In the weeks before Valentine's Day, U.S. consumers will buy nearly 58 million pounds of chocolate. This love affair is not limited to just one day or one country: chocolate has spread from its native home in Central and South America to conquer the world. But today, cacao cultivation is facing a series of wicked problems—ones that threaten to drastically shrink the supply of chocolate just as global demand grows. If the threats aren't taken seriously, might we lose one of our favorite treats? And, if so, will we also lose our next wonder drug?
For most of its roughly 5000-year history, chocolate has been the exclusive preserve of Mesoamericans. The Olmec people, who lived in what is now Central America and southern Mexico, were likely the first to domesticate the cacao tree and determine that the key to uncovering chocolate's rich, complex flavors lay in separating the seeds from the white, fragrant, mucilaginous pulp, fermenting those seeds, drying them, roasting them, and winnowing the bitter beans away from their shells.
When European conquistadors first encountered cacao, they took a while to appreciate the spicy, frothy drinks the Aztec and Maya made with their precious brown beans—but, before long, chocolate caught on. From the 1600s, the chocolate habit spread from the Spanish nobility throughout Europe, and, finally, back to North America again. As it did so, it changed in both form and function, from cash to candy, from beverage to bar, and from aphrodisiac to cardiovascular medicine.
In this episode of Gastropod, we trace chocolate's journey with chocolate expert Carla Martin and historian Helen Veit, and explore its shifting role from traditional medicine to potential wonder drug with historian Deanna Pucciarelli and Harvard epidemiologist Eric Ding. Along the way, Simran Sethi, author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of the Foods We Love, takes us deep into the lush, fragrant, midge-filled humidity of a chocolate forest, only to warn us that these forests, and the precious beans within them, are now facing not just one but multiple existential threats. Listen in now to savor your next chocolate bar that little bit more.
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Carla Martin lectures in Harvard University's department of African and African-American Studies and is the founder and director of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute. This article of hers provides great context for the original spread of chocolate in Europe. And here's one other tidbit about Carla we loved: she has an entire piece of furniture just for storing her chocolate! Some of the bars are available for family and friends to taste, and some she just won't share. Carla will appear on stage with us at our April 26 show at the Boston Museum of Science.
Simran Sethi and Bread, Wine, Chocolate
Simran Sethi is a journalist and educator whose book, Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of the Foods We Love, takes readers around the world in search of a deeper understanding of our favorite foods, in an effort to protect them. She also recently launched a new podcast all about chocolate called The Slow Melt.
Fernando Rodríguez, Chocolate Macondo
We read about Fernando Rodríguez's company Chocolate Macondo in this article in Vice and immediately called him up to learn more about what he does. For the past ten years, Rodríguez has been studying ancient chocolate recipes, interviewing people around Mexico who still make traditional drinks, and creating new versions of those ancient drinks in his home city of San Juan Teotihuacán. Next time we're in Mexico, we're definitely visiting.
Eric Ding is a research scientist in the nutrition department of Harvard University. He's one of the authors of a 2008 article, "Chocolate and the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease: A Systematic Review," and his enthusiasm about chocolate's potential for combating heart disease has both Nicky and Cynthia feeling pretty good about their own elevated levels of cocoa consumption.
Helen Veit specializes in nineteenth and twentieth-century American history at Michigan State University, and she'll be joining us onstage for our April 8 East Lansing live show. Her first book, Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century, explores food and nutrition in the Progressive Era.
Deanna Pucciarelli teaches food policy, culture, and nutrition at Ball State University. She's the author of The Medical Use of Chocolate, and has written extensively on the subject, including this article about chocolate as medicine in North America.