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.

Max Price: Pork, Prohibitions and Power: A Short Cultural History of the Pig in the Ancient Near East

As with many other animals in society, pigs have occupied an ambiguous status throughout human history. On the one hand, we are highly dependent on them because of their importance as both a domesticated creature and a source of food; on the other, they are reviled even to the extent that in the Abrahamic religions it is considered sacrilegious to eat pork. The pork taboo as expressed in Leviticus has been a constant source of fascination to anthropologists, as well as scholars of religion, and various explanations have been put forward for how and why this taboo came into existence in early Mesopotamian civilisations.

This week on The Provocateur I talk to Max Price, a postdoctoral fellow at Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel in Germany, to discuss the pork taboo in the context of the cultural history of the pig in the ancient Near East. We explore the uniqueness of the pig as a domesticated animal; the reasons for pig domestication; and the origins of and reasons for the pig taboo. Towards the end of the programme, we also touch on the continuing significance of pigs in Middle Eastern societies today. Max is also contracted with Oxford University Press to write a book dealing with these issues from 1 million years ago to the present, which will certainly be worth looking out for in the near future!

You can listen to the podcast here: 

Further Reading:

Albarella, U., K. Dobney, A. Ervynck, and P. Rowley-Conwy (eds.) (2007) Pigs and Humans: 10,000 Years of Interaction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Diener, P. and E.E. Robkin (1978) ‘Ecology, Evolution, and the Search for Cultural Origins: The Question of Islamic Pig Prohibition’, Current Anthropology 19: 493-540.

Essig, M. (2015) Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig. New York: Basic Books.

Hessler, P. (2014) ‘Letters from Cairo: Tales of the Trash’, The New Yorker October 13, 2014.

Ottoni, C. et al. (2012) ‘Pig Domestication and Human-Mediated Dispersal in Western Eurasia Revealed through Ancient DNA and Geometric Morphometrics’, Molecular biology and evolution: mss261.