A cocoa nib a day . . .

The title of this article by Verity Johnson in the New Zealand Herald caught my eye this morning: “Are you eating enough cacao nibs?” I read on, expecting to find the usual treatise on the healthful effects of consuming nibs, every day. There would of course also be the requisite appendix of recipes, urging me to toss a handful of nibs into everything from beet greens salad to my holiday turkey stuffing.

The benefits of nibs have been much touted. Nuts.com has nothing but praise, offering that organic cocoa nibs are “an excellent source of antioxidants, fiber, iron and magnesium” that will stabilize my blood sugar, improve my insulin sensitivity, and lift my mood  While a Huffington Post article does caution that the theobromine in nibs “affects [some people] the way caffeine might” (though this is debatable), it mostly emphasizes the feel-good effect of eating nibs and the possibility that they might provide some calcium. Livestrong is the most adulatory of all: cocoa nibs may “even help you live longer.” Wonderful! The world offers far too much to see and do in one lifetime, so I’d be glad for a nib-based extension.

07 nibs

Amidst all this nib celebration, I expected more of the same in Johnson’s article. I was so pleased, then, to find instead a droll, witty piece about the fact that far too many foods are now considered the only ones that can possibly save you. In the process, these best-of-all-possible-foods have become so hip as to be unintelligible on restaurant menus, such that “Now, more than ever, no one knows what they hell they’re ordering.”

All too true. My boyfriend and I recently made a hasty exit from a renowned gastro-pub in Oxford, after realizing that the only word we understood on the single-spaced menu was “beef.” (And we like beef!) In my Seattle neighborhood of Ballard, where a new hip restaurant springs forth into being every day, rising from the ashes of a Scandinavian fish tavern that once stood on the spot, I’ve given up eating out anywhere except for Hotcakes Molten Chocolate Cakery and The Scoop at Walters.

I don’t mind saying that I have no idea what is “miso caramel,” which I might get as part of my dessert at Delancy, or whether I would enjoy the “fid mostarda” at Ethan Stowell’s Staple & Fancy. (Though I have at least the sense to wonder if “fid” should be “fig,” as a fid is, in my world, someone who worked for the British Falkland Islands Dependency Survey or a tool that we use on sailboats to loosen knots and release trigger shackles—neither of which, I think, can be tastefully made into “mostarda.”)

In implicit acknowledgement that Johnson’s (and my own) menu reactions may be shared by many, Staple & Fancy offers to shoulder the burden of food-comprehension: “But, if you would like to avoid the trouble of ordering altogether, please feel free to hand the menu back to your server and allow us to take care of you.” Great! I don’t even need to know anymore what I am eating.

But in fact I do. It’s a fun digression to make fun of menus that I don’t understand, but Johnson’s point is a serious one. “There’s always been a base level concern over making sure people eat the right things,” she writes. “What I’m talking about is the recent rise in concern over eating grains at the right times, spiking everything with kale, drinking green smoothies, snacking on low-GI foods and making sure everything comes with chia seeds.”

This is a concern that I have also come across and considered carefully in the scholarship on food: that prescriptions for our eating, however unfounded and however un-delectable, have become a requisite lifestyle guide for the middle class. As Johnson puts it, “All of these things have combined to make understanding nutrition a way to show you are a sophisticated, educated, superior sort of person who looks after their body. . . . Somehow appearing disciplined, healthy and disgustingly self-righteous became posh.”

As we instantly incorporate whatever food fad has swept the headlines into our grocery lists, we are actually shaping ourselves into a particular kind of person. Letting my academic self take over for a moment, it’s what Foucault called “governmentality”: the techniques of governing our bodies, our ways of being, to bring them in line with the dominant ideology of our time. But while Foucault was writing about actual governments instructing us how to behave, here we are subject not to a president or parliament, but to the discourse of food.

I fall prey to this constantly. I add a handful of cocoa nibs to my smoothie every morning, blasting them dutifully into their antioxidant, healthy-fat bits for better absorption (as Johnson asks, “Are you using your Nutribullet for every possible dining scenario?). I have so many competing lists of “correct” foods on my kitchen counter that my grocery shopping consists these days almost exclusively of squash—the only thing that appears to be inoffensive to every prescription for healthy eating.

But the truth is there is no panacea. It probably doesn’t matter if I eat cocoa nibs or not—though I really do enjoy them, which likely counts for something. In the end, reason ought to prevail. Food should not be so complicated, the instructions for eating so fast-changing, that we cannot keep up. Is it really a sensible world when we hand the menu back to an unknown server and let them decide what we put in our bodies? It seems we have come to worship false food idols. At minimum, we may pay a price for this: not of exile or hell, but of a lost comprehension of sustenance.

So long as we are eating what Michael Pollan calls “food”—whole things, once alive and growing, not mish-mashes of particles with frightening names (butylated hydroxytoluene, anyone?)—we’re probably OK. If we can confidently identify the category of thing—animal, vegetable, mineral—that will arrive on our plate, and understand its basic flavors and building blocks—carb, fat, protein—it’s for the best to judge for ourselves.

The best rejection

On June 8, 1752, in colonial New York, a Captain Grey paid a visit to the lodgings of one Lord Lempsler. The Captain, following etiquette of the period, sent up his name with the servant, with an urgent request to see the lord. Acquaintances claimed that the Captain had “forced a misfortune” upon Lord Lempsler; perhaps he was coming to apologize.

It was a fine day. When Lord Lempsler came down to see the Captain, his manservant assumed they were assembling for a “party of pleasure”: in today’s terms, that they were going for a stroll in the sunshine. The servant fetched them dishes of chocolate in preparation for their promenade. Lord Lempsler drank his dish, and encouraged the Captain to take one as well. The Captain refused, though with the utmost civility. One can almost hear Lempsler entreating Grey to partake of the polite ritual, the drink of the genteel: “For heaven’s sake, man, take your chocolate!” Had Captain Grey drunk the chocolate, it would have signaled that he was at ease, comfortable enough to share this civility with his social superior. But civility was not, as it turned out, the order of the day.

The men took their stroll. A Mr. William Powell, master of music, saw what happened between them in the park. Swords were drawn. Lempsler gave ground, moving back, as the Captain fell to his knees. Recovering, Captain Grey made several thrusts with his sword, but Lord Lempsler parried them, continuing to move backwards. Then the Captain fell dead, felled by just one deep wound.


So opened a recent application I made for a Mars American Heritage Chocolate grant. Among other research lines, I have an ongoing project that I turn to whenever I feel like spending some time in archives. While my work is always interdisciplinary, I really do enjoy the historical method, maybe best of any, and I like sitting in libraries or other hushed archival spaces, reading old newspapers and ephemera.

This particular project takes me sometimes to the grand halls of the New York Public Library, where I am investigating the social and cultural meanings of chocolate in colonial New York. I am interested in scenes such as the true story above, in which chocolate played a role in the rituals and customs of the day, in particular as an indicator of social hierarchy.

This research seemed a good fit with the American Heritage Chocolate grant, which is awarded to both retailers and scholars who are engaging in some way with chocolate’s earliest history in America. So I sent off my application, and then turned my attention back to other things.

I came home the other day to find a large, heavy FedEx box waiting on my doorstep. The sender was Mars company. In the past, I have approached Mars about making a donation of chocolate to my class, Chocolate: A Global Inquiry, at UW Bothell, so my first thought was that perhaps they were fulfilling that request. Only I am not teaching that class this year, so it couldn’t be that . . .

I also don’t know anyone who works for Mars . . . except for Forrest Mars, Jr., the man who, with his brother John and sister Jacqueline, built the company into the global chocolate empire that it is today. I met Mr. Mars when, strangely and fortuitously, my two great passions—chocolate and Antarctica—unexpectedly overlapped.

A few years ago, I took a sabbatical from UW and from chocolate to spend some time on the ice. I worked a season as part of a four-woman team running the historic base at Port Lockroy, on the Antarctic peninsula. Forrest Mars, Jr. is a great supporter of Port Lockroy, and he and his family and friends came to visit us there. They toured the museum and we had a drinks party in our hut, and afterwards Mr. Mars generously invited the four of us on board the yacht for dinner.

Bowls of M&Ms were everywhere, and I ate them by the handful—but only, of course, the blue, red, and brown ones. As I sat chatting with Mr. Mars, he noticed my M&M color preferences. I did not even have to explain; he just nodded, with perfect acceptance, and I saw the light of understanding in his eyes. Evan as I sat there, I knew that it was one of the great meetings of my professional life.

So as I stood on my doorstep, holding the heavy FedEx box, for a fleeting, nonsensical moment, I thought that Forrest Mars Jr., the man who arguably more than any other shaped global tastes for chocolate, had sent me a box of his candy. Almost immediately, however, I realized that would be ridiculous: he doesn’t even have my address.

Too intrigued to carry the box into my apartment, I began tearing the package open on the steps. As I did, it dawned on me that it was probably related to the grant. A few thoughts came in quick succession:

I had gotten the grant, and they had sent me a large, heavy set of documents to sign in acceptance.

I had gotten the grant, and they had sent me a large, heavy box of chocolate as congratulations.

Or . . . I had not gotten the grant, and they had sent me a large, heavy box of chocolate as consolation prize.

The letter confirmed the last of those: rejection. I laughed for the next half hour. I sent my friends photos of the giant candy rejection box. Who sends a huge box of chocolates to console grant losers? It’s brilliant.

And it’s a great selection—seemingly every Mars chocolate product, including some American Heritage bars, which I’ve been meaning to try. It was the best rejection letter of my life. Thanks, Mars! I’m going to apply for your grant again next year, and I hope you reject me again!

06 candy box

Hershey Kisses Deluxe: Innovation for the better?

First, thanks to The Cocoa Pod shop for tweeting this article from Food Dive about Hershey’s new Kisses Deluxe on November 3, which brought it to my attention. I immediately re-tweeted, because it seemed important news. But it wasn’t until this morning that I had the chance to sit down and think about what Hershey’s latest move signifies for that company, or for the craft chocolate industry.

In contrast to my first reaction, which was “It’s doomsday for Hershey to mess with their icon,” my more measured thoughts are that this is positive for all. I have not yet tasted one of these Deluxe Kisses (I will soon; they went on sale across the US yesterday), so I can’t speak to their quality. But the image of one of these things sliced in half—a cross section of this Kiss’s novel innards—was immediately compelling to me.

05 hershey deluxeLeader image for Carolyn Heneghan’s article for Food Dive

I looked before I read, and my first (wishful) thought was that this was a Kiss stuffed with fig and speckled with enormous crystals of sea salt. I was looking on the small screen of my phone, and something in the shape reminded me of my favorite confection: Lauren Adler’s Chocolopolis Anise Ganache Fig.

No such luck, however. Twice as big as a normal Kiss, this one houses a whole roasted hazelnut. The flecks in the outer chocolate layer are wheat crisps if you’re shopping in China, rice crisps if in the US, according to USA Today.

Putting anything new into a Kiss is an unusual move for Hershey, which has not typically embraced innovation around their best-loved product. The company has made only a few significant changes to the Kiss during its one hundred eight year history (it launched in 1907). As quoted Aamer Madhani’s article, “‘It took 55 years just to change the color of the foil,’ Adam Borden, senior associate manager for Hershey’s Kisses told USA TODAY. . . . ‘Then it took another 38 years to put something inside the milk chocolate.’”

Hershey’s “tried-and-true” mantra has been documented by others, notably Joël Glenn Brenner in The Emperors of Chocolate and Lawrence L. Allen in Chocolate Fortunes. In both excellent books, Hershey seems to come out the worse for keeping tradition instead of innovating. Given the company’s history, I doubt that Kisses Deluxe signal a fresh new vanguard Hershey, leading the chocolate pack with revolution and novelty. But I do think Hershey is learning from market changes, both global and US national. And that is a good sign for everyone, no matter where you stand in the chocolate industry.

On the global level, as Madhani reports, Kisses Deluxe were first created for consumers in China, where they were a huge ($100 million) success. Catering to chocolate tastes beyond what Milton Hershey himself created for the US is the implicit drive behind the whole craft chocolate industry. So I applaud any attempt by Hershey to go beyond its signature brand flavor (Deluxe Kisses are supposedly less sweet than the usual ones), introducing its millions of customers to something different to what they would typically expect from chocolate. And for the US market, let’s not discount the company’s surprising decision to make the center a hazelnut—not a peanut or an almond, which are by far the more embraced nuts across the US candy spectrum.

But I also read this as a response to the pressures of the US craft market on the chocolate multi-nationals. People who make and consume craft chocolate may never eat a Hershey Kiss Deluxe—may never even look at them on the store shelf. But that does not mean Hershey is not watching what they eat, and that would be, under the broadest label, the so-called “premium” chocolates: chocolates that are innovative, surprising, and cost more than a Kiss.

In any other company (or at least, any company that innovated more regularly than Hershey), this would be a holiday marketing gimmick and no more (Kisses Deluxe will sell in the US only through Valentine’s Day). But I think this is something more, and that is wider recognition, from a company that dominates the confectionery market, that craft chocolate is changing our tastes. To remain a leader in this industry, Hershey or any chocolate company will have to maintain thoughtful originality around products, supply chains, and ethics. At least on the first count, this is a welcome move from the company that really did give the US its first taste of chocolate.