Kristy Leissle: The Cultural Politics of Chocolate

From its mysterious origins deep in the rainforests of Central America to the gluttonous foodstuff we all know and love today, chocolate (not to mention its parent cocoa) has been an integral part of human society for centuries. The Aztecs used cocoa in rituals and as a form of currency as well as for nourishment. In early modern Spain, Catholic theologians argued over whether drinking chocolate could be seen to break the ecclesiastical fast. Chocolate pioneers in the nineteenth century promoted it as an alternative to alcohol, in keeping with the temperance movement that was all the rage at the time. Even in the modern world it has provoked strong emotional perceptions, from innocent treat to sexualized indulgence to junk food. Chocolate is a symbol of global inequality, cultural mores and social anxieties about health, religion, morality, sexuality, race and gender.

This week on The Provocateur we are joined by Kristy Leissle, a lecturer in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell, to discuss the cultural politics of chocolate. We talk about the history of chocolate from the Aztecs to the present, the politics of chocolate branding (using some rather tasty examples) and the future of the chocolate industry in an age of global climate change. Hopefully after listening to this episode you will never look at a chocolate bar in the same way again!

You can listen to the podcast here: 

These are images of the chocolate bars discussed during the show, for reference:

Further Reading:

Allen, L. L. (2009) Chocolate Fortunes: The Battle for the Hearts, Minds, and Wallets of China’s Consumers. New York: American Management Association.

Beckett, S. T. (2008) The Science of Chocolate. Cambridge: The Royal Society of Chemistry.

Coe, S. D. and M. D. Coe (2013) The True History of Chocolate, third edition. London: Thames & Hudson.

Forrest, B. M. and A. L. Najjaj (2007) ‘Is Sipping Sin Breaking Fast? The Catholic Chocolate Controversy and the Changing World of Early Modern Spain’, Food and Foodways 5(1-2), pp. 31-52. [See also the rest of this journal issue.]

Jones, C. A. (2013) ‘Exotic Edibles: Coffee, Tea, Chocolate, and the Early Modern French How-to’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 43(3), pp. 623-653.

Leissle, K. (in press) Cocoa. Cambridge: Polity Press (in the ‘Resources’ series).

Mintz, S. (1985) Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Viking-Penguin.

Norton, M. (2006) ‘Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics’, American Historical Review 111(3), pp. 660-691.

____ (2010) Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Richardson, B. (2015) Sugar. Cambridge: Polity Press (in the ‘Resources’ series).

Robertson, E. (2009) Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Ryan, O. (2011) Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa. London: Zed Books.

Satre, L. J. (2005) Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

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