Monday, August 7, 2023

Bittersweet Symphony

Hi. It’s Nilanjana from Team WEP here sharing the team’s favorite treat which has led to our August challenge! 

What’s dark and bitter yet associated almost universally with pleasure, temptation, luxury and even decadence? Ha. Bet you got it right away! And fellow writers, what item can a writer use to whip up a romance one moment and satirize as a symbol of corruption in the next? Yup, exactly…and its history mirrors its bittersweet yet fascinating taste. 

Food of the gods 

Where did this bittersweet treat originate? It didn’t just miraculously appear! It goes way back at least 3500 years. In the Olmec, Maya and Aztec cultures of Mesoamerica, cacao was considered a divine gift and made into a beverage drunk at sacred rituals and before battles. 

Cacao beans first reached the Iberian coast in the 1520s with the Spanish conquerors. A contemporary source wrote that it was ‘more like a drink for pigs’ than humans. Nevertheless, by the 17th century, trade in cacao was thriving. 

In Spain, chocolate was made more palatable with sugar/honey, vanilla and cinnamon. It became a court favorite. Chocolate traveled to France when Spanish princesses/nobility married there. It also went to Italy with the Jesuits. It caught on big time in Europe and many European nations established cacao plantations in equatorial Africa. The European market for sugar exploded too, in turn creating the demand for slave labor. 

While Africa still produces over 70% of the global cacao output, only 3% of the finished chocolate is consumed by them. Out of the Big 10 chocolate corporations, not one is located in Africa. Cacao farming is associated with poverty and child labor, which some companies are fighting to rectify. Something to be aware of when we bite into our next bar. 

Initially, cacao processing was manual and time-consuming. That changed majorly in 1828 when C. J. van Houten of Netherlands invented the chocolate press. It squeezed the butter from roasted beans, leaving powdered cocoa as residue. That could be mixed with liquids, molded and hardened upon cooling – the first modern chocolate bars. 

The Industrial Revolution resulted in patents for emulsification processes, machinery and molds. Thus chocolate morphed into a stand-alone industry. It transitioned from a locally consumed beverage to a global confectionery food product. 

Chocolate corners the romance market 

The notion of romantic love in Western culture dates back to Greek literature. Their most famous epics are predicated on the abduction of Helen by Paris. During the Middle Ages, courtly love – mostly unattainable and tragic, was an established literary theme. Knights sang of their love and offered roses as proof. The tradition of Valentine’s Day to celebrate lovers is mentioned in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls in 1382. 

Romance and love stories wound their way through the 16th century with plays like Romeo and Juliet to the first romance novels – Pride and Prejudice in 1813 followed by Jane Eyre in 1847. By mid-century, the romance novel, gifts and Valentine’s were well established and continue to this day. 

That was the perfect backdrop for the elaborate heart-shaped chocolate box Valentine’s gifts, which Richard Cadbury first designed in 1868. These gorgeous boxes were not simply packaging for chocolates but doubled up as keepsakes once the chocolates were eaten. Talk about nifty marketing! The Victorians simply lapped them up as we do. Chocolates as romantic gifts have remained popular. As Cadbury didn’t patent the heart-shaped packaging, whoops, it has been copied by other manufacturers – now a staple in Valentine’s Day celebrations. 

Chocolate and storytelling 

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a mistake to assume chocolate is restricted to romance alone. Many authors have used chocolate - as a metaphor, for characterization or just a prop. Different ways, different genres. Here are some excerpts. 

1. A Tale of Two Cities (1859, Historical) by Charles Dickens Monseigneur was about to take his chocolate…. One lacquey carried the chocolate-pot into the sacred presence; a second, milled and frothed the chocolate with the little instrument he bore for that function; a third, presented the favoured napkin; a fourth (he of the two gold watches), poured the chocolate out. It was impossible for Monseigneur to dispense with one of these attendants on the chocolate and hold his high place under the admiring Heavens.  

2. Proof of the Pudding (1910, Short fiction) by O. Henry "Smoke, Shack?" said Editor Westbrook, sinking cautiously upon the virulent green bench. He always yielded gracefully when he did yield. Dawe snapped at the cigar as a kingfisher darts at a sunperch, or a girl pecks at a chocolate cream. 

3. Peril at End House (1932, Crime) by Agatha Christie ‘It was a box of chocolates.’ ‘Ah! sacré. And I told her to eat nothing—nothing—that came from outside.’ ‘I don’t know about that. It’s hard work keeping a girl from a box of chocolates. She only ate one, thank goodness.’ 

4. The Da Vinci Code (2003, Thriller) by Dan Browne "Although Professor Langdon might not be considered hunk-handsome like some of our younger awardees, this forty-something academic has more than his share of scholarly allure. His captivating presence is punctuated by an unusually low, baritone speaking voice, which his female students describe as 'chocolate for the ears.’” The hall erupted in laughter. 

5. Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (2016, Memoir) by Trevor Noah As a kid I understood that people were different colors, but in my head white and black and brown were like types of chocolate. Dad was the white chocolate, mom was the dark chocolate, and I was the milk chocolate. But we were all just chocolate. 

At Write…Edit…Publish…(WEP) we celebrate flash fiction by writing to a prompt every alternate month. The current prompt is based on Chocolat by Joanne Harris (1999, Magical Realism with an overdose of chocolate). The linky is open 16th - 18th August. Come join the fun! All you need is love. For writing, that is. And a bit of chocolate! 

WEP is also presently open for submissions to its first-ever flash fiction Anthology. Be in it! 


Nilanjana Bose blogs at Madly-in-Verse. She is a poet, essayist and short fiction writer. Also a quiet follower of the IWSG and a not-so-quiet part of WEP for more than a decade.


Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Nila - one of your inimitable posts ... excellent reminder about WEP and 'chocolat' ... I'd recommend Trevor Noah's book to one and all ... while I based my WEP on chocolate ... but via another book ... I'll be there ... but thanks for the other literary links ... cheers Hilary

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

And here we thought Cadbury just gave us Cadbury Easter eggs!

Nilanjana Bose said...

Hi Hilary! I loved Born a Crime. Trevor makes race issues accessible to all of us through his thoughtful comedy without diluting an iota of their seriousness. Look forward to reading your entry,

Alex - Cadbury has been around for 200 years, they have a huge history with chocolate. One of the first, if not the first company to produce milk chocolate bars. There's a museum outside Birmingham in UK - outlines the story of chocolate and Cadbury's part in it.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I didn't realize that much chocolate was produced in Africa.

PT Dilloway said...

I think you forgot Forrest Gump on your list. You know, life is like a box of chocolates...

Eden "Kymele" Mabee said...

My son got the DK kids book when he was little about the history of chocolate.... but your post was a far more interesting (and informative) piece on the subject. Thank you, Nilanjana

Nilanjana Bose said...

L. Diane Wolf - unfortunately, yes. Raw materials produced in Africa and shipped elsewhere for value addition. One of the persistent problems of colonial economies.

PT Dilloway - Forrest Gump is a great example. The movie quote and the book quote are different though. I'd have gone with the former I think, to keep it even. The list is tiny! :) No way exhaustive...

Eden "Kymele" Mabee - My pleasure! Glad you enjoyed the post. I loved the DK kids books, very comprehensive and accessible. My son had some of them too and I enjoyed going through them with him - nice memories.

Mirka Breen said...

"Bittersweet" is one of life's oxymorons, and so chocolate must be one, too :)

Elizabeth Seckman said...

Very informative. I never knew chocolate had such a sordid history.

A Hundred Quills said...

If I were Africa, I'd certainly like to do better than 3% .. comeon, it's chocolate after all! What an interesting and informative post, Nilanjana. Looking forward to this month's WEP!

Olga Godim said...

Very informative! Thanks, Nila. Now I know where my favorite chocolate ice-cream comes from.

Jemi Fraser said...

I didn't know all of that!
Chocolate is probably my favourite treat - especially if it's dark with sea salt!

Denise Covey said...

Nila, congrats! I'm very interested in chocolate, ha ha, but seriously it was amazing to read the history. I have revisited some of the history for one of my posts for Chocolat. One word, fascinating.

Nilanjana Bose said...

Mirka Breen - Chocolate makes a great oxymoron!

Elizabeth Seckman - Sadly...the story of most plantation crops.

Sonia - Africa often doesn't get a say, unfortunately. Glad you enjoyed the post.

Olga - Chocolate and ice cream...marriage made in heaven!

Jemi - I love dark...with anything! Pure magic.

Denise - Fascinating is absolutely right!

Yolanda Renée said...

Excellent information. I can't wait to see the inspiring posts for Chocolat. Great job!

I love dark chocolate. Only sweet I can safely eat. :)

J Lenni Dorner said...

Very well written.
🍫 Fun to see how chocolate has appeared in so many books.