Tag Archives: colonization

Chocolate as a Pedagogical Tool for Teaching about Race and Racism: A High School Lesson Plan

TLDR: The following is a 2-3 day lesson plan for high school educators adapted from and inspired by Dr. Carla Martin’s course “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food” at Harvard University. The main goal of this lesson plan is to develop students’ contemporary understandings of race and racism by situating this knowledge within the historical processes of colonization, slavery, and racial representation—through chocolate! Students should already have basic knowledge about the world geography, colonization of the Americas, chattel slavery, and the Jim Crow era.

Background for Teachers

What’s the big deal about chocolate?

Chocolate is a unsung hero of many of our everyday lives in America, especially in the lives of young people who always appreciate a chocolate candy bar after a long day of school, some chocolate cake after they’ve finished their vegetables at dinner, or a waffle cone full of chocolate ice cream on a hot summer day. If chocolate is ever controversial, it is because we may disagree with our friends or family members about whether white chocolate versus milk chocolate versus dark chocolate is the best, or in deciding if it’s really that much worth it to spend a few extra dollars on a Dove bar over a Hershey’s in the supermarket checkout line. However, what if we step back and begin to think about how chocolate got to the checkout line, on our plate, or in a waffle cone? What if we begin to think about chocolate as something that is cultural, political, social, and historical? Why in our society, for example, do we use the word “chocolate” to describe dark skin? What might chocolate be able to tell us about social phenomena like race and racism when we dig a little deeper? In fact, to understand race and racism through the lens of chocolate—something that seems like such a mundane yet integral part of our everyday lives—allows us to understand, as Michael Omi and Howard Winant tell us, how race and racism indeed shapes all part of our society and our identities. [1]

This is where Dr. Carla Martin steps in. Dr. Martin is a lecturer in the Department of African and American Studies at Harvard as well as the founder and executive director of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute (FCCI), an organization which works to advance quality products and ethical practices in chocolate supply chains, especially issues related to unfair treatment of Black and Brown farmers in Africa and Central America. In her work and studies, Dr. Martin looks at the historical and global processes of colonization and harmful labor practices in the rise of chocolate production and consumption, predominantly focused on the people of Central America and West Africa. Through a disciplinary approach—combining anthropology, sociology, economics, history, political science, biology, African American studies, Latinx studies, and more—she teaches about the history of growing cacao (the plant used to make chocolate), chocolate’s changing cultural meanings from days of Aztecs and Mayans to being eaten by people around the world today, the relationship between the European colonization of Mesomerica and the rise of slavery to the global chocolate market today being controlled by only a few companies which often treat Black and Brown cacao farmers unfairly, and the ways that we have understood and represented race in and through this history to the contemporary moment. Her class at Harvard, called “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food,” is extremely popular. Incentivized by weekly chocolate tastings, this course brings together a unique group of students, many of whom are white and middle-class, that typically wouldn’t take a class focused on questions of race and racism.

Schools in the United States can be understood as institutions of knowledge and identity formation which have historically been both constituted by and constitutive of meanings of race since the moment European colonizers began eliminating Indigenous people and enslaving Africans on this land, Bettina Love calling them “spaces of Whiteness”—Black and Indigenous people have nonetheless remained resistant and resilient, forging since their own institutions of knowledge and collective identity, which included establishing the public school system in the American South.[2-5] Nevertheless, the dominant mode of American schooling has always been one that seeks to do away with Indigenous culture and sensibilities, disempower and exploit Black people, and uphold ideals and systems that privilege white people. Talking specifically about the logic of whiteness in schooling/formation of knowledge, Du Bois writes, “How easy, then, by emphasis and omission to make children believe that every great soul the world ever saw was a white man’s soul; that every great thought the world ever knew was a white man’s thought; that every great deed the world ever did was a white man’s deed; that every great dream the world ever sang was a white man’s dream.”[6] A decade later, Carter G. Woodson would echo Du Bois’ sentiment, writing, “Why not exploit, enslave, or exterminate a class that everybody is taught to regard as inferior? There would be no lynching if it did not start in the classroom.”[7] What Du Bois and Woodson are fundamentally pointing to, and what I am presupposing in my own argument here, is that, as Jarvis Givens puts it, “violence inflicted upon Black bodies” by white people originates “at the level of ideas and knowledge.”[8] Thus, the intervention that Dr. Martin makes through her course allows us think about how chocolate can be used as a salient pedagogical tool for constructing anti-racist knowledge not only at the university level, but for all learners, especially in spaces that are white and middle-class.

Why teach about Race and Racism?

More than 150 years since Emancipation and half a century since the Civil Rights Movement and social transformation out of the Jim Crow order, racism continues to structure American society. Today, life in the United States is characterized by what Michael Omi and Howard Winant call racial hegemony, that is whereas the nation’s past was characterized by violent, legally-explicit domination of Black and Brown people (such as through forced labor and lynching), racism today exists in the form of colorblind racism.[9] While many people, particularly white Americans, use phrases such as “I don’t see color” to express that they try to treat everyone with understanding and compassion regardless of their racial identity, not recognizing the racial identities of others in our communities—Black and Brown people especially—can signal that we don’t see the histories and social barriers that play a role in the challenges they may face or unique cultural contributions they contribute.[10-11] By doing so in the context of education, we engage in ways of teaching that alienate and disempower Black and Brown students while socializing white students into thinking that their privileges are inherent and that racism does not exist in our contemporary moment and—therefore—does not need to be challenged beyond being friendly to people of all races.[12] However, in a contemporary era of mass incarceration, the Black-White wealth gap, disparities for Black and Brown people in healthcare and education, widespread white nationalist politics, and the continued enslavement/exploitation of Black and Brown in global supply chains, it is crucial that educators reckon with the ways we are teaching our youth about race and racism and, just as importantly, thinking about these issues ourselves. As sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant tell us, “We cannot step outside of race and racism, since our society and our identities are constituted by them; we live in racial history.”[13] All things considered—as Black and Brown educational leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, Carter G. Woodson, Bob Moses, and Bettina Love have modeled for us throughout U.S. history—educators can do their part to challenge racism today by teaching more critical approaches to history and society that 1.) acknowledge that racism is real today and plays a role in all parts of our lives, 2.) examine the history and dynamics of racism as a human creation organized around arbitrary meanings assigned to differences in human bodies in order to justify economic oppression that especially benefits white elites, and 3.) give students the knowledge and tools needed to be identify contemporary racism and challenge it in their schools and communities. Drawing from the example set by Dr. Martin, chocolate is a creative way that we may be able to do that.

Resources for teaching about race and racism.

Lesson Plan

Introductory Activity: Unpacking Assumptions about Race, Racism, and Chocolate

Live word clouds by Poll Everywhere are an fun, interactive, and effective way to introduce a new topic to your students, especially one as complex as this. Students, of course, bring their own assumptions, experiences, and associations into the classroom about any topic, and this approach allows you to draw out what those perspectives are so that you may reference and unpack them throughout your lesson.


As I discussed in the introduction, chocolate is thought of in our society as something that is ahistorical, apolitical, and acultural; however, many us of do have very personal memories, feelings, and preferences in regards to the sweet treat. This gives your students an opportunity to showcase those and begin thinking about the role of chocolate in their contemporary lives. The same applies to issues of race and racism.

  • You may consider posing questions like this in the following order. After each question, pause to discuss the word cloud that was generated, paying attention to what words/concepts seem to be the most prevalent in the classroom but also those that may be unique:
    • “What words or phrases come to your mind when you hear the word the word ‘chocolate’?”
    • “What words or phrases come to your mind when your hear the word ‘race’?”
    • “What words or phrases come to your mind when you hear the word ‘racism’?”
  • While inputting their responses, encourage students to think about the feelings, memories, images, preferences, movies, TV shows, songs, commercials, and even things they’ve learned in school that they associate with the word.

Part One: Who is Willy, Really? The Racist Origins of The Chocolate Factory.

To begin this lesson, you will be discussing this clip from the 2005 film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As explored below, the novel and film have racist origins that problematically normalize slavery and mock indigenous cultures as it relates to cacao’s origins and the production of chocolate.[14] You can read more about that from David Yacovone whose work I will draw from below. In addition to showing this one clip, you may dedicate an additional class period or homework assignment to viewing the entire film before the start of the lesson.

  • Begin by asking students to raise their hands if they are familiar with the story of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory; that could be the 1971 film, the 2005 film with Johnny Depp, or the original 1964 children’s book by Roald Dahl. Now have a student volunteer summarize the plot. You will probably hear back that five children, including Charlie, won golden tickets to tour Willy Wonka’s secretive chocolate factory; after each child except for Charlie failed to impress Wonka, they were each taken away by Oompa Loompas, leaving Charlie to inherit the factory.
    • Ask your students to describe the Oompa Loompas. Most of us know them as the small, brown or orange, Wonka factory workers that sing catchy tunes as they whisk away the naughty children who have failed to meet Willy’s standards.
    • Have your students break into pairs, brainstorm what the lives of the Oompa Loompas are like, and then share out to the group: How did they get to the factory? How much are they paid, and what kinds of benefits might they receive? Where are their families? How do you think they feel about their jobs? What are their individual personalities and lives like? What is their relationship to the chocolate their producing?
  • Introduce the YouTube clip “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Loompa Land” from the 2005 film in which Wonka explains how he came into contact with the Oompa Loompas while exploring Loompaland.[15] Post chart paper in four different locations of the classroom with the following quotes and related questions on them. Break students into four, pre-established groups; have them discuss and write out their responses on the sheets for 7-10 minutes.
    • “What a terrible country it is… The whole place is nothing but thick jungles, infested by the most dangerous beasts in the entire world.” How does Wonka represent Loompaland? What other countries do Americans often stereotype this way? Do you feel that it is wrong for Wonka, who is an outsider, to describe to another country this way, especially based on such a limited experience there?
    • “I went to Loompaland looking for exotic new flavors for candy. Instead, I found the Oompa Loompas.” What was Wonka’s primary motive for going to Loompaland? Think about it from his perspective as a business owner from another country. What might be wrong with Wonka saying he “found” the Oompa Loompas? Were they ever actually “missing”? How might the Oompa Loompas feel about a stranger coming to take their country’s plants, especially the cocoa beans that they view as sacred/religious, for his own financial gain?
    • “The Oompa Loompas ate nothing but green caterpillars, which tasted revolting. But the food they longed for most was the cocoa bean. An Oompa Loompa was lucky if he found three of four cocoa beans a year. But oh how they craved them. And all they’d ever think about was cocoa beans.” The film then shows Oompas Loompas bowing down to worship the cocoa beans and dancing around it headpieces made from cocoa pods. How does Wonka represent the food and culture of the Oompa Loompas? How does he use their love of cocoa beans to his own advantage? What does Wonka taking the cocoa beans and selling them for his own financial gain mean for the sacred/religious value that the Oompa Loompas place on them?
    • Speaking to the chief in Loompaland, Wonka says, “Come live in my factory. You can have all the cocoa beans you want! I will even pay your wages in cocoa beans if you wish!” Reflecting on that memory, he tells the family in his factory, “They are such wonderful workers.” How does the film represent the Oompa Loompas’ language? Why do you think the Oompa Loompas now sing in English when they initially spoke the language of Loompaland? How does Wonka use their love of cocoa beans to his own advantage? What purpose do the Oompa Loompas have for Wonka? Based on the way he represented their country, their food, and their language, do you think he actually values their culture or just their ability to work and produce chocolate for him?
  • Go around the room and have each group share out some of the key points from their quote discussion for 3-5 minutes each.
  • Have students return to their desks. Share the following with them:

As some of you have discussed in your responses to the clip, Willy Wonka represents the Oompa Loompas and Loompaland through unfair stereotypes and uses them for his own advantage while doing it.[16] However, it is important that we realize that this just isn’t the case of one character in a movie, but actually represents a longer real history of how people in the United States and Europe represent certain people and their cultures and have taken advantage of them—or exploited and appropriated them—for our own enjoyment and financial gain, particularly as it relates to chocolate.[17] As some of you may have gathered from our discussions so far, in our real world, these are the unfair, often inaccurate, racist ways in which we represent the people of African and Latin American descent, the people who we do actually have to thank for the chocolate we enjoy today.[18] That’s something that we will be exploring in the rest of our lesson.

Nonetheless, these racist representations were not a coincidence to the story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and were intentionally written in by the author Roald Dahl when he published the book in 1964, a time when Black and Brown people around the world were engaging in social movements to challenge white supremacy, racism, and poverty; such as the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power, and the American Indian Movement here in the United States. Historian David Yacovone tells us that Dahl originally wrote the Oompa Loompas in as enslaved Africans.[19] The following image, in fact, shows how they were illustrated in the 1964 edition of the book:[20]


According to Yacovone:[20]

When Charlie and the four other golden ticket holders and their parents first spied the Oompa-Loompas Wonka explained that the workers were not made of chocolate, but they “are real people! They are some of my workers!” They belonged to “a tribe of tiny miniature pygmies known as Oompa-Loompas. I discovered them myself,” Wonka exclaimed. I brought them over from Africa myself—the whole tribe of them, three thousand in all. I found them in the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle where no white man had ever been before.”

After luring them in with the promise of endless cocoa beans, according to Yacovone:[20]

Wonka “shipped them over here, every man, woman, and child in the Oompa-Loompa tribe. It was easy. I smuggled them over in large packing cases with holes in them, and they all got here safely.”

Once enslaved and shipped over to England in way similar to that of real enslaved Africans on the Middle Passage, Wonka not only forced them to do labor in his factory for nothing but beans in return and no chance of leaving or asking for more, but he also performed unethical experiments on them at his own leisure, such as turning them into blueberries.[23] This treatment reflects the real violent ways that enslaved Black and Brown people have been treated by Europeans and the United States in the production of chocolate both historically and even in many ways in today’s world.[24-25] Eventually, Dahl would revise this racist representation in his story in 1982 after decades of criticism from the NAACP, but he continued to use such racist representations in other stories, and as we just saw, those representations continue to circulate through the 2005 film, one the most popular movies about chocolate in our contemporary lives.[26] By not questioning the meanings behind these representations, as you all have done so well today, and understanding their histories, we hide the ways in which Black and Brown people still experience racism in our world today. To learn this history, we can all do our part to create a world without racism and poverty.

Part Two: Culture, Colonization, Slavery, and Chocolate Bars: How Chocolate Went from Something Sacred to Something Bittersweet

In part two, I will work with Professor Martin to further develop this lesson plan to include the cultural and spiritual significance of cacao in ancient Mesoamerican culture, the fundamental role of colonization and slavery in appropriation and production of chocolate in the Global North (drawing on my earlier blog post in the course), and the inequality and role of consumers in global chocolate production today.

Part Three: How to Recognize and Respond to Racism Today

To wrap up the lesson, teachers will revisit the earlier considerations around race and racism in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, examining chocolate’s broader use as a racist metaphor for Blackness in the twenty and twenty-first centuries. To end, students will again respond via live word clouds to the initial questions, comparing their original word clouds to the newly-enlightened ones, and the teacher will discuss ways for students to challenge racism in their lives today, which may include: creating a community action project to address an issue of racial inequality in their community in partnership with a local chocolate shop/producer, starting a reading/discussion group to talk about issues related to race and racism, starting a “Chocolate Week” to educate their school or community on the history of chocolate and celebrate/support the producers who we have to thank for it, implementing strategies to call out and change racist behaviors or representations. To celebrate their new knowledge, students should have a chance to enjoy ethically-sourced chocolate at the conclusion of the lesson!


[1] Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States, 3rd ed. (New York, Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2015), 137.

[2] Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (2006), 392.

[3] Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,”  399.

[4] Heather Andrea Williams, Self-taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom, John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 13.

[5] Bettina Love, We Want To Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2019), 13.

[6] W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Souls of White Folk,” Monthly Review 55, no. 6 (2003):  46.

[7] Sylvia Wynter,  “No Humans Involved: An Open Letter to My Colleagues,” Forum H.H.I. Knowledge for the 21st Century 1, no. 1 (Fall 1994): 57-59.

[8] Jarvis R. Givens, “‘There Would Be No Lynching If It Did Not Start in the Schoolroom’: Carter G. Woodson and the Occasion of Negro History Week, 1926–1950,” American Educational Research Journal (2019): 9.

[9] Omi and Winant, Racial Formation, 132, 211.

[10] Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America, 5th ed. (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), 2-4.

[11] “Color Blindness,” Teaching Tolerance, accessed May 07, 2019, https://www.tolerance.org/professional-development/color-blindness.

[12] Bettina Love, We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 2019), 14.

[13] Omi and Winant, Racial Formation, 137.

[14] Donald Yacovone, “Oh No! The Depressing Truth About the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory Workers,” History News Network, December 30, 2018, accessed May 3, 2019, https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170755.

[15-16] “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Loompa Land,” Youtube video, 3:41, “Willy Wonka,” January 16, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQ5GgslLgVQ.

[17] Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 3rd ed. (New York City, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2013).

[18] Jack Bareilles, “Women, Gays, and Other Voices of Resistance,” Zinn Education Project, 2011, accessed May 13, 2019, https://www.zinnedproject.org/materials/women-gays-and-other-voices-of-resistance/.

[19-23] Yacovone, “Oh No! The Depressing Truth,” https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170755.

[24] Coe and Coe, The True History of Chocolate, 186-196.

[25] Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power (New York, NY: Viking, 1985): 169-176.

[26] Yacovone, “Oh No! The Depressing Truth,” https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170755.


“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Loompa Land.” Youtube video, 3:41. “Willy Wonka,” January 16, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQ5GgslLgVQ.

Bareilles, Jack. “Women, Gays, and Other Voices of Resistance.” Zinn Education Project. 2011. Accessed May 13, 2019. https://www.zinnedproject.org/materials/women-gays-and-other-voices-of-resistance/.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. Racism without Racists: Color-blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. Fifth ed. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. New York City, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2013.

Du Bois, W. E. B. “The Souls of White Folk.” Monthly Review 55, no. 6 (2003):  44-58.

Givens, Jarvis R. “‘There Would Be No Lynching If It Did Not Start in the Schoolroom’: Carter G. Woodson and the Occasion of Negro History Week, 1926–1950.” American Educational Research Journal (2019): 1-38.

Love, Bettina. We Want To Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2019.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power. New York, NY: Viking, 1985.

Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States. Third ed. New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2015.

Williams, Heather Andrea. Self-taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom. John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.

Wolfe, Patrick. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (2006): 387-409.

Wynter, Sylvia.  “No Humans Involved: An Open Letter to My Colleagues.” Forum H.H.I. Knowledge for the 21st Century 1, no. 1 (Fall 1994): 42-73.

Yacovone, Donald. “Oh No! The Depressing Truth About the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory Workers.” History News Network. December 30, 2018. Accessed May 3, 2019. https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170755.

The Consumption of Black Bodies as Chocolate

My 2ndgrade classroom has a diverse group of children with a range of ethnicities and complexions. On Valentines Day, our teacher brought us different kinds of candies and deserts to celebrate the occasion. As we ate, admired, and traded our treats together, a dialog with heavy historical, political, and racial ties quickly developed.

“Your skin looks like this chocolate!” one white student said to a black student. “Are black people made of chocolate?” he asked. The child’s tone of voice had a kind of playfulness and naiveté that is typical of young children, and so the question did not feel like a racial attack at the time, but I distinctly remember leaving class that day with the question, “What am made of?”

As a person of mixed heritage with both white and black family lineage, I have always occupied a unique space in the conception and conversation of race in America. The question of, “What am I made of” extends far beyond the scope of a child’s comments about chocolate, for it is rooted in the larger question of the nature of identity for people with a multiracial composition. My skin is pretty light, and so it would not appear that I am made of chocolate, but I still identify as a black person in every way. 

Comments such as the ones made by my 2ndgrade classmate are actually quite common in our society. Black women with dark complexions are often referred to as “dark chocolate” in a sexualized and racialized way. Chocolate and vanilla have become well-established cultural metaphors for whiteness and blackness. And in the scope of racism and prejudice that black people experience, these comments can often appear trivial or even meant to be complements. But are these comments and associations merely benign connections between the color of chocolate or vanilla with various skin tones, or is this another product of white supremacy and other historical factors? In order to answer this question, we must take a look into the history of chocolate manufacturing and consumption as it relates to blackness.

A bitter-sweet history

When we look at the history of chocolate production, we are looking at a history of African slave labor. Between 10 and 15 millions slaves were stolen from Africa and brought to work in various farms and plantations that manufactured cacao, cotton, and sugar in the Caribbean, Europe, and the Americas. In addition to the alarming number of slaves that were forced into labor, 40 out of every 100 slaves dies in the process of being transported across the Atlantic. The African people were considered property under the system of chattel slavery, and the conditions were so severe that the life expectancy for a slave in the Caribbean and Brazil was only about 7 to 8 years. (Martin, 2019)This statistic shows the horrific nature of the violence that was involved in chocolate production. The system known as Encomienda allowed Spanish colonists in America to force indigenous people in to permanent servitude. It is important to understand that racism against these African slaves emerged and grew out of a desire to continue to justify the extremely profitable system of slavery. Even after the abolitionist movements that eventually banned legal slave labor, indentured servitude and other forms of slavery still persisted.  (Martin, 2019) Here we see the dehumanization of black people and the link between the ownership of black bodies and the products that their labor creates. If people began to feel that slavery was in fact the exploitation of human bodies and lives for profit, it would become more problematic to continue this practice. So the dehumanization of black people emerged from an incentive to maximize product, rather than some innate quality of black people. Just like we cannot accurately consider the history of this country without looking at slave labor, we cannot consider the social, political, or economic history of chocolate without acknowledging the gruesome history of violence and exploitation that made chocolate manufacturing so profitable. (Orla 2011)

Image of “Middle Passage” slave ship (http://mrwatkinsclass.com/mini-lesson-mercantilism-middle-passsage/)

Dehumanization of black bodies in modern advertisements and pop-culture

But this connection between the ownership of black bodies and the production of chocolate has been preserved and enhanced by the original and modern systems of chocolate consumption and advertisement. While in many ways the history of slavery as it relates to chocolate have been hidden and erased, in other alarming ways this history has shaped the consumption of chocolate in very tangible ways. This can be seen very clearly in the product design and advertisements of several different chocolate products. Here are some examples:

Advertisements from the French company “Banania”

The French company Banania used a common racial caricature of a primitive, smiling black face in its advertisements. These ads perpetrate the notion that black people are simple, and it removes any notions of coercive labor or violence by including the well-known wide smile. Another non-so-subtle implication of these advertisements is the association between black people and primitive beings such as monkeys, through the use of bananas and the way in which black people are drawn, which has been a long-standing racist notion.

Image of a product sold by the Spanish company “Conguitos”

The Spanish company Conguitos sells a product that explicitly resembles the black body, which further reinforces the association between the consumption of blackness and the consumption of chocolate. The name “Conguitos” roughly translates to “little person from the Congo”. Here, the black person is also diminished into a childlike, primitive being that is designed for consumption, as emphasized by the tribal spear, lack of detail, simple facial expression, emphasized lips, and wide eyes. All of these factors contribute to the dehumanization of black people through this product. 

Image of Belgium’s famous chocolate hands/ Congolese children who’s hands were cut off

Perhaps the most disturbing example of the connection between chocolate and the consumption of black bodies is the case of Belgium’s chocolate hands. These chocolate hands are considered a delicacy in Belgium, but they have a truly horrifying origin. When the Belgian King Leopold II occupied the Congo, it was common practice to cut off and collect the right hands of Congolese slaves. The hands became a symbol of allegiance to the throne and even a form of currency. The chocolate hands symbolize and glorify this history, while reinforcing the notion that black bodies are meant for consumption. (Martin 2019) When gruesome practices such as collecting Congolese hands are normalized and removed from their violent origins, the violence and racism is maintained while the awareness of the true history is diminished.


Another example from popular culture of the ways in which the history of slavery is still preserved in chocolate culture is the original depiction of the Oompa Loompas in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.It turns out that in the original version of the story, the Oompa Loompas, Willy Wonka’s labor force, were described as dark skinned, childlike ‘pygmies’ that Willy Wonka found in the African jungle to bring back to his factory. (Robertson 2010) Not only are the Oompa Loompas radicalized in a manner that glorifies the history of slave labor in chocolate production, but they are made to be unthreatening and primitive beings who work without conscious and sing songs. I find this knowledge about the Oompa Loompas origins very disturbing for several reasons. It dehumanizes black people and glorifies slavery in a way that erases the aspects of violence and cruelty of slavery, transforming the suffering of millions into some sort of comic relief for the story. It also displays how acceptable and common the concept of having slave labor was that Roald Dahl thought to include it in a children’s story. But perhaps why I find this particular example of the connection between chocolate and slavery so relevant to my narrative is because within the original dialog of the story, the protagonist Charlie Bucket actually asks if the Oompa Loompas are made of chocolate because as he describes, “Their skin is almost black!” (Robertson 2010) This reminds me of the same question that my 2ndgrade classmate asked, and the ways in which the legacy of slavery that was glorified in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory still persists today. Even though the blackness of the Oompa Loompas has since been written out of the story, the knowledge of the original story provides us with important insight on the connection between black bodies and chocolate.

What these examples and the horrific nature of the history of slavery for chocolate production show is that there has been a long-standing monetary interest in the ownership and consumption of black bodies. The profit of slave labor and the products that come as its result has incentivized the large-scale dehumanization of black people and has lead to the fetishization and fantasy of black bodies as representing the products that they create, rather than the reality of their existence, pain, or humanity. In a sense, the black body has been so ‘delicious’ for whiteness to consume that it has become a deeply embedded aspect of our culture, because its consumption has been associated with the sweetness of sugar and chocolate and not the bitter truth of slave labor. While the origins of this slave system have been hidden and pushed out of the public conscious, these dangerous notions about ownership of the black body extend to our culture today, and this is seen in more than just chocolate consumption. Look at the tendency for white people to touch black women’s hair without permission, the constant appropriation of black ideas, features, and culture, and the hyper-policing, monitoring, and brutalization of black youth by police. These are all current manifestations of the notion that black bodies are meant to be owned, controlled, exploited, and consumed, just like the association between chocolate and blackness. These are features of a system of white supremacy that distorts or erases the evidence of past atrocities while preserving the dehumanization that arose from it. (Lowell 2005)

Who is made of what?

So in the context of chocolate’s long history of exploiting black people, and the racism that emerged as a means of preserving these systems through dehumanization, the seemingly innocent question of “Are black people made of chocolate” appears to be rooted in decades of racism, slavery, and ignorance. This is not to say that my classmate (or Charlie Bucket) asked the question with malicious intent, but rather that he was conditioned at such a young age to associate black people with the product of their labor. In fact, this question also can serve as evidence of this history, considering that people with light complexions are not asked if they are made of wheat, wood, or another substance with similar tone, even by children. After studying this history, I now feel that I have an answer for my classmate. Black people are not made of chocolate, but chocolate is made of black people, in the sense that it has been historically created through their oppression and forced labor. And as for my questions of what am made of, I have come to realize that I am both a product and consumer, in the sense that my ancestors were both consumed to make chocolate and consumers of chocolate itself. I feel that this identity allows me to look at my own internalized biases that stem from slavery and understand the ways in which I have both suffered and benefitted from these systems. This doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy chocolate anymore because of its violent history, just like it doesn’t mean we can’t still feel pride for a country with a violent foundation. Instead, it should serve as a reminded for us to critically analyze our conceptions of race and recommit ourselves to understanding the true history of our world, regardless of how unpleasant it might be. 


Scholarly Resources:

1. Sampeck, Kathryn, and Jonathan Thayn. 2017. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.”

2. Martin, Carla. “20190403 Race, ethnicity, gender, and class in chocolate advertisements” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, Emerson Lecture Hall, Cambridge, MA

3.Martin, Carla. “20190306 Slavery, abolition, and forced labor ” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, Emerson Lecture Hall, Cambridge, MA

4.Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013 [1996]. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson. 

5.Satre, Lowell. 2005. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. pp. 

6. Robertson, Emma. 2010. Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History

7. Ryan, Orla. 2011. Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa

Multimedia links:

  1. http://mrwatkinsclass.com/mini-lesson-mercantilism-middle-passsage/
  2. http://vintagenewsdaily.com/controversial-advertisements-by-banania-the-brand-emphasized-the-racist-stereotype-of-dumb-black-people-for-years/
  3. https://www.reddit.com/r/AccidentalRacism/comments/80s26o/this_typical_spanish_candy_conguito_little_man/
  4. https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.africanexponent.com/amp/post/9695-black-hands-whether-real-or-made-of-candy-are-belgian-delicacies
  5. https://literatipulp.com/2016/07/04/disturbing-history-of-oompa-loompas/

Chocolate Mysticism and Portraits of Indigenous Culture

Book three: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Harry, Hermione, and Ron are riding the Hogwarts Express back to school when they are suddenly attacked by soul sucking Dementors. These ghostly abstractings suck all feeling of joy from their bodies, making them sink deeper and deeper into despair until finally, a teacher banishes them from the train. Shivering and afraid sitting in their compartment, the students accept pieces of chocolate the professor as a cure for the Dementor’s affect. As they eat the chocolate they can slowly feel the warmth returning to their bodies, their spirits brightening slowly as the chocolate melts on their tongue.

This moment in the Harry Potter series expresses the phenomenon of “chocolate magic” in its most literal sense, depicting magical effects of chocolate in young witches and wizards. However, this correlation between chocolate and miraculous effects are all around us in modern society, from shady internet articles claiming that chocolate can cure all kinds of diseases, to recipes for “chocolate magic:” cakes that are so good they can only be made by magic. Although the phenomenon of chocolate magic may seem harmless—only a fun trick of the imagination or a novelty diet—examining the origins of this popular association reveals the problematic aspects of our associations with chocolate. Cacao originally held an important role in the culture of the indigenous population of the Ancient Mayan civilization. By tracking the histories of indigenous communities, we can see how the modern chocolate industry perpetuates colonialist behavior and presents a reductive portrait of indigenous culture.


A Brief History of Ancient Maya and Cacao

Ancient Mayans placed cacao in a prominent position in their culture and society, using it not only as currency but also as a religious object. Ancient Mayans believed that the gods themselves discovered cacao in a “mystical mountain,” and given to the Maya by the god Hunahpú (Windelspecht, Cacao: The Mayan “Food of the Gods”). Imagery in ancient religious texts, like the Dresden Codex, depicts the relationship between cacao and the gods. This image found in the Dresden Codex depicts two gods interacting with cacao pods, captioned with the words “cacao is his food.”

Image result for Opossum God carries Rain God on his back, caption is “cacao is his food [kakaw u hanal].”

This connection between the divine and cacao can also be found in a different Mayan codex called the Madrid Codex, in which gods sprinkle their blood over cacao pods (Coe, The True History of Chocolate). Thus, we can trace the roots of the relationship between mysticism, chocolate, and indigenous peoples to these religious texts and beliefs of the Mayan people. As cacao was depicted alongside the gods it took on a mystical property in the Maya’s belief of its divine properties.

The movement of this belief into western culture occured when the Mayans introduced cacao to their colonizers—the Spanish—in 1544 when Dominican friars brought a group of Mayan elders to Prince Philip to feed him a cacao beverage (Windelspecht, Cacao: The Mayan “Food of the Gods”) After this initial introduction cacao spread quickly through the circles of the european elite. Cacao drinks were regarded as a mystical healing substance hailing from the mysterious New World: this european attitude can be evidenced by Alphonse de Richelieu’s action in introducing cacao to seventeenth century France in his use of cacao as a medication for his spleen. Seventeenth century europe’s essentially turned this sacred mayan substance into simply a mystical substance from the new world that could help cure them of their ailments. In this way we can start to see the way in which european and white society has appropriated and fetishized indigenous culture by reducing the significance of cacao as simply a mystic medicine that existed to help them, ignoring the rich history of cacao in mayan culture.


Science, Fetishization, and the Modern Chocolate Industry

This kind of fetishization of mayan beliefs has not only persisted into the modern day, but evolved to breach other fields of science. In the 1990s Dr. Norman Hollenberg of the Harvard Medical School and Boston Brigham and Women’s Hospital travelled to Panama to conduct a series of field studies on an indigenous population called the Kuna. Inspired by a 1940’s study that found the population as a whole to have very low blood pressure, he ran his own studies among two sub-groups of the Kuna people: those who stayed in the original island Kuna community and lived a rural and traditional life and a population who had moved into modern society, living in suburban and urban areas (Howe 3). He observed that the traditional Kuna consumed much more cacao than the population that had moved away, stating that “they consume enormous amounts of cocoa daily,” and concluding that “flavanol” in chocolate called epicatechin could “protect against diabetes and cancer as well as high blood pressure, strokes, and heart attacks” (Howe 4). He went on to widely promote his discoveries as a scientific breakthrough, asserting that all diets should include cacao. His discoveries have even been adopted into the popular beliefs around chocolate: Hollenberg’s work has been cited in websites, clubs, and at least two books (Howe 4).

However, later scientists have found significant evidence to disprove Hollenberg’s claims of the link between the Kuna’s cardiovascular health and cacao. After living amongst the traditional Kuna community, researcher James Howe claims that Hollenberg greatly exaggerated the amount of cacao the Kuna consumes. Instead, he claims, the Kuna much prefer coffee and oatmeal drinks. (Howe 5). In his article, Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health, Hollenberg claims that the Kuna’s extraordinary cardiovascular health can be accounted for by not the amount of cacao they consume, but by their otherwise healthy diets and high level of cardiovascular exercise (Howe 6).

Hollenberg’s false claims demonstrate the willingness and tendency of white, western culture to perpetuate stereotypes of indigenous cultures. In his work, Hollenberg refused to consider the possibility that the Kuna simply lived a healthy lifestyle through regular diet and exercise. Instead, he subscribed to the belief that indigenous populations know something that we don’t, that they hold mystical knowledge that other, more modern culture, cannot recognize. Furthermore, he also perpetuated colonizing behavior by attempting to take what he saw as an indigenous aspect of life and marketing it to the masses as an easy health trick, reducing indigenous life as simply a gimmick in modern dieting. In this way, Hollenberg perpetuated the cycle of fetishization around indigenous beliefs by manipulating science, a field that is supposed to obtain some semblance of objectivity and fact, to only further ingrain the image of the mystical indigenous population into larger societal beliefs. Furthermore, by only focusing on and greatly exaggerating the role of cacao in Kuna society, Hollenberg’s research also served to reduce the complexity and richness of their culture. He left out the many other rituals they hold around other food items, reducing them simply to a gimmick: a cacao fueled society. In this way, Hollenberg’s actions were colonialistic as they reflected a long history of colonizers erasing rich histories of indigenous culture in favor of supporting their own personal endeavours.

Hollenberg’s influence can be found today in the sermons of people wielding “science” to claim mystical properties of cacao. Countless websites and books boast cacao and, more specifically, raw cacao as a kind of “superfood,” or a food with extremely beneficial health benefits. One popular prophet of the incredible properties of cacao is David Wolfe, who claims in this video that cacao is the most “chemically complex food in the world” and has “over twelve hundred constituents of flavor alone.”



In reality, very few of Wolfe’s claims are scientifically supported. There is no evidence to suggest that cacao is the most chemically complex food in the world. The claim that cacao has “over twelve hundred constituents of flavor” is pure nonsense—a “flavor constituent” is not an term acknowledged by the scientific or gastronomic communities. By promoting unsupported scientific claims on the extreme effects of cacao, people like David Wolfe contribute to the characterization of cacao as a mystic substance and unknowingly perpetuate colonialist behavior. Cacao was a sacred substance to the ancient Mayans: when people like David Wolfe and Dr. Hollenberg diminish the rich history of Mayan religion, as they contribute to the modern chocolate industry, the modern chocolate industry hinders social progress and understanding by popularizing a reductive narrative of indigenous life.


Popular Culture in Modern Chocolate Industry


Although unsupported science is greatly influential promoting reductive portraits of indigenous culture, other reductive portraits can be found in everyday life. Representations of chocolate in popular culture reflect and perpetuate the way modern society tends to view indigenous culture.

Perhaps one of the most well known representations of the chocolate industry is Roald Dahl’s famous children’s book, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The book centers around the story of a poor boy invited to tour a famous and mysterious chocolate factory run by a man named Willy Wonka. The factory is filled with countless impossible wonders, all made out of chocolate and candy. The factory’s manpower is provided by Wonka’s limitless workforce: oompa loompas. However, although modern adaptations of the book portray the oompa loompas as miniature fantasy characters, in the original text depictions of the workers resembled descriptions of indigenous people. In her book, Chocolate, Women, and Empire, Emma Robertson finds that Roald Dahl originally depicted the workers with “skin […] almost black,” as Willy Wonka “found them in the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle where no white man had ever been before” (Robertson 1). In fact, even in early illustrations of the book the Oompa Loompas resemble indigenous populations.

By blatantly invoking the slavery of indigenous populations in the mystical chocolate factory, Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory ties the concept of the mystical properties of cacao to indigenous people. However, although some could perceive this association as Roald Dahl referencing indigenous history with cacao, his attitude towards the enslavement of the Oompa Loompas eliminates a reading of the text as an appreciation of indigenous culture. Dahl portrays the Oompa Loompas as happy to be enslaved, content in serving Wonka and working with magical chocolate. This representation ignores the brutal and long history of the terrible treatment of slaves working in the chocolate industry. Therefore, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory only fetishizes mysticism in chocolate in relation to indigenous populations without truly honoring indigenous cultures, but only erasing the histories of oppression of indigenous groups.

The modern chocolate industry has completely ignored the dark history of this children’s book. The major chocolate producer Nestlé produces a line of Wonka themed candy, including different kinds of chocolate bars. By advertising under the Wonka name, Nestlé is popularizing the narrative of Roald Dahl’s book to the masses, therefore unknowingly—or knowingly—perpetuating the shallow and reductive association of mysticism, chocolate, and indigenous culture.

Image result for wonka bar nestle

This capitalization on chocolate mysticism is not exclusive to the Wonka brand. Many other products link chocolate to magic, and more specifically to Mayan mysticism. For example, this Mayan Magic Chocolate Making Kit claims that it lets “chocolate lovers make and experience pure, decadent chocolate the way ancient Mayans and Aztecs used to create it 3000 years ago” (The Green Head).

Image result for mayan magic chocolate making kit


However, the majority of the materials in the kit uses techniques that the ancient Mayans would never have even dreamed about, like the use of molds and refrigeration. In this way, this company presents a greatly reductive portrait of ancient indigenous life in order to sell their product which is unfair to both indigenous people as it diminishes and erases their history, and to the modern consumer by informing them with false information. By advertising these reductive portraits of indigenous culture and history, the modern chocolate industry only further ingrains harmful reductive notions into the consciousness of the public.


We Can Do Better


After examining different ways in which the contemporary chocolate industry has failed to accurately represent indigenous culture, I propose three actions that the industry can take in order to try and correct their error of promoting this reductive narrative of indigenous culture:


  1. Reject unsupported science that exaggerates mystic properties of cacao.
  2. Acquire education about the histories of cacao and indigenous culture and religion.
  3. Alter advertisement to avoid reductive portrayals of indigenous life.


Striving to meet these three goals would be at least a step forward towards a more balanced and respectful portrait of indigenous history and culture as it pertains to cacao and chocolate. Reducing indigenous culture through false science, representations in pop culture, and inaccurate advertising only fortifies and perpetuates the colonialistic behavior that our forefathers before us set in motion. Breaking this cycle not only requires us ceasing imperialization and colonization, but also examining and altering the ways in which we think about and resultantly portray indigenous identity today. The long history between cacao and indigenous people makes the contemporary chocolate industry a compelling place to start alterations in our society: the wide influence of chocolate to all people and nations allows it to influence perceptions in communities around the world. In order to progress as a society we must be better than the people who made mistakes before us. Recognizing and fixing mistakes in chocolate is a sweet place to start.


Works Cited


Coe, Sophie D.. The True History of Chocolate . Thames & Hudson. Kindle Edition.


Healthysuperfood, director. Cocoa , The Chocolate Super Food Of The Gods, David Wolfe.

YouTube, YouTube, 4 Jan. 2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gm69os9LIZo.


Howe, James. “Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health.” University of California Press, Vol 12 ,



Martin, Carla. “20190206 Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods”” Chocolate, Culture, and the

Politics of Food, February 30, 2019, Emerson Lecture Hall, Cambridge, MA.


“Mayan Magic Chocolate Making Kit.” The Green Head – Finds Cool New Stuff!,



Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: a Social and Cultural History. Manchester University Press, 2013.


“Willy Wonka Chocolate.” FoodBev Media, 13 Aug. 2013, http://www.foodbev.com/news/willy-



Windelspecht, Devin. “Cacao: The Mayan ‘Food of the Gods’ • Ricochet Science.” Ricochet

Science, 14 Apr. 2016, ricochetscience.com/cacao-mayan-food-gods/.


The Industrial Revolution: The Transformation of Chocolate from a Rare Delight to a Global Commodity

Industrialization greatly improved the quantity, quality, and variety of food of the working urban populations of the Western World. This development was due to reasons which were two-fold: first, historical developments such as colonialism and overseas trade were structures which inspired this process, and second, specific technologies such as preserving, mechanization, retailing, transport, and the growth of the commercial catering business allowed for the distribution and access of chocolate to flourish. Technologies which were developed from the Industrial Revolution greatly changed the worldwide consumption of chocolate, greatly increasing the quantity and ease of its production and distribution and subsequently increasing the ease and diversity of consumers’ access to chocolate products.

The Industrial Revolution began in England in the early 19th century, and stemmed from factors such as a smaller population and thus a need for a more efficient workforce. Prior to industrialization, the majority of people in Europe subsisted on peasant farming and leasing land from the elite (Dimitri et al. 2). In the latter half of the second millennium A.D., voyages of discovery around the globe sparked colonialism in foreign lands soon thereafter. There were various philosophies in justification of colonialism; one was that of social evolutionism and intervention philosophies, or the idea that natives were incapable of governing themselves and in need of outside intervention. According to research published by M. Shahid Alam of Northeastern University, industrialization of countries across the world was unequal; some countries underwent industrialization centuries prior to others (Alam 5). The reason for this was partially due to the fact that some countries colonized other countries for their own imperial or industrial benefit, so the colonized countries themselves could not go undergo industrialization at that time. Great Britain, Spain (and subsequently Portugal), and France were a few imperial superpowers which underwent industrialization first and each dominated many colonies.

Image Source: Dimitri C, Effland A, Conklin N. “The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy.” USDA ERS. 2006.

Because of the far-reaching, global geography of these mother countries’ colonies, the colonial economy depended on international trade. For example, the British empire depended on the American colonies’ production of goods, as did the colonies on the goods of the British Empire. Merchants sent out ships to trade with North America and the West Indies; in 1686 alone, over 1 million euros of goods were shipped to London (“Trade and Commerce”). While wool textiles from England’s manufacturers that spurred from the Industrial Revolution were shipped to the Americas, the colonies shipped goods such as sugar, tobacco, and other tropical groceries from its plantations back across the pond. Due to Europe’s incredibly high demand for some of these American goods, the slave trade developed to meet Industrialization’s hefty needs for cheap labor (“Trade and Commerce”).

Image Source: “Colonial Trade Routes and Goods.” National Geographic Society, National Geographic, http://www.nationalgeographic.org/photo/colonial-trade/.

A few hundred years later, significant agricultural technologies spurred from industrialization. By the early 1900s, most American farms were diversified, meaning that various animals and crops were produced on the same cropland in complementary ways. However, specialization was a method which developed in farms at around this same time, used to increase efficiency by narrowing the range of tasks and roles involved in production. This way, specialized farmers could focus all their knowledge, skills, and equipment on one or two enterprises. Furthermore, mechanization allowed for the tremendous gains in efficiency with getting rid of the need for human labor with routine jobs such as sowing seeds, harvesting crops, milking cows, and feeding and slaughtering animals. Within the 20th century only, the percentage of the U.S. workforce involved in agriculture declined from 41 percent to 2 percent (Dimitri et al. 2). This greatly increased the efficiency of the production of ingredients which go into chocolate such as milk, cacao, sugar, salt, and vanilla from their respective farms.

In addition to farming technologies such as specialization, methods such as preserving, mechanization, retailing (and wholesaling), transport, and the growth of the commercial catering business improved the quality of the chocolate product itself and lessened the amount of time many large chocolate companies produced these chocolates drastically (Goody 74).

The mechanism of preserving was spearheaded by Nicolas Appert, who developed a process called canning (“bottling” in English) in response to conditions in France during the Napoleonic Wars, when the preservation of meat was important for feeding on-the-road soldiers (Goody 75). Glass containers were also developed around the same time to preserve wine and medicine. Methods such as artificial freezing as well as salt — which became such a popular form of preservation that a “salt tax” was eventually implemented — also developed to preserve foods. Pickling inside vinegar, as well as sugar, which was used to preserve fruits and jams, were also methods which advanced. This, in turn, also caused the imports of sugar to rapidly increase during the 18th century (Goody 75). With preservation mechanisms highly developed compared to before, chocolate products could finally be distributed from manufacturers and remain on shelves for quite some time — it did not necessarily need to be fresh to be sold and readily available to consumers.

Additionally, the process of mechanization was the manufacture of many processed and packaged foods, and this process was furthered by Ford’s assembly line and interchangeable parts. Through these technologies, packaged foods and products could be produced much more quickly and efficiently at greater quantities. This greatly increased the production efficiency and quantity with which packaged chocolate could be distributed, allowing for the proliferation of the some of the biggest mass-brands in chocolate production, such as Hershey’s and Nestle (Goody 81).

Video Source: “HOW IT’S MADE: Old Hershey’s Chocolate.” YouTube, 1976, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ophXa_LvUKk.

Furthermore, the process of retailing was marked by the shift from open market to closed shop; this process began as early as Elizabethan times. Back in the Elizabethan era, great efforts were made to ensure that there were no middle men in terms of sales and that there was no resale at higher prices. Eventually, however, grocers overtook the import of foreign goods. Just as imported goods became cheaper with the new developments in transport, so too did manufactured goods and items packaged before sale came to dominate the market (Goody 82-3). This allowed many various chocolate products from manufacturers all across the world to hit the shelves of grocers, readily available to consumers of any city in the United States. These products were generally branded goods, “sold” before sale by national advertising. Advertising itself, additionally, led to the homogenization of chocolate consumption, allowing similar brands of chocolate products to be distributed across the U.S. This even led to the eventual homogenization of American taste preferences for chocolate; because the Hershey’s chocolate bar was so heavily distributed and popularized, eventually, Americans were unaccustomed to anything that did not have Hershey’s uniquely sweet and salty taste (“Here There Will Be…” 108).

The final large component of industrialization which greatly increased chocolate production and distribution was the revolution of transportation. Rail transport provided the masses with cheap and wholesome food; in fact, there were certain periods of time during the Industrial Revolution in which U.S. railways were transporting goods more than people (Goody 82). Last but not least, the growth of the commercial catering business led to the decline of the domestic servant. This decline of the domestic servant also allowed English families to explore quick, sweet recipes incorporating chocolate such as brownies, cookies, and cakes.

Bigger-picture progressions in history such as colonization and international trade connected the world economy and allowed for technologies such as preserving, mechanization, retailing, and new transport to grow and flourish. These methods, in turn, caused global companies such as Hershey’s and Nestle to revolutionize the production and distribution of chocolate into a massive, global business. What was once enjoyed by the few and wealthy was now easily accessible by the masses, homogenizing the tastes of Americans to a few specific chocolate brands. None of this impact on chocolate products’ consumers and producers alike would have been possible without the historical and technological developments of the Industrial Revolution.

Works Cited

Alam, M. Shahid. “Colonialism and Industrialization: Empirical Results.” Review of Radical Political Economics, 1998, pp. 217–240., doi:10.2139/ssrn.2031131.

“Colonial Trade Routes and Goods.” National Geographic Society, National Geographic, http://www.nationalgeographic.org/photo/colonial-trade/.

Dimitri C, Effland A, Conklin N. “The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy.” USDA ERS. 2006.

Goody, Jack. “Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine.” Food and Culture: a Reader, edited by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik, Routledge, 2013, pp. 72–88.

“Here There Will Be No Unhappiness.” Hershey Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams, by Michael D D’Antonio, Simon & Schuster, 2006, pp. 106–126.

“HOW IT’S MADE: Old Hershey’s Chocolate.” YouTube, 1976, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ophXa_LvUKk.

JH Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Industrialization of Agriculture.” Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University, 5 Aug. 2016, foodsystemprimer.org/food-production/industrialization-of-agriculture/index.html.“To the Milky Way and Beyond; Breaking the Mold.” The Emperors of Chocolate: inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars, by Brenner Joël Glenn., Broadway Books, 2000, pp. 49–194.

“Trade and Commerce.” Understanding Slavery Initiative, Understanding Slavery, 2011, http://www.understandingslavery.com/index.php-option=com_content&view=article&id=307_trade-and-commerce&catid=125_themes&Itemid=152.html.

Changes in Chocolate Recipes Through the Lense of Colonization

This blog post will analyze the changes in chocolate recipes through the lense of colonization. The primary text that will be referenced throughout this blog post is Substance and Seduction: Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica by Kathryn E. Sampeck and Jonathan Thayn. Sampeck and Thayn contend that “a key to understanding cacao consumption is to see what people in each region selected to emphasize or edit out.” (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 85). These ‘edits’ as Sampeck and Thayn termed them to be, “[offer] an opportunity to scrutinize how colonizers came to terms with a strange substance and the degree to which the process of learning and modifying involved transforming native understandings and experience as well.”  (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 72). To aid in their analysis, Sampeck and Thayn utilize “Geographic Information Systems (GIS) modeling [to] [allow] us to assess in a rigorous manner where and when chocolate tastes might have varied.” (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 72). The results from the GIS map quantify “how much regional conditions varied geographically and over time.” (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 72). This blog post will first delve into the background of cacao and colonization, and then go over the changes in recipes from Mesoamerica to Anglo-America and all the way to Europe. I will then summarize Sampeck and Thayn’s take on the colonization of chocolate before offering my own. In accordance with Sampeck and Thanyn, I contend that the colonization of chocolate is significant because it laid the groundwork for future appropriation of ethnic and exotics foods and cultures (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 93).

Cacao cultivate first started in Mesoamerica due to the fertile land and climate (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 74). Cacao “is an important ritual offering and has a range of associations (water, fertility, rebirth), most of which appear to have originated in the pre-Columbian era.” (Cameron McNeil 2009: 341). Cacao was both a “comestible, but also a wealth item […] given as tribute, eventually [becoming] a token of currency.” (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 75). While cacao was cultivated throughout Mesoamerica, the recipes for chocolate differed from region to region; with different additives added for each region’s preferences(Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 77). In terms of the differences within Mesoamerica, the GIS results discovered that:

“Maya and southern Nahua regions are strongly linked to each other in terms of taste. In contrast, the Peruvian branch is really an isolate, a highly distinct branch. This suggests that these are not just slight differences in tastes but sharply divided lines. Latin America in the sixteenth to seventeenth centuries had strongly regional taste.” (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 88)

When colonizers began to explore Mesoamerica, they became familiar with cacao and chocolate beverages (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 79). Said colonizers “embraced chocolate in the Mesoamerican manner and then spent time coming up with alternative ways to think and feel about it.” (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 79).

The development of said ‘alternative ways’ of concocting chocolate occurred rather slowly according to the GIS results (Marcy Norton quoted in Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 80). Sampeck and Thayn highlight a key finding in the GIS results in which “within a mixed group of America, French, English and Mesoamerican recipes, the Mesoamerican ones sort out as a set of ingredients that Europeans and Anglo-Americans did not copy exactly.” (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 89). The differences in recipes could be attributed to taste preferences, or could be due to the lack of availability of predominantly Mesoamerican resources (especially in the case of Europeans) (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 89-90). Sampeck and Thayn highlight the geneticist N.I, Vavilov’s finding that “as a cultigen moved from its area of domestication, selectie forces not present in the homeland would make new characteristics favorable.” (N.I. Vavilov quoted in Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 89). If we are to concur Vavilov’s finding, then it would follow that the Europeans and Anglo-Americans by default had to alter chocolate recipes (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 90). Dr. Carla Martin and Sampeck contend in their chapter The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe, that “the earliest European recipes in many sense follow in many sense the Mesoamerican flavor profile, but by using much more familiar and established flavourants acquired through trade or produced in Europe, such as cinnamon, anise, and pepper.” (Carla Martin and Kathyrn Sampeck 2017: 42).

Sampeck and Thayn conclude that “the patterning suggests a chronological shift away from Mesoamerican ingredients, perhaps more gradually from the sixteenth to the seventeenth century as recipes from those periods are not as well differentiated from each other compared to later recipes.” (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 90). Furthermore, “changes in just what chocolate was at home and abroad show that ‘chocolate’ was a vehicle for defining new relations with the colonial economy, tastes of the body politics, and colors of changing social realms.” (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 95). Sampeck and Thayn’s findings beg the question: why is the gradual change in chocolate recipes significant?

I concur with the premise of a subset of Sampeck and Thayn’s argument; ingesting chocolate has ‘become so commonplace’ that chocolate has begun to arguably loose “part of the allure […] [it’s] strangeness.” (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 93). Colonizers shifted “centers of cacao production […] from places of indigenous production in Mesoamerica such as the Izalcos to plantations employing coerced or enslaved labor […]” (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 93). In essence, colonizers took over chocolate (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 93). They took something that was a local process and tradition and capitalized it and turned it into a process that is no longer recognizable (recipe-wise and production-wise) (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 93). Yes, the process of cultivating cacao and making chocolate is more efficient now than it used to be, but one could argue that chocolate has lost what made it once so special to Mesoamericans (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 93). While Mesoamericans “continue to cultivate or purchase cacao, using it in beverages and foods and in rituals,” the same cannot be said for the Western world (McNeil 2009: 341). This is significant because the colonization of chocolate provides the framework for the future appropriations of ethnic and exotic foods and cultures across the West. As stated by Sampeck and Thayn: “we rob chocolate of its flavor by letting present experiences overdetermine how we understand it in the past.” (Sampeck and Thayn 2007: 95).

Image 1:

The table above is from Carla D. Martin and Kathyrn E. Sampeck’s article “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” The table highlights the recipe ingredients found in colonial European chocolate.
Source: Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.hu, no. Special Issue 3 (2015): 37-60. doi:10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37.

Image 2:

This figure is from Sampeck and Thayn’s chapter “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.”. The figure illustrates the “degrees of similarity and difference among recipes.”
Source: Sampeck, Kathryn, and Jonathan Thayn. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” In Substance and Seduction : Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, 72-99. Austin, 2017: University of Texas Press.

Image 3:

This image is from Cameron McNeil’s chapter “Traditional Cacao Use in Modern Mesoamerica” in her book Chocolate in Mesoamerica. This image is an example of cacao being used in ceremonies and rituals.
Source: McNeil, Cameron L. “Traditional Cacao Use in Modern Mesoamerica.” In Chocolate in Mesoamerica, Chocolate in Mesoamerica, Chapter 17. University Press of Florida, 2009.


Sampeck, Kathryn, and Jonathan Thayn. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.” In Substance and Seduction : Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica, 72-99. Austin, 2017: University of Texas Press.

Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.hu, no. Special Issue 3 (2015): 37-60. doi:10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37.

McNeil, Cameron L. “Traditional Cacao Use in Modern Mesoamerica.” In Chocolate in Mesoamerica, Chocolate in Mesoamerica, Chapter 17. University Press of Florida, 2009.

One Thousand Years of Sugar: The Transition from Medicine and Elite Consumption, to Everyday Life in Great Britain

Most of the Burden of Producing Sugar for the British Empire fell upon the shoulders of Slaves in British colonies like Barbados and other Islands in the West Indies

In today’s world, sugar is one of the most widely found consumables across the globe. From soda, to candy, baked goods, and everything in between, sugar’s presence in 21st century life is undeniable. But it hasn’t always been this way – less than a millennium ago, sugar was an item reserved for the very wealthiest of society. Viewing the historical change in sugar through the lens of the British Empire is an apt way through which to understand sugar’s rise to quotidien usage, both on the European continent, and across the world. Over time, sugar went from being utilized in British medicine and serving a luxury good for only the elites of the country, to firmly entrenching itself as a staple of mainstream British society. This change, which can in large part be attributed to the increased production of sugar across the British colonies, especially in the West Indies, represented a shift in the way sugar was perceived across the country and continent. Previously seen as an example of the chasm present between socioeconomic classes within the British Empire, sugar’s broad appeal and its versatile usages, from decorative material to spice, medecine, preservative, and finally sweetener, were predominantly responsible for its rise to prominence.

A Diagram Demonstrating the Spread of Sugarcane Cultivation, Originating in the Ganges River Valley

Sugar has been grown since as early as 500 B.C., where it was harvested in the Ganges River Valley of modern-day India. However, it took over 1,500 years for the substance to appear with regularity in Europe – the first example of which was seen entering through the port of Venice (Rivard, 422-423). When sugar first appeared on the European continent, its function was markedly different from what it has become in the 21st century. The arrival of sugar to the continent in the early 12th century was characterized primarily by its usage as an expensive, exotic spice, reserved for usage by only the most wealthy members of society (Mintz, 79-80).

A Portrayal of Sugar’s Initial Restrictions in the British Empire – Exclusively for the most Elite Members of Society

In the centuries that followed, sugar’s impact in the British Empire remained relatively minute, with the exception of its role in health and wellness. Sugar was frequently used as a cure for ailments, building off of many Islamic and Byzantine doctors’ proclivity for using the substance for medicinal purposes. Sugar’s place in the medical community of Europe and Britain specifically became so significant from the 13th century onward, that the expression “like an apothecary without sugar” became a commonplace phrase to describe a state of desperation (Mintz, 101). While the utilization of sugar as a remedy was not without its controversy, the English’s adaptation of the substance as a potential remedy to cure illness helped bring sugar into a more prominent role within the British Empire. Although its widespread consumption from a gastronomical perspective would not occur for several centuries, sugar’s importance within the medical and elite communities of the Empire helped set the stage for its emergence into everyday English life.


While its initial presence in the British Empire was restricted to only the most affluent elites of the period, the 1400s and 1500s saw a significant uptick in the harvesting of sugar, especially in the colonies of Great Britain (Rivard, 423). Although its status in the 1500s and 1600s remained that of an “object of a sustained vogue in Northern europe”, its consumption in England increased 5-fold in the ensuing century  (Godoy). A series of political events, like the Dutch Revolt and the loss of the Spanish Armada to the British also played a part in this shift. Coupled with the rampant popularity of sugar amongst those it was available to, the resulting effect was a significant uptick in the shipments of sugar from Barbados and the other British colonies of the West Indies (Rivard, 423). These shipments allowed British consumer culture to As this rise in sugar consumption continued, the British government steadily reduced the tax on the product through the 18th and 19th centuries, until it was completely eliminated in 1874. As a result, the per capita consumption of sugar rose from four pounds per year in 1700, to a jaw-dropping 90 pounds per year by 1900 (Rivard, 423). This over 20-times increase was a reflection of both the populous’ love of the substance, and the quickly growing sugar industry’s willingness to meet the demands, often by ethically questionable means.

A Graph Depicting the Immense Rise in Sugar Consumption in Great Britain

In order to keep up with the widespread desire for sugar across Great Britain, the Empire turned to slavery to help bridge the gap between supply and demand.  The slave trade, particularly in Jamaica, became an extremely lucrative endeavor, and a viable manner by which the British Empire could fulfill the desire for sugar amongst the British citizenry. A 1770s survey conducted by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, a member of the British parliament, revealed that 59 percent of Jamaica’s slave population was tasked with growing sugar, desperately trying to keep up with British demand (Thomas, 33). The number of resources that were dedicated to producing sugar in the islands of the Caribbean and West Indies was truly staggering. By the year 1773, Jamaica alone featured at least 775 sugar plantations across the 150 mile-long island, rendering the colony one of the most valuable components of the entire British Empire (Thomas, 33). This large-scale commitment to the manufacturing of sugar allowed the substance to become more and more prevalent in Great Britain, from drinks, to chocolate, and everything in between. This rise resulted in books like “Mrs. Hannah Glasse’s special confectionery cookbook”, produced in 1760 and outlining the variety of recipes incorporating sugar, finally available to the middle class of Britain (Mintz, 117). Even the poor citizenry of Great Britain had reason to supplement their diets with sugar. The preparation of “hasty pudding”, a type of oatmeal porridge, as well as molasses and tea, were quotidian treats for the working-class of the empire to enjoy sugar as well (Mintz, 118).

Hasty Pudding Was an Example of the Types of Foods that Even the Working Classes of Great Britain would Consume with Sugar

Compared to its initial appearance in the 1300s and 1400s, the prominence of sugar in Great Britain became practically incomparable by the late 1700s. Not only was there a revolution in the demand for the substance, but the British Empire, in response, markedly increased its production across the West Indies and Caribbean. Barbados and Jamaica were particularly responsible for the influx of sugar into Great Britain and Western Europe, often through slave labor or indentured servitude. These ethically questionable means were an inevitable step taken by the British Empire, who saw an opportunity to greatly increase the monetization of the “sugar colonies”, and meet the demand of the middle and working classes of Great Britain in the process. Initially a substance reserved exclusively for medicine, and only the most elite of British society, the ensuing centuries resulted in a country-wide, and continent-wide, obsession with sugar, that led to an increase of over 20-fold in the per capita consumption of Great Britain. The factors of consumer culture, political colonization, and evolving taste preferences, all played significant roles in this transformation. The case of sugar in Great Britain is an apt case through which to study these different conditions, and the effects they had across several centuries.









In Text Citations

Godoy, Maria – “Tea Tuesdays: How Tea + Sugar Reshaped The British Empire” https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/04/07/396664685/tea-tuesdays-how-tea-sugar-reshaped-the-british-empire

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

Rivard, C., Thomas, J., Lanaspa, M., & Johnson, R. (2013). Sack and sugar, and the aetiology of gout in England between 1650 and 1900. Rheumatology,52(3), 421-426.

Thomas, Robert Paul. “The Sugar Colonies of the Old Empire: Profit or Loss for Great Britain?” The Economic History Review, vol. 21, no. 1, 1968, pp. 30–45.


Who’s Chocolate?

A look at the historic appropriation of cacao

There has always been a deep intersection between food and culture. Food is often at the center of many significant cultural traditions, rituals, and experiences. We have even learned to associate certain flavor profiles, ingredients, and methods of preparation with specific regions, countries, and even ethnicities. In fact, food seems to occupy a unique space in the scope of cultural appropriation, to the extent that many of us find it largely unproblematic to cook or eat the traditional food of another person’s culture, where we may object to wearing the traditional clothing of another’s culture. For example, it seems totally acceptable for a person of any culture to eat these ethnic dishes, regardless of the context:

Traditional Indian Dish

Traditional Japanese Dish

However, it would seem offensive and distasteful for a person who is not part of Native American culture to wear this traditional Native American outfit:

Traditional Native American Clothing

So why are we so comfortable enjoying the food of other cultures? Furthermore, when we replicate traditional cultural cuisine in the context of our own cultures, are we even experiencing something that represents the authentic culture and tradition?  Taking a closer look at the history of chocolate and specifically the ways in which early Europeans engaged with and altered Pre-Colombian or Mesoamerican cacao recipes and customs can provide us with a useful framework for looking at these questions.

Cacao in Mesoamerican culture

Chocolate and other products made from cacao were in many ways at the heart of Mesoamerican culture. Cacao was simultaneously, a ritual offering, currency, flavoring, and beverage (Sampeck, Translating Tastes). It was used in marriage alliances and healing ceremonies. “Chocolate”, contrary to popular belief, is just one of several recipes that the Mesoamericans made from Cacao. The process of creating and consuming Cacao beverages often involved specialized tools such as the molinillo (stirring or frothing stick), the steep sided cup, and the spouted pot. (Sampeck, Translating Tastes


The process of manufacturing cacao was even associated with having a higher statue in society. The exact recipe for pre-Columbian cacao beverages varied by region, but it can be essentially understood as some combination of cacao and achiote. And so, it is important to keep in mind that when we consider cacao and chocolate as used by the Mesoamerican people, we are referring to products with social, cultural, political, and economic implications. (Martin, The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe)

The European impact on cacao

The early Europeans who first encountered chocolate found the beverage distasteful, due to its thick consistency and bitterness. However they quickly adopted the system for using cacao as currency, making it a legal item for various transactions (Martin, The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe).But it was not long before the Europeans began to alter the taste of chocolate. Early colonial cacao beverage recipes contained many additional ingredients to make the drink sweeter and more palatable for European taste, such as vanilla, honey, almond, and sugar. A similar process went into the creation of early colonial chocolate recipes: by adding flavors that were more familiar to Europeans such as cinnamon and pepper, the Europeans were able to appropriate the experience of enjoying chocolate. (Martin 2016)

“Colonial European Chocolate Recipe Ingredients”

Even the tools used for cacao beverage making were appropriated to become more European, as European molinillos, spouted pots, and cups were made out of metal or porcelain, rather than gourds, as the Mesoamericans may have used. (Martin 2016) 

Silver spouted cacao beverage pot

So in many ways, the taste of chocolate was translated for the European palate, which in effect shifted chocolate flavor away from the Mesoamerican tradition to a hybridized food. Chocolate became a truly colonized product, quite obviously in terms of its production and distribution, but even more deeply in terms of its composition. (Coe 1997)

The history of chocolate highlights the ways in which food from one culture can be appropriated to fit the customs and palate of another culture. The chocolate that we enjoy today tastes the way it does due to colonization and hybridization of the original cacao recipes of the Mesoamerican people, and it is important that we acknowledge the aspects of the culture, taste, and customs that were lost due to colonization, even if we enjoy the product that chocolate has become today. I believe that sharing ideas, customs, and cuisines across cultures can often increase our ability to connect with people from different cultures and can enrich our lives in many ways, but that we must also respect the traditions from which these cultural aspects originate. Perhaps it feels more acceptable for us to enjoy the foods of other cultures because groups such as the early European settlers have historically appropriated the cuisines that they encountered, which makes it easy for us to disassociate the food from its cultural significance or origin. But I feel that it is important to understand the lineage of the products that we enjoy today and to try to expand our own palates, rather than making the food from other cultures conform to us, because we run the risk of erasing important traditions and tastes in the pursuit of what is familiar. 

Works Cited:

Sampeck, Kathryn, and Jonathan Thayn. 2017. “Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism.”

Martin, Carla and Sampeck, Kathryn. 2016. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” 

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013 [1996]. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson. 

Multimedia Sources:




Martin, Carla. “Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods”” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, February 30, 2019, Emerson Lecture Hall, Cambridge, MA

Carla Martin. “Chocolate Expansion.” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food. Harvard University, Cambridge. 31 Jan. 2018. Lecture.

Chocolate Healing

Chocolate: the ultimate breakup food. Who hasn’t had chocolate prescribed post-heartbreak by some well-meaning friend? Modern popular media have especially promoted this trope as an essential part of the female experience, depicting devastated, gluttonous woman shoveling chocolate down their crying mouths. For example, take this iconic scene from the 2001 hit Legally Blonde when the protagonist, Elle Woods, uses chocolate to try and numb her post-breakup pain:



But from where does this trope stem from? Did someone just see a devastated, heartbroken woman and decide that the best course of action was to give her a plastic container full of sugar bombs to heal her pain? To start and investigate this question we can look before the iconic chocolate box, before even the concept of a chocolate box itself, and find that Aztec and Mayan beliefs about the spiritual and healing nature of cacao provides the foundation for modern beliefs on the properties of chocolate.


Foundations in Mayan and Aztec Beliefs

Examining ancient Maya artwork reveals that the Mayans deeply associated cacao with the gods, thus imbuing the plant with a spiritual value. The Dresden Codex—one of the four surviving Mayan manuscripts—contains many images depicting gods interacting with and even consuming cacao, like in this image, captioned “cacao is his food.”

Similarly, in the Madrid Codex, gods are even depicted showering their blood over cacao pods in a powerful demonstration of their close relationship with cacao (Coe, The True History of Chocolate). Furthermore, according to David Carrasco, this relationship between the gods and cacao emerges in Mayan religion, as well. According to Carrasco, the Mayans believed that trees, such as the cacao tree, served as “metastructures of the heavens,” through which the roots connected gods to the underworld, the trunk placed them in the world, and the branches extended up to the heavens (Carrasco, Religions of Mesoamerica). Therefore, the Mayan association of cacao to the gods demonstrates their belief of cacao being spiritual.

Ancient Aztec religion also placed cacao on a spiritual level. It is depicted on a ritual book called the Codex Féjérváry-Mayer where it is part of a cosmic diagram. It also took prominence in metaphors used by Aztec religious figures, in which they referred to chocolate as “heart, blood.” (Coe, The True History of Chocolate). Thus, the prominence of cacao in Aztec rituals highlights their association of cacao with spirituality.

Furthermore, the Aztec and Mayan belief in the spirituality of cacao extended past just the metaphysical plane, and into everyday life. They believed in the ability of cacao to nourish not only the bodies, but also the spirits of their people.

The Maya believed that cacao drinks contained “powerful physiological effects,” causing “virility, strength, and the fortitude to undertake physically demanding feats, such as marching to war” as depicted in this image of a warrior alongside a cacao tree laden with cacao pods (Leissle, Cocoa).

vector illustration sketch drawing aztec pattern cacao tree, mayan warrior with tomahawk, cacao beans and decorative borders yellow, red, green, brown, grey colors on white background

They also believed that the health boosting properties of cacao extended into fertility—thus, as evidenced in this image of a marriage ceremony, cacao played an important role in marriage rites, not only as currency in the bride’s dowry, but also to promote fertility.

Image result for maya marriage cacao pods

The Aztecs similarly believed in the beneficial effects of cacao on the body. Aztec society highly condemned drunkenness—a sin they deemed punishable by death. Therefore, instead of their alcoholic drink, octli, they revered cacao beverages as a healthier and more virtuous alternative (Coe, The True History of Chocolate). These beliefs that chocolate could nourish and revitalize the body demonstrates the translation of the spiritual nature of cacao into tangible benefits in the human body.

Therefore, by looking into Mayan and Aztec attitudes and associations with cacao, we can see that these ancient civilizations formed the foundation of belief around the healing and spiritual properties of cacao that still exist today.


Tracking the Colonization of Indigenous Beliefs

But how did these ancient ideas stand the test of time to exist in today’s society? Examining interactions between colonizers and the Mayans illuminates the way these ancient beliefs migrated through time and space.

When colonizers came from Europe to mesoamerica in the early sixteenth century they encountered not only the Mayan people, but also their foods and beliefs. Among these foods were cacao, which was highly prevalent in Mayan society at the time as both a currency and a revered form of food. Through interactions with the Mayans, the Spanish colonizers adopted beliefs around the spiritually and physically healing properties of cacao. As cacao distribution spread as part of triangular trade, which brought goods and slaves between continents across the Atlantic, as shown on the diagram below, this belief spread through European society. In the early seventeenth century an ailing Alphonse de Richelieu brought chocolate to France for the first time in the hopes that it would help his problems with his spleen.


Image result for triangular trade diagram

We can continue to track the belief of the healing and spiritual nature of chocolate a few centuries later by looking at the U.S army’s use of chocolate rations in the second world war. The U.S. developed a sustenance they called the “D-ration bar” to maintain the energy and health of their troops. The D-ration bar contained “a blend of chocolate, sugar, cocoa butter, skim milk powder and oat flour” and was used, alongside other candy, to keep up the morale and overall nutrition of the troops (Butler, D-Day Rations). Thus, this application of chocolate to keep allied warriors going demonstrates the foundation of Aztec and Mayan beliefs around chocolate to influence the use of chocolate in modern civilization to boost nutrition and aid warriors.


Remembering Roots: Historical Significance

It’s easy to look at chocolate and only see the candy. However, cacao has a long history of colonization, abuse, and enslavement—much of which still exists today. It’s important to remember the history of cacao to remember that our culture does not exist in its own vacuum, but has been influenced by those who lived before us. Part of this reflection is recognizing that so much of what we have has been colonized from other countries and cultures and assimilated until they wear only the label of “today.” While some may just see a heartbroken girl eating chocolate to heal herself, remembering the Mesoamerican foundation of beliefs on which our associations stand can allow us to see more than just a trope. We can see the connection between us and cultures from different parts of the world and different eras in history, helping us remember that our experiences are inextricably linked to those around us.

Works Cited

Butler, Stephanie. “D-Day Rations: How Chocolate Helped Win the War.” History.com,  A&E Television Networks, 6 June 2014, www.history.com/news/d-day-rations-how-chocolate-helped-win-the-war.

Carrasco, David. Religions of Mesoamerica. Waveland Press, 2014.

Coe, Sophie D.. The True History of Chocolate . Thames & Hudson. Kindle Edition.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa (Resources) (p. 31). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Martin, Carla. “20190206 Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods”” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, February 30, 2019, Emerson Lecture Hall, Cambridge, MA. 

“Maya Civilization.” Civilization.ca – Haida – Haida Art – Masks, Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation, www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/civil/maya/mmc01eng.html.

Multimedia Sources

“Aztec Possum God and Cacao Beans.” The Possomery, members.peak.org/~jeremy/possomery/.

Martin, Carla. “20190206 Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods”” Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, February 30, 2019, Emerson Lecture Hall, Cambridge, MA. 

Ramirez, Jason, director. Legally Blond “LIAR”. YouTube, YouTube, 3 Oct. 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGauMKoX3JE.

Sergov, Gerasiminov. “Sketch Drawing Aztec Pattern Cacao Tree, Mayan Warrior with Tomahawk, Cacao Beans and Decorative Borders Yellow, Red, Green, Brown, Grey Colors on White Background .” Shutterstock, vector illustration sketch drawing aztec pattern cacao tree, mayan warrior with tomahawk, cacao beans and decorative borders yellow, red, green, brown, grey colors on white background .

Triangular Trade. http://www.mrbrownsclass.net/mercantilism–columbian-exchange–and-triangular-trade.html.