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The Luxury of Taste: Chocolate, Capitalism, and the Commodity of Fine Dining

“Indulge,” urges the inside of my Dove chocolate wrapper, assuring me that I did the right thing, eating that chocolate. The idea of “indulgence” is key for how our American culture thinks about food, especially dessert, and it works on levels beyond the bag of dark chocolates I picked up at CVS. Dessert is an excess, by nature a luxury. So I thought, why not go for the best, why not go for real “indulgence”? What’s the fanciest dessert, the most chocolate pleasure that money can buy (on a student budget)? I decided to analyze some of the most “indulgent” desserts that I could find within walking distance of my dorm in Cambridge, MA: choc-finale  vs  choc-harvest When I signed the bill at the end of these meals, what did I pay for? I paid for the experience, not just the food. Yes, a crucial part of the entire experience was consuming a delicious dessert, but I also paid for the service, the comfy chair, the music, the low lighting and the conversation floating around me from the other tables. Chocolate and other dessert foods hold a precarious position between sustenance and luxury. Chocolate is more universal, more sustaining and more widely available than real luxury consumables like wine and even coffee, and it does not share their psychological effects, despite common misconception (Benton, 213- 214). However, chocolate is more luxurious and extravagant than staple products like bread, meat, or rice. Chocolate tends to be sold as either luxury or staple, when in fact it occupies a space between the two that does not fit well in capitalist consumption practices. This essay will focus on chocolate dessert as a luxury by looking at the American fine dining experience, in order to show that the most elite consumers experience chocolate differently than the rest of society, because of how the experience becomes a commodity.

My first trip took me to Finale, a specialty dessert shop with three Boston locations. Finale strives to separate itself from mass produced chocolate and give the fine dining experience at a lower cost. Their sit-down restaurant features red table clothes, a prominent wine list, low lighting and soft jazz music. When I went in late on a Monday night, the restaurant housed me and three young couples that appeared to be on dates. The waiter couldn’t tell me the source of the chocolate in the “molten cake,” but he did tell me that in his three days working at Finale, he had learned that there were more different kinds of pastries than he had previously imagined.

“Just look how much of our menu is dessert!” he told me. Finale capitalizes on the desire to indulge in dessert. By offering a wide array, it allows consumers the luxury of choice, and while someone of middle-class means might not want to buy a fancy dinner, they might be persuaded to splurge on an indulgent dessert. Scholar Marcy Norton describes the “cultural-functionalist” model, proposed by historians such as Mintz and Bourdieu, as one theory for the popularity of chocolate in Western society. The theory states that those in power influence aesthetic and subjective decisions, or choices of taste. Under this theory, the upper classes are the tastemakers, and other consumers follow their lead. Norton does not believe that the theory is enough to explain the dessert’s popularity, but it does explain restaurants such as Finale, which sell the upper class experience at a lower price (Norton, 633). Finale’s menu describes the cake I ordered as “Our famous baked to order molten filled with a salted honey caramel sauce. Served with chocolate covered almonds and dulce de leche gelato,” and then lists a suggested wine pairing (Finale, Restaurant Menu). By pairing each dessert on the menu with wine, the restaurant again ties its products to other luxury goods, and sells a greater experience: not just the dessert, but the wine and cake together. I ordered (just the cake) and was quickly rewarded with the elegant presentation in the picture above. Typically, I would wolf down a dessert like this, loving the sweetness without focusing on the flavor, but for the first time in my dessert-eating career, I sat down to really evaluate the flavors and sensations of eating.

“Tasting,” in an evaluative way requires time, money, and knowledge. One must be taught to discern flavors and focus on all the senses while eating. Barbara Stuckey, a food tasting professional, published “Taste What You’re Missing,” a guide to tasting and understanding food like the experts. To those people with fewer taste buds who are less able to discern different flavors, she adds, “You can’t change the anatomy of your tongue, just as you can’t change your genetic makeup or height. But a height limitation doesn’t mean that you can’t teach yourself to be an excellent basketball player. And everyone-including you-can teach himself to be an excellent taster” (Stuckey, 27). Stuckey seems to say that anyone can learn to taste the way that she can, regardless of biological limits, but she doesn’t mention other limits, like time, energy, or lack of resources. Her book describes eating at some of the fanciest restaurants in the US, appreciating food like salmon, steak, and “soft, cherry-chocolate red zinfandel” (Stuckey, 15). Clearly, Stuckey has the resources to get the best food to taste recreationally, and also as a professional taster has spent years being paid to hone her tasting skills. Her book targets those given choices of what kind of food they eat, rather than needing to get the most sustenance per dollar.

Chocolate Tasting Wheel from “Chocopolis”

This “tasting wheel” for chocolate describes the flavors that a trained, discerning taster might be able to pick up in a bar of the stuff. These are the elements of a luxury chocolate bar, not mass produced chocolate from big companies like Hershey’s or Nestle. Mass produced chocolate is sold to everyone, and there’s much less focus on flavor profiling or ingredients beyond “tastes good.”

Snickers’s ad campaign is a good example of chocolate sold to a wider set of consumers. Notice that it focuses on the bar’s ability to satiate hunger rather than its artistic combination of flavors


The cake I tasted at finale seems to fall somewhere in the middle of the taste- satiation spectrum. Based on its presentation and the restaurant’s atmosphere, Finale seems to focus on the upper class experience of eating. I did find out online that the chocolate they use in the cake is from Valrhona, a French luxury chocolate maker. You can see from Valrhona’s website that the company focuses on many of the elements of luxury dining that Stuckey emphasizes. The company even includes a “how to taste” section, focusing on incorporating all of one’s senses into the “art of tasting”. “Chocolate is enjoyed.” Reads the page,  “Grand Chocolat is experienced” (“Experience Our Expertise”). However, the dishes at Finale were engineered for an audience where fancy desserts are the exception, not the norm. While the cake I ate was sweet and delicious, the textures were somewhat muddy and indiscernible, and the flavors advertised, chocolate, sea salt, and caramel, were not very strong or balanced. The main tastes of the dish were sugar and fat, and the wafer on top was burnt. Perhaps my favorite part of the cake was the slice of pure Valrhona dark chocolate sticking out on top. The focus of this dessert on quantity of sweetness over quality of flavor, on filling the stomach over exciting the palate, seems to suggest catering towards mass marketed tastes.

My second dessert experience, however, was true fine dining. Harvest restaurant is staffed by award-winning chefs (including their pastry chef, Brian Mercury). Its price range is much higher than Finale. Compare $15.99 Short Ribs, the most expensive thing on the Finale Menu, with $40 Painted Hills Farm New York Striploin au Poivre at Harvest. The restaurant is tucked away behind other clothing stores, and despite sitting less than five minutes from my dorm, I never saw it until I went looking for it. Unlike Finale, the feel of Harvest is much more elite, and this is also reflected in the clientele. When I was there, the patrons were all much older than those at Finale, and seemed to be engaged in business meetings. Part of the experience of fine dining is the feeling of exclusivity, the experience of sharing space with those also in this elite group. Notably, the dessert that I ordered at Harvest, which was comparable in size and ingredients, actually cost me a dollar less than the cake at Finale. The price difference here shows that Harvest focuses more on dinner than dessert. That does not mean that the focus on sustenance at Harvest, and luxury at Finale. In fact, both restaurants sell luxury and indulgence, but Finale does so through luxury products and a luxurious atmosphere, while Harvest uses the principles of flavor and taste to turn any food into an extravagance. For example, at Finale, all the dishes are named in English, directed to a larger American public, instead of the complicated French terms that Harvest assumes its exclusive customers can understand.

Furthermore, the taste of chocolate, caramel and salt in the Crèmeux were very different than in the molten cake. Their online menu describes the dish as “house made sea salt, salted caramel brown sugar granola, milk chocolate malt sauce, vanilla mascarpone” (Harvest, Dessert Menu). The flavors in Harvest’s Crèmeux were much more intense, especially the bite of the salt, which balanced out the sweetness of the chocolaty mousse. The textures in the Harvest dessert were also more complex and provided a contrast to each other: the crunch of the granola, the almost fudgy Crèmeux, and the chewy caramel. The textural changes helped draw my attention again to the flavors, to really savor and think about what I was eating. I think it took me longer to eat that Crèmeux than any dessert I’ve had before. Intense flavors are often a sign of fancier or upper class food options, instead of the more “bland” food of the masses. Stuckey makes fun of her partner for his limited palate and preference for mild flavors. “How can you call yourself a foodie” she asks, “when all you eat is meat and potatoes?” (16). Although she learns to appreciate the subtlties of his palate, it remains a common conception that someone more sophisticated, elite or worldly would prefer bold flavors to analyze.

The Harvest Crèmeux follows the “local food” trend prevalent in high-class establishments. Local food and fair trade are relatively recent developments in the food world that highlight and attempt to close the gap between producers and consumers. Brian Mercury locally sources his on ingredients, even takes trips out to the seashore to collect his own salt, effectively controlling every step in the production of the food (Gelsomin).

The chocolate in the Crèmeux comes from Taza chocolate, a company that produces stone ground chocolate from direct trade beans in South America. Just as much of a luxury as Valrhona, Taza produces chocolate on a smaller scale with even more attention given to  the experience of consuming the chocolate both in terms of taste (the texture of stone ground chocolate is very distinctive) and ethical purchasing (local and direct trade options make consumers feel better about their purchase). However, this means that it’s difficult to get large amounts of these ingredients, further contributing to the exclusive nature of Harvest and its food.

These movements grow out of the history of the commodities that make up the distinct flavors in the desserts: chocolate, sugar, and salt. Historians Sophie and Michael Coe wrote The True History of Chocolate, describing how it served as a luxury, sustenance, or medicine throughout the Americas and Europe. Anthropologist Sidney Mintz analyzes the history of sugar as a commodity in Sweetness and Power, and the crop’s ties to forced labor and colonialism. A group of Italian scientists wrote a “History of Salt” that ties the spice’s medical properties to its long history through cultures and conflicts. Each ingredient provides its own enticing properties as a food historically consumed in great amounts, for reasons as diverse as biology or cultural-functionalism. Food can never be a simple commodity because of its essential nature; we all need sustenance through food. These three ingredients have long, elaborate but mostly unknown histories that shape how Americans today view them as commodities.

All of this leaves us with food as a divisor in society, even though it is one thing that all people have in common. Food scholar Charles Z. Levkoe discusses the “commodification of human relationships” in regards to selling food, explaining how all people can be reduced to consumers under capitalism (Levkoe, 587). His ideas relate to the commodification of the chocolate experience: everything can be sold, not just objects. Economist Robert Albritton goes further and describes the history of food entwined with the history of capitalism, which today “promotes both hunger and obesity while at the same time undermining the earth’s capacity to support us,” (Albritton 350).  When one tastes food, they are experiencing it in a fundamentally different way than someone who simply eats food. Additionally, food as commodity to be tasted, experienced, enjoyed, is a primarily reserved for the upper class.

Consumers are sold the act of indulging in these chocolate and fancy desserts. Americans are trained by advertising and by other members in society to want these experiences. If you’re mouth isn’t watering at the end of this essay, then I haven’t done a good enough job with either pictures or description of how delicious those desserts were. It’s because of the social and mental experience of eating it, not inherent properties of the food itself, that chocolate is associated with craving, guilt, and other psychological effects (Benton, 213-214). Due to its long history as an elite product, chocolate is a food on the edge, with some inherently luxurious properties.  Because of this, it can be an “indulgence” even as a mass-produced product. However, the luxury of taste, the full sensual experience of fine dining is reserved for the upper class, and this extends to chocolate as well. Capitalism creates divides in society even in regards to food, and chocolate, which seem to be boundary crossers, by commodifying the seemingly intangible. When we walk into a restaurant, we’re sold more than just a dessert.



Works Cited 

Albritton, Robert. “Between Obesity and Hunger.” Food and Culture: A Reader. Ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Routledge, 1997. 342-52. Pdf.

Benton, David. “The Biology and Psychology of Chocolate Craving.”Coffee, Tea, Chocolate, and the Brain. By Astrid Nehlig. Boca Raton, FL: CRC, 2004. 205-18. Pdf. Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

Círillo, M., G. Capasso, V.A.D. Leo, and N.G.D. Santo. “A History of Salt.” American Journal of Nephrology 14 (1994): 426-31. Google Scholar. Web. 7 May 2014.

“Experience Our Expertise.” How to Taste. Valrhona, n.d. Web. 07 May 2014. <;.

Finale, Restaurant Menu. Cambridge, MA: Finale, 2014. Print.

Gelsomin, Emily. “The Ocean’s Gold– Salt.” EdibleBoston, n.d. Web. 5 May 2014. <;.

Guthman, Julie. “Fast Food/Organic Food: Reflexive Tastes and the Making of ‘Yuppie Chow’” Food and Culture: A Reader. Ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Routledge, 1997. 342-52. Pdf.

Harvest, Dessert Menu. Cambridge, MA: Harvest, 2014. Food & Wine. Web.<;. Levkoe,

Charles Z. “Learning Democracy Through Food Justice Movements.” Food and Culture: A Reader. Ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Routledge, 1997. 342-52. Pdf. Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, NY: Viking, 1985. Print.

Norton, Marcy. “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review 111.3 (2006): 660-91. Pdf. Stuckey, Barb. Taste What You’re Missing: The Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good. New York: Free, 2012. Pdf.

Stuckey, Barb. Taste What You’re Missing: The Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good. New York: Free, 2012. Pdf.

It’s Not About the Chocolate: Portrayal of Women in Chocolate Advertisements

m&m’s ad featuring “Miss Green”

The image above originates in an Australian campaign for the Mars m&m’s candy, in which each of the m&m’s “characters” (cartoon versions of each color m&m) supported a different political party (Schiller). This ad intends to sell chocolate, pretends to sell a political party, and actually sells the female body. By using indirect methods of advertising to trade on cultural stereotypes rather than actual products, images like this, especially prevalent in chocolate advertising, promote entrenchment of these stereotypes. In her book Chocolate, Women and Empire, Emma Robertson explains how “the consumption of chocolate in the west became feminised early in its history” (Robertson, 20). Chocolate and women have been associated closely throughout the western history of the product. Often advertising equates not only chocolate and femininity but also the concepts of sin and indulgence. The way that m&m’s uses the “Miss Green” character (notably the only female m&m character in their lineup until quite recently) portrays an edible candy as obviously female and almost always sexualized. “Miss Green’s” alluring gaze, the presence of handcuffs, and the double meaning of the phrase “working the polls” make obvious what the image suggests: We as consumers should vote for her because she’s sexy, and then we should buy chocolate. This image advertises the particularly harmful idea that a woman could only exert political or environmental power through pole dancing or other sexual displays.

Not every advertisement is as problematic as the one above, of course. This essay aims to explore and critique alternative portrayals of women and chocolate in advertising. One reaction to problematic chocolate marketing comes from Divine Chocolate, a UK company which buys cocoa from Ghanaian farmers, including the Kuapa Kokoo Cooperative. Divine presented a series of advertisements in Women’s fashion magazines in the UK, which featured female cocoa farmers, dressed fashionably and elegantly, holding a piece of Divine chocolate.

Divine Chocolate advertisement featuring a cocoa farmer

In an article printed in the Journal of African Cultural Studies, scholar Kristy Leissle pointed out how these advertisements were particularly effective in undermining the Western image of Africa as a “primitive” society in a dichotomy with the “cultured” West. She explains, “The images reflect the fact that women in Ghana also live multi-faceted lives – indeed they do farm, but they are also businesswomen, wear attractive clothes, beautify their bodies with industrial accessories, and assert their roles in transnational (or local) market exchanges” (Leissle, 136).  In contrast to the m&ms ad, Divine chocolate’s ad campaign features a variety of women without reducing women to a single cartoon image, and also presents a more complex picture of chocolate. The ad uses the image of a woman to explore the origins of the product rather than distract from them. Leissle analyzes how “Divine Chocolate expends considerable effort to make Kuapa Kokoo farmers – and Ghana as a cocoa origin site – visible to Britain’s chocolate shoppers” (Leissle, 124). The m&m’s add distracts from the origins of the chocolate, focusing instead on the wants of the consumer, whereas Divine chocolate focuses on the origins of the product being sold, and how the product is thus better than other chocolate, which comes from companies that do not treat their cocoa producers fairly.

While I agree that Divine’s advertisements are very effective at shedding a new, positive light on African producers, I think there are still problematic elements to these ads, especially in their depiction of women and their misplacement of what is being sold. The woman’s pose and revealing clothing, as well as her somewhat sultry gaze (Leissa refers to a “seductive gaze” and “just pursed lips”) still sell the idea that this beautiful woman serves as a sexual object, not an active producer and businesswoman (Leissle, 134). Keep in mind that these advertisements were primary aimed at woman readers of fashion magazines and probably inspired by designer fashion advertisements. However, Even though the ads were aimed at women rather than heterosexual men, and did not have the goal of arousing the audience, they are still able to objectify women. All consumers are conditioned by images around them (images like the m&ms ad) to view female bodies as objects. In a study, social scientist Beth Eck evaluated women’s reactions to images of sexualized female nudes. She concluded that “women may resent these images, they may uneasily identify with them, but they are also accustomed to the mundane practice of viewing them and accepting them” (Eck, 706). The same can be said for sexualized advertisements. As well as to some extent selling the woman pictured in the image, the ads also sell a sense of consumer morality. Rather than selling the chocolate product itself, these ads focus on selling a feeling of moral accomplishment to consumers.

Our group has constructed a third advertisement in the same vein as Divine Chocolate, but that we feel better represents the Kuapa Kokoo farmers and the relationship between women and chocolate as both producers and consumers.


The women selected and posed for Divine’s original advertisements were chosen as “women with attitude.” Leissle also uses the word “sassy” (Leissle, 134). For our ad, we chose to depict a woman who served a very important role in the Kuapa Kokoo Cooperative and was also an experienced farmer and ambassador, Comfort Kumeah. Kumeah’s image appears confident and in control, despite a lack of “attitude” or sexual allure. Our advertisement places a greater emphasis on the production of cocoa and cacao farming, stepping away a bit from the focus on Africa as a producer of the finished good, chocolate. If it had been available, we would have chosen an image of Kumeah holding a finished Divine chocolate bar as well as the beans. However, I think that focusing on the beans themselves as a finished product emphasizes these women farmers as competent producers. Furthermore, the emphasis on the quality of the beans in our ad centers the attention on selling the product itself, presenting Divine and Kuapa as businesses without connotations of charity or aid relief organizations. Our intention with this ad was to provide an image of possibly advertising systems that could combat the sexist imagery presented overtly by Mars and more subtly by Divine.


Works Cited

Eck, Beth A. “Men Are Much Harder: Gendered Viewing of Nude Images.” Gender & Society 17.5 (2003): 691-710. Print.

Leissle, Kristy. “Cosmopolitan Cocoa Farmers: Refashioning Africa in Divine Chocolate Advertisements.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 24.2 (2012): 121-39. Print.

Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2009. Print.

Schiller, Nikolas R. “The M&M’s of Australia Say Vote Green.” The Daily Render. N.p., 12 Feb. 2008. Web. 11 Apr. 2014. <;.


The Secret Recipe: The Gap Between Production and Consumption of Chocolate

Chocolate production has always been wrapped in secrecy. But with industrialization, when chocolate became a global product, the stakes were raised, and secrecy gained a new importance and even fanatacism.

This clip from the 1971 movie, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, based on Roald Dahl’s 1964 book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory shows a fictionalized account of a major chocolate producing company.  The chocolate maker Wonka, obsessed with secrecy, allows five children and their parents to view his never-before-seen candy making methods, including a river of chocolate:

The scene displays Wonka’s obsession with purity, as he shouts, “My chocolate must never be touched by human hands!” (Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory). First, concern with purity was common amongst chocolate makers, especially from earlier eras, to avoid accusations of adulteration (Brindle & Olson, 625). The line also shows that he separates his factory processing of chocolate from the processes of growing and processing the cacao, which requires human hands to touch the pods and beans, and also separate from consumption, which naturally requires humans to touch the chocolate (Presilla, 104-110). The industrialization of chocolate caused a split between growing, manufacturing, and consuming, with the first two steps shrouded in secrecy. The emergence of global-scale of production was able to hide terrible practices from the public, including slavery and adulteration. During the industrial revolution, machines made it possible to produce more and better chocolate, allowing for expansion of the market (Snyder, Olson & Brindle). The timeline below offers a look at many of the figures involved in advances in chocolate production and marketing during the Industrial Revolution:

Each invention here was created by a European or American in their native country, demonstrating how the manufacturing process of turning cocoa beans into chocolate confections was carried out far away and with little thought to the growing, harvesting and processing of cacao trees and beans, which are only grown in the tropics (Growing Cocoa). Many of these stories of European chocolate inventors also emphasize a rags-to-riches celebration of capitalism and business sense, and these stories become the faces of today’s big chocolate companies (e.g Mars, Hershey’s).

However,  this freedom of capitalism and massive production schemes targeted to make the greatest profit had serious drawbacks. Furthermore, the public at first was completely unaware of the downside of secret production methods. Turning away from chocolate for a moment, let’s look at another industry once shrouded in secrecy- meatpacking. Upton Sinclair wrote his 1906 book, The Jungle, about Chicago’s meatpacking industry. The Jungle is famous as one of the first explorations into the process of making food, since that process was removed from public view and put into a factory. Sinclair brought to light the unsanitary practices occurring in the meatpacking factories. He also emphasized the atrocious labor conditions of the workers in those factories. (“Upton Sinclair Hits His Readers in the Stomach”)

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
This cover for Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle shows a row of inscrutable factories, puffing smoke and hiding from the world the horrors within, a cold industrial facade.


Yet Sinclair reported on factories in Chicago, right under the consumer’s nose. How much more difficult was it to report on, or generate public sympathy, for those working thousands of miles away on a different continent?

With a gap this size, Cadbury, a chocolate production giant, was able to create a system that exploited slave labor in Sao Tome for years after its abolition, in order to buy cheap cacao. By nature, chocolate production has always been removed from the European consumer because the cacao plant can only grow in tropical regions, such as in South and Central America (where the plant originated) and Africa (where most cacao is grown today) (Growing Cocoa). As Scholar Lowell Satre records, when production expanded, the intensive cacao harvesting process, which cannot be automated, required vast workforces, and cacao growers procured these forces by exploiting “contract labor”, or essentially enslaved peoples on the islands Sao Tome and Principe (Satre, 5). The public was wholly unaware of the existence of slavery and cruel working conditions until journalist Henry Nevinson travelled to the cacao plantations and first “made public a wealth of information that confounded the British government and forced Cadbury Bros., one of England’s great chocolate manufacturers, to justify before a court of law its purchase of cocoa beans from the islands of Sao Tome and Principe.” (Satre, 12).

Just like Chicago’s meatpacking industry, the growing chocolate industry was without sanitary scrutiny, especially during the colonial era (Brindle & Olson, 625). As production expanded, unchecked, companies cut costs often by adulterating the chocolate in ways that sometimes had serious health affects. One cost cutting method was to replace expensive cocoa butter with another substance like lard, butter or tallow (Brindle & Olson, 626) or add starches like potatoes to thicken the chocolate. Even brick dust or ammonia could be added as a colorant (Brindle & Olson, 629).

Journalists like Sinclair and Nevinson are in major part responsible for revealing the gap between production and consumption caused by gradual development of mass-producted foods, but its issues are still ongoing. In her essay, “A Plea for Culinary Modernism: Why We Should Love New, Fast, Processed Food.” Historian Rachel Laudan emphasizes how industrial processes have made food more available and safer. I agree that the industrialization of food has brought great advances, but its emphasis on secrecy and profit has caused serious issues. The process itself is necessary, but equally necessary is transparency in the process and connecting it to consumers. Today in the chocolate industry some smaller, artisanal chocolate makers focus on the entire production process, from cacao pods to chocolate bar. Patric Chocolate’s website emphasized the care the company puts in to the entire production process, featuring a picture of hands with cacao nibs, showing a lack of machinery and a connection to the entire process. On the other hand, the chocolate giant, Cadbury, has a website that shows no parts of the process, only pictures of the finished product, and language which emphasizes how much people will enjoy it. The big companies, who earn the vast majority of profits, continue to focus solely on the consumer, leaving the dangerous knowledge gap about chocolate’s production.

Works Cited

Brindle, Laura P., and Bradley F. Olson. “Adulteration: The Dark World of “Dirty” Chocolate.” Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage. Ed. Louis Grivetti and Howard-Yana Shapiro. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2009. 625-34. Print.

“International Cocoa Organization.” Growing Cocoa. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2014. <;.

Laudan, Rachel. “A Plea for Culinary Modernism: Why We Should Love New, Fast, Processed Food.” Gastronomica 1.1 (2001): 36-44. Pdf.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. Print.

Satre, Lowell J. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 2005. Pdf.

Snyder, Rodney, Bradley F. Olson, and Laura P. Brindle. “From Stone Metates to Steel Mills.” Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage. Ed. Louis Grivetti and Howard-Yana Shapiro. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2009. 611-23. Print.

“Upton Sinclair Hits His Readers in the Stomach.” History Matters: A U.S. Survey Course on the Web. American Social History Project/Center for Media & Learning, City University of New York, and the Center for History and New Media, George Mason University, n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2014. <;.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Dir. Mel Stuart. Perf. Gene Wilder. Warner Home Video, 1986. Youtube,

Counterfeit Chocolate: The Use of Cacao as “Money” in Ancient Mesoamerica

Imagining that chocolate was once the equivalent of gold or cash emphasizes its value in a way that translates easily to our modern mindset. “Chocolate as money” tends to be a quick, attention grabbing fact that many historians highlight, especially when marketing information about the Maya or Aztecs to children or for casual and quick understanding, as on this Field Museum website. At first, it seems that cacao was so tasty, and so important that it became money. A bean is like a dollar. The royal coffers under Aztec palaces are like a bank (Coe & Coe, 81-82). However, the truth of the matter is much more complicated, and the term “money” may not be the most accurate. Cacao’s use as currency demonstrates the complexity of Aztec society, but in ways not fully translatable to modern market economies.

In a “Horrible Histories” video, meant for humor as well as education, the writers of use the idea of “chocolate as money” as the basis of a short skit:

(Please watch the first 45 seconds)

Obviously, the skit has little realism and not much sensitivity towards the culture it portrays. However, it does demonstrate the oddness in our modern minds of the idea of “buying money.” How can something function as both currency and commodity? Through western eyes and the mouths of British men, this practice makes little sense. Coe compares the practice of drinking chocolate to that of lighting a cigar with a twenty-dollar bill (Coe & Coe, 101), and while this highlights the drink’s status as a luxury item, it doesn’t quite characterize how it functioned in Aztec society. Chocolate was an elite drink first, and then evolved to be an integral part of the Mesoamerican economy.

Chocolate did have undeniable value, and a 1545 Nahuatl document provides clear evidence of “set prices” in cacao beans for various commodities (Coe, 99-100). Furthermore, some Aztec merchants went to great lengths to counterfeit this form of “cash,” demonstrating its value. Ancient Mesoamerican Nahuatl language contains several words for “imitation” cacao (Millon, 159). Bernard Sahagun, a Spaniard who recorded information about Aztec culture, reports “bad cacao sellers” who would counterfeit cacao beans using an elaborate process to transform “amaranth dough, wax, avacado pits” into fake cacao beans. It could appear that chocolate’s value means that it was central to this society and its economy, the most sacred or important of commodities. Merchants were willing to risk loss of business and even life by creating fake beans, so the worth of the endeavor must have been quite high.

How can these intense efforts to make fake cacao fit in with evidence from other sources, such as archaeologist Rene Millon’s conclusion that cacao beans played a “subordinate role in terms of the Mesoamerican economy as a whole”? (Millon, 221) Furthermore, chocolate production was “overwhelmingly for consumption rather than exchange” indicating that even while it held purchasing power, it was thought of as a consumable drink first and foremost (Millon, 209). Cacao, then, was a sort of cash-barter hybrid, consumed by society’s elite and used as petty change by everyone.

The basket by the leopard skins is labeled as cacao, and the flags on top refer to the amount of beans inside

This image from the codex mendoza was drawn for a European by an Aztec artist recording items taken in as tribute. Cacao is one of these items. It’s listing here demonstrates that cacao is a commodity with value beyond that of other, an extreme luxury good with some of the function of cash, but it did not completely change the Aztec economy from a bartering system to a cash-based market economy such as 15th century Spain or modern America. The image also demonstrates the Aztec’s complex system of tribute, which requires a societal hierarchy, and also their advanced writing system, unique from that of the Spanish, who were beginning to influence Aztec culture.

Chocolate’s use in Aztec culture demonstrates the complexity of their cultural systems, especially since chocolate was not valued significantly more than other luxury goods. Chocolate played a key role in the lives of pochteca, the Aztec long distance merchants, who would travel to the market of Xicallanco, which Coe describes as a “Mesoamerican Constantinople.” (Coe & Coe, 79-80) Millon proposes that the viability of selling counterfeits may indicate that trade was extremely extensive, enough to limit “face-to-face” or personal interactions (Millon, 203). In the town of Tabasco, “semi-specialization” occurred in which the town produced solely cacao, opting to trade for other items, such as cotton (Millon, 218). Chocolate, a minor player in the economy, developed interesting and multifaceted practices, demonstrating how many complex systems Aztec culture evolved overall.

As scholar Maria Paz Moreno explains,  “The Aztecs could see no practical value in the silver with which the Spanish coins were made, while cocoa beans had a value derived from their use to produce the precious liquid” (Moreno, 51). Just as I, in modern America, struggle to understand the Aztec economic system, the Spanish invaders had a scheme that made no sense to the logic of the Aztecs.  Both systems are complex, but very different. For the Aztecs, Chocolate always retained its “practical” value as a consumable commodity, and never became “money” in the modern sense of the word. The practice of using chocolate as a sort of “currency” is a testament not to the amazing properties of chocolate or cacao itself, but to the amazing properties of the Mesoamerican societies which first cultivated the crop.

Works Cited:

“Chocolate – All About Chocolate – History of Chocolate.” Chocolate – All About Chocolate – History of Chocolate. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013. Print.

“Horrible Histories -Angry Aztec’s- Chocolate Currency.” Horrible Histories. N.d.YouTube. YouTube, 18 Feb. 2013. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.

Millon, René Francis. “When Money Grew on Trees a Study of Cacao in Ancient Mesoamerica.” Thesis. Columbia University, 1955. (n.d.): n. pag. Microfilm, Tozzer Library, Harvard University.

Moreno, Maria Paz. “A Bittersweet Love Affair: Spain and the History of Chocolate.” Connections: European Studies Annual Review 7 (2011): n. pag. Web.

“NEH Summer Institute for School Teachers, Oaxaca 2014.” NEH Summer Institute for School Teachers Oaxaca 2014. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.