Chocolate, chocolate everywhere
By Jessica Ullian
The monomania of the academics and enthusiasts attending the MET culinary arts program’s Chocolate Culture symposium on October 24 became apparent shortly after 9 a.m. When Kara Nielsen, a culinary arts staffer, asked if anyone had left a brown umbrella in the breakfast room, MET lecturer Timothy Walker’s response indicated that they were simply unable to think about anything else. He asked her to describe it in terms they would all understand.
“A chocolate-colored umbrella,” he suggested.
It was a fitting start to the symposium, a nine-hour event that explored the role of chocolate in pre-Columbian society, in the Catholic Church, in film, and even in medicine. The conference was held in conjunction with the New England Chocolate Festival, a first-time event sponsored by MET and the E. Guitard Chocolate Company that transformed the Fuller Building into a weekend mecca for those who take chocolate very, very seriously.
“It’s just really timely, as chocolate becomes more recognized as the food that it is, with nutritious qualities and health benefits,” said Nielsen, a former pastry chef who helped organize the festival. “It just adds to the pleasure.”
The festival, by all accounts, bordered on the hedonistic — more than a dozen vendors, including local favorites Phillips Candy House and Serenade Chocolatier, attended with plenty of samples, and chocolate experts were on hand to lead cooking demonstrations. A chocolate fountain was on view, along with a chocolate puzzle, and an exhibition called “From Bean to Bar” that explained the manufacturing process.
Indulgence was up for discussion, if not on display, at the symposium as well — the joys of chocolate in its various incarnations throughout history was a common theme. Doctoral candidate April Najjaj (GRS’01,’04), in her talk The Catholic Chocolate Controversy, explained that 18th-century women often used to drink chocolate in church to sustain them through periods of fasting — until Church leaders deemed it “a visceral pleasure,” she said, and therefore a sin. A compromise was reached, Najjaj added, when it was determined that drinking chocolate was not a mortal sin if no other nourishment was added. The decision, she noted, displeased those who had been adding bread crumbs and spices to their drinks to make the fast easier.
In the pre-Columbian era, said CAS Archaeology Professor Patricia McAnany, cacao pods were a highly prized food that was a significant part of the political economy. Aztec rulers would set out to conquer rival states to ensure a steady supply of cacao, and hieroglyphics from the era show that chocolate was a key part of royal rituals, used in ceremonies from coronations to burials. Its desirability, however, meant it was consumed only by royalty and the upper classes. “The drinking of chocolate was not something that the common person might have been doing,” she said.
The idea of chocolate, or cacao, as a food of privilege also had its dark side, as Walker demonstrated during his talk on slave labor on cacao plantations in Bahia, Brazil. During the trans-Atlantic slave trade, 41 percent of the slaves brought from Africa were sent to Brazil, Walker said; subsequently, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Brazil produced up to 30 percent of the world’s cacao but consumed only a small portion of it. Today, he added, in certain parts of Brazil, 90 percent of the population are descendants of African slaves.
In an analysis of the “chocolate-as-health-food” theory, University of the Pacific Associate Professor Ken Albala discussed the difficulties of determining chocolate’s medicinal properties — a subject of much debate in 17th-century Europe. Medicinal foods were divided up according to temperature and texture, Albala said, and the various forms of chocolate presented a conundrum. “There was perhaps no other New World drug,” he said, “that caused such confusion among European writers.”
It would have been inappropriate —perhaps even cruel — to spend so much time discussing chocolate and none eating it, so the organizers took care to include opportunities for tasting. Lunch, chicken with mole sauce and molten chocolate cakes, was prepared by Leo Romero of Casa Romero on Gloucester Street; a mid-afternoon tasting, led by Susan Cohen of Serenade and BU’s Lifelong Learning program, included four different brands; and the day closed with a chocolate digestif, which included raspberry truffles, white chocolate chip cookies, and chocolate espresso cakes.
It was a lot of chocolate over the course of just 48 hours, but McAnany reminded everyone that Boston was probably the best place to hold such an event and to find so many people to whom chocolate means so much. The country’s first chocolate factory, Baker’s, was opened in Dorchester in 1779.
“The ink was hardly dry on the Declaration of Independence,” she said, “before the United States had its own chocolate factory.”