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Made with a Feminine Touch: Beth’s Chocolate and the Larger History of Women Creating Chocolate

In the chocolate industry, there are just a handful of companies that produce over 60% of the world’s confections. They are nicknamed ‘the Big Five’ and are as follows: Hershey’s, Mars, Kraft, Nestle, and Ferrero (Martin, Introduction, Slide 5). These companies produce some of the candies we all know and love such as Hershey’s Kisses, Snickers Bars, Cadbury Eggs, and Kit Kats, just to name a few, and they were all founded by men. In fact, they are still run by men with the exception of Hershey’s who just elected its first female CEO in 2017. What does this mean for women? Have they never created chocolate because of gender and cultural barriers, or rather, are they just not recognized at the forefront of its production? In this article, I will argue the latter. Just last month, I had the pleasure to meet Beth Kirsch, a chocolatier in Newton Massachusetts and owner of Beth’s Chocolates. Beth is among a new wave successful female chocolatiers and chocolate producers in the 21st century, but we can find women making chocolate in almost every time period that chocolate has appeared.

Meet Beth

Beth Kirsch had an unusual route to chocolate. She spent the majority of her adult life as a children’s media producer for PBS, winning three Emmy’s for the series Between the Lions (Kirsch, Beth Kirsch Chocolatier). Beth always loved chocolate, however, and one day in 2012, she attempted to mold a chocolate bar into the shape of an Eiffel Tower; it was an utter disaster. The chocolate stuck to the mold, and when it finally did come out, it tasted terrible. Beth immediately decided she would learn to work with chocolate. She enrolled in a three-hour class at ChocoLee Chocolates, and it was here that she learned the process of tempering. A year later, she took a three-month internship at EH Chocolatier in Somerville, and after that, she enrolled in an online course at the Vancouver based Ecole Chocolat to earn a professional chocolatier certificate. Then, in 2016, she traveled to France to become a master chocolatier through the Valrhona Ecole Du Grand (Pyenson). With all this knowledge, Beth was able to make those chocolate Eiffel Towers she had once desired and much more. She decided to launch her own confectionary business from her newly certified kitchen, and thus, Beth’s chocolates began.

Beth is a chocolatier; she does not create her own chocolate from bean-to-bar but buys bars from others to use in her confections. Beth specifically likes to use Valrhona, a fine cacao chocolate brand from France that is known for its exceptional flavor and ethical sourcing (Kirsch, ‘Chocolate Tasting and Seminar’). By melting down these bars, she can add her own additional ingredients, re-mold them, and then decorate them into something else entirely- into Beth’s chocolates. For example, in the image below, you can see one of Beth’s most popular and award-winning bonbons called Fig-In-A-Box. To make this, Beth first creates a fig puree, adds aged balsamic vinegar, transforms the concoction into a French pate de fruit, hand dips it in Valrhona dark chocolate, and finally, brushes it with gold stripes (Kirsch, Chocolates: Fig-in-a-box). The chocolate coating itself may not be her own, but she invents the unique combination of flavors and the delicate design. Some of her other popular bonbons include Pomegranate, Cappuccino, Cognac, Ginger 3 Ways, Passion Fruit, and Salted Dark Caramel. In 2018 alone, Beth’s Chocolates won ten different awards, a huge achievement considering how new her company is (Kirsch, Beth Kirsch Chocolatier).

Beth’s Fig-in-a-box Bonbon (

 Looking at her path into chocolate, Beth rose to prominence with the help of many women. She first took a class at ChocoLee’s in Boston, which was founded by Lee Napoli, a gifted female pastry chef and former chocolatier. EH Chocolatier, where she interned, is also run by two women, Elaine Hsieh and Catharine Sweeney. In my own conversation with Beth, I asked her about her experience as a female chocolatier (Kirsch, ‘Chocolate Tasting and Seminar’). She explained to me how in France where she once trained, almost all of the chocolatiers are men and the profession is like an exclusive gentlemen’s club. However, in the States and particularly Boston, she has seen an incredible opportunity for women to create chocolate confections for two reasons. Firstly, Beth pointed out how you can become a chocolatier with little to no formal training, although it certainly helps. Secondly, you can become a chocolatier at any time in life, even after pursuing a career in an entirely different field. Indeed, she began experimenting with chocolate confections after working in television for most of her life. Elaine and Catherine from EH Chocolatier had been a doctor and a Harvard administrator respectively. I turned to the FCCI to corroborate Beth’s information and was pleasantly shocked by howmany chocolatiers were women. According to the FCCI website, there are currently fourteen chocolatiers using fine cacao in the United States; of those, nine are independently run by women and an additional two are co-operated by a man and woman duo (Martin, ‘Map’). In the map below, you can see specifically where these various chocolateries are dispersed across the United States; just as Beth had mentioned, many are clumped together in New England- eight out of the fourteen to be exact.  Women’s current role as chocolate creators is not a new one, but rather, a more formalized one. If we turn to the history of chocolate, we can find them creating it in every era and often for men. 

U.S Chocolateries as registered with the FCCI (Me via Mapline)

Turning Back the Clock to Find Women Making Chocolate

In colonial times, women primarily created and served chocolate as a beverage. Chocolate consumption originated in the Olmec civilization, a people who occupied the modern-day Gulf of Mexico from 1400 to 400 BC (Leissle, 29). The practice then spread to the Mayan and Aztecs societies, both of whom enjoyed their chocolate as a drink made from crushed seeds. Farmers would grow, harvest, ferment, dry, and roast the cocoa beans, much like we do today, but from there, a woman would grind the beans on a stone, add water, add additional flavors like corn maize, and finally and most importantly, pour the beverage from one vessel to another in a highly symbolic fashion to produce a foamy head on it (Coe and Coe, Kindle location 872). It could then be served to a prominent Mayan or Aztec, perhaps a king, merchant, or warrior. We can find abundant evidence that women were primarily made these chocolate beverages in much of the art from this time period. For example, the Princeton Vase featured below is a piece of ceramics dated between 670-750 A.D. It depicts a Mayan god sitting on his throne, surrounded by female figures which are assumed to be his concubines. One of these women stands behind him in the bottom right corner of the image, pouring chocolate from one vessel to another to generate the highly desired foam. As captured by this vase, chocolate may have been consumed by mostly men in the Mayan and Aztec societies, but it was women who were responsible for its creation.

The Princeton Vase (

In the Baroque Period, women still prepared and served chocolate drinks to men, but now, to European ones. This trend first appeared in New Spain when poor Spanish settlers would often marry native women. When these Aztec housewives would cook for their husbands, they brought many of their customary dishes and ingredients into the kitchen. This often included a chocolate beverage prepared in much same manner it was among their own people, but now, combined with old world spices such as cinnamon and sugar (Coe and Coe, Kindle location 1583). These hybridized drinks were later transported back to Europe, and by the 17th century, some of the first Coffee houses started to appear in England. Despite their name, coffee houses served a variety of foreign, imported beverages, but coffee, tea, and chocolate were the most popular among them (Coe and Coe, Kindle Location 2425). As can be seen in the image below, these were male-dominated spaces where men would convene to talk politics, culture, and most importantly, sip a cup of coffee or chocolate or tea while doing so. However, if you look at the far left side of the image, there is one single woman behind a bar; she is preparing the actual chocolate. So, although women were not welcomed as patrons, they appeared in coffee shops in subtler forms as owners, waiters, or cooks. In fact, 20% of coffee shops during this time were owned and operated by a woman (Cowan, 147). Women helped make chocolate accessible, solidifying and gratifying the European craving for it.

Drawing of a 17th Century Coffee House (

Following the Industrial Revolution, women continued to serve chocolate as a beverage while also learning how to incorporate it into new foods. Throughout the 19th century, a variety of new machines were created to transform the cocoa bean into something else entirely. Two of the most important products that emerged from this context were Dutch cocoa powder and solid chocolate bars (Martin, Slides 60-69). A variety of cookbooks and cooking classes soon appeared that attempted to teach women how to bake with these new chocolate varieties. In America, for example, celebrity chef Maria Parloa alongside the Walter Baker Chocolate company published the 1909 pamphlet Chocolate and Cocoa Recipes and Homemade Candy Recipes that detailed a variety of different chocolate preparations from the classics like hot chocolate, chocolate milkshakes, and chocolate pudding, to more unique dishes like chocolate eclairs, cake, cookies and even jelly (Martin, ‘Brownies’). Just a few years prior, another famous chef named Fannie Farmer published her 1906  Boston Cooking School Cookbook that included one of the earliest mentions of brownies (Martin, ‘Brownies’). The recipe, which is included below, called for two squares of Walter Baker’s chocolate as well as chopped walnut meat, something that might surprise a modern audience today. These cookbooks did not just teach women how to prepare chocolate in new ways but encouraged them to serve chocolate more frequently overall. These women were helping to transform chocolate from an occasional indulgence to an ever increasing part of the American diet.

Fannie Farmer’s Brownie Recipe (

By the late 20th, and early 21st century, artisan chocolate bars began to emerge to differentiate themselves in taste and quality from the Big Five companies; many of these businesses are owned by women. For example, one chocolate that Beth Kirsch herself buys is Castronovo chocolate, founded by Denise Castronovo in 2013 in Florida. Castronovo directly sources fine heirloom cacao beans from South American farmers, and then roasts, winnows, grinds, refines, conches, tempers, and wraps the bars in her own factory packaged under her own last name (Balmaseda). Castronovo is one of the only women to have been recognized at the prestigious International Chocolate Awards, and as of today, she has a staggering 26 awards (Thomson). Another female-run bean-to-bar company is ‘57 Chocolate, founded in 2016 by sisters Kimberly and Priscilla Addison out of Ghana. In the 10-minute interview below, they discuss how they started the company to prove that Ghana is not just a country for growing and exporting cacao beans, but one that can create artisan chocolate itself. They are leading the way in this crusade, sourcing fine beans from local farmers and transforming it from their kitchen into truly Ghanaian chocolate bars (Addison and Addison). In fact, as mentioned in the interview, many of their bars feature different adinkra symbols, which were historically designed and used by indigenous Ghanaian tribes. Female chocolate makers are vastly outnumbered by male ones, but they are nonetheless present all over the world, and more are entering the profession every year.

Kimberly and Priscilla Anderson on ’57 Chocolate (

Back to Beth: One Woman Among Many

Beth Kirsch is just one example of a woman involved in the chocolate industry, specifically as a self-employed chocolatier. However, she is far from alone. As history has shown, women have always been involved in preparing chocolate, in different places, in different forms, and for different people. These women were often overlooked by society, but they always existed, and as the saying goes, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. Now in the 21st century, we can clearly see more and more women entering the chocolate industry as bean-to-bar makers or chocolatiers. Finally, they have the formal title they lacked for so long. Now, it is the job of other organizations to start recognizing their chocolate, awarding it, and bringing it into public knowledge. As previously mentioned, all of the ‘Big Five’ chocolate companies were started by men, but maybe in the future, we can see the rise of a sixth company, this one run by a woman.

Works Cited

Addison, Kimberly, and Priscilla Addison. “Our Story.” ’57 Chocolate, 2018,

Balmaseda, Liz. “Tiny Chocolate Factory in Stuart Wins Huge International Awards.” Feast Palm Beach, 17 July 2015,

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2019.

Cowan, Brian. “What Was Masculine About the Public Sphere? Gender and the Coffeehouse Milieu in Post-Restoration England.” History Workshop Journal, vol. 51, no. 1, 2001, pp. 127–157., doi:10.1093/hwj/2001.51.127.

Kirsch , Beth. “Beth Kirsch Chocolatier .” Beth’s Chocolate, 2019,

Kirsch , Beth. “Chocolate Tasting and Seminar.” Women of Winthrop Speaker Series. Women of Winthrop Speaker Series, 24 Apr. 2019, Cambridge , MA.

Kirsch , Beth. “Chocolates: Fig-in-a-Box.” Beth’s Chocolate, 2019,

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.

Martin , Carla. “Introduction .” AAAS119x. AAAS119x, 30 Jan. 2019, Cambridge, MA.

Martin, Carla. “Brownies.” US History Scene, 10 Apr. 2015, Accessed 30 Apr. 2019.

Martin, Carla. “Map .” Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute, Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute, 2019,

Martin, Carla. “Sugar and Cacao .” AAA119X. AAA119X, 20 Feb. 2019, Cambridge, MA.

Pyenson, Andrea. “From Children’s Media to Chocolate Making.”, The Boston Globe, 1 Dec. 2015,

Thomson, Julie R. “Surprise! Florida Makes Some Of The World’s Best Chocolate.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 3 May 2017,

Multi-Media Works Cited

British Museum. “Interior of a London Coffee-House.” The British Museum, The Trustees of the British Museum, 2019,

Farmer, Fannie. “The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, 1906 .” Internet Archive, Boston, Little, Brown and Company, 2006,

Kirsch, Beth. “Fig-in-a-Box.” Beth’s Chocolate, 2019,

Ostrover, Olivia. “U.S Chocolatiers.” Mapline, 30 Apr. 2019,

Pyenson, Andrea. “From Children’s Media to Chocolate Making.”, The Boston Globe, 1 Dec. 2015,

RAW AFRICA, director. The Two Sisters Reviving Ghana’s Chocolate Market with ’57 Chocolate . YouTube, YouTube, 23 Feb. 2017,

Robicsek, Francis. “Category:Princeton Vase.” Category:Princeton Vase – Wikimedia Commons, University of Virginia Art Museum , 2019,

A Sweet Taste of Power: the Rise, Fall, and Legacy of Sugar Subtleties

Sugar is so prevalent in society that one does not often stop to consider its purpose. But as anthropologist Sidney Mintz discusses in her book Sweetness and Power, sugar has historically played many roles as medicine, spice, preservative, decoration, and sweetener (77). One particularly fascinating employment of sugar as a decorative emerged in the Middle Ages through the creation of sugar sculptures called subtleties. When sugar was an incredibly rare substance, subtleties were served at banquets as both edible art and symbols of power, but once it was available to the masses, subtleties became obsolete. The legacy of subtleties, however, can still be seen in the tradition of serving a wedding cake.

A Feast for the Eyes

Sugar sculptures were first created in the 11th century Middle East by artists called sukker nakkasarli (Abbott, Kindle location 336). They would combine highly refined sugar, almonds, and water to form a clay-like paste that could then be molded and baked into various forms (Mintz, 88). Sultans and caliphs alike commissioned the sculptors to create edible table decorations for their sumptuous feasts. As sugar spread from the Middle East to Europe, so too did the practice of sugar sculptures. They appeared in French courts in the 13th century, soon followed by those in England, Italy, and Germany. The European elite specifically referred to them as ‘soliltees,’ or ‘subtleties’ in English (Bovey, the Medieval Diet).

In their purest sense, subtleties were edible art. They were brought out between banquet courses to entertain, amaze, and delight one’s guests (Mintz, 88). This may seem surprising to a modern audience accustomed to eating dessert after dinner, but in the Middle Ages, food was not divided and served by flavor. Many believed sugar could even prepare the stomach for a feast, and so, a specific subtlety called a ‘warner’ was sometimes presented as the very first dish (Bovey, the Medieval Diet). This practice is captured by a 15th-century French illustration of a royal banquet hosted by Richard II for the Dukes of York, Gloucester, and Ireland (Chronique d’ Angleterre). As can be seen below, the distinguished group of men are seated around a table. A servant is walking into the room, carrying a ship made entirely of sugar- a subtlety- which they will admire and devour before proceeding to their next course. A boat is just one example of the shapes subtleties were forged into, but there are many others. From animals to churches, to palaces and heroic figurines, the variations were endless.

Richard II dines with dukes, an example of a Medieval feast

A Not So Subtle Display of Power

Subtleties were more than just beautiful decorations, however, but emblems of wealth and power; only those of status could afford to craft, serve, and eat sugar in such gluttonous quantities. The nobility, acutely aware of this connection, were motivated to display sugar in ever grander presentations. Consider the image below, an engraving of the feast served at the Duke of Jülich’s wedding in 1587 (Hogenberg). Rather than just one subtlety, the Duke had an entire table filled with sugar figurines. In one corner stands a replica of his castle, in another, a forest of trees, animals, and fruits. Even his coat of arms can be found throughout the table. It would have cost a staggering amount of money to produce such a display of sugar, but that was precisely the point.

A lavish subtlety display at the Duke of Jülich’s Wedding

Sugar Looses Class

The price of sugar would continue to drop, and as it did, subtleties became less an indication of power and more ornamental. As sugar percolated down to upper-class families in the 16th century, high-end cookbooks began including subtleties. For example, Patridges’s 1584 Century Cookbook contained a recipe for marzipan, and Robert May’s 1660 The Accomplisht Cook provided instructions for making a subtlety in the shape of a ship (Mintz, 92). But by the mid-18th century, sugar was cheap enough for even the middle-class to enjoy, and they, too, were interested in making subtleties. This historic moment is reflected by Hannah Glasses’s 1747 the Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, in which she includes a recipe for a marzipan ‘Jumball’ and a hedgehog (Mintz, 93). Glasse’s publication was no ordinary cookbook, but something explicitly written with the lower-classes in mind. She dedicates the opening lines of her book to them:

“I believe I have attempted a branch of Cookery, which nobody has yet thought worth their while to write upon: but as I have both seen and found by experience, that the generality of servants are greatly wanting in that point, therefore I have taken upon me to instruct them in the best manner I am capable: and, I dare say, that every servant who can but read will be capable of making a tolerable good cook, and those who have the least notion of cooking cannot miss of being very good ones” (Glasse, i)

The average family could suddenly use sugar and cookbooks to create cakes, biscuits, and most importantly, sugar sculptures. The wealthy abandoned subtleties once they no longer embodied power. As sugar became increasingly ordinary, they were eventually forgotten by the masses.

Lingering Traces

Despite this decline, one example of a subtlety still exists today: the wedding cake. At the majority of western weddings, it is customary for a couple to serve a wedding cake with white frosting, multiple tiers, and edible decorations made of sugar paste, marzipan, or buttercream (Wilson, 70). On the one hand, the cake is just a tasty treat to eat, but on the other, it is something to be visually admired and adored. It is a modern-day subtlety, and typically, the richer the couple, the more impressive the sugared display. Just consider when England’s Prince William married Kate Middleton in 2011. As can be seen in the video below, their cake stood at three feet tall and weighed 220 pounds. It had eight tiers, was covered in white fondant, and adorned with 900 sugar paste ribbons, bows, flowers, and leaves (Galarza and Hatic, A Brief History of British Royal Wedding Cakes). It was a public display representing the English crown’s wealth, the tradition of matrimony, and the harmonious match of the couple themselves. The average wedding cake is not nearly as extravagant, and yet, they nonetheless exist.

The popularity of subtleties fluctuated with the changing price of sugar; when sugar was expensive, subtleties were embraced by the rich as artful, edible declarations of power, but once cheap, they were tossed aside and now appear only at special occasions like a wedding. But the history of subtleties represents a much larger narration- the idea that what people eat reflects back on them as individuals. Subtleties no longer appear on the dining room tables of the elite, but other items have taken their place. Just consider the role of caviar, a well-aged wine, or a Kobe beef steak. These dishes are beautiful, delicious, and too expensive for most to afford. Over time, these may also decline in popularity, but the tradition of using food as power will not.

Works Cited: Scholarly Sources

Abbott, Elizabeth. Sugar: a Bittersweet History. Duckworth Overlook, 2008.

Bovey, Alixe. “The Medieval Diet.” The Middle Ages, The British Library, 30 Apr. 2015,

Galarza, Daniela, and Dana Hatic. “A Brief History of British Royal Wedding Cakes.” Eater, Eater, 18 May 2018,

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: the Place of Sugar in Modern History. Viking, 1985.

Wilson, Carol. “Wedding Cake: A Slice of History.” Gastronomica, vol. 5, no. 2, 2005, pp. 69–72., doi:10.1525/gfc.2005.5.2.69.

Works Cited: Multimedia Sources

Chronique D’ Angleterre (Volume III). The Dukes of York, Gloucester and Ireland dine with King Richard II. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons. N.p., 5 Apr. 2018. Web. 10 Mar. 2019. <,_f.265v_-_BL_Royal_MS_14_E_IV.jpg>.

Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. N.p.: n.p., 1747. Internet Archive. Internet Archive, 24 Dec. 2015. Web. 10 Mar. 2019. <;.

Hogenberg, Franz. Table setting for the wedding of Johann Wilhelm, Duke of Jülich-Cleves and Jacobe, Margravine of Baden, 1587. Digital image. Getty Research Institute. N.p., 2016. Web. 10 Mar. 2019. <;.

Royal Wedding Cake on Show. Dir. On Demand News. YouTube. YouTube, 22 July 2011. Web. 10 Mar. 2019. <;.