At 2AM each morning Harvard student activist and writer Minahil Khan, awakens from her deep sleep. She describes this disruption in her sleep schedule as “inevitable;” no matter how hard she tries, she wakes up each night, reaches to the ground beside her bed, and grabs a piece of chocolate. Minahil’s nightly chocolate routine began about one year ago, while she visited her parents in their home in New York City, NY and suddenly found herself having a mid-night craving for her mom’s famous chocolate mousse. The seemingly random craving quickly became a consistent necessity in her life, and Minahil has now eaten chocolate every night since. While Minahil’s case is quite extreme, many people have experienced some form of her chocolate “addiction.” So, what is it that makes chocolate such a beloved food product? Through my interview with Minahil, I attempt to uncover the various ways cultural, economic, and emotional factors have influenced consumers relationships to chocolate.
Harvard student activist and writer Minahil Khan, awakens from her deep sleep. She describes this disruption in her sleep schedule as “inevitable;” no matter how hard she tries, she wakes up each night, reaches to the ground beside her bed, and grabs a piece of chocolate. Minahil’s nightly chocolate routine began about one year ago, while she visited her parents in their home in New York City, NY and suddenly found herself having a mid-night craving for her mom’s famous chocolate mousse. The seemingly random craving quickly became a consistent necessity in her life, and Minahil has now eaten chocolate every night since. While Minahil’s case is quite extreme, many people have experienced some form of her chocolate “addiction.” So, what is it that makes chocolate such a beloved food product? Through my interview with Minahil, I attempt to uncover the various ways cultural, economic, and emotional factors have influenced consumers relationships to chocolate.
Minahil’s chocolate dependence begins with its sentimental value, manifested in its preparation process and centrality to her childhood memories.
LR: Do you remember the first time you ate chocolate?
MK: “I feel like the earliest memory I associate with chocolate is definitely related to birthdays. I’m from Pakistan and when I was younger we lived in this little engineering township, and I remember my mom just always made these chocolate cakes shaped like a gingerbread man. It’s weird because part of those memories only comes from the pictures of those birthdays. I look back at them now and realize, oh ‘that’s when I first had chocolate.’”
Although Minahil does not completely recall the experience of eating chocolate for the first time, she feels as if she remembers the experience, and notes the reconstruction of that early chocolate memory by her family photos. Her earliest chocolate memories were also significant because they revolved around an important event: birthdays. Chocolate has been a fixture of cultural rituals since it’s Mayan and Aztec origins. In A True History of Chocolate, Sophia and Michael Coe discuss the significance of chocolate in the Dresden codex, a Mayan book dating back to the 13th or 14th century. They write that “in several sections of the Dresden which deal with ritual activities tied in to the Maya’s sacred 260-day cycle, seated gods can be seen holding cacao pods, or dishes heaped with cacao beans” (Coe 42). The Maya viewed chocolate as an essential part of various ceremonies, including celebrations of life and death. Minahil’s birthday chocolate memory, therefore, illustrates a much longer history of chocolate as a center piece in ritualistic events. Chocolate has even become the centerpiece of the modern birthday party itself, with many choosing to have chocolate-themed birthday parties. In this video, for example, a woman throws her young daughter a chocolate-themed birthday party where the children excitedly get a behind the scenes look at chocolate production at a local chocolatier.
For Minahil, a Pakistani woman, chocolate has come to represent not only a symbol of celebration and ritual, but also of foreign or “westernness.”
LR: What’s your favorite kind of chocolate?
MK: “My mom’s chocolate mousse. That’s the best thing I’ve ever eaten. It’s just really airy.
LR: It sounds like a lot of your chocolate memories are associated with your family and childhood. How did chocolate become a part of your food culture in Pakistan? Is chocolate a part of Pakistani cuisine?
MK: “No. Really, not at all. The Pakistani desserts we have are very sugary, but there’s no chocolate involved. I don’t know if I know any dessert that has anything to do with chocolate. It’s the very western side of our upbringing even there.”
LR: Did chocolate represent something foreign to you?
MK: “At the time, no. Now, thinking about it, yeah, the fact that at one point, my mom made a chocolate barbie cake, where the cake was the dress of a barbie doll and she stuck a blonde, white barbie into the middle of it. I hadn’t even ever seen white foreign people in real life.”
As a child, Minahil considered chocolate to be an excited treat because, in addition to its sweet taste, it represented a distant and alluring west. Minahil’s mother paired the chocolate cake with a white barbie doll, demonstrating the consistent association of chocolate with white people and Western society. This association is ironic because, as Professor Martin and Kathryn E. Sampeck discuss in the Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe, the West and Central African nations of Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon collectively produce approximately 70% of the world’s cacao today (Martin, Sampeck, 50). Cacao is then processed in factories and craft chocolatiers in Europe, eventually becoming the recognizable chocolate product. Chocolate is, meanwhile, continuously branded as a luxury product, which is often not intended for consumption by nonwhite people. As Sampeck and Thayne write in Translating Tastes “In some ways, and as part of the colonial protect, chocolate was never meant to be familiar… Europeans maintained the sensory experience of chocolate—sweetness, spices, a simulation of the taste—an embodiment by colonists of Mesoamerican values but framed within the vicissitudes of the humoral scheme” (Sampeck, Thayne, 92). Through effective branding, slow recipe shifts, and colonialism, Europeans managed to construct chocolate as something unattainable to nonwhite people and victims of colonialism, like Pakistanis.
In his article in Candy Industry, Saif Dewan clarifies the increasing accessibility of chocolate in Pakistan, from a delicacy enjoyed by the English and the wealthy, to a product available to the masses. He writes that until the mid 1980’s, “chocolates were supposed to be the domain of the upper and upper-middle class segments in Pakistan” (Deiwan 1). In 1983, the chocolate company Mitchell created a product called Jubilee that sold for R.S 3.50 per bar. Its attractive packaging, quality, affordable price and focused media support, gave the brand unprecedented consumer reception, revolutionizing the accessibility of chocolate to the general Pakistani population. It currently exists at varying price points and remains popular in Pakistan. I asked Minahil about her personal chocolate preferences and developing tastes when she immigrated to the US.
LR: How did your relationship to chocolate change when you came to the U.S.? Or did it at all?
MK: “Oh actually, in Pakistan we used to have Mars bars, but you never find that here. That’s one noticeable difference. Like, I used to remember every time I went to Pakistan, I used to be so excited to see Mars bars. Actually, it’s funny but now I think it’s become more accessible here. I have some Mars bars here in the corner of my room right now. Oh also, dairy… you know that one… dairy cow dairy cream? The purple wrapper? Cadbury! Yes, I had that all the time in Pakistan. I could never find that here. I think Mars is also European? I guess it was more of a British thing, you know, colonialism, so coming here I was more exposed to different brands of chocolates.
LR: What was your favorite chocolate?
Minahil is particularly passionate about Cadbury Dairy Milk Chocolate, one of the most popular chocolates in Pakistan today. Deiwan explains Cadbury’s place within the chocolate market, writing that that in the early 2000s, Cadbury’s introduced products like Dairy Milk at varying price points and marketed it as “making chocolates the choice for everyone.” He adds that “The role of Cadbury in expanding the chocolate market in Pakistan will become a primer on how to penetrate and grow a fledging segment in an underdeveloped economy.” Cadbury is on the cutting edge of popularizing chocolate in Pakistan, with efforts that began when Minahil was a child in the early 2000s. Today, Cadbury still holds a reputation from people like Minahil and other native Pakistanis as being accessible and delicious. In this Cadbury commercial, a young woman, anxious on the day of her wedding, quells both her and her father’s anxieties with Cadbury chocolate. The commercial illustrates how Cadbury chocolate is not only enjoyable, but also contains healing powers, mending the bride and her father’s relationship and giving them a moment of piece in a stressful day. Cadbury’s prevalence illustrates the globalization of chocolate and its shift towards becoming as an accessible and increasingly culturally essential product.
Minahil is also an activist, who has been heavily involved in organizing efforts on campus. However, when it came to her chocolate consumption, Minahil was fairly unacquainted with chocolate’s violent histories and exploitative present.
LR: Where do you get the chocolate from for the chocolate mousse?
MK: They are Nestle chocolate chips.
LR: Do you ever think about where the chocolate you eat comes from?
MK: Yeah sometimes and it makes me really sad, and I hate it. Like Hershey, Nestle, Nestle’s really messed up.
LR: Why is Nestle messed up?
MK: I think they just like take advantage of their workers and are buying lands and not compensating the people where chocolate is coming from fairly. Chocolate wasn’t as accessible in the west but now it’s more accessible because corporations. But with corporations comes exploitation.”
As a civically engaged person who is immersed in activist circles, Minahil has adopted an understanding of the chocolate industry as problematic. Beyond that initial understanding however, her evaluation stops short. She is correct in saying that Nestle and Hershey most likely utilize exploitative processes, and that a large amount of that does in fact stem from corporate practices. In Bitter Chocolate, Carol Off explains the continuation of slavery far past emancipation in the 19th century on Cacao Plantations. She highlights a 2000 documentary, Slavery: A Global investigation which exposed indentured servitude in Cote d’Ivoire. The young people in the film were purchased by the plantation owners and described experiencing “beatings, starvation diets and foul living conditions” (Off 134). Off also mentions the continuation of slavery in Sao Tome and Principe of the coast of West Africa. Minahil didn’t seem to know this connection between chocolate or slavery, despite her understanding of chocolate’s complicated reputation.
After addressing some of chocolate’s unjust history, I was curious to see if Minahil would be willing to become a more conscious consumer.
LR: So, when you think about where your chocolate comes from, does that make you want to buy other types of chocolate? Does it make you choose between different brands based off of ethics?
MK: I haven’t. That’s not an area where I’ve invested that energy. But maybe it’s something worth thinking about. Um, yeah. I feel like in my home, I didn’t buy the chocolate. It’s just there and I eat it. Part of it is that so much of it is just sold by the same company, right? Like so much of it is just Hershey. So, I guess I’m not thinking about it because I know that already. But maybe between the two or three companies we can choose from.
Interestingly enough, the same sentimental connection to chocolate which makes it so significant to her, is also the connections which prevents Minahil from feeling mobilized to become a more conscious consumer. She understands that she could alter her taste to choose companies that use better practices but feels helpless in committing to that direction. She wants to preserve chocolate as something she can enjoy and not have to think about morally or ethically. She also seems to have convinced herself that no one buys the chocolate in her home, that she just arrives there and it’s waiting for her. She prefers to not confront the reality of her chocolate consumption, with its complicated ethical implications.
As a Pakistani immigrant and student activist, Minahil is a particularly unique consumer of chocolate. She’s culturally conscious and frequently motivated to enact change. However, she is also extremely attached to chocolate for both its emotional and physical benefits. Ideally, my peers and I could mobilize to become conscious and active consumers of chocolate and other foods, but the personal connection and dependency we often feel towards these items calls into question the extent to which true progress can eventually be made.
Coe, Sophie D., and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2007.
Dewan, Saif. “PAKISTAN: Despite Odds, Pakistan’s Confectionery Industry Continues to Grow.” Candy Industry, Mar. 2011, pp. 18–22.
Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in
Europe.” Socio.hu, no. special issue 3, 2015, pp. 37–60., doi:10.18030/socio.hu.2015en.37.
Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. New Press,
Sampeck citing Clarence-Smith, W. G. Cocoa and Chocolate, 1765-1914. Routledge, 2000.
Satre, Lowell J. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. 1st ed., Ohio
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Schwartzkopf, Stacey, and Kathryn E. Sampeck. Substance and Seduction: Ingested
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