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Evaggelos Vallianatos Headshot

The Chocolate Food of the Gods

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The Greeks thought their gods ate ambrosia, divine food for sustenance and pleasure. If I had to guess what ambrosia was all about, I would go straight to honey-like nectar. After all, honeybees create honey from flowers, which are the climax of beauty, reproduction, and food of the natural world. I still consider honey the food of the gods - Theobroma.

There's another food that is also called Theobroma. This food of the gods is chocolate, thick dark nectar of sweetness, nutrition, and pleasure. I love chocolate. I recently bought a small bag of "milk chocolate almonds" from a neighborhood grocery store calling itself Sprouts Farmers Market. The bag said nothing about the origins of cocoa beans from which we get chocolate. But the bag said the chocolate almonds were processed in Canada. Sprouts proudly linked its product to "delectable indulgence." So, yes, chocolate attracts, clouding the brain about its non-delectable history.

Cocoa beans come from the tropics of Central America and Africa. And like other tropical products, chocolate is wrapped in much more than addictive sweetness. Underneath its expectations of instant satisfaction, there are layers and layers of violence, even mayhems, and slavery, including the slavery of children.

Carol Off, a Canadian journalist, successfully unwrapped the dark history of chocolate. Her book, "Bitter Chocolate: Anatomy of an Industry" (The New Press, 2014), starts from the currency-like cocoa beans of the sixteenth-century Aztec Emperor Montezuma to the chocolate bars of chocolate companies Hershey, Cadbury and Mars in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The story she tells so well is like a nightmare.

Cocoa beans grow on trees "hugging the equator." These Theobroma trees flourish only where there's "perfect temperature" and plentiful rain. They started in Central America and southern Mexico three thousand years ago. That was the time of the Olmec, an indigenous people whose empire included Central America and Mexico.

Olmec women probably harvested the colorful gourds of the cocoa trees. The gourds were full of beans. The Olmec women mashed these beans into a "fatty, viscous goo mixed with water and starch and then dispensed among the more elevated classes of their people."

The starch came from corn. By mixing rich cocoa butter with corn flour, the Olmec women performed a "perfect gastronomic marriage." They served the mixture as a "thick, bitter-tasting drink, stimulating, nourishing and - they believed - healing as well." They called the cocoa beans kakawa or cacao.

The Olmec passed their cocoa traditions to the Maya who passed them to the Aztecs who passed them to the conquistadors of the fifteenth century - and to the rest of us.

Off is right that time and custom consolidated a deep and abiding faith in the benefits of the cocoa beans-chocolate. She writes:

"The purity and potency of the Olmec chocolate cocktail is impossible to come by nowadays - the mass-produced and processed product we know as chocolate is a pale substitute. But one thing is consistent: then and now, chocolate is a luxury consumed by the privileged at the cost of those much less so. For thousands of years, the chocolate cravings of an elite have been satisfied by the hard labour of an underclass."

Indeed, "Bitter Chocolate" documents endless social and ecological violence that makes chocolate bitter indeed. Chocolate companies routinely indulge in the exploitation of the natural world and powerless humans in order to satisfy the chocolate cravings of their customers all over the world.

It's one war after another. The conquistadors (and their modern corporate equivalent) have been plaguing the indigenous cocoa farmers with Christianity, poisons, loans, and "expert" advise. The often-forced conversion of the cocoa farmers to foreign dogmas nearly always results in the loss of their communal land and utter ruin.

Off focuses her book on the bitter chocolate politics of Ivory Coast, the humid West African country producing around half of the world's cocoa beans. As long as the dictator Felix Houphouet-Boigny governed Ivory Coast, the country was a "model" of cash crop prosperity in Africa. But his death in 1993 shook Ivory Coast to its chocolate foundations. The profits of the giant multibillion-dollar chocolate companies (Hershey, Cadbury, and Mars) fuel civil war and the slavery of children.

Read "Bitter Chocolate." The book is so well written, it reads like a novel. Off tells this dramatic, timely, and compelling story with honesty and virtue. She is certainly convincing that the history of chocolate "was written in blood and sweat of countless generations of people."

She brings to light unethical corporate behavior, how large companies make money from the destruction of the natural world, the destruction of indigenous cultural and agricultural traditions and ways of life. Indeed, they profit from the enslavement of children to this very day.