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12 july 2011

Chocolate seems like an inevitable fact of life. But as Sarah Moss and Alexander Badenoch show in Chocolate: A Global History, chocolate in its present yummy form has been around for a tiny fraction of culinary history. A chocolate bar is an exhaustively processed food, implausibly distant from its basis in nature as a tropical tree pod.

To compound contradictions, Moss & Badenoch note, "'bad' chocolate has been around longer" than good chocolate, despite the appearance that "bad" chocolate gives of being "a cheap imitation of good chocolate" (107). Chocolate, to the Mesoamericans who developed it, was a frothy drink, spiked with chili. In the hands of Europeans of the colonial age, it became a sweet milky drink, and eventually the cakes that Europeans shaved into their milk became edible with the addition of fat, milk powder, vanilla, and other confectionary ingredients. Artisanal chocolate of impeccable terroir from venerable South American cacao groves is a backformation, an attempt to see what chocolate bars would have been like if they hadn't been invented first by mass producers of cheap European candy.

A theme in many of the Reaktion books (both Animal and Edible) is the plasticity of natural things in the service of culture. Chocolate is by origin natural, and even as a processed foodstuff, it just sits on the shelf unless you make something of it (in the semantic sense). Chocolate, in Moss & Badenoch's analysis, has been for adults and kids, malnourished workers, suburban families, and decadent urban elites, sweet and bitter, wholesome and sinful, masculine and feminine by turns. It's the stuff of utopian fantasies and of postcolonial oppression.

The postcolonial oppression is real and current. One of the more intriguing stories in Chocolate is that of Dutch journalist Teun van de Keuken, who learned in the course of his reporting that slave labor still underpins West African cacao production.

Noting that according to Dutch law, any form of participation in the slave trade, including purchasing its products, is punishable, van de Keuken bought a candy bar and walked to the next police station to turn himself in. What followed was a lengthy effort to gather evidence and witnesses to have himself prosecuted. (101)
The authors don't say whether van de Keuken ever did time for suborning slavery, but he certainly raised consciousnesses while trying – and in the process, he founded the world's first slave-free chocolate company, Tony's Chocolonely. Activism can be delicious.

Moss, Sarah, and Alexander Badenoch. Chocolate: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2009.