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Apr 5, 2017

History of Chocolate

About a month ago, a couple members of our education team, Kelsey and Cynthia, were asked to give a lecture on the History of Chocolate to an undergraduate history class at the University of California-Davis. They used the opportunity to create an outline for our newest class at Dandelion Chocolate: An Edible History of Chocolate. Here’s a look into how it went, what they learned, and what you can look forward to in our upcoming class!

When Cynthia and I were asked to give a lecture on the History of Chocolate, we thought, “Easy! we’ll just talk about what we do every day…to a bunch of history students… who probably know more about the history of the Americas than we do… and, wait, did you just say 300 of them? Oh. Well, here comes the crippling stage fright. What did we get ourselves into?”

I remember the lump in my throat as I read the email from Professor Andres Resendez, who has spent his entire academic career studying and writing multiple books all about the early exploration and colonization of Central and South America, imagining what we could possibly tell him (and a lecture hall full of students) about cacao, or about how colonialism introduced chocolate to the global trade system, beginning thousands of years ago. And, history, it’s so…old. How could we know enough to confidently explain it to an expert historian? We know chocolate, we’re neck deep in it every day. But talking about the history of chocolate to a room full of history students felt, well, intimidating.

I peeked over my computer at Cynthia. She too had an apprehensive look on her face after opening the last correspondence with Dr. Resendez. But it only took her all of 30 seconds to perk up and smile, as she always does, with a glow of confidence, “Oh! We’ve got this. I mean why not?” Cynthia has a way of boosting my confidence when it comes to these things, reminding me that in our little chocolate world over here we can sometimes forget just how much we’ve already learned about chocolate and where it comes from. I later told her she reminded me of Miss Frizzle from the Magic School Bus, what with her “Take chances, make mistakes and get messy!” attitude.

So there we had it, a month to pull together the curriculum and make a nerdy, but totally cool and engaging presentation. Happily for us, we’ve been dreaming about developing a full class about the history of chocolate for our customers for awhile now, and this was an excellent opportunity to pull that together. We spent the month compiling and formatting information, listening to podcasts, reading articles, looking at all kinds of books on Amazon. Finally, we had a week to pull together the presentation when Cynthia pulled me aside at our Valencia Street Factory and says, “I realized, I know way more than I thought I did and I’m pretty sure you do too. I’m really excited. We’ve totally got this, Kelsey.”

And that was all I needed to hear to be right there with her. She was right. I think we sometimes forget that no one knows it all. We don’t. Historians don’t. Other chocolate makers (probably) don’t. New discoveries are continually being made by scientists, uncovering new evidence extending what we know about the history of chocolate. And then there are the farmers, traders and makers of chocolate, who are regularly discovering new things about the industry. We’re both adding what we know to both ends of the story, the past and the present. You can be an expert and still not know everything; you can be relatively new to it and still know a lot. And that feels like the magic of chocolate; there is always something new to learn.

As P-day approached, we dove into the deep end. We reviewed the history of the Olmec, the Maya and the Aztec.; how cacao beans were at one point a currency, which would set the stage for the future of its influence over the rest of the world. We read stories of European royalty bestowing gifts of chocolate in marriage, a symbol of international alliances. We dove into stories about how the Quaker influence shows up in the modern day labor dynamics in the Ivory Coast. We noticed patterns, like the way different cultures throughout history had some spiritual or romantic association with chocolate, and many of them recognized some aphrodisiac property in theobromine. We even learned how chocolate was adopted by the masses in the United States through WWII. Cynthia pulled together 60+ slides, dotted with lore of Emperor Montezuma and his drinking obsession, and stories of the secret Monks of Spain and Hershey bars. And I got to make it pretty with silly animations and words. We worked until 10pm the night before, giddy with fun facts (which could have also had to do with the entire Marou bar I ate while working).    

We walked into the classroom, took a deep breath, introduced ourselves and proceeded to tell a room full of 20 year olds what we knew. And guess what? We totally killed it.

And even better, you can experience the whole thing in our upcoming Edible History of Chocolate class! The first one will be April 20th, from 7-9pm. Stay tuned for more info on how to sign up and future dates.


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