All posts by chocolate4872

THE IMPLICATIONS OF GOURMET CHOCOLATE

“Gourmet Shoppe.” The two words that follow the name “Cardullo’s” begin to give a sense of the products that one will find upon walking through the door at this store in the heart of Harvard Square. Most shoppers will walk in and out of this store rapidly today—picking products off the shelves, going to the register, and going to their next destination wherever that may be. However, slowing this shopping experience down can prove useful in studying the implications of the food we consume on a daily basis. In this post, I will describe in detail the chocolate selection at Cardullo’s and use the store’s chocolate selection as a means for discussing several aspects of chocolate in our modern culture. What follows will be an engagement of how chocolate selection can help us to understand chocolate in society—from intended customer base to ethical considerations, to name a few—as well as a discerning eye for areas where the chocolate industry has dark secrets.

THE SELECTION

Navigating Cardullo’s can at times be nothing short of overwhelming—all of the shelves are filled to capacity with assorted foods and drinks. Navigating chocolate-related products alone yields a plethora of foods. With that, I have found it most useful to define a specific type of selection that I will focus on in this post. To allow for a more thorough, rather than surface-level, discussion, I have chosen to focus on chocolate bars and exclude other confections and treats that have chocolate as secondary ingredients. Doing so, I still am left with dozens of relevant products lining Cardullo’s shelves. I have found it most useful to divide this analysis into focusing on several components of the selection for the purpose of clarity. I will start by analyzing the types of chocolate that I am seeing as well as the prices of the chocolate. I will then focus on the labels and advertising implications.  

In the images above, we see side-by-side comparisons of two sections of Cardullo’s chocolate selection—on the left more upmarket self-professed ‘craft’ brands, and on the right more traditional mass-market items. Note the differences in appearances of the products, from the packaging coloring, density of imagery/words on the labels, etc. These differences will be explored in detail below.

THE TYPE/BRANDS

One of the first aspects that strikes me as I consider the selection of chocolate is the names of many of the brands on the shelves. These brand names sound artisanal and personal—names like Raaza, Goodnow Farms, and Scharffen Berger. In a market that has a lot of competition, name distinctiveness can be a powerful branding tool (Ju, Jun and Sutherland, 2015). In a wall display located next to this sea of novel names are some familiar brands such as Cadbury, and even Snickers, suggesting that even multinational conglomerates have a place at this gourmet market. While it will be discussed in greater detail later relating to the labels, consider the differences in the visual imagery of the two sections of chocolate—that is, the artisanal brands and the more mass-market brands. Emblazoned across the front of almost all of the artisanal bars in large letters are the percentage of Cacao: 62% on one, 70% on another, 95% higher still. These craft chocolates are noticeably different than the mass-market chocolates sitting on shelves just a few steps away to the right, which are predominately milk chocolate. With that, we can start to get a sense that these craft chocolates at Cardullo’s are marketed to a different audience than the mass-market chocolates such as Snickers and Cadbury to the right.  

Something that is common across all the bars of chocolate sold in Cardullo’s is that they are made from cacao that is produced outside of the United States. This is an important aspect to consider surrounding the history of chocolate, since the United States and Europe account for 73% of the consumption of cacao, whereas the production takes place elsewhere, with Africa accounting for 72% of the production of cacao (Martin, 2019). This has led to the rise of large-scale global supply chains that often involve many small farming operations to actually harvest the cacao, but also large multinational corporations involved with the production of the end-product chocolate bars (Martin and Sampeck, 2016, 50). The roots of this system of supply are colonialization and the presence of slavery, where cacao would be harvested in the colonies and then sent back to the colonizer for consumption (Mintz, 1986). Many of the chocolate companies that sell craft products at Cardullo’s pride themselves on being small operations that have direct contacts with the farmers (this will be discussed in greater detail when we examine the labels below). However, the question remains of whether this translates to more pay for the farmers of cacao themselves. With that, let us now turn to examining the price of these bars.

THE PRICE

Almost immediately after seeing the types and brands of the chocolate at Cardullo’s, my eyes looked just below to the prices. The prices were high—there is no dispute. And for several of the bars, the prices themselves were hard to find—hidden perhaps to draw customers in instead of being put-off by the price tag. But before getting into the specifics of the price, let us consider the historical context of price. Centuries ago, chocolate was considered a food for the elites (Coe and Coe, 2007).  It then became mass-produced alongside the rise of sugar in the European diet (Mintz, 1985). In America today, chocolate is regularly available to people of almost all socioeconomic levels. But this is not the case for the chocolate at Cardullo’s. Though the cheapest bar sold here retailed for under $5, the average price of chocolate bars was significantly higher—far closer to $10. So, what makes these chocolate bars more expensive than the average Hershey’s chocolate bar? There are few factors here to consider. The first is scale—many of these products are made in far smaller quantities and thus do not benefit from the economies of scale (Leissle, 2018, 101). Instead, it is a point of pride that these chocolates are made via the ‘single batch’ method.  

There are also a variety of certifications that many of these chocolate bars have, some of which suggest that they pay farmers higher prices than the commodity price of cacao. Certifications are viewed as a way to address price fluctuations present in the commodity prices, and to effectively set price floors that ensures a standard minimum price. However, these higher prices paid for beans often go to middle-men rather than the farmer themselves. Additionally, the dizzying array of potential certifications—from Rainforest Alliance, to FairTrade, to Direct Trade just to name a few—leaves the consumer with more questions than answers. For some consumers, simply seeing one of these certifications may make them feel good about purchasing a product, however, legitimate questions still remain about how much these certifications actually do. This is especially true for small craft manufacturers who have higher costs due to the lack of economies of scale (Leissle, 2018). As Kristy Leissle explains, “certainly, some craft makers do pay premium prices for beans, but it is a mistake to assume that if a bar costs $10, nine of those must be going to a farmer. Chances are they are not” (Leissle, 2018, 101).  

Ultimately, we must also consider the relatively inelastic price of chocolate. That is, for a product such as wine, people are willing to pay upwards of several thousand dollars for what is considered a premier wine. There are literally thousands of dollars that separate the price of nice wines from bad wines. However, chocolate bars that are considered greater than $20 seem to  reach the tipping point of what people will pay for the bar.

THE LABEL/ADVERTISING

Chocolate as a product has a long history of advertising that includes both derogatory racial and gender implications. For racism in advertising in particular, this is inextricably linked with the history of the cacao supply chain, including colonization and slavery. And the advertising itself holds undertones for the intended customer bases of products. For instance, consider the video advertisement for Dove chocolate below. The advertisement is sensual both in the depiction of the woman as well as the verbiage overlaid on the video by the narrator. It perpetuates the view put-forth in many chocolate advertisements that females are obsessive, sensual beings.

Dove Chocolate commercial as discussed above illustrates the gender stereotypes commonly found in chocolate advertising

While the chocolate at Cardullo’s does not have such overt advertising in terms of gender or race to many historical examples such as Belgian Antwerp hands, there are nonetheless distinctive advertising choices made. Consider the labels below.  

These two photos show the front and back of a craft chocolate bar at Cardullo’s. Focusing on the label, the imagery on the front shows an old-fashioned ship being built, eliciting feelings of simplicity and handcrafting. The back includes a map that shows from where the cacao originates and uses words such as “finest” “traditional” “carefully” and “small factory” deliberately.

These labels elicit the customers to believe that the product is a return to the traditional—a time when food was made simpler. It very clearly and cleanly discusses things such as tasting nodes and the origin is visually depicted. The choices made on this label are very deliberate, and appeal to an audience that cares about the quality of the food that they put into their bodies.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Chocolate is a food that brings joy to many people who eat it in many forms. But as consumers, we must also look at the history of chocolate and understand the ugly truths of our current production system, especially when it comes to adequate living standards for farmers. Outside of fair prices alone, there are ongoing questions and issues surrounding workers ages, gender imbalances, and ethnicity and racial inequities throughout the cacao and chocolate industries. So next time you go into a store, I encourage you to pause for a few seconds and think about what choices you are making as a consumer with your purchasing power. There are a lot of implications for the purchasing choices we make, and a lot can be learned simply by looking at the foodstuffs on shelves.

Works Cited

Coe, S. & Coe, M. (2007). The true history of chocolate (Revised [and updated ed.]. ed.). New York: Thames and Hudson.

Ju, I., Jun, J., & Sutherland, J. (2015). I Have Seen That Brand Before! How Do Consumers Recognize Advertised Brands? Brand Distinctiveness vs. Brand Differentiation. American Academy of Advertising. Conference. Proceedings (Online), 109.

Leissle, K. (2018). Cocoa. Newark: Polity Press.

Martin, C. (2019). Lecture January 30: Introduction. Harvard University.

Martin, C., & Sampeck, K. (2015). The bitter and sweet of chocolate in Europe. Socio.hu, (Special issue 3), 37-60.

Mintz, S. (1986). Sweetness and power : The place of sugar in modern history. New York: Penguin Books. the above images are my own taken at Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe.

Multimedia Credits:

The images above were taken by myself. The youtube video is from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SwPwQ4S4op8 and the hyperlinked article is from https://sites.northwestern.edu/akih/2013/02/21/chocolates-as-cultural-blind-spots-responding-to-civilization/

Compliments to the Chef: Lessons from a Mayan Chocolate Recipe

In 2017, consumers in the United States spent over $22 billion on chocolate and ate an average of 12 pounds of chocolate per person. That chocolate is consumed in many forms: mass-market Hershey’s Kisses, melted chocolate covering a strawberry, chocolate powder warmed up with milk to be drunk, or an artisanal cacao bar, just to name a few. Chocolate has become so desirable and pervasive in our society that Kay Jewelers even has a collection of chocolate diamond rings.

In understanding the history of chocolate, it is important to consider early Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Aztecs and Mayans. In the interest of brevity, I will focus exclusively on the Mayan civilization below. My hope is that by examining a traditional Mayan chocolate recipe, and the societal context of chocolate in classical Mayan society, one will better understand both the evolution of chocolate and also Mayan society itself. At the risk of sounding dramatic, chocolate can be an incredibly powerful way of comprehending history.

The Classical Mayan Civilization

I begin with a map of the general location of the Mayan civilization (below). I have chosen to include this map for two reasons. The first is that in understanding Mayan cacao, it is necessary to think about environmental factors that dictate nuances such as the characteristics of the Mayan cacao trees and pods. For instance, cacao can only be grown in certain ranges of latitude, but even within that range, temperature and climate differences dictate the nature of the cacao pods in a given location (Coe and Coe, 2007). But the map is also worth keeping in mind when considering the spatial relation of cacao to other civilizations. From its origin in the Amazon Basin, cacao spread to Mesoamerican civilizations, and gradually to continents far and wide through institutions such as colonialization. In understanding how civilizations engaged with cacao, it is useful to keep a mental image of a map so as to understand how other cultures then created their own cacao recipes as it moved geographically around the world.

A map of the Mayan civilization

Although the so-called classical Mayan era occurred over a millennium ago in the years of 250AD through 800AD, historians have nonetheless been able to piece together aspects of the Mayan civilization through various means: artifacts, linguistics, and written documents, to name a few. Among these methods have been the work of epigraphers such as Yuri Knorosov which has allowed for historians to be able to read texts from the era such as the Dresden Codex (Coe and Coe, 2007). Being able to read books such as the Dresden Codex have in turn shed great insight into how the Mayan civilization engaged with cacao.  

Mayan Engagement with Cacao

From the Dresden Codex, for example, historians have been able to conclude that cacao had a place in ritualistic spheres of the Mayan civilization, with descriptions of the gods engaging with cacao (Coe and Coe, 2007). From the Madrid Codex, historians have learned of a powerful connection between human blood and chocolate in Mayan civilization (Coe and Coe, 2007). And from chemical analysis of residue on artifacts, researchers have been able to learn about the vessels through which cacao was enjoyed. While cacao thus held several ‘uses’ of sorts, whether for rituals or consumption, a common misconception is that cacao in Mayan civilization was solely enjoyed in pure form as a drink. Instead, as Coe describes, “pre-Conquest chocolate was not a single concoction to be drunk; it was a vast and complex array of drinks, gruels, porridges, powders, and probably solid substances, to all of which could be added a wide variety of flavorings” (Coe and Coe, 2007, p48). This serves as a nice segue into thinking about a Mayan recipe for cacao.

Mayan Chocolate Recipe

To modern-day Americans, a foodstuff recipe typically consists of a list of ingredients described in precise quantities and orders that result in an end-product ready for consumption. However, the use of the word recipe for the Mayans is much broader (Hull, 2010). From a Mayan recipe for chocolate, we can gather information such as the contexts in which cacao was consumed, the methods of preparation, and characteristics of a society-at-large.

Consider the chocolate recipe of sorts that was deciphered by David Stuart and others. In scenes depicted on vases, we can see the process by which Mayans frothed the chocolate beverage. The very act of frothing the beverage shows us a specific, integral feature of the Mayan chocolate. We concurrently see writings that mention flavorings that were added, such as chilli (Coe and Coe, 2007). The types of ingredients added to cacao help us to imagine flavor profiles of the Mayan diet, but also to then compare to later iterations of chocolate found in countries such as England with high levels of added sugar (Mintz, 1986). Finally, vocabulary related to chocolate are an integral part of the recipe. For instance, the term ‘tac haa’ related to fathers’ of a future married couple meeting and discussing the prospect of a wedding over chocolate (Coe and Coe, 2007). A vital component of the Mayan recipe was thus the social aspect of consumption of chocolate.

The image included below summarizes some of the above components of the recipe. For instance, the depicted drinking cup would be placed on the ground and have chocolate poured into it from an above height for the purposes of frothing. It also has elaborate depictions on the outside of the cup which are one of the many ways that historians and researchers have been able to piece together the very ‘recipes’ of the ancient Maya.

The drinking cup of a classic Maya noble.

Lessons from the Recipe

A great deal can be learned from what may appear above to be a simple recipe. For instance, we can think about how different recipes reflect the broader nature of a civilization. The Mayan recipe seems to focus on cacao as a social experience rather than a commodity. Sidney Mintz’s observations on how sedentary civilizations over time demand more complex carbohydrates in their diets then allows us to understand how recipes evolved to include more sugar and other such ingredients (Mintz, 1986).  

While the classical Mayan civilization may have fallen more than a millennium ago, the idea of Mayan chocolate has been both idealized and profit-ized; it has become synonymous with chocolate from a past era, eliciting feelings of more natural and wholesome cacao. The included National Geographic video (below) for instance, profiles a chocolatier in Guatemala who is claimed in the video to employ a present-day version of Mayan chocolate making. While the authenticity may be disputed, the genuine interest in understanding distant cultures and societies persists nonetheless.

National Geographic video on the continuing Mayan tradition of chocolate making

Ultimately, learning about the Mayan recipe has also made me want to be more cognizant of the deliberate choices that are made in the preparation of foodstuff. For instance, it is not only the ingredients that are selected that matter, but also the exacting methods (such as frothing of chocolate for the Mayans) that go into the final presentation.

Works Cited

Coe, S. (2007). The true history of chocolate (Revised [and updated ed.]. ed.). New York: Thames and Hudson.

Doyle, J. (2014). The Drinking Cup of a Classic Maya Noble. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accessed from https://www.metmuseum.org/blogs/now-at-the-met/2014/maya-drinking-cup

Hull, K., Staller, J., & Carrasco, M. (2010). An Epigraphic Analysis of Classic-Period Maya Foodstuffs. In Pre-Columbian Foodways: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Food, Culture, and Markets in Ancient Mesoamerica (pp. 235-256). New York, NY: Springer New York.

Mintz, S. (1986). Sweetness and power : The place of sugar in modern history. New York: Penguin Books.

Image Credits:

https://ancientcivilizationsworld.com/maya/ancient-maya-civilization-map/

https://www.metmuseum.org/blogs/now-at-the-met/2014/maya-drinking-cup