A Bay Area Long Chocolate Weekend

The five days from last Thursday through Monday were among the most energizing and productive for my chocolate research and learning, ever. When I last blogged on Friday, I was in the midst of observing the excellent work of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute at its first US-based Cacao Grader Intensive workshop. It was a real pleasure to witness the training program, which is part of the Institute’s broader work to generate and share cocoa evaluation methods. Carla Martin (Harvard University), the institute’s co-founder (along with Colin Gasko, Rogue Chocolatier), kindly took the time to talk with me afterwards, and shared her vision for the FCCI. As the craft expands in new directions, discussions around what makes “quality” chocolate have become more prominent both within the industry and beyond. Carla and Colin are creating incredibly thoughtful, evidence-based approaches to developing a common, workable vocabulary around quality for this industry.

Among the many things that impressed me from our conversation is the FCCI’s strong grounding in information-gathering and sharing amongst many industry stakeholders. Carla described a variety of ways that the FCCI is amassing much-needed data around how to evaluate cocoa quality, and these methods involve near constant feedback loops. The instruments seem to me very sensitive to context specificity, while at the same time paving the way for people to talk meaningfully with one another about cocoa quality across a wide variety of industry positions, from farmers to importers to makers. As conversations in craft circles can slide easily into debates over flavor and quality “rankings” based on personal preference or anecdote (to be clear, those are my words, not Carla’s or Colin’s), the FCCI’s thoughtful, data-driven, and in many ways egalitarian approach is most welcome. I truly look forward to seeing their programming expand, and to the impact it will no doubt have on quality assessment across our chocolate world.

And after that impressive showing, there was even more at the FCIA events. This year, the Fine Chocolate Industry Association celebrated its largest ever attendance at the conference. It was an honor to host a Table Talk, on my recent research into chocolate artisanry. I was delighted to have pretty much a full house for the talk and humbled by the level of interest in this work—about how we can define artisan in a rigorous way, and use data to understand how consumers make sense of it. I shared some of my findings at the talk, and was grateful for the insights of industry experts into defining and applying “artisan” during our discussion. My publication on this work is forthcoming, and I look forward to sharing it soon—even more now after a successful talk at the FCIA. Many thanks again to Pam Williams (FCIA President) and Karen Bryant (FCIA Executive Director) for all their work organizing such a wide-ranging and thought-provoking education program, and for having me to be a part of it. I already look forward to the FCIA east coast gathering, coming this June to New York.

The Dandelion Chocolate brunch, the morning following the FCIA conference, was probably the most concentrated gathering of chocolate folks I have ever experienced. It was not possible to turn in any direction without running into someone who has made, or is making, some notable contribution to the industry. Just as memorably, I was never more than six inches from some nice brunch-y treat. All I needed to do was reach out my hand and, voila: something delicious to eat or drink (the thickly rich European-style hot chocolate was the winner for me). I was particularly happy to finally meet in person Bertil Akesson, of Akesson’s Single Estate Chocolate whose work in Madagascar cocoa I have talked about for many years in my teaching and presentations.

I was also very glad to have had the chance over the long weekend for several conversations with Jessica Ferrero, of Bar Cacao. While we correspond over email, meeting in person can make possible the kinds of thought-provoking conversations that don’t necessarily grow out of message exchanges. As I presented and talked through my analysis of the term “artisan” for the chocolate industry, Jessica shared her thinking around other terms, particularly “bean to bar,” and made me realize that these deserve our scrutiny as well. I am hopeful (hint, hint) that Jessica will write a posting soon with her thoughts on this, as they were enlightening to me. I’m also thankful to have been able to attend Jessica’s Bar Cacao tasting event, with Chloe Doutre-Roussel (Chloe Chocolat). The chance to hear Chloe speak is never one to miss, and her deep knowledge of flavor and tasting methods is always a source of inspiration.

The Fancy Food Show was a final highlight, though I did not get to spend quite as much time there as it takes to visit all six thousand booths. Instead, I joined a small roving group of chocolate people, including Sunita de Tourreil of The Chocolate Garage and Seneca Klassen of Lonohana Hawaiian Estate Chocolate, to hang out and taste samples at the A Priori specialty food booth and then the Crio Bru table. I am particularly grateful to Matt Caputo for the enlightening conversation at A Priori, to Bertil for a taste of his 100% bar, and to Cassandra Durtschi for the marvelous cup of Crio Bru Ecuador Light Roast cocoa drink. As I explained to Cassandra, with their lovely product I might at last fill the morning-hot-drink gap in my life. As a person who doesn’t drink coffee (likely the only one in Seattle), I have often longed to clutch a mug of hot drink in my cold hands on the dark, rainy mornings, and now that yawning chasm of desire can be filled. A million thanks!


Dr. Chocolate’s Own News Roundup

This week, my own chocolate news roundup. It’s a busy weekend for US chocolate, on top of other recent chocolate developments for me. I am in San Francisco, for the winter Fine Chocolate Industry Association conference, and all the exciting events that pop up around FCIA time. It’s like an early chocolate spring.

This year, the FCIA weekend is well-timed for my own work. The gathering of makers and industry experts in the Bay Area has given me opportunity to launch research for my new book! I have contracted with Polity Press to write the volume Cocoa, for their fantastic Resources series. I love these books:

There are about ten published titles already, with more in the works (including, now, my own). Each book in the series focuses on one commodity, and gives an accessibly written, yet detailed and contemporary account of the global political economy of that resource. University students use these books widely, but so do general readers who are interested in that particular good. I am, quite frankly, delighted to be author for the Cocoa volume, and have dived straight into the work.

Already, people with deep knowledge of the cocoa and chocolate industries have generously given of their time, which has been such a motivating start to the book-writing process. I’ve been interviewing practically from the moment I stepped off the plane here in San Francisco, and can see chapters coming into clearer focus as a result.

I’m also giving my own talks this weekend, and began yesterday evening with an event at The Chocolate Garage. I’ve known the Garage founder, Sunita de Tourreil, for some years now, and have always wanted to do an event at her unique chocolate space in Palo Alto. As Sunita describes it, “The Chocolate Garage is both an idea or a place. The idea is that you can shape the future by choosing what you love.”

The place is an actual garage, near to downtown Palo Alto, and it’s filled with the selection of chocolate bars that Sunita curates, very carefully, which meet her high and thoughtful benchmarks for both flavor and ethics. While currently open on Saturday mornings to anyone who wants to come by and check out the selection, The Chocolate Garage mainly operates on a membership model. Sunita has fostered a community of people who come together around a shared motivation to pursue, in all possible meanings of the term, better chocolate.

Given the high level of “chocolate education” among Garage members, I decided to do a bit of a provocative talk around the imagery used to advertise chocolate, which mostly appears on bar wrappers. It was a full house, and I am so appreciative to every Garage member who stayed for two full hours (or more!) to engage in discussion of issues that are very close to my heart. Thank you to Sunita for hosting me, and to all the very thoughtful chocolate lovers who made the evening an educational one for me too.

Today, I have the pleasure of observing the Cacao Grader Intensive workshop, of the recently launched Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute. Institute founders Carla Martin (Harvard University) and Colin Gasko (Rogue Chocolatier) are on hand, leading attendees through tasting methods and more, as are Jamin Haddox (Certified Coffee Q Grader) and Chloe Doutre-Roussel (Chloe Chocolat). More on this to come. For now, it’s tremendously exciting to see a room full of people focusing with studiousness and care on the art and science of tasting. Before my eyes, the FCCI through its Grader Intensive is expanding the horizons of how we evaluate and appreciate cocoa and chocolate.

Up next tomorrow: the Fine Chocolate Industry Association day of events. I am very much looking forward to my Table Talk on the meaning of the word “artisan” in the chocolate industry today, based on my recent research. And then the Fancy Food show, along with more chocolate events, research, presenting, interviewing, and writing as the weekend unfolds. If you haven’t been to an east coast or west coast FCIA weekend, I highly recommend it. It’s one of the best gatherings of chocolate nerds around!

Mast Brothers scandal: A news roundup

As much as I have been following the revelations regarding the Mast Brothers and their bean to bar practices, I wasn’t sure I had read it all. So now that the dust has settled a bit, I thought I would do a roundup. No doubt we have not yet heard the last of the “scandal,” but it seems a good moment to make an archive of stories; there certainly have been plenty.

As several reports have noted, craft chocolate makers and industry experts have long been open, at least among themselves, about their dim view of Mast Brothers chocolate. I’m not sure that the brothers themselves ever heard this, though, before the recent flurry of press. In a community that is remarkable for its openness and dialogue, Rick and Michael Mast have never been very participatory. When they first opened in New York, I used to try to arrange for a factory tour and meeting whenever I was in my hometown, hoping for insights for whatever research project I was working on at the time. But while other makers opened their doors freely, excited to show their factories and share chocolate, I never could reach a human being to talk to at Mast Brothers, much less meet them. I gave up some years ago, even though as Director of Education for the Northwest Chocolate Festival (2010-2013), I would have been delighted to have the Mast brothers give lectures or host an exhibitor booth.

It also seems to me rather icy that the brothers have (as of January 8, 2016), 6,973 Twitter followers, but follow no one themselves. Nearly every craft chocolate maker I know has expressed the utility of social media in creating and maintaining community ties. Many are active on Twitter and Instagram, and follow one another. It’s an important way of keeping up with developments around products and process, and to participate in the dialogues that help shape everything from industry ethics to events. For the Mast brothers to stay removed from that discussion is perhaps their way of preserving time for other work and personal priorities. It is also possible that they never felt participation was a professional necessity, given their commercial success. But perhaps too they hadn’t a meaningful contribution to make to the dialogue, and so kept out of it.

In any case, the open secret that was once confined to chocolate nerd circles busted wide open in late 2015. The first major report had come earlier, in March, by Megan Giller in Slate: “Chocolate Experts Hate Mast Brothers.” In this excellent and ultimately foundational piece, Giller revealed the craft industry’s distaste for Mast Brothers chocolate, and the fact that prominent retailers around the country—led by people who taste virtually every new bar on the market—refuse to carry the brand, citing various aspects of technical impoverishment in the bars (“chalky,” “tasted stale or moldy”).

While no doubt a revelation to many readers at the time, the story did quiet down for a while—only to be revived in a much huger fashion. Between December 7-16, 2015, the blog Dallasfood.org released a four-part series that ignited the recent storm. These posts went beyond Giller’s report that Mast Brothers chocolate is just not very good. They made the serious allegation that the brothers, who claimed to have been bean to bar makers from the start, had in fact re-purposed chocolate made by others (known as couverture).

This is a common practice, and no one disputes its necessity for certain business models. Making chocolate from beans is a capital intensive process, and requires all sorts of machinery and expertise, acquisition of which simply does not make sense for many businesses. Many chocolate bars have thus been melted down, recombined, and branded by “melters,” as they are often known, who do not start from the bean.

It amounts to heresy within the industry to claim that you are a bean to bar maker, doing all that hard work to produce chocolate, when actually you aren’t. Debates have raged before, when companies have been accused of making chocolate from semi-finished products, while claiming otherwise in their marketing. But these remained, for the most part, hearsay within chocolate circles. The Dallasfood.org reports, in contrast, included numerous testimonies by industry experts, spanning years of interactions with the Mast brothers and their products. All pointed out inconsistencies in Mast Brothers chocolate and supported the allegation of false advertising. Given the range of evidence—and no doubt too because of the brothers’ commercial success, which is often disparagingly linked to their supreme hipster image—this accusation went viral.

The day after the fourth Dallasfood.org installment came out, December 17, Quartz published, “How the Mast Brothers fooled the world into paying $10 a bar for crappy hipster chocolate.” Author Deena Shanker noted that Quartz had independently verified many of the claims made in the Dallasfood.org series. The article further delved into the importance of hipster imagery to the Mast brand, and its worldwide expansion. By then deluged with press inquiries, the company’s public relations agency had provided a statement to Quartz, refuting the allegations. This included the spectacular line, “We love making chocolate, and we have the audacity to think that we are pretty good at it too.”

Giller picked up on the story once again. The next day, December 18, 2015, she published a follow-up article in Slate, “Why Chocolate Experts Think the Mast Brothers are Frauds.” This further publicized the Dallasfood.org allegations, and included a quote from Mast Brothers public relations representative, Tim Monaghan: “We completely refute all of the allegations—which are unfounded and factually incorrect.”

The same day, Vanity Fair ran, “Celebrity Hipster Chocolatiers Reportedly Sold Remelted Commercial Chocolate,” by Tina Nguyen. Reporting language became even stronger: “The Mast brothers face allegations that their $10 chocolate was an artisanal lie.” Vanity Fair also smartly recognized its own previous celebratory coverage of the company. A standout here for me was the image reprinted from DallasFoodOrg Tumblr (from Twitter) of the brothers, sans their too-often-mentioned beards, looking adolescent and cocky.

01 mast debearded

Around this time, the brothers admitted, at least partly, to some basis to the allegations. Rick Mast acknowledged to The New York Times that he and his brother did use couverture in early experimentation, as they worked out their bean to bar process. This came to light on December 20, 2015, in “Unwrapping the Mythos of Mast Brothers Chocolate in Brooklyn,” by Sarah Maslin Nir. The admittance seemed to fuel the journalistic storm even further. Grub Street’s Alan Sytsma titled his December 21 article, “Mast Brothers Admit to ‘Remelting’ Industrial Chocolate in Their Early Days.” On December 29, Food & Beverage followed with: “Mast Brothers ‘remelting’ stirs debate over high-end chocolate,” by Adam Samson.

The best title, in my opinion, came a few days later: “Are You A Sucker If You Like Mast Brothers Chocolate?” headlining Dan Pashman’s take for NPR. CNBC followed with a nicely dramatic warning in, “Inside the Mast Brothers chocolate drama,” on December 31, 2015. The subtitle of this piece by Heesun Wee was, “Hipster code unwrapped: ‘Artisan’ pitch better be ‘authentic,’ or else!”

Or else is right. By January 5, 2016, it seemed to be accepted fact that the Mast brothers had lied, their fraudulence already a part of craft chocolate’s historical record. Simran Sethi (author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love) and Clay Gordon (consultant and author of Discover Chocolate: The Ultimate Guide to Buying, Tasting, and Enjoying Fine Chocolate, who had also been quoted in earlier reportage) collaborated on an article for the Huffington Post, “Peak Mast Brothers (It Was Never About the Beards),” based on a series of conversations about the laborious bean to bar process. By providing greater detail on the how-to of chocolate making, this piece underscored the gravity of misleading consumers that a company is bean to bar, when it isn’t.

And then yesterday, January 7, 2016, came the nail in the coffin: “DC’s New Chocolate Company Is What the Mast Brothers Wanted to Be.” Matt Blitz’s piece about Harper Macaw (formerly Concept C) used the Mast Brothers “embarrassment,” as he called it, as a foil for the hard work that Sarah and Colin Harman, the company’s founders, do to really make bean to bar chocolate.

And so, in a few short weeks, the bearded men have moved from prominent to piteous. While many in the industry have expressed justified anger that a company could be so successful, and at the same time so misleading, while plenty of honest bean to bar makers struggle to sell, I think the whole scandal has a net value. Such widespread and excellent coverage, in my opinion, only elevates public dialogue about the craft chocolate industry. Readers of the above articles no doubt gained a new sense of what it takes to make chocolate. Perhaps they are now in a position to ask more pointed questions when they fork over $10 for a bar. In the end, Mast Brothers likely did an unwitting favor for the industry, and we should thank those reporters—starting with Dallasfood.org—who took the time to bring it all to light.

The holidays, in chocolate: Part III, Nigeria

I’m not sure I did have high hopes for a robust holiday chocolate showing in Nigeria. But since I’m here, I thought I would have a look. I have lived in West Africa on and off since my twenties, and while I have usually been able to find chocolate here—perhaps with more variety and elegance in the former French colonies than British ones—it doesn’t transform the holiday retail landscape as it might in North America or Europe. There is more than usual, and more prominently displayed, but still not too much different to other times of the year.

10 display
Holiday chocolate display at Cameron Road shop, Ikoyi, Lagos

Thinking to supplement my research findings of the past week with some internet searching, I Googled “Nigeria chocolate Christmas.” It returned results for “Nigella chocolate Christmas”: all of them Nigella Lawson holiday chocolate fruit cake recipes.

Switching the order of search terms helped a little: “Nigeria Christmas chocolate” returned “10 gift ideas for your girlfriend at Christmas” from the Premium Times. A personally curated chocolate hamper topped the list (10 was a portrait of herself). Ventures Africa listed chocolate cake as one of the five best online Christmas deals in Nigeria, though it made an odd bedfellow with a 16GB iPhone 5, Nikon D90 camera, and Microsoft Surface. (Even odder, the fifth suggestion was the book Why Nations Fail by MIT and Harvard professors Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. I found this strange because, despite persistent state-disrupting violence by Boko Haram in the north, Nigeria is doing well on the democracy front. Earlier this year, the country celebrated an unprecedented peaceful handover of power when the incumbent head of state, Goodluck Jonathan, lost the presidential election and ceded gracefully to Muhammudu Buhari.)

But while Google may prefer Nigella Lawson to Nigeria when it comes to chocolate searching, chocolates are a gift-giving tradition in this part of the world. Christmas aside, there are certain moments when only chocolate will do, as my boyfriend learned when he started his contract here in Lagos last year. Upon arriving at work on his first day, his assistant greeted him politely by asking, “Where is the chocolate?”

Apparently, it is custom for people traveling in from abroad to bring chocolates as gifts for their colleagues. Not sharing this token of one’s time overseas was a minor, though still grave, cultural offense. I was on my way to Nigeria too at the time, and still en route. After a quick phone call to strategize, I ran through the duty-free shops of Heathrow, gathering bags of bite-size Cadbury bars. These were subsequently parceled out to every one of my boyfriend’s co-workers by his assistant, and much appreciated by all.

I am convinced this wasn’t so much about the chocolate itself. There isn’t a strong sweets culture in West Africa, and in any case it is difficult to maintain a cool chain to distribute chocolate widely throughout the region, so it’s not an everyday luxury here. Chocolate’s function in Nigeria may be less about particular love for it as a food than as a modest but meaningful way of saying, “I care.” It could as easily have been a pencil. When I was working at Port Lockroy in Antarctica and it was my turn to serve in the museum gift shop, I sold pencils by the fistful to Japanese visitors—hundreds and hundreds of them. Every Japanese tourist brought back a pencil for literally every co-worker they had. It seems the same for chocolate here: “I bring to you a small piece of my time away, in a different part of this world.”

To find out if I would have done better to bring pencils than Divine bars, I casually asked my driver, Olivier, if people thought chocolate was a good holiday present here. His reply was one I have heard in Nigeria before: “People appreciate any gift that comes from your heart.” I hope Olivier actually does like the milk chocolate and dark with raspberry varieties that I brought as part of his Christmas gift, but I think the sentiment is more important. I guess that is one of the human universals we ought to remember, anyway, this time of year.

Having said that, Nigeria is not without its extravagant holiday chocolate expressions. I love the Christmas season in Lagos, where banks and telecoms companies string this megalopolis with an abundance of twinkling lights, sometimes with ads embedded in the bulbs (“Airtel: Always on”). Here and there, the OTT displays that mark the giant clumps of wealth around Lagos take a chocolate form. Shopping in my neighborhood grocery store for bottled water and yoghurt this afternoon, I saw this:

10 lindor

I wasn’t sure it was real, or else I would have bought it to eat (over several hours, obviously). But I didn’t like to take the chance, so instead I continue with my Lagos staple of Lindt Excellence A Touch of Sea Salt and now, awesomely, Coconut Intense. I hope that you are enjoying chocolate so nice as well. Till next time, happy holidays.

The holidays, in chocolate: Part II, Austria

Perhaps no country has impressed its holiday chocolate so indelibly on my mind as Austria. It was a decade ago that I visited, but I remember the experience clearly, mainly for its several horrors. They weren’t the kind of horrors that made me dislike Austria. On the contrary, I’ve thought often of returning. It’s more that the things I saw there were so hideous, they have left me with a dark and profound fascination with Holiday Austria, including its chocolate.

I visited Austria in early December and the Christmas season was vibrant. My friend Michelle, whom I was visiting, brought me on a multi-city tour of the Christmas markets, which are a seasonal highlight. Market stalls filled every town square, selling pretzel-like pastries and hand-carved wooden things, woolen sweaters and Lederhosen. Everywhere we went, trees and stately buildings were dressed fancily in strings of lights, and there was always glow-wine and deep-fried Emmentaler cheese.

There was also a relentless, freezing, soaking downpour that pursued us around the country. From Graz to Vienna, we dashed from stall to stall in Christmas markets, standing for a few frozen moments pressed up against the table of wares, endeavoring in vain to stay dry beneath the small flap of awning, like goats. Our respite was hot chocolate. Lured in by the glow that spilled out onto wet streets from Austria’s million cafés, we drank dozens of mugs, served on silver platters with tiny spoons and a cube of sugar.

After one such café visit, Michelle and I saw a break in the rain and ventured back out into the night. While we’d been sipping chocolate and eating Sachertorte, the townspeople had turned out in great numbers to line the windy cobbled street, and we soon saw the reason why: a Christmas parade.

Of course we stayed to watch, despite the bitter cold, and it was a lovely parade. Then at the end-where, say, in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, Santa Claus would appear, driving his sleigh-a horned devil emerged from the darkness. The figure lurched and lunged at the children, who screamed and fled. We watched, transfixed, as he began to pelt them with balls of ice. Parents laughed and smiled. Michelle and I instinctively moved closer together as the figure approached us, swinging a vicious whip low along the ground, leering.

09 krampus

It was Krampus. I had never heard of such a person, but he is part of European Christmas lore. The devil to Nicholas’s saint, his job is to punish naughty children, the ones who don’t deserve gifts. In some accounts, he leaves them coal. In others, he drags children off to Hell, or simply eats them. Wikipedia has a fantastic image from an early twentieth-century greeting card that pretty much sums up the experience of a visit from Krampus:

09 Gruss_vom_Krampus

That was my first enlightening moment regarding Austrian holiday cheer. The second was when we did our stocking stuffer shopping, for Mozart kugel.

It was not possible to step into a shop in Christmastime Austria without encountering a kugel. This was especially the case in Salzburg, Mozart’s birthplace (No. 9 Getreidegasse)–for the kugel are named after the famous composer. They are a three-layer confection: a heart of pistachio marzipan, surrounded by nougat, enrobed in chocolate. Mozart kugel means “Mozart balls” and of course it is only too tempting (in English, anyway) to add the possessive to “Mozart,” and give the confection a new layer.

Historically, the Mozart kugel are award winning and beloved. Competition over which brand is the “real” kugel is fierce. The Austrians are wild for them, if supply is any judge. Accordingly, I bought many boxes of Mozart kugel, to distribute back home as gifts. Back in our guesthouse, having never known a kugel, Michelle and I dissected one. Inside, we saw a hideous thing:


09 kugel

I mean, really! Green, surrounded by a paste the color of some human flesh? Visually, the inside of the kugel was a shock. Nevertheless, we tasted one. And here I have to say something that I genuinely do not wish to say about any chocolate, least of all one that seems to be the confectionary heart of an entire country’s holiday spirit: I did not like the kugel. I think this was mainly due to the marzipan, which I don’t fancy, even when it’s not pea-green. Or maybe I was simply too old by then, and had missed a crucial Mozart kugel imprint period. Or maybe I just chose a lesser brand. Who knows. I would seriously like to return to Holiday Austria and taste them again to see if our relationship improves.

But for now, I am glad to be going to a place where there will almost certainly be no Mozart kugel: Nigeria. I will look for holiday chocolate there, and report back next week on the treasures that I find.

The holidays, in chocolate

First, I must thank the resourceful Chris, a man whom I have never met, but who nonetheless appeared on the other end of my phone line today offering a brilliant blog prompt: holiday chocolates around the world. I liked the idea so much that I might even use it every week from now till New Year. I mean, there are 196 countries in the world (including Taiwan), which means there is a great deal of potential for holiday nationalism around chocolate. Plus, it sounded fun.

I ought first to address the more sober parts of such an exercise, before leaping into holiday sweets. While almost two hundred different national traditions around holiday chocolate are theoretically possible, in reality far fewer countries make a celebration of it at this time of year. The obvious first reason is that the current season is mainly Jewish and Christian holidays. The predominantly Muslim, Buddhist, Shinto, Hindu, Confucian, Jain, Sikh, Tao, or Zoroastrian places of the world are not likely experiencing a holiday-related chocolate rush right now. For most of those religions, the great celebratory festivals have passed already this year. Although, of course, many people around the world have adopted secular Christmas traditions, and so could be upping their chocolate shopping nonetheless.

The other limiting factor in any global chocolate holiday search is that the world is pretty much divided between places where cocoa grows and places where chocolate gets made and sold, at least in the shiny bar form that predominates at this time of year. As I frequently write about and teach in my classes, cocoa farmers are among those least able to enjoy chocolate. In my research in West Africa, where most of the world’s cocoa grows, I did find a celebratory aspect to sharing chocolate, including at Christmastime in the predominantly Christian regions. However, bar chocolate was widely unavailable in the rural areas. Where rural shops did carry them, chocolate bars (even small ones) were almost always too expensive for farmers to buy. Most expressed to me that they saved such luxury purchases only for very special occasions, if they made them at all.

So with those serious caveats in mind, taking care not to lump all the people of the world into chocolate-loving Judeo-Christians with disposable holiday income, let’s look at a few chocolate traditions that do exist at this festive time.

We can start with Chris, who is British. While I can offer no further description of Chris, having never laid eyes on him, his tender recollections of his best holiday chocolate—Quality Street—matched my own memories from several years living in the UK. The British do, as I recall, prize this purple tin of chocolates and toffees, made by Nestlé. The candies come wrapped in garish colors, and everyone has their special favorite (well, their favourite, I suppose). In my student days, people would grab for the Quality Street tin when one was produced at a holiday party, anxious to procure their picks before anyone else could take them.

Quality Street chocolates

I pressed the disembodied voice of Chris about another UK memory of mine: Terry’s Chocolate Orange. He agreed that this, too, was a British holiday tradition, and that without a Chocolate Orange in one’s stocking toe, it would hardly be Christmas at all.

08 terrys

Terry’s Chocolate Orange is a thrilling experience, for which we have no equivalent in the US. On the outside, it’s a fist-sized sphere of chocolate, wrapped in bright foil that mimics (sort of) an orange peel. But the sphere is made up of segments, such as one would find inside a real orange. The thrill comes from opening it: traditionally, the Terry’s Chocolate Orange is placed upon a surface, then smartly thumped. This is delightful, I can imagine even more so to a child, because it breaks the sphere apart into its segments, each one flavored with orange. To be truthful, I can’t think of any combination that I like as little as chocolate and orange. But on the whole, I give the Terry’s Chocolate Orange Christmas tradition high marks for design and, frankly, the opportunity to smash something.

After reminiscing about his holiday chocolate memories, Chris asked me about my own. I thought this would be an easy question: holiday chocolate in the US, the largest chocolate consuming country in the world (by overall market value, anyway). Piece of cake. But the only thing I could come up with was Hershey’s Kisses wrapped in red and green foil, as one finds at this time of year, in addition to the usual silver.

08 holiday kisses

But that makes us seem very un-imaginative, when we are in fact a creative nation when it comes to chocolate. After the unknown Chris and I finished our call, other memories bubbled up, and I thought of chocolate coins. They have these in the UK too, but I remember them best from my childhood in New York: the thick luxury of the gold foil, the feeling of being rich, saving and counting my netted bag of coins as long as I could before eating them.

08 chocolate coins

Chocolate coins are a Christmas gift, but are also popular for Hannukah, perhaps even more so for that holiday. I remember getting them at school. Though strict in every other way, my Catholic grade school was rather fluid when it came to religion. We had regular Passover Seders in the cafeteria, complete with Matzoh Ball soup, and I remember receiving chocolate coins as a Hannukah present, probably from the nuns. As a child, of course, I didn’t think too much about religious fluidity; I was just happy to get cool chocolate. But now it makes me think that our faculty did right to give us a glimpse into ceremonies not our own, with chocolate as guide.

I have traveled pretty widely, and I like this theme (cheers again, Chris, whoever you are!). So next week, I will remember more holiday chocolates, and we’ll see how else this sweet makes for a festive time in places far or near.

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.