The Chocolate Bookshelf: Bitter Chocolate (Carol Off)

Bitter Chocolate.jpeg

I know Carol Off primarily from her work on CBC’s As It Happens – so, for me, the most surprising thing about this book was actually that there are no puns in it. I suppose that’s appropriate, because there might be a line crossed in including puns in a book that, at it’s core, is about a chocolate’s long history with slavery.  

I would classify this as… something of a social history of chocolate. Chocolate, like many of the foods we eat, has a complicated history, with a lot of different stories you could tell (e.g. the botanical history of chocolate differs from the manufacturing and shipping history of chocolate, as well as from the marketing of chocolate). If you told me you were writing a definitive history of chocolate, I’d think you were either writing a massive magnum opus that would likely be too heavy to lift, or that you were probably not well-informed enough to be writing a book. So, Bitter Chocolate is a history and discussion of the labour practices that produce chocolate.

As it turns out, that history is largely about companies finding ways to rename, or hide, slavery and unpaid labour in the production of their goods. Producing cocoa requires a lot of work in sweltering jungle conditions just to grow, let alone to ferment and then turn from plain beans into chocolate. At the same time, there are market pressures to keep chocolate as an accessible luxury – there’s a section in the book covering children’s protests about chocolate bars getting too expensive.

Bitter Chocolate looks at how companies have dealt with these two realities – that their base ingredient is labour intensive and that, for the most part, consumers are interested in an inexpensive product. Generally, this has meant embracing some labour practices that many consumers aren’t comfortable with, notably indentured labour and child labour, and then avoiding public scrutiny about those practices as long as possible while quietly attempting to develop more palatable alternatives. I was fascinated to follow what seemed like the same story (of engaging in questionable labour practices, then avoiding public scrutiny or regulation of those practices for as long as possible, ideally not recognizing a problem with labour practices until you’ve already come up with an alternative) over and over again, since the beginning of commercial chocolate production – and really pleased that the author commented on and discussed that there were recurring themes in this narrative, whether you were looking at cocoa plantations in the present day or at the beginning of commercial chocolate production.

I won’t say this is an uplifting book. It covers the widespread abuses of cocoa producers the world over, and how that is related to contemporary chocolate consumption. The difficulty I had with it is that the book is very much focused on commercial production of chocolate (which is done almost entirely by a very small number of companies), without saying much about the production of craft chocolate. Yes, slave and trafficked labour is absolutely a contemporary reality, but it is by no means inevitable. There are many chocolate makers (including many of the suppliers who curate our monthly boxes at Coffret) who are very intentional about avoiding this pattern in producing their chocolate – they engage in fair trade practices, or trade directly with cocoa producers paying more than fair trade prices to make great chocolate without exploiting people in the process. There are people making chocolate who are genuinely trying to improve outcomes for growers in meaningful ways, and I wish Bitter Chocolate had recognized that possibility. I don’t need the whole book to focus on craft chocolate production, but I do wish some attention had been paid to the possibility that slavery need not be fundamentally linked to chocolate. Mostly, I think, because I need to believe that there’s a way for me to enjoy the chocolate that I love without necessarily being complicit in a modern-day slave trade.

Anastasia KulpaComment