Why I teach my students about chocolate: My guest blog for Dandelion

This week, I wrote a guest blog post for Dandelion Chocolate. The topic is my UW Bothell class Chocolate: A Global Inquiry. When I started teaching it in 2010, it was the first university class in the country (maybe world?) devoted entirely to chocolate.

Enjoy, and thank you, Dandelion, for the opportunity to write for your blog!

Read my guest blog post here: “Why I teach my students about chocolate

A researcher’s thanks to Divine Chocolate

This past Valentine’s weekend, I enjoyed a brief visit to London. For a trip that was short on time, it was profound for me as a researcher. In the midst now of writing the volume Cocoa for the Polity Press Resources series, I am thinking too of the fact that the few words of thanks that appear in every book’s “Acknowledgements” section never do justice to the contributions of those thanked individuals. So it’s nice to have a blog, where I can say “thank you” in at least a few more words.

My meeting this past week with Sophi Tranchell (Managing Director) and Charlotte Borger (Communications Director) at Divine Chocolate was inspirational, thought-provoking, and a true pleasure. While incredibly helpful for my current research, I realized that our conversation built upon a much longer history of support and encouragement from Divine in my work, which has shaped me as a scholar.

My first encounter with the company was as a doctoral candidate. In 2005, I spent a year in the field, moving slowly westward from Seattle, through Asia-Pacific growing regions and Asian and Middle Eastern consumer hotspots, until I reached my main research area: Ghana. One of my goals there was to conduct fieldwork with Kuapa Kokoo, the Fairtrade-certified cooperative, which supplies cocoa for Divine Chocolate.

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From the Divine USA website: Welcome to chocolate!

My years of preparation as a PhD student had provided an idea of what research would entail. I spent months developing survey tools, having those vetted by professors and the UW Human Subjects committee, and double checking my hypotheses against those of learned scholars. My committee members—the professors who guided me through my PhD—had all talked me through the process multiple times, encouraging me to be open to challenges as well as discoveries. But I had to live that myself before I could recognize the wisdom of what they were saying.

I can’t remember exactly what was going through my mind at the time, and perhaps I have blocked out the more embarrassing details of my “green-ness” as a researcher. But I know I imagined that research would be simply there for the taking. That farmers would be ready, able, and willing to share their expertise and experiences with me, a stranger who wanted to understand and write about their labor.

This was despite having spent years studying feminist and development studies critiques of “traditional” research protocols. These critiques make it plain that the scenario of a “knowledge producer” arriving in a foreign context and immediately comprehending cultural, social, economic, and political norms well enough to conduct meaningful inquiry was, frankly, delusional.

While intellectually I understood that, it didn’t always guide my expectations when it came to getting the work done. Though I had lived in West Africa prior to my doctoral fieldwork, I’d barely been on a farm. My ideas about what I would find in Ghana’s cocoa industry had almost no basis in lived experience. This is all a long way of saying that when I turned up in Ghana, I had little idea how to proceed.

It turns out that research requires help. I needed to find people who were immersed in Ghana and in cocoa, and who were not just able but willing to provide assistance. This assistance was basically everything, from trucks to drive around in, to cultural interpreters who could explain to me what I was seeing in the field. I realized this (almost) right away, and set out to find such help. Happily, I did find it, and one of the first people to open a door for me was Sophi Tranchell.

One moment I do remember distinctly: sitting in a sodden, flooded guesthouse room in Kumasi after a heavy rain, talking on my cellphone to Sophi in London. She talked through my research questions with me, offered critiques and advice, and suggested other resources that would help me understand the environment I was in. It was my first conversation after arriving in Ghana that gave me hope I might actually be able to complete my project. It laid the first stone on a path that I finally realized I had to pave myself: the road to research was not ready-made and waiting for me to walk down it. Crucially, Sophi also made the necessary introductions for me to Kuapa Kokoo, and from there, I was able to get properly to cocoa farms.

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A much younger me, happy to be researching at last, on a Kuapa Kokoo member farm
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Months later, with Afia, a cocoa farmer, after an enlightening discussion

We met in person when I arrived in London later that year, continuing my fieldwork in the chocolate consumer context of Britain. Sophi and I sat in the Divine conference room, as we did again this past Monday, talking through my research in Ghana. I noticed on the walls a series of advertisements for Divine Chocolate, featuring women farmers from Kuapa Kokoo. That turned out to be another watershed moment for me as a scholar of this industry. Captivated by the powerful images of women farmers holding pieces of chocolate in their hands, I asked Sophi to tell me more about them. I went on to write a chapter about those images in my dissertation, and in 2012 to publish an article about them in the Journal of African Cultural Studies. I have taught about those images in my classes too, for more than a decade now.

After earning my PhD, when I had become faculty at the University of Washington, I undertook another research project with Divine. This time, I studied the impacts of Fairtrade programs, especially women’s groups, among Kuapa Kokoo farmer societies. It was revelatory to return to the place where I had done my doctoral fieldwork. This time, I went to Ghana with a new preparedness: that of knowing that I did not know what I would find. It was indeed a strength to now be familiar—intimate, even—with my research context, having spent so much time there already; this helped me develop better research tools. But it was an even greater strength to recognize that I was there to learn. My return allowed me to see once again the power of humility, of letting the context shape my knowledge, rather than imposing my ideas upon it.

And now, my most recent research has once again benefited from the generosity and expertise of the people at Divine Chocolate. Sophi and Charlotte have vast knowledge of this industry, and are incredibly articulate of that knowledge. My conversation with them not only forwarded my understanding, it raised my expectations of myself for the book I am writing. In my nearly fifteen years of studying this industry, I am so grateful once again for the allies and guides who have pointed the way forward. So thank you, Divine.

Bar Launch: jcoco arabica cherry espresso

I had the pleasure on Thursday evening of attending what I realized afterwards was my first ever official bar launch. Though I’ve been studying and working in chocolate for much more than a decade, I’d never been to a new chocolate launch before. And if there are more in my future, the jcoco arabica cherry espresso launch certainly set a high standard for taste and elegance.

Seattle Chocolates is a standout company in this city, and I’ve always enjoyed their chocolate. The company does a particularly nice job with its truffle bars, which celebrate not only Pacific Northwest ingredients—San Juan Sea Salt, Rainier Cherry—but actual fun. As in, fun things about life. Birthday Cake Batter Milk Chocolate Truffle Bar takes the prize here, whose wrapper comes complete with birthday hat and red balloons. The Thanks-olate bar is an extremely close second.

But the launch event was for a bar by jcoco, which is Seattle Chocolates’ line of American couture chocolate. The arabica cherry espresso bar is the first-to-market chocolate infused with CoffeeFlour, and we were there to learn what that meant. I do keep an eye on the coffee market, at least from time to time. As primary agricultural commodities, cocoa and coffee share some economic aspects, and it can be useful to compare them. But I don’t follow coffee closely, so I was intrigued to learn about CoffeeFlour. Dan Belliveau, formerly with Starbucks and the innovator behind CoffeeFlour, explained it quite nicely, and I’ll do my best to re-explain here, though using an analogy I do understand (cocoa!).

Just as chocolate is made from the seed of the cocoa tree, so too is coffee, the drinkable product, made with the seed of the coffee plant. Also as with cocoa, the coffee fruit itself is not the focus; we’re only interested in the seed. Coffee does diverge a bit from cocoa here, because its fruit is a little more substantial than that found within a cocoa pod. Coffee fruits look like cherries, and are referred to as such. The fleshy fruit of those cherries is removed to get at the bean inside, and then, to my understanding, becomes exclusively a waste product. CoffeeFlour is doing its best to change that, by making a usable product from that fruit. What they are making is flour.


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CoffeeFlour, from the CoffeeFlour website

Chefs around the world have been experimenting with this flour. I read, for example, about the launch of CoffeeFlour bagels in Japan, at Bagel & Bagel, a large chain. Those bagels even have chocolate chips in them! But while it is interesting to read about food innovations, it is even better to taste them. We were quite privileged at the jcoco bar launch to be in the good hands of Chef Jason Wilson (of the former Crush restaurant, which is now a CoffeeFlour lab), who did an extraordinary job in treating us to his CoffeeFlour cooking innovations. I was greeted at the door with a Bacardi rum cocktail infused with jcoco chocolate and CoffeeFlour, and then my gaze fell upon a vast spread of foods, most of them espresso in color, that were all made using CoffeeFlour. Certainly, if the goal was to demonstrate its range and culinary flexibility, Chef Wilson succeeded marvelously.

We had olive fritters with CoffeeFlour ricotta, arabica cherry espresso, and quinoa. There was a pork tostada with arabica cherry espresso mole and salsa fresca. A hit of the evening, from what I overheard in conversations throughout the small dining room, was the arabica cherry espresso glazed beef short rib, bleu cheese, and cauliflower fritter.

It is quite challenging to eat and talk at the same time (or even to eat and listen), and I had a lot of technical questions for Dan Belliveau. But I had already been sorry not to be able to help myself to seconds of the savories, so when we got to the arabica cherry espresso and CoffeeFlour brownie sundae with salted peanut butter and caramel ice cream, I abandoned decorum and ate a whole second sundae while standing at the bar talking with Dan, asking questions through my mouthfuls.

I had a lot of questions because, quite frankly, when you study an agricultural commodity for a long time, you get used to a sameness in the structure of trade, a consistency around what we can accomplish, for better or worse, within a giant and static system. It is rare to encounter innovation on a large scale—such as finding a new food use for a substantial harvest by-product. As wasteful as we may be at this stage in our evolution, humans have demonstrated the capability in our collective past to make extremely efficient use of the edibles that nature provides. So to realize that no one before had thought to make something out of the coffee cherry on an industrial scale, to commercialize it and put it to a range of food uses, was quite surprising and intriguing to me.

One of those uses, of course, is to infuse CoffeeFlour into chocolate, which was the reason behind the launch. jcoco has infused CoffeeFlour and espresso into their arabica cherry espresso bar, and it’s the first chocolate to do anything of the kind.

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What’s in the bar? From jcoco arabica cherry espresso webpage

That one is available now to buy. At the launch, however, we were treated to a different tasting as well. We first sampled the base 60% Seattle Chocolates chocolate. Then, we tasted three more bars, all with the same base chocolate, each infused with CoffeeFlour from a different origin: Vietnam, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

Because I have long been used to tasting single origin chocolate for its varied flavor profiles, it didn’t strike me as significant at first when I tasted distinct flavor differences among the bars. But then I realized that, because it was the same chocolate base, the flavor differences were coming from the CoffeeFlour. I was tasting the fruit of the coffee plant. It expresses terroir, too! This felt astonishing to me, but it oughtn’t have. I mean, different apples have different flavors; so do actual cherries. Maybe it was because I have no firsthand experience with coffee cherries—I’ve never held one, never tasted one. But in those chocolate bars, I suddenly became intimate with this fruit. It was a new and unexpected food learning experience for me.

Thanks so much for having me at your lovely launch event, Jean Thompson, Chef Wilson, and Dan Belliveau. I look forward to watching the story of CoffeeFlour further unfold.