In 1947, children across Canada went on a chocolate bar strike to protest the 60% overnight rise of the price of candy bars from 5 cents to 8 cents, which, kudos to them for banding together and trying to affect change*, but it does make you wonder: how does pushing down the price of a commodity such as chocolate work out for everyone along the supply chain? If it’s anything like coffee, I’m going to hazard a guess that the answer is: not well.
For all that chocolate is ubiquitous and beloved**, to the point that children back in ’47 expected it not to be a luxury good but an affordable treat that should be readily available and affordable, what it comes from, where it comes from, how it’s processed – all of this and more are fairly removed from the final product. I don’t think I knew until very recently that anything other than the cacao seeds were edible from the pod, that the stuff encasing the cacao seeds isn’t a useless byproduct but a refreshing treat in its own right (and possibly the reason that the cacao fruit was picked up by people in the first place, since the seeds are bitter and wouldn’t have been immediately appealing, in theory). And if you were to ask me where cacao was grown, I’d probably have known to say Ghana, but not Côte d’Ivoire, nor immediately think of South America despite that being the provenance of chocolate (Ecuador and Brazil being the big contributors as far as cacao farming goes; I think the idea that we have the Mayans or the Aztecs to thank for chocolate is fairly widespread^*), though I’d probably have said India (thanks only to this spice company). If you’re thinking that maybe I just know a bit less than the average person about chocolate (or geography, or history), that’s probably fair – my knowledge of geography and history in general is abysmal – but which of the following would you wager is more strongly associated with chocolate? Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, Brazil and Ecuador, or Belgium and Switzerland (as in Belgian and Swiss chocolate)?
*Sadly, the movement was stopped in what seems to me a somewhat underhanded manner: by associating the chocolate bar strike with communism. Yep. Not because of anything related to the protest itself, really, but one of the (many) supporters of the protest had links to communism. After that, public support for the protest movement went way down, as parents didn’t want to let their kids be associated with the taint of communism (remember, this was just post-WWII), and so the movement died out. Chocolate bar prices stayed at 8 cents.
**Every article and book I’ve read that has made reference to how beloved it is by everyone seems to agree that everyone who has tasted chocolate loves it, even going so far as to explain why it’s so addictive*** by talking about the theobromine and the phenylethylamine, not to mention the anandamine****, but to be honest? I don’t know that I can say with certainty that I love chocolate. I mean, I like it, sure, don’t get me wrong. I’ll eat chocolate, and I generally enjoy it. But do I love it? I can say with confidence I love injeolmi. Do I love chocolate? I like it. I say this, but how much chocolate did I consume in the writing of this post? And without looking into the origins of where that cocoa came from? More than I’d like to admit. (How much injeolmi did I consume in the writing of this post? Also more than I’d like to disclose.)
***Is it even fair to call chocolate addictive? What constitutes an addiction? A quick search yielded inconclusive answers, vacillating between yes, cutting chocolate out seems to induce a couple of the same symptoms in rats as in people suffering from nicotine withdrawal, for example, to well, not any more than any other food that’s high in fat and sugar, though it’s apparently frequently used in addiction studies (I guess giving out illicit substances for the sake of science doesn’t quite cut it).
****And now I’ve gone down enough of a rabbit hole in the search about anandamide in chocolates and whether it affects marijuana use (the way that you’re told to take your iron supplement pill with orange juice so it’s absorbed better), on my work laptop, and am really hoping no one actually tracks our searches because this is going to look a touch sketchy. So, does eating chocolate improve your marijuana experience? I still don’t have the scientific answer to that.
^*Undeservedly, might I add, as cocoa was probably cultivated or at least prepared as a drink by the Olmecs
When I was planning this post, I originally wanted to focus on how colonialism contributed to the rise of chocolate as a widely consumed and easily accessible food, along with establishing the poor working conditions; and how capitalism has helped maintain those problematic working conditions, along with perpetuating cycles of poverty and continued environmental destruction in the form of deforestation. And honestly I still do want to expand on all those topics. But I almost feel like this is old news: most of the books we have on the topic of chocolate including investigations into the hidden (human) costs of its production were published in the early 2000s, with the newest title released in 2015 for a younger audience: Chocolate: Sweet Science and Dark Secrets of the World’s Favorite Treat by Kay Frydenborg. I say it feels like old news, but what’s also true is that the same issues that have plagued the industry almost two decades ago still remain in place, going by the 2020 Cacao Barometer report, which covers cycles of poverty, lack of access to education, insufficient healthcare for workers, dangerous forms of child labour, ongoing deforestation, and more. It’s been just a few years short of two decades after the publication of Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the dark side of the world’s most seductive sweet by Carol Off (2006). The Cacao Barometer page distills the issues pretty nicely, and though the report is a bit long, if you’re interested in learning more about the state of affairs in the cacao industry, it explores the issues from various perspectives (industry, environmental, etc.) and includes key recommendations for how to tackle the issues.
Which brings me to this: does buying from smaller indie companies mean my money at the very least doesn’t perpetuate these issues? It really depends on the company you’re buying from, of course, and you might just have to do an extra click or two on their websites to find out (under their FAQ or About page, for example), but if transparency’s important to the chocolate makers you want to support, the source of their cocoa will probably be something they’re happy to share. Are chocolates made with transparent sourcing and more pay for cacao farmers going to be more expensive than a box of assorted Halloween chocolates? Probably. But is it not more fitting for theobroma cacao, literally “food of the gods”, that we not shortchange them?*
*Yes, I do realize that not everyone has the ability to choose more expensive, more ethically produced chocolates. It’s a tricky tangle, isn’t it? Should everyone have equal access to ethical chocolates? I want to say yes. Can everyone have equal access while ensuring those producing the cacao receive sufficient compensation for their labour, while also maintaining the status quo in terms of chocolate consumption? And if chocolate consumption drops as a result of the increase in price in order to pay cacao farmers fairly, would that affect the cacao farmers in terms of demand, forcing them to drop their prices once again? Obviously there are more players than just consumer and cacao farmers, so this isn’t the full story – you could argue this is way too simplified to be of any use even, perhaps. So does supporting stores that can tell you transparently where their cacao came from, and that they are paying more than the market price, actually help those cacao farmers? I hope so, but if you have more insight into this, feel free to comment below!
And speaking of shortchanging, what actually led me to thinking about chocolate though, besides Valentine’s Day, was Silver, Sword, and Stone: Three Crucibles in the Latin American Story by Marie Arana – this despite the fact that I don’t remember cacao being mentioned at all in the book (though it’s entirely possible there was reference to it, it was most definitely not one of the points of focus here). We also happen to have this title in our collection: Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A cultural history of cacao. Silver, Sword & Stone explores the history of Latin America through the titular themes: how the rapacious lust for gold, and later silver, worked to bring Spaniard conquistadores to Latin America, decimating the population in their search for ever more stores of gold and enslaving the population in mining for these precious metals; how the conquest of Latin America through the sword has continued in various forms into the present day and continues to plague a continent, through physical violence, corruption at levels of power, and also the historic and ongoing systemic violence against the indigenous and those who aren’t white; and lastly the role of religion, which has not always (or even mostly, from the sounds of it) escaped the temptations of silver and sword. Arana has interwoven bits of memoir alongside historical information, toggling between present day and the past, highlighting how one has led to the other but also how little has changed in some ways. Silver, Sword & Stone is a heavy volume, but I finished the book wanting a tome more per theme – and I say this as someone who generally doesn’t read much history – not because Arana wrote an insufficient account of how each of these three subjects has contributed to history, but because her account of it is absolutely engrossing.
So I’m sure I’ve brought the mood down well below what you might have expected when you saw Chocolate at the beginning of the post, and I figure I should probably end on a sweet note, with chocolate recipes. It feels a bit disingenuous at this point to give you a list of chocolate recipe books, but we’ve got loads to choose from, and if you’re the one making your own chocolatey treats, you have more power to choose cocoa that you feel good about supporting!
America’s Test Kitchen is, I hear, tried and true, and you’ll find Everything Chocolate you’ve ever dreamt of making at home with them, with morning pastries (pastries for breakfast? sign me up!) and other desserts. The authors also discuss the best-tasting cocoa powder (though they’re American, so hopefully we can find the options they give us here, across the border!) and provide photos galore to help walk you through how to make the treats covered in this volume. If you’re looking for what counts as the Canadian equivalent, there’s Canadian Living’s The Complete Chocolate Book, with over 100 different recipes spanning the different textures of chocolate from soft and gooey chocolate covering to chewy brownies and more.
If you’re looking for something a bit more glamorous, there’s Sensational Chocolate, a compilation of celebrity chefs’ chocolate recipes by Paul A. Young, a master chocolatier, which includes recipes by Gordon Ramsay and Wolfgang Puck, among many others. And if you’re in the mood for other fancier recipes, take a look at Totally Chocolate by Eric Lanlard, a patissier and celebrity chef. Chocopologie by Fritz Knipschildt is another slightly more upscale type of cookbook done by a master chocolatier known for his playful flavour combinations.
There are a few more titles dedicated solely to the celebration of chocolate through different recipes, many having in common at least somewhat of a focus on recreating nostalgic childhood chocolate treats, but also many citing chocolate as sumptuous, sinful and sexy, which builds upon the age old myth of chocolate as an aphrodisiac I suppose, and that’s just counting the ones with chocolate as their focus! Personally, I’ll continue to swear by Jacques Torres’ chocolate chip cookies, as I’ve previously mentioned, but smitten kitchen’s the browniest cookies were also quite good the last time I made them, and I’ve recently discovered that brownies can actually be good and not just dreadfully oily or dry squares of tooth-aching sugary sweetness! (I tried that brownie recipe with two different cocoa powders and did a blind tasting, and the cocoa powder that was responsibly sourced & paid its farmers a living wage did win out over the Fry’s cocoa powder in my tiny sample size of 5, with 3 on the responsibly sourced side, 1 on Fry’s, and 1 who liked both equally. Do with that information what you will.)
What are your favourite chocolate recipes and local chocolatiers?