Tufts Culinary Society hosted Dr. Carla Martin who offered a presentation titled “Chocolate, Culture and the Politics of Food” and chocolate samples in Pearson Hall last night. Martin is the founder and executive director of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute and a lecturer in the department of African and African American studies at Harvard University.
President of Tufts Culinary Society Allie Wainer, a senior, introduced Martin, known as the “chocolate professor” on Harvard’s campus, whose interdisciplinary research focuses on the politics of chocolate in global perspective.
Chocolate represents a huge industry full of vast inequalities, Martin said. In 2015, U.S. consumers ate about 12 pounds of chocolate per person, spending a total of about $22 billion. Though purchased mostly in Europe and North America, chocolate is largely produced on smallholder farms in West Africa—particularly Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. These farmers earn the smallest share of revenue in the chocolate industry; the average farmer in Ghana earns about 50 and 80 cents per day, she said.
According to Martin, cacao’s origin and prevalence in the northwest Amazon region had a significant cultural impact on the nearby Mayan and Aztec empires, where cacao beans were used as currency. Texts written in Mayan hieroglyphs, such as the Dresden Codex, and a record of mytho-historical narratives known as the Popol Vuh reveal the importance of cacao in these societies, Martin said.
“What we learn from the Popol Vuh is that the Mayan people imagined that they were very spiritually linked with produce, with the plants that they grew and that they ate to sustain their bodies, and that they had actually been born of them,” she said. “They made sense of their world by linking themselves with the natural products that they were cultivating.”
Martin then described the process of harvesting and processing cacao, beginning with its growth within the thick, heavy pods on the trunks of theobroma cacao trees. Once collected, these fruits are sliced with a machete to reveal a white mucilaginous pulp—the first tasting sample of the night—which contains the cacao beans. After a process of controlled rotting and a week of drying in the sun, the cacao beans will be ready for roasting and de-shelling, she explained.
With the rise of colonization, chocolate—its genetics, its taste, its name, as well as attitudes about its place in health — became subjected to an extended period of hybridization, Martin said.
“We often frame the history of chocolate as linked to Europe or linked to North America when in fact its roots have very heavily indigenous Mezo-American,” she said. “This is an indigenous food that Europeans and Americans have come to like rather than something they have invented.”
Chocolate, therefore, became a snob-ified item among the elite in Europe and North America and spread to the masses as stimulant beverages took rank as popular items alongside wine, Martin said.
She said that chocolate houses served as hotbed centers of political discussion in the 1600 and 1700s and facilitated the spread of support for democracy.
Chocolate, as a sugar product, also played a role in the transatlantic slave trade, Martin said. Charts of the rising levels of sugar consumption over the last few centuries demonstrate how our diets have changed as a result of colonization, she said.
“In order to support this production, Europeans relied on the transatlantic slave trade and enslaved millions,” she said. “Twelve to 15 million Africans were brought to the New World to work largely in the production of things like sugar, coffee, tea. All of these things, which really are drug foods—very intensely stimulating foods that were designed to be luxuries.”
The last segment of the presentation focused on chocolate distribution and concerns about child labor practices in chocolate harvesting and processing. Martin spoke about the importance of looking for alternative and fair trade labels, such as markers from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic and Rainforest Alliance, when consuming chocolate. She also distributed samples of big name and specialty chocolate products to event attendees, while describing the ways in which producers differed in terms of cacao content and trade policies.
“I think it’s important that, as much as we celebrate and encourage chocolate, which I am fully in support of, that we also try to understand the many challenges that we face in relation to chocolate and that we look for ways that we as consumers can be part of addressing those challenges,” Martin said.