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.