the world for just the right beans, and seeing as they move their sourcing frequently, perhaps a Fair Trade or Organic certification would not be the right fit. As such, Bonnat avoids to a degree the fetishization of fairly sourced goods talked about in the Taza case, where consumers want to make a statement about their own morality instead of actively caring about societal problems (Sampeck & Martin, 2015). Even though the cacao beans that Bonnat selects are probably farmed with organic techniques, it is important to note that Bonnat does not advertise as such, rather placing their strategy in the consumer’s desire for an intricate and curated product. Such demand has not existed long, however: anthropologist Susan Terrio writes, “In 1988 it would have been difficult to predict that French chocolatiers and their products would become, in the words of one well-informed Parisian observer, ‘un phenomene de societe,’ a societal phenomenon” (Terrio, 2000, p. 3). Since then, chocolate has become one of the high staples of gastronomic art and artisanal exposition, and Bonnat remains one of the paragons of this trend.

 

Though the artisanal chocolate wave began more recently, Europe—especially Belgium and Switzerland—have long been associated with the best chocolate and confectionary production (Terrio, 2000). As such, older and larger European chocolate companies have benefited from the elevation of chocolate in the international gastronomic stage, even if they do not practice the same meticulous craft as smaller producers. An example of such a company carried by Cardullo’s is Godiva Chocolatier, a Belgian company that has been operating since 1926 that makes both chocolate and confections. Godiva dwarfs both Taza and Bonnat in size, and its revenue numbers in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Godiva’s “Belgian Heritage”

At Cardullo’s one can by a box of eight Godiva chocolates for the equivalent of one bar of Chocolate Bonnat or a grouping of Taza disks. Whereas with Taza and Bonnat one can see the reasons underlying high prices—equitable sourcing and artisanal product, respectively, along with the use of fine grade chocolate—determining the pricing for Godiva presents a few more intricacies. As a large company, Godiva likely uses bulk grade chocolate, and while in the above multimedia link the company makes allusion to direct trade practices, without any certifications such claims do not mean much. Most of Godiva’s cost probably comes from the perceived notion of Belgian chocolate as superior and chique, even though its high-volume product does not reflect the values of “haute cuisine” products like Chocolate Bonnat. Godiva does not have any organic or fair trade certifications, which tend to contribute to a higher cost product. Rather, much of Godiva’s product is in the delivery and visuals: the fancy boxes and presentation make Godiva chocolate a good gift. While one cannot be sure as to how Godiva’s actions support unfair labor in cacao producing countries without some sort of transparency report like Taza provides, Godiva does claim to donate money to certain charities. In this way, Godiva indirectly supports sustainable practices, though the extent to which they donate is not shown.

Godiva Sustainable Practices

The charities of note in the above multimedia link are the World Cocoa Foundation and the Cocoa Horizons Foundation. Though neither are certifying organizations, they appear to donate towards more sustainable cocoa growing practices and the building of infrastructure in impoverished agricultural areas. What worries me, however, is the fact that the World Cocoa Foundation claims to represent over 80% of cocoa production—as discussed in class, such large organizations are problematic for several reasons (see below link for WCF facts).

http://www.worldcocoafoundation.org/our-work/our-approach/

First of all, they promote inefficiency in being so large, and siphon significant proportions of the money meant towards charity as middle men operating costs. Second, such large organizations promote unionized or centrally organized farming operations, which hurt single growers. Third, in representing such a significant proportion of the industry, the WCF may end up catering to the wills of its donors, and end up helping large chocolate companies more than the farmers it is intended to aid. Finally, such a broadly defined charity may have trouble targeting the very individual problems affecting cocoa production, namely forced labor in smaller outfits, which a more direct company-producer relationship like Taza has would do more to prevent (Leissle, 2013).

Although price is often thought of an indicator of quality, in the search for the perfect chocolate product at Cardullo’s we see that price reflects a compilation of unique and diverse factors. These factors, in delving deeper into the companies represented, seem to sift out into two categories. In one category, high price results from a product that is equitably sourced, certified organic, supports locals, and is generally socially conscious, like Taza. In the other category, high price results from a status of haute cuisine, either real or implied. In the case of Bonnat, the haute cuisine designation results from an artisanal and small batch product with high production costs and time, verified by awards and pedigree. In the case of Godiva, the haute cuisine designation comes from reputation and mental image of Belgian chocolate being high quality, along with physical presentation of the product.

In exploring the price distinctions further, one could surmise that an element of social conscience is present in both cases. In the first, by purchasing Taza, one is socially conscious regarding the company and producers. In the second, by purchasing Bonnat or Godiva, one is more socially conscious regarding oneself—i.e. desiring the best tasting product or a product that designates oneself as conscious of haute cuisine. Thus, the simple proposition of purchasing a bar of chocolate at Cardullo’s metamorphoses into an introspection on the underlying motive for ones purchase, both individual and social.

 

 

Sources

Healy, K. (2001). Llamas, weavings, and organic chocolate: Multicultural grassroots development in the Andes and Amazon of Bolivia. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Leissle, K. (2013). Invisible West Africa. Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, 13(3), 22-31.

Martin, C. D., & Sampeck, K. E. (2015). The bitter and sweet of chocolate in Europe. Socio.hu, (Special issue 3), 37-60. doi:10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37

Sylla, N. S., & Leye, D. C. (2014). The fair trade scandal: Marketing poverty to benefit the rich. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

Terrio, S. J. (2000). Crafting the culture and history of French chocolate. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Whitmore, Alex, et al. (2015). “Taza Transparency Report.”

Williams, P., & Eber, J. (2012). Raising the bar: The future of fine chocolate. Vancouver: Wilmor Pub.

 

 

Whole Foods and the Tanzania Schoolhouse Project

Whole Foods Market stands out in America as an antithetical supermarket chain, committed to purveying foods free of artificial additives and of organic origin. While Whole Foods products cost significantly more than their counterparts at other supermarkets, the company caters to those willing to pay more for food they deem healthier or of a more ethical origin. Among the many official designations for organic and equitably sourced goods, Whole Foods has created a standard called “Whole Trade Guarantee,” which claims to share a greater percentage of profits with producers, as well as to undertake various community service projects in the poverty-stricken areas the producers live in. One such item boasting the “Whole Trade Guarantee” seal, along with many others, is the Tanzania Schoolhouse Project Chocolate Bar.

WFMO_Milk_Chocolate_Tanzania

To preface my critique of Whole Foods’s advertising of the chocolate bar, I must first say that Whole Foods is undoubtedly doing good in the world, especially compared to other supermarkets. What this advertisement makes me question, however, is how much of that good transpires at the consumer end, rather than the producer end? In other words, might Whole Foods’ social impact be mainly on the end of those who feel themselves morally righteous or at least pat themselves on the back for buying a more expensive, but seemingly virtuous chocolate bar?

The Whole Trade Guarantee

My argument arises first from the rather blatant advertising of the chocolate bar, but also from the rather nebulous terms laid out in the above hyperlink about the “Whole Trade Guarantee.” Perhaps my quantitative background makes me unduly skeptical of Whole Foods’s workings, but my main critique concerns the lack of numbers in the presentation of the “Whole Trade Guarantee.” The fact that Whole Foods seems to create many of its own internal standards rather than being certified by Fair Trade, for example, is also problematic, and serves to set the stage further for my argument about perceived good versus actual good. To establish a more concrete portrayal of their social charity, I propose a simple advertisement that delivers impact on the basis of facts, rather than blurrily defined actions.

Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 6.37.13 PM

While the numbers presented in my advertisement are speculative and not necessarily true for Whole Foods, the essence of my advertisement is to present consumers the real consequence of buying the chocolate bar. For example, Taza Chocolate pays a 15-20% premium on chocolate it buys from local producers. Taza also practices Direct Trade, in that the company purchases cacao directly from producers, eliminating profit-siphoning middlemen (Taza, 2015). In the case of Whole Foods, an ad that forces consumers to visualize actual data rather than an ill-defined commitment to build schools in Tanzania serves multiples purposes. First off, it would force Whole Foods to be transparent with their producer relations, as Taza is. Whole Foods’s income is huge, and they could very well only be donating minuscule fractions of their profits to build the indeterminate number of schools proposed. Second, we might learn more of Whole Foods’s self-given labels, such as “Whole Trade Guarantee” and “Fair for Life,” which do not mean much unless independently verified. Third, the Tanzania Schoolhouse Project could be seen to perpetuate the “harmful binaries” endemic to the West’s view of Africa (Leissle, 2012). The Schoolhouse ad directly plays on consumers’ sense of social duty, and by buying a bar of chocolate it can make them feel as if they’ve done concrete good in a poverty-stricken country. While this isn’t necessarily bad, it could blind consumers from considering how much Whole Foods actually helps. Then again, the framing of education as supported by chocolate bars casts significant shame on the efforts of Tanzanians themselves. In considering the civilized/primitive binary, the idea that an American, simply in purchasing a chocolate bar, accomplishes what Tanzanians could not do for themselves raises flags regarding stereotyping of “traditional” cultures.

Pushing further with the concept of the data driven ad, and assuming that Whole Foods does indeed pay significant premiums to producers as Taza does, I would suggest a more radical design. While this probably would not be a successful ad, I believe it would be very thought provoking to the consumer.

Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 6.37.27 PM

The impact of this ad lies in forcing the consumer to realize still how little local producers and farmers are paid for their products. Even significant percentage premiums paid by companies practicing equitable trade practices do not result in that much more money being paid to producers. While it can be argued that such small increases have greater bearing in Africa or other poor nations where cost of living is cheaper, I still feel that actually including numerical values for what portions of profit go to producers should startle consumers into realizing the inequity inherent in international trade of agricultural products with developing nations (Sylla, 2014).

My purpose in critiquing the Whole Foods ad is not to accuse Whole Foods of false advertising practice, but rather to examine the way information regarding fair trade practices travels to the consumer. I very much admire, for example, the Taza Transparency Report. Thus, I feel that an ad that emphasizes numbers rather than proposals, such as the Tanzania Schoolhouse project, would both hold companies accountable and cause consumers to consider the inequities still inherent in retailer-producer relations.

Multimedia Sources

First image: Whole Foods. (2012). “Company News: Chocolate Choices Matter.” Digital Image. http://media.wholefoodsmarket.com/news/chocolate-choices-matter.

Second and Third Images: Produced by Carlo Bocconcelli from the first image.

Hyperlink: Hsia, Winnie. (2012). “What is the Whole Trade Guarantee?”

Bibliography

Healy, K. (2001). Llamas, weavings, and organic chocolate: Multicultural grassroots development in the Andes and Amazon of Bolivia. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Leissle, K. (2012). Cosmopolitan cocoa farmers: Refashioning Africa in Divine Chocolate advertisements. Journal of African Cultural Studies, 24(2), 121-139. doi:10.1080/13696815.2012.736194
Sylla, N. S., & Leye, D. C. (2014). The fair trade scandal: Marketing poverty to benefit the rich. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.
Whitmore, Alex, et al. (2015). “Taza Transparency Report.”

The Purity of Cadbury: Morality or Marketability?

The Cadbury company began in 1824 with John Cadbury, who operated as a street vendor of hot chocolate, coffee, and tea in Birmingham, England. His service remained small for years as he mostly catered to the wealthy due to the expensive nature of his wares. His company began to grow in the 1840’s and joined in partnership with his brother Benjamin, eventually becoming the official chocolate makers to the Queen in 1854. While Cadbury began to lose profit soon after, John’s sons George and Richard took the helm in 1861, quickly improving the company’s prospects by focusing exclusively on quality chocolate. The company soon expanded in both Britain and Africa to increase the manufacture and supply of its chocolate products. Cadbury’s major factory in England, the Bourneville estate, exemplified the Cadbury’s Quaker values as a sort of utopic model village, which reflected prevalent social theories of the time developed by Bentham and Mill. Cadbury’s African branch mainly sourced cacao from plantations in Sao Tome and Principe, where the brothers both owned land and patronized local growers; this cacao, however, was cultivated by slaves. The juxtaposition of Cadbury’s British operations and its African cacao farms illustrates the placidity and hypocrisy with which most citizens of Europe and America viewed slavery. While the Cadburys may have disapproved of slavery for moral reasons, as did many people, in reality the practice was so far removed from their daily lives that the economic benefits overpowered their desire to effect change.

 

George Cadbury began building the 120-acre Bourneville manufactory in 1893, hoping to create a moral working environment with better living conditions and human work hours.

Cocoa-_all_about_it_(1892)_(20668362081)
1: Female workers leading virtuous lives in Bourneville

The Cadburys maintained rather strict control over the lives of their workers, seeking to encourage good scruples and mindsets to lead to workplace efficiency and contentedness. Examples of such control include the ban on pubs in Bourneville, a “marriage bar” forcing female workers to leave when married, and gender segregation in the workplace. This micromanagement notwithstanding, jobs at Bourneville were much desired, with employment reaching over 3,000 people. As seen in the above depiction of Bourneville workers, working for Cadbury was viewed as a prime opportunity, and the company became known throughout England for the success of its model village.

Mrs._Beeton's_Book_of_Household_Management_(28).jpg
2: Cadbury Advertisement

The company of course helped promote its status, connecting the purity and quality of its products with the moral purity of its workers in advertisements. The Cadburys prided themselves on their achievement, and engaged in good deeds and charity with proceeds from their growing business.

Cadbury's_Cocoa_advert_with_rower_1885
3: Cocoa Ad

Especially given the food contamination scares of earlier decades in England, Cadbury made sure to tout their product for its wholesomeness. In part due to decreasing prices and increasing availability, chocolate became a treat enjoyable by all. The above advertisement encapsulates this by showing both the male rower and female aristocrat enjoying Cadbury’s drinking chocolate. Cadbury’s success had a darker side, however, as the economic foundations of chocolate’s increased popularity and supply came large in part due to the expansion of cacao slave plantations in Africa.

 

After visiting Trinidad in 1901 and taking more interest in the affairs of his overseas territory, George Cadbury began initiating dialogue with fellow high-up Quakers and the Anti-Slavery Society, as he suspected slaves were being used in Cadbury’s farming operations. While George Cadbury outwardly appeared to make an effort to indagate his foreign holdings, in practice he made very slow progress. Many reasons contributed to this reticence. Portuguese authorities obfuscated the true nature of African workers, having nominally outlawed slavery in 1870. They claimed workers, or servicals, signed five-year contracts with plantation owners and had freedom to leave. In reality, servicals were treated exactly like slaves and were abused and overworked with impunity. Investigating holdings in Sao Tome looked to be a difficult process due to the distance and language barrier. Finally, the lucrative offerings of the African holdings disincentivized the business-oriented Cadburys from shaking things up.

Screen Shot 2016-03-11 at 7.32.58 PM
4: An Enslaved African Plantation Worker

Eventually, however, George Cadbury sent an investigator, Joseph Burtt, to look into worker treatment in the Sao Tome plantations. Burtt documented the Portuguese slaving practices, and wrote a report of the horrid working conditions of African laborers. When he returned to England, though, his revelatory work was not immediately lauded. While Cadbury shared the report with other important chocolate makers of the time, the reports were not made publicly known. Rather, they were sent to the British Foreign Office to make sure they were moderate and inoffensive (mainly to the Portuguese). This inexpediency would seem out of place with the Quaker values of the Cadburys; in fact, financial reasons underpinned the delays of Burtt’s reporting. Britain and British merchants had little desire to pressure Portugal to crack down on slavery. It would both offend the Portuguese and result in higher prices for imported goods. The quality of cocoa produced in Sao Tome would have made finding another source very difficult if British chocolate makers were to switch in protest of the working conditions. Initially, Cadbury and other British chocolate merchants “Wiped their hands of the matter,” foisting the issues off to the Foreign Office (Cadbury in Satre, 78). Only when the reports reached the public did the Cadburys make moves to protect their reputations.

Although the Cadburys sought to portray themselves and their operations as morally upstanding in Britain, both to adhere to their Quaker faith and to increase sales, their African cacao plantations directly opposed their public façade. George Cadbury appeared to have cared about the conditions of African workers, but the inexpediency with which he addressed the use of slavery in his supply chain suggests Cadbury’s pure and moral British practices were more marketing ploy than ideological model.

 

Bibliography

Higgs, C. (2012). Chocolate islands: Cocoa, slavery, and colonial Africa. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

Mintz, S. W. (1985). Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history. New York, NY: Viking.

Satre, L. J. (2005). Chocolate on trial: Slavery, politics, and the ethics of business. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

 

Media Sources

1: Cadbury, R. (2015, August 17). Cocoa: All about it [{US-PD}]. Retrieved March 11, 2016, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cocoa-_all_about_it_(1892)_(20668362081).jpg

2: Beeton, I. (1907). [Cadbury Cocoa Ad {US-PD}]. Retrieved March 11, 2016, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mrs._Beeton’s_Book_of_Household_Management_(28).jpg

3: “Drink Cadbury’s Cocoa” advertisement with rower and lady friend – B&W engraving – 1885 [{US-PD}]. (n.d.). Retrieved March 11, 2016, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cadbury’s_Cocoa_advert_with_rower_1885.jpg

4:Cadbury, W. B. (1910). Labour in Portuguese West Africa. London: Routledge. Out of Copyright.

The Kakaw Glyph-Window to the Past

The decryption of Mayan glyphs proved a difficult and laborious process, and while not without detractors, the resulting understanding of the Mayan lexicon illustrates the significance of recorded history to present day knowledge. Whereas the Maya had been largely thought a peaceful and unified people ruled by lords and religious astronomers, the deciphering of glyphs in Maya ruins revealed a history of warring and violent city-states throughout the Yucatan. Using the glyph for chocolate or cacao, “kakaw,” as a focus, we can glimpse the importance of recovering lost human knowledge. Rather than presenting a trivial pursuit, the methodological research of Maya hieroglyphic script not only brought together lexicographers, linguists, historians, and archaeologists, but also provided insight into Maya culture undistorted by the Europian colonial gaze.

Kakaw
The Kakaw Glyph; Source: http://www.authenticmaya.com/cacao.htm

The discovery of the kakaw glyph tied in with the major breakthroughs in decoding Maya script: namely, that individual glyphs were phonetic, rather than representing an idea or object. Scholars had long believed glyphs were representative, but in the 1950’s a Russian scholar, Yuri Knorozov, proposed a syllabic system. This system was eventually realized to be correct, though it had been opposed for years, especially by renowned epigrapher J. Eric Thompson, of whom Mayan scholar Michael Coe wrote, “almost the entire Mayanist field was in willing thrall to one very dominant scholar, Eric Thompson.” While an interesting twist in the politics of Mayan studies, this example also illustrates the personal interests and biases that can hinder discovery.

The syllabic interpretation of Maya glyphs resulted in part from a repeated string of like glyphs called the “Primary Standard Sequence.” The Sequence was found mostly on clay vessels, as an inscription around the rim of a cup or bowl. In realizing that the Sequence denoted the type and intent of vessel, and its owner, scholars were able to piece together basic glyph meanings. Not surprisingly, many of these recovered vessels were used to hold cacao products, and thus the phonetic/syllabic glyph kakaw was uncovered. Specifically, the glyph comprises the image of a fish and fish fin, connoting the syllable ka twice, and the symbol for w or wa below.

sequence
Pot with Primary Standard Sequence; Source: http://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-museum/now-at-the-met/2014/maya-drinking-cup

Beyond appreciating the beauty and enigma of Maya glyphs, we can also uncover knowledge previously hidden or obscured. The revelations astonish just in the context of the kakaw glyph. From examining artwork, artifacts, and the few written codices that survived the Spanish book-burnings of the 1500’s, we see chocolate’s prominent role in Mayan culture.

Mayan religion remains a complex topic, due to its regional and polytheist tradition. In the context of the kakaw glyph, however, we see chocolate play an important role. The Popol Vuh, a key text in Mayan theology, features the iconic fish glyph, mainly in its detailing of Maya creation myth. Though the kakaw glyph may appear in tandem the Maya primordial gods, scholars agree with more certainty on the position of cacao as one of the first foods given to humans by the gods, along with, for example, corn.

 

Through study of scripts and codices, such as the Codex Mendoza, cacao beans were understood to be integral to Maya trade and currency. Many commodities had values measured in quantity of cacao beans, which, due to their intrinsic utility and size proved to be good monetary units.

currency
Objects with Values; Source: http://exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu/chocolate/images/content_img/Money.jpg

Additionally, given the commercial value of cacao, Maya rulers created sumptuary laws such that commoners could not literally drink their money away, further reinforcing cacao as a luxury for the rich.

pouring
A Lord Having his Chocolate Poured; Source: http://www.worldstandards.eu/chocolate%20-%20history.html

Knowing the importance of cacao in Maya culture, we see the quality and regulation of chocolate stressed in Maya artwork. Though less substantive than considering cacao in the context of religion or society, it is quite interesting to see the Maya interest in flavor and variation of chocolate.

Though much can be learned about a deceased civilization through archaeology and historical analysis, actually deciphering information as recorded by the Maya provides a direct link to millennia past. Bias and distortion are always present when considering history, and while perhaps intrinsic to human thought, more deliberate European bias against less developed civilizations propagated pervasively in historical study in previous centuries. In recent decades, scholars have taken care to recognize this bias, and the direct interpretation of the written record has proven integral in constructing an image of Mayan civilization.

Bibliography

Coe, Michael. The Maya Scribe and His World. New York: Grolier Club, 1973. Print.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

McNeil, Cameron L. Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006. Print.

Presilla, Marciel, E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print.

Multimedia Sources

Authentic Maya. The Maya and the Ka’kau’. Digital Image. http://www.authenticmaya.com/cacao.htm

Doyle, James. The Drinking Cup of a Classic Maya Noble. Digital Image.Maya. Guatemala or Mexico, Mesoamerica. Ceramic; H. 7 7/8 x Diam. 6 1/4 in. (18.1 x 15.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Anonymous Gift, 2005 (2005.435). Right: Vessel with seated lord, 7th–8th century. Maya. Mexico, Mesoamerica. Ceramic, stucco; H. 9 1/2 x Diam. 7 3/8 in. (24.1 x 18.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1992 (1992.4). http://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-museum/now-at-the-met/2014/maya-drinking-cup

Berdan, Frances. The Essential Codex Mendoza. Digital Image (From Print, Berkeley,1997). http://exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu/chocolate/images/content_img/Money.jpg

Chocomuseo. Pouring chocolate from one vessel to another (Maya vase, 750 AD). Digital Image. http://www.worldstandards.eu/chocolate%20-%20history.html