An Ode to Women in Chocolate

When I was in college, my two favorite foods were pickles and chocolate. Both, specifically, from the RI restaurant staple, Greggs. It was perhaps not the most well-balanced meal, but it certainly made me happy. That chocolate consumption, however, resulted in teasing comments from my friends about how “stereotypically female” my love for chocolate was.

And it’s true. Women’s passion for chocolate has long been recognized. Over 75% of the 60 million pounds of chocolate purchased around Valentine’s Day is purchased for women – perhaps men influenced by the marketing industry’s insistence that chocolate was the key to a woman’s heart, as well as her sexuality. There may be some truth to this – 91% of women consume chocolate regularly. (However, it must be noted that men do not lag far behind in their chocolate eating habits at 87%). Surveys show that chocolate is the most craved food among American women, and in fact, physiologically, we know that chocolate does produce more serotonin and most likely endorphins (Psychology Today). The chocolate industry and marketing companies are aware of these trends and the science behind it, and further engender our beloved chocolate:  

The truth is, the relationship between women and chocolate goes back long before these industries existed. For much of history, women were forbidden from consuming chocolate because of its stimulating effects. However, women were essential to the preparation of chocolate drinks for male warriors and Aztec royalty. The picture below, from Codex Tudela, illustrates a woman pouring a chocolate drink, poured from above in order to create more froth in the chocolate.

The picture below illustrates Maya women preparing a cacao drink.

When Europeans first arrived in what they called the “New World,” and initially encountered chocolate, they were disgusted. As Creole men and women ( who spent most of their lives in the New World), grew accustomed to the flavor and the texture, “proper” European Europeans were appalled at how easy it to “go native” and consume chocolate regularly. Thomas Gage, a mid-seventeenth century English Dominican, wrote of women ordering their maids to bring them chocolate in the middle of Mass. The Bishop of Chiapas soon outlawed this practice, so the women chose to skip Church in order to indulge. A scandal erupted, and it is told that this Bishop soon died, according to this (most likely fictional) anecdote, poisoned.
As I’ve alluded in previous posts, women’s association with chocolate did not end with the prohibition of chocolate in church, nor the Bishop’s death. In fact, in the Americas, over the course of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, women of all ethnicities and classes were accused of utilizing chocolate to seduce or bewitch men. At the end of the 16th century, Sanchez de Aquilar believed that Indian women used chocolate to bewitch their husbands; Maria Rivera, a mulata (of mixed ancestry) advised clients to add ingredients to their chocolate to seduce their love interests; and in 1730 Manuel Antonio Caldero accused his wife of driving him crazy with chocolate. There are countless other stories of seduction and sorcery through chocolate, all of which are fascinating and worth hearing. The theme that runs through all of these accounts is crystal clear: men and the patriarchal church which controlled the new world, felt threatened by the way that women were asserting power in this “new world.” In fact, my personal theory, is that just as the church used chocolate as a weapon to isolate or persecute women and native people, women were able to use that same delicious foodstuff as a way to fight back in one of the only ways they had available to them. Chocolate gave them a voice, which threatened  male power, the patriarchy, and the church.
Over time, with the advent of technology and mass production, chocolate became widely available. However, gender has remained controversial in chocolate production. According to Oxfam.org, women working in cocoa fields and processing plants suffer “substantial discrimination and inequality…and while women increasingly occupy positions of power in food and beverage company headquarters, women working in company supply chains in developing countries continue to be denied similar advances in wealth, status or opportunity.” This plays out, for example, in a cocoa processing factory in Indonesia when all female workers were laid off after a few demanded equal treatment and pay.
Those who follow economic news or any news about chocolate may have heard that there is some debate about the future of cocoa production, yet many ignore the influence that women have had on the industry. Although cocoa is largely deemed a “male crop,” a 2013 article in The Guardian proposes that women actually make up an estimated 25% of farmers in Ghana, and have an unmeasured impact due to unpaid family labor and/or low-wage casual labor. Research shows women are especially active in early crop care, fermentation, and drying, all of which are critical for ensuring productivity and high quality chocolate.
Today, small batch chocolate is a growing industry, and much of it is fair trade or direct trade. However, of the only 200 or so American craft chocolate makers and more worldwide, only 12 are women—even though women outnumber men in purchasing chocolate and consumption.
Moving forward, as the chocolate industry progresses, we have a lot of work to do. More women will inevitably step into leadership roles, and push the chocolate industry to make more ethical, moral choices. Empowering women through chocolate will only strengthen our society, improving the well-being of not only our chocolate, but also our economy, our children, our families and our communities. And so today, I hope you join me as I celebrate women in the chocolate world, and all throughout the globe.

Women sorting out cocoa fruits in a plantation in Indonesia. The role of women farmers in high quality cocoa production often goes unacknowledged in the industry. Photograph: Eightfish/Alamy, via The Guardian

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