I am Dr. Chocolate. In 2008, I earned a PhD from the University of Washington by studying chocolate. Now, I am on the hunt for the best chocolate in the world.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

From the mother's breast: chocolate ads gone awry

Know who that is? It's Heidi Klum, Victoria's Secret supermodel, television star, wife of Seal, mother of four children, charity supporter. I want to take at least one sentence to represent Heidi in all her varied selves, because the this post is going to quickly forget the fact that this woman spends at least part of her day changing diapers and running a million dollar industry, and become instead more interested in the social mechanisms by which she has created an entire industry of images around her body. The most recent of which stars chocolate.

Please don't think that I don't love Heidi Klum. Who doesn't? I haven't owned a television for like ten years, but most Thursday nights see me driving far across town to my friends' place on Capitol Hill to watch Project Runway. We enforce strict rules of silence during this hour of programming, so that we may all focus properly as the drama unfolds. We pay Heidi respect. But these photos of her make me think very seriously about what it means when we are asked to consume, along with images of people working hard at a craft (making clothes, modeling clothes, hosting television shows), images that utterly blur the distinction between subject and object, seller and thing, woman and chocolate.

On Thursday, I gave my annual guest lecture to an Intro to Women's Studies class at UW. In this lecture, I have students consider the fact that chocolate, as a tradable commodity, has both an economic and a social "life" - that is, it has a monetary value but also a social value - it means something to us that cannot be captured by a price.

To illustrate one way that this social value is created, I showed students a series of chocolate advertisements. All I did was google "chocolate ads", and what came up was a litany of images that not only featured women, but in effect made women into chocolate. Images whose message was, consume them, eat them - they are the same.

I want you to keep two things in mind when you are looking at these images. One, that in contemporary Western culture, chocolate is marketed mainly to women, thus raising the question of why use sexually charged images of women to sell something back to them? In a culture where we also assume, for the most part, that everyone is heterosexual, this seems counter-intuitive. And two, what the heck would happen if it was a man in these images instead? Would they be as attractive, sexually? Aesthetically? As effective as advertisements for a food?

I used a lot of images in my lecture; here I'll just give you the best of the sample.

Images from AdPunch.org

These two are contemporary ads from Brazil, made by a marketing firm to advertise dark and white chocolate. Even for an industry that commonly conflates the object being sold with the one selling it, these are incredibly explicit. There is NO distinction at all here between the chocolate and the woman. She is chocolate. She is made of chocolate. The boundary between who we are as persons with lives and loves and goals and talents, and this food that gives us momentary satisfaction - that has been erased, eroded, it no longer exists. We are literally what we eat.

Lest we think that chocolate is unimportant here, that this is just another feminist analysis of the use of the female form, let us remember that it would be very difficult to do the same thing with broccoli.

No, chocolate is also central. It is central because of its social value. It means something to us, beyond its function as a food. Love, romance, indulgence. Reward and comfort. It is our friend and companion and caretaker when we are in need.

This is not a new idea. This Cadbury ad, taken from a 1928 postcard, does the same thing, only in a more sexually muted fashion:

Image from Flickr

I love this ad. I love it because it is freaking hilarious. LOOK AT WHERE THE MILK IS COMING FROM. Directly from this woman's breasts! It is practically pouring out of her nipples.

On first glance, students on Thursday said that they saw a mom in a kitchen, preparing chocolate for her family, whom she loves. It gave them, they said, the sense that Mom made chocolate, although they knew this not to be really true.

When we looked more carefully, we could see that in fact the ad went further: that this woman was pouring out her own breast milk into the nice Cadbury bar, which she will then serve to her family - all of them: husband, kids, sisters, aunties, grandmama. No matter how old they are, everyone can partake of the lovely, milky bar of the breast. Talk about a comfort food.

When I sat down to write this morning, I thought I might do a post about Halloween. I read the morning chocolate news and the first thing that came up was a warning about keeping the dog away from Halloween candy. But then there were these pictures of Heidi Klum, and I could not take my eyes off them.

For they are the same kind of image, even though they are not advertisements per se. They are selling something - maybe Heidi's own image-dependent career/industry? Maybe the dream of women who want to be models or fashion designers or married to a humble rock star? Frankly, I don't know what was going through her mind when she made these pictures.

Heidi Klum images from TheHollywoodGossip.com

Except that in a culture that finds it so easy to conflate women and chocolate, these images seem as if they make sense. Women love chocolate. Men often admit to loving it too. We all love Heidi Klum. Put them all together - yum!

Only not yum. To me, all the images here have a certain creepiness about them, even though they are aesthetically also pleasing. The ads that show women made of melting chocolate recall a Dalian sense of impermanence and chaos, the 1920s ad the straight jacket of suburban housewifery.

The photos of Heidi Klum covered in chocolate are also nerve-wracking. It just looks so goddamn uncomfortable. I think, write, love, and eat chocolate every day of my life, and yet I never want to be as covered in chocolate as Heidi Klum is in these pictures. Chocolate in my hair, getting all over my contacts, running down my back, glommed up in my armpits and bellybutton? No thanks.

Because what on god's good earth can Heidi Klum do in such a state? Nothing at all, except be looked at, desired, available to be literally eaten. It is the ultimate in passivity and, to my mind, forces together two things that really ought to stay quite separate: chocolate, which we eat, and a woman, who can actually go out and do a whole lot else with her waking hours.

I personally would rather eat a piece of chocolate and not have to think about it running down someone else's body. Isn't chocolate good enough to stand on its own? Do we really need Heidi Klum to colonize chocolate for us to enjoy it? No, I think we do not. There is enough room in the world for both to be as nature meant them.

Friday, October 16, 2009

On love

Love. It is always one of the first answers shouted out when I ask my students to list our cultural associations with chocolate. What does chocolate mean to us, what does it represent? Love, they say. Then they say other things: Easter bunnies, PMS, comforting indulgence food. The list is long, but love is always on it. Why is this so?

There is nothing inherent in chocolate to make it a good representative of this emotion. Love is often illogical, we can come up with no good reason for why it exists. It's just there, like it or not, whether the object of our love is a hero of epic proportions or someone that our friends dread hanging out with. The one who makes people shake their heads and say, "Why? WHY? It makes no sense."

Chocolate is nothing like that. Chocolate is not illogical at all. It is the result of a very definite, mechanized process, each step of which has been deliberated by masterful engineers. Cocoa beans, which bear no resemblance at all to the final product, are run through machines, each carefully designed to take something bitter and turn it sweet. To make a delightful thing out of what, naturally, we would be inclined as a species to turn away from in disgust.

And yet having just written that, it occurs to me that maybe chocolate and love really aren't that dissimilar. There is no rational basis for love, and there may not even be a lived experience to sustain it - sometimes it just exists in the heart, even though nothing about everyday life is present to support the feeling.

It's as if the heart, or perhaps the soul, takes something that naturally just is - heck, it might even be abhorrent, wayward, uncommitted, insecure - and transforms it into something beautiful. Something to believe in. Something that the eye of the lover alone can behold with wonder, with gratitude, contentment and desire. Rationality is suspended, self-preservation set aside. The loved object becomes one of beauty even if the subject is worn down by sustaining that belief.

But the machines that make chocolate out of cocoa are not like a soul. They are the issue of the rational mind, the observing engineer, the scientific chemist or the cunning businessman. The roaster and mills, the refiners and conches and molding machines - these all perform a similarly wondrous feat of taking something bitter and turning it sweet, but their relationship with the final product is one of cold rationality, not warmth of feeling.

None of my students, I am sure, are thinking of this transformation when they are answering my questions about the social life of chocolate. The majority of them, I am sure, have no idea that chocolate even starts out as a bean, much less a bitter one. And yet the cultural commitment to the chocolate-love metaphor is strong. It is almost impossible today in the US to find someone who does not admit to the emotional command of presenting a piece of chocolate to someone you love, or whose love you crave. Even if they hate chocolate themselves (and there are a few who do), they will recognize the symbol.

So maybe on some basic level, the part of our being that is the house of primitive instincts - and maybe these are purely species-preservational instincts - there is some alliance between chocolate and love. Some affinity for the power involved in the process of both.

For if we think of chocolate and love as processes, rather than as endpoints or nouns with a fixed and eternal existence, we can open ourselves up to the view that each is a path, a journey, a sojourn from hell to heaven, from cold to warmth, from bitterness to passion. No other food that I know of undergoes this kind of transformation, just as no other human emotion that I feel can render the plain, the uncompelling, or even the undeserving into a treasure, that can take the chafing grain of sand and turn it into a pearl.

Maybe, in our souls, we see chocolate for what it is - the magical and mind-boggling transformation of acid-seed into culinary perfection - and we realize that somewhere inside, we are wired to do the same for people, for good or for ill. And we imagine that by presenting the one that we love with a piece of chocolate, we are saying to them all that must be left unsaid: that they are imperfect and untrue, but that our hearts have worked the magic of making them flawless. Of making them loved.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

On chicken and chocolate

Chocolate is a vegetarian food. It can even be vegan. It is frustrating for me to meet vegans (so many of them!) who have been denying themselves chocolate for years because they believe it has animal product in it. If it's dark chocolate, it doesn't. The only animal-derived ingredient in chocolate is milk powder, and that only in the milk variety (excepting, of course, those delicacies that incorporate meat in a more determined and glorious way, such as the Vosges bacon line, lauded a few posts back). The rest of the stuff is completely plant-based.

I find myself reminded of this today, because today we harvested a chicken. We keep a flock of chickens where I live and one of them had, for various reasons, to be culled. We made this decision a couple of days ago, and it was with no small amount of grief and moral reflection that I came to terms with it over the last 48 hours.

The chicken did not really need to die; we are not starving people, we did not have to kill it to keep ourselves alive. Culling the bird was only the most expedient option, the solution that best suited the elements of this particular case. But it was a decision that brought forth a confrontation with food, life, and morality in a way that does not happen for me very often.

We prepared for the act as thoroughly as possible and as one of my friends has killed a chicken before, we were able to do it in the most humane possible way. Afterward, we gutted the bird and prepared it for roasting and will eat it tomorrow for dinner.

As I fully expected it would, taking something from living creature all the way to cooked meat with my bare hands brought me closer to my own humanity in a very profound way. We are a meat-eating species, but only few of us (very few, in North America and Europe) are asked nowadays to have anything to do with the messy, bloody, heart-wrenching steps of looking our meat in the eye and taking its life. And yet this is a basic function of our species: locating, over-powering, and killing our food.

My emotions about the act have been very mixed, and I am still not sure whether this experience will prompt me to eat less meat. Certainly, I ordered a vegetarian burrito on my way home after clean-up (we did the killing at a friend's house). But I think, once my feelings shake themselves out a little more and after I sit down to dinner tomorrow night, that I will feel, more than anything, a sense of gratitude.

Gratitude to that chicken for its life: a life that, I can attest, was lived fully and with the carefree abandon of poultry, who seem to know only food, water, and the joyous destruction of delicate garden plants, along with the tender, nestling act of egg-laying. I feel grateful that chickens exist and that I am privileged to not only bear witness to, but also to be a contributing part of their everyday lives.

A lot of the time I find them frustrating, but they can be funny and endearing too. A few weeks ago I cleaned out my fridge and gave the chickens an old jar of fig jam. I watched as they first scooped up the jam in their beaks and then immediately trod in it, their jam-covered claws collecting a thick shoe of dirt, hay, sticks and leaves as they proceeded to run around the yard. They are terribly stupid, chickens, but they make me laugh, they are a source of liveliness here in our garden. I am glad to know them. I have also been very glad to eat them.

So I feel most of all grateful that I was able to help make the last moments of this particular chicken's life as honorable, painless, and dignified as possible. Her life meant something to me, and so her death meant something to me, too. I can think of no other animal I have consumed whose life was meaningful to me. That was a significant realization.

But what of plants? Moral questions become obvious and magnified when we are killing an animal for food. But the consumption of plants, Theobroma cacao among them, doesn't push us into that same moral bind, raising questions of the relative value of life. Or does it?

For me, chocolate does bring up issues of right and wrong, good and bad, luxury consumption versus necessity. It is a question of life, though not necessarily the life of the tree.

Before today's event, chocolate was the only food I had been so intimately involved with from start to finish. I have been to origins. I have seen the trees, felt them, embraced them even, broken open pods like eggshells, taken the seed and fermented it, dried it, rendered it dead and infertile, journeyed with it to the factory where it lost all original shape and form, became something processed and smooth and sweet, not rough and messy and bitter.

I know the plant as cocoa and as chocolate. Much as I knew this chicken as a living animal, and then as a set of skin-covered breasts and thighs (which, quite frankly, looked a lot more to me like chicken than when it was dead, but with its head, feathers, and feet still attached).

I have looked cocoa farmers in the eye, many of them, and heard their pleas for help - of any kind - because the suffering caused by their material poverty was great indeed. I have seen men and women trying to live out their dreams through cocoa, or doing all that they could to get away from cocoa, because they knew it would fail them in the end. I have seen people who have made passable livings from beans and great fortunes from chocolate. And I have met even more who love chocolate passionately, and who have no idea of the grief and labor and dead dreams that it can represent.

The more time passes that I have been away from Africa and Asia, the two places where I have spent the most time with cocoa, the more I lose sight of that. The easier it is for me to feel less gratitude - for the tree itself and for those who grow and transport and process its issue. Gratitude for all the life that lies within the bar in my hands.

Today's experience with the chicken reminded me forcefully that gratitude must be a part of my consumption - not just of the things that I harvest or kill or grow myself, but of all the foods that I eat. For in each morsel there is a universe of life, and however we choose to honor it - by eating it or not - life is something to be grateful for.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Cocoa in the raw

I'm writing this post from an Amtrak train, on my way from Seattle to Portland. I'll be spending the weekend at a Capture the Flag Tournament in a caldera near Fort Rock, Oregon. Since we'll be camping in a volcano, I left my laptop at home and so have to write this by hand, using paper and pen. It feels wonderfully archaic.

If I were to put this page in front of you, say, if I scanned it and posted it as a pdf on my blog, I think 99% of you would lose interest very rapidly, and the 1% that would not would be the  cryptologists. For these words, written on a somewhat bumpy and swerving train, are hard for even me to read, and the page itself is not very beautiful, ripped as it was out of a spiral-bound notebook. But then I will type it onto a computer when I get to Portland, using this very nice blogging technology provided by Google, and while the words themselves will not be different, they will be transformed into something more legible than this scrawl, and become an object worth consuming.

Chocolate - or cocoa, rather - undergoes its own kind of magical transformation, one that also makes it more legible, as it were. This is one of the aspects of the cocoa-chocolate commodity chain that fascinates and intrigues me, one that made me study the thing for years. Because faced with a raw cocoa bean - and I mean truly raw, as in straight from the pod - I don't think it would hold our interest for very long. Not with all the competition it has today, from much more immediately gratifying foods.

Raw cocoa beans can look almost freakishly gross, and they don't taste anything like chocolate. The sweet pulp that covers them is quite refreshing, but the beans themselves don't have all that much going for them. Even after they undergo on-farm processing and are fermented and dried, cocoa beans would probably not rank high for most of us as something we'd like to eat.

Fermented cocoa is bitter, very bitter, and while if you eat enough of it you can get a sort of buzz, I doubt there are many with the fortitude or patience to accomplish that - there are many more pleasant ways to get high than eating a crapload of cocoa beans. While we do sprinkle nibs (de-husked and crushed beans) on things nowadays because it is culinarily fashionable, and because they actually do highlight certain flavors when used in moderation (in salads, pancakes, granola), it is the rare person who wants to consume any appreciable amount on its own.

But later in its lifetime, you will love that bean. Your mouth will water to think of the first melty bite, you may even physically crave it. Certainly, it will invoke some kind of emotional response. When it matures into its final form, most often a flat brown rectangle, so slim and glossy and decadent, and you get close enough to breathe in its scent, that piece of chocolate will intoxicate you. Not a high, though - more like a love.

How does this happen? That for me, is one of the special magics of chocolate. That a thing so inelegant, tasteless, and even off-putting in its early life becomes so luscious and desirable in its final form that it drives not only an entire industry, but a cultural rapture.

Don't get me wrong - I love everything about the cocoa tree, I just wouldn't want to eat a whole lot of cocoa beans. I also don't know that I would have had the determination or foresight to spend time figuring out how to transform them, if I had been an Olmec or Mayan ancient. But that we as a species put in that effort, that we believed in the tree enough to make chocolate out of a gooey white bean is a wondrous thing.

Each bite of chocolate carries in it that history - of hundreds if not thousands of transformations from bean to bar, over the millennia and through the hands of countless individuals. For the most part, that history stays hidden. It becomes visible only if we pause to reflect on what it takes to make an irresistible piece of decadence out of something so naturally un-compelling, and to honor the efforts of the many who saw a beautiful potential inside each little bean.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Energy Food?

I’m doing some training these days for the upcoming Seattle half-marathon, and after every run, I’ve been eating a single square of Vosges Bacon Caramel Toffee. I formed this habit on a recent cool and cloudy morning; when I got home from running, chilly beneath a crystallized layer of salty sweat, I couldn’t wait to eat that piece of candy. My body craved the melty milk chocolate, the chewy, smoky bits of bacon, the caramel of the toffee - it seemed to me the perfect combination of foods to revive my tired muscles.

This new culinary custom got me to thinking about our cultural relationship with chocolate, and the power of an idea of what a food can do for us. For even though it is biological fact that protein, salt, and sugar would help counter my fatigue and assist muscle repair after a six-mile run, this particular snack is not one that springs readily to mind when we think of athletes-in-training.

Vosges is not, for example, marketing Bacon Caramel Toffee as a sports energy food, even though it has some elements that would make it so. Now, I am not suggesting that eating pounds of bacon-chocolate-toffee is an essential part of the healthy training diet; these are not things that I consume in abundance whether I am running a lot or not, and certainly we can make a strong argument for the negative effects of the cholesterol and refined sugar that also form part of this snack.

But I am interested in how our ideas about what chocolate does to the body vary across cultures and change across time, sometimes so drastically that we would hardly recognize it for the same food. Because there was a time and place where my particular craving would not have seemed so strange.

Recently, in the US and Europe, and in parts of Asia too, chocolate has been much-heralded as a health food, with nutritional and medical studies claiming the benefits of high antioxidant levels for heart health, skin, and even diabetes. Small amounts of dark chocolate are now thought to keep us looking and feeling youthful, and our hearts beating for longer. We have become comfortable with the fact that certain kinds and limited amounts of chocolate may have positive effects on our health.

That a chocolate bar might be good for the body is a not an entirely new concept in the US. But until the most recent surge of medical studies, it was rather the ingredients that were mixed with cocoa that got the health press, for good or ill. Hershey touted the inclusion of wholesome, fresh Pennsylvania dairy land milk in his bars, even as the lore of the sugar rotting children’s teeth out of their heads gained ground. Chocolate has, in its history in this country, been both body-damaging and healthy, source of decay and superfood, sometimes in the same era.

What we have never had in modern-day US society, however, is a cultural association of chocolate as a food of sustenance and energy, one that can maintain long periods of athletic endeavor; we rather think of dishes of pasta or Rocky Balboa drinking raw eggs. While we do have a powerful association with chocolate bars as energizing snacks - witness the recent Snickers campaign with words like “hungerectomy”, whatever that is - popular wisdom is that it is the sugar in these candies that gives us the energy boost, not the cocoa itself.

But the interesting thing for me is that other people, living in other times, have not only believed chocolate to be a source of long-term energy, but lived out this belief in a very corporeal way. The Maya believed their cocoa drink to be one of the recipes handed down by the gods to make men strong and fearless; and it was men, for the most part, who consumed it - women were forbidden from partaking in chocolate drinks, save for some few ceremonial celebration days. Aztec soldiers carried with them as their main source of sustenance cocoa cakes mixed with maize; a single ration was considered sufficient to march for a day. No sugar was added; it was not sucrose that sustained them. In this time, among these people, chocolate was the food of energy.

Among the Aztec, my craving for a chocolate-bacon-toffee bar after a long run might not have raised any eyebrows. I personally don’t spare much thought for whether chocolate is healthy or not; it is something I eat pretty much every day in one form or another, and will do no matter what the latest studies say. But if you are thinking for yourself what the health benefits of your piece of chocolate may be, just remember that what we think we know about the effects of chocolate on our bodies, even if it is based on scientific study, may exist just as much in our collective cultural mind as it does in our cells.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Chocolate Ethics 101

So, these days, everybody professes the desire to be an ethical consumer (well, everybody I know, but I live in Seattle). The way to put this into action, they believe, is to buy fair trade. And while I am not opposed to fair trade, it seems to me that in the case of chocolate, we have forgotten that it is only the most recent attempt in a long history of industrial ethics. For chocolate makers - the big ones, anyway - have always been concerned with making life good for people, beyond selling them a candy bar.

The big news this week is that US food giant Kraft made a bid to take over Cadbury company in Britain. Kraft’s $16.7 billion offer was rejected by Cadbury’s board; now it seems that US-based Hershey has the money to bid for its British rival as well.

Now, frankly, if I were the British consuming public, my biggest fear at this potential takeover would be of a dystopic future world in which all Cadbury chocolate tasted like a Hershey bar. (Look, I don’t hate Hershey. But, as everybody knows, all non-Americans think it tastes like puke.) So far, however, no one has expressed this fear.

Rather, the most compelling story I have seen is a video about what will happen to Bournville, the model town built by Cadbury’s Quaker founders, when scary, unethical foreigners come to take over. For the Cadbury family were an ethically minded, god-fearing lot who wanted to spread the love of not only chocolate, but of a healthier, happier, moral life.

This is the part of industry history that has been forgotten. The Cadburys were no doubt in business to make money; the profit motive was there, and this meant the usual ethical degradation when it came to certain safety and sourcing standards.

But there was also the explicit intention to bring the good life to people when most lived in squalor. In the 19th century, when the big chocolate makers were getting started, the industrial revolution was at its height. The British factory world was not an especially nice place: sickness and disease were rampant, streets were lined with raw sewage, air choked with the smoke of industrial stacks. Plumbing, lights, and running water were not the norm, for anybody.

In the middle of all this, Cadbury established Bournville Village, a place where its factory workers could live in tidy homes, surrounded by green grass and clean air. The town had sports fields, a school, parks, a lake, and swimming pools in an era when everyone else lived in filth. Today, Bournville remains a vibrant community, where residents live quiet, suburban lives, there is no public house to buy alcohol, and there is not a single take-out restaurant.

Cadbury did other ethical things, too. While it resisted for many years, the company eventually became the most significant chocolate maker to boycott cocoa produced in São Tomé, at the time the world’s biggest supplier, when it became clear that its plantations were run by slave labor. More recently, when I was in Ghana doing my PhD fieldwork, I saw signs dotting the rural areas, announcing water wells and pumps and other development projects to benefit cocoa farmers, all supported by Cadbury.

Today, the residents of Bournville are worried that if a foreign company takes over, particularly Kraft, the ethics of their beloved company and town will erode. Perhaps this is not unfounded. But should it be Hershey who makes the successful bid, however, I think they might have less to fear.

For Hershey built a model town, too. It’s called Hershey, and it’s in Pennsylvania, and the founding mission was much the same as for Bournville: build a place where factory workers could live in comfort and health, enjoying modern amenities and a community that adhered to strict rules of moral self-governance. Milton Hershey himself used to stroll through town, checking that there weren’t any riff-raff disturbing the tranquility with bad behavior, like public drunkenness.

When Hershey died, he left the majority shares of his company to Hershey Trust, guardian of the Milton Hershey School for orphans and under-privileged boys (today girls attend too). This means that the huge, billion-dollar Hershey company exists primarily to serve the interests of poor children; and indeed, their school lavishes more resources on each child than any other in the country.

All this is not to say that these ego-maniacal efforts to control worker morality is the ideal route to a better world for us all. My point is not that Cadbury and Hershey got it right in their attempts at making life good; far from it. I mean, I personally would not want to live in either Bourneville or Hershey. If I’m going to live in a place where I can never drink or order in, I want at the very least an unlimited supply of chocolate delivered to my doorstep every day. And I don’t think that’s part of the program.

Rather, my goal is to make it clear that the chocolate industry has had a significant history of ethical practice. Its giants did what they believed right at the time: in the squalor of industrialization, a clean and healthy home mattered. Beyond that, they tried to extend good self-governance and an ethics of care into their communities, farmer regions, and beyond.

Today’s attempts at ethical consumerism are not the trailblazing revolution that we like to believe. Rather, they are the most recent articulation of what should count as good practice, in what is at heart an exploitative industry. There is no black-and-white when it comes to ethics in chocolate. Even the big baddies have tried - and succeeded - to do some good.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

No favorites


As the only person to have earned a PhD by studying chocolate, I get asked a lot of questions about chocolate this-or-that. And I am always happy to answer. But one question in particular – the one I get asked the most – always leaves me miffed:

'What’s your favorite chocolate?'

Quite frankly, when someone asks me this, the response I most want to give is, Who cares?

So many things run through my mind while I stand there coming up with an answer: Why do they want to know? Am I required to have a favorite? What if I said my favorite chocolate tasted like seaweed? Would that lessen their opinion of my scholarship? Will they run out and buy whatever I say?

Honestly, I don’t have a favorite. My preferences change by the day, hour, minute: sometimes my ‘favorite’ is whatever chocolate is lying around the house. When I tell people this truth, they inevitably look disappointed; they want a definitive answer.

I follow no chocolate guiding light. For example, this morning I stopped in the Safeway on my way home from the gym. As I walked down the candy aisle a bar caught my eye: Lindt Excellence, Chili.

I had never seen it before. I normally like Lindt; the Swiss creamy texture is one that I find appealing. The box looked cool: they did a great job photographing the chili pepper. It was slightly chilly out; maybe I wanted a spicy food? There was no cocoa percentage, which annoyed me. I bought it. I haven’t eaten it yet. Maybe I will like it, maybe I won’t.

But I don’t really care what happens. For me, chocolate is a mainstay of life. If someone were to put me on an alien planet and tell me there would be no more chocolate for me, ever, I suppose I could still live happily. But while I am here and it’s available, I will eat as much of it as I can.

Any consumption of chocolate – a luxury food that costs a great deal in human commitment and energy, farmland and fuel, if not also actual dollars – should be driven by compassion for the people who grew and transported it, and by an understanding of its origins. As someone who has devoted years to studying chocolate, I will always argue for the importance of knowledge about it.

But as someone who takes great pleasure in chocolate, I will also always argue that chocolate consumption should equally be driven by enjoyment. No one has ever asked me what chocolate I enjoy. That question I would answer so differently than the one about my favorite.

I think the reason people phrase their query using ‘favorite’ is because these days, in the US, we have become increasingly absorbed with, if not dependent upon, the role of experts in telling us how to eat. Asking me to name a favorite asks me for a definitive judgment and carves my preference in stone; my answer can then be debated for correctness.

Asking me what I enjoy implies a personal interest in what I find pleasing. Then I am no longer an expert making a proclamation. As someone who does know a lot about chocolate, I am happy to tell you where it comes from or how it is made; I much less rather declare what chocolate we should eat, or how to do it.

Google chocolate tasting and you will find a plethora of guides, most of which have appeared in the past few years. Directions for tasting are available on artisan websites (Amano has a great example); they are passed down from on high through elegant classes (as at La Maison du Chocolat); and even laid out on wrappers (as on every bar of Vosges Haut-Chocolat).

These impart strict rules about tasting chocolate in the correct order, hand down restrictions on quantity, outline proper palate cleansing, warn against the dangers of eating cold chocolate, and in general tell us that we are not really appreciating our chocolate unless we spend at least fifteen minutes with each 10 gram piece, gazing at it, listening to it, caressing it, holding it on our tongues, and inscribing its flavor ‘notes’ on a special card. If we cannot after all that discriminate the tang of umami in our miniscule serving, then we have done it all wrong.

To all this I say, what nonsense. I am all for eating slowly and appreciating flavor. But to transform the pleasurable act of eating chocolate into an event regulated by guidelines as strict as those for an audience with the Queen of England seem to rob us of all its fun.

This morning I read an article about a new trend pairing chocolate with tea (Chocolate and tea: the perfect match? by Elizabeth Urbach). I read the article with interest, because it said that such events were not just the province of professionals, and that even ‘a regular person’ could conduct a successful tea-chocolate pairing.

I found this encouraging. But just a few sentences later, the professionals were back in full force: a list, compiled by ‘experts’, gave the correct pairings to make. I’d never heard of some of the teas (Chinese Dragonwell, Japanese Gyokuro) and wasn’t sure I wanted to after reading the flavor descriptions (‘savory vegetal’, ‘bright muscatel’); I had to Google one of the suggested chocolates (‘chocolate madeline’) to find out what it was. If I were to throw a chocolate-tea soirée using this list as my guide, it would take me days if not weeks to get it all organized correctly.

The list reminded me of an exam study sheet, from which I was supposed to memorize the answers. In truth, it looked a lot like a bunch of somebody else’s ‘favorites’. Somehow, as soon as you become an expert, your own favorite way of doing things gets codified into law that everyone else must then follow. I think that’s rubbish. Everyone can choose a good chocolate to go with their tea. You don’t need to follow rules to do it. Eating chocolate is not about learning how to do it ‘right’.

A while back I threw a little chocolate and beer pairing for a group of writers. I went to the store and picked three bars that I knew and that represented a decent range of flavor, all made by Lindt (for no reason except that I wanted them all to be made by the same manufacturer): 85% Dark, which is mildly bitter; Extra Creamy Milk, which tastes like sweet caramel; and White Coconut, which makes me feel like I am sitting on the beach with a coconut margarita in hand.

For the beer, I simply picked my favorite, Pyramid Hefeweisen (notice that I have no problem telling you that this is my favorite beer – since I am not a beer expert, this doesn’t carry the same weight as a statement on chocolate, and I don’t feel the need to write a whole blog entry explaining it). It’s clean, refreshing, and mild. Though I had never paired it before, the Hef went remarkably well with all three chocolates: it cut the bitterness of the dark, cleansed the palate after the sweet milk, and enlivened the coconut flavor of the white. It was lovely.

Everyone learned something. Everyone enjoyed themselves. We had a really good time.

Choosing the chocolates took about a minute of thinking, breaking up bars into random size pieces and opening the bottles of beer, about three. I chose based on what I personally liked, some intuition on flavor, and knowing that chocolate comes in milk, white, and dark. Anyone who has a neighborhood drug store with a decent chocolate aisle and a beer cooler could do this. You don’t have to take a class. You can just have fun.

I wish that this was the kind of encouragement we got from our chocolate makers, instead of arduous guidelines suggesting that ‘experts’ (of which I am clearly one) are the only people who can tell us what and how to eat. Instead, I would like to think that we all already know how to eat, and that simply by learning a little bit more about our food, we can go forth with the freedom to enjoy it as we wish.

The nice thing about writing a blog, as opposed to an academic article or a book for sale, is that there are no constraints. I can tell you exactly what I think. I don’t even know that anyone will ever read this apart from my mother, which is very freeing. Will I write many things about cocoa and chocolate here, based on what I have learned? Yes. Will I occasionally make strong, definitive statements? Yes, again. But mostly I will write for the love of a food, and for anyone who shares a desire to learn about a fascinating fruit, and to eat it with pleasure.

Till next time,