FOOD: Chocolate’s biographer reveals its tasty secrets

Posted on February 3rd, 2010 by americanindiannews in Past News

Washington—The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian will host the “Power of Chocolate,” a festival, on Feb. 13 and 14, bringing an eclectic mix of cultural arts and science to the museum in Washington, D.C.

Illustration by Joe Poccia

Howard-Yana Shapiro, the global director of plant science and external research at Mars Incorporated, will give a talk about the mythology of chocolate and its relationship with indigenous peoples at 2 p.m. on both days.

Over his long career Shapiro has taught sustainable agriculture in universities, junior colleges and high schools throughout the United States. In documenting the oral history of seeds, he turned to the cacao bean—the basis of chocolate—and traced it through agricultural practices and archives to its roots in the cultures of the Mayans and their ancestors.

Shapiro is the co-author with Louis E. Grivetti of “Chocolate: History, Culture and Heritage” (Wiley, 2009), a book that takes a long look at the fascinating history of chocolate. Shapiro recently joined American Indian News Service editor Kara Briggs for a conversation about the Native American roots of chocolate.



Shapiro: From a domestic standpoint, chocolate really goes back only 1,500 years from the Mayans. The Olmecs, or however you refer to the people before the Mayans, are the ones who domesticated it. From a simple perspective, it’s a fairly recent crop, but because there has been so much complicated history about how it fits into mythology and the world story, it has really taken on this amazing role in culture.


Briggs: In your research you found stories about how cacao came to be sacred.

Shapiro: In the Oaxaca Valley of Mexico—where I was doing research on the Zapotecs and their use of cacao—it was so integrated into their lives, its preparation and its ceremonial use. There were myths about how the chocolate came into being. There is a Mayan myth about how it was like any other tree in the forest, then Christ appeared and he was persecuted by his enemies and he ran into the forest and took refuge under the cacao tree. When he touched it, the tree blossomed with white flowers, and the flowers covered him. He gave the tree to the people; they called it a tree of knowledge. Later when they used the cacao beans for money, it lost its power. There is another story that while the emperor was away, his enemies came and assaulted his wife. Still she wouldn’t tell them where the treasure was hidden. They killed her, so the cacao beans are bitter like suffering, and they are strong seeds like virtue.

Briggs: Is the history of the cacao bean tied to indigenous people both in its origins and in its ongoing cultivation, by indigenous peoples who live near the equator around the world?

Courtesy of Mars, Incorporated Howard-Yana Shapiro

Shapiro: When we consider chocolate was domesticated by the Olmecs, used by the Mayans, spread around the world by the Spanish, cultivated by the Ivoirians of West Africa and the Indonesians, it’s been inextricably linked to indigenous people for 1,500 years. The cacao tree is very susceptible to diseases. In history we find references shortly after the conquest of Mexico that the tree already showed signs of suffering from diseases, suffering because it didn’t have enough shade. In the 1,500 years when it was domesticated, it has suffered from disease.

Briggs: Is chocolate still a significant crop in the Americas? Is it still farmed? Is it still used culturally by Native peoples?

Shapiro: It’s significantly farmed in Brazil, which was the second-largest producer in the world until the late 1980s, when this disease called witches’ broom wiped out the production. West Africa produces 70 percent of the cacao crop. Indonesia and Brazil are coming back under different production models. It is grown a little in Mexico, Belize, Honduras and Panama. Farther south, there is a substantial production in Ecuador and Venezuela. Mexico absolutely is where its hold went beyond mythology to a central part of culture. In Oaxaca, and in Mexico City and Monterrey, on the Day of the Dead it is completely integrated in the culture. Even around Veracruz, the indigenous peoples are still very involved with cacao. I’ve seen necklaces strung of cacao beans and corn hung around the necks of church statues of the Virgin Mary and Christ. I’ve seen processions of people carrying strings of cacao beans on bamboo poles to be blessed by priests. In the Oaxacan lowlands, the Sierra highlands and the Sierra mountains, it is expected that you will be served hot chocolate made with water and sometimes chile in the mornings. There are ceremonies where they will add a froth on top, and that is an extreme honor.

Briggs: Is the chocolate bar the most common use of chocolate in the world?

Shapiro: The ubiquitous chocolate bars made by companies like Mars Incorporated, include its brands M&M’S®, SNICKERS® and others. Mars is the largest user of cacao beans. We source from all over the world. It’s hard to go somewhere where there hasn’t been a traditional use of chocolate, or else they are evolving it, like in China. China is developing a taste for chocolate.

Briggs: Eleven years ago, Mars Incorporated convened a meeting with the Smithsonian Institution and non-governmental organizations from around the world to talk about the role of the cacao tree in sustaining the tropics, and maybe sustaining the peoples of the tropics.

Shapiro: Out of that meeting, Mars developed a program to encourage best practices in farming the cacao tree. In West Africa, we do it through the sustainable tree program. Since June 6, 2006, we have been sequencing the cacao genome. The findings are being put in the public domain and they won’t be able to be patented. That is unique in the world of agricultural research.

Briggs: What does this mean for cacao farmers, who as we’ve said are indigenous from many regions of the world, and who are small farmers, who eke out a living from this globally-traded, fragile crop.

Shapiro: In modern times we assumed there were only three genetic structures of the cacao tree. Over the centuries people bred these and didn’t make other selections. Over the last 15 months, we discovered that there are 10 genetic structures of the cacao, and there is a potential to add to the gene pool. All those things point to the potential to strengthen this fragile tree that is cultivated by indigenous people around the world, but is linked to the GNPs (gross national product) of countries. It is 30 percent of the GNP of the Ivory Coast and 20 percent of the GNP of Ghana. It is more valuable in modern times than gold, and it is dependant on 6.5 million small farmers around the world, working an average of 2.5 hectares (about 6 acres) of land each.

Briggs: Mars Incorporated is the largest buyer of cacao beans in the world, and since 2002 it has set a goal of buying cacao beans which have been certified to have been grown using best practices.

Shapiro: When we started, there were probably only 20,000 metric tons of sustainably-grown cacao beans available globally. Now there are probably over one million metric tons that you would call certifiable. Mars is forming a coalition of the largest chocolate companies, and with these partnerships, it is likely that the idea of sustainability will soon sweep the chocolate world. The result—that farmers will have better yield and better productivity, matched with the social issues—is amazing to consider. A farmer should be able to triple his yield with good agronomy, and to get out of the kind of marginal life we imagine in North Africa. With a triple yield, the farmer should be able to get out of the poverty cycle

Briggs: Does chocolate, which began in its earliest-known use as a sacred plant, still carry some of that importance even in other cultures? I ask considering the deep feelings that people express through the giving of chocolate?

Shapiro: In Central Sulawesi, a state in Indonesia, in a town that has been built largely on the success of cacao farming, there is a statue, a set of hands 18 to 20 feet high which hold a giant cacao pod. I’ve seen metaphors like that on different scales everywhere. Chocolate is one of the great stories of the world. Unlike corn or wheat that can be grown on a large scale, cacao will always be a crop for small, indigenous farmers. Even if we can make the crop more robust, it will still be a tropical plant, grown in forests as an understory plant. You can’t get to it by tractors, you can only harvest it with the human hand.


Download this article as a Word document.

Comments are closed.

More News


FOOD: Let’s eat: The executive chef of the Mitsitam Cafe whips up a cookbook

FOOD: Let’s eat: The executive chef of the Mitsitam Cafe whips up a cookbook

Washington, D.C.—Chocolate, chiles, tomatoes, blueberries and corn are just a ...

RECIPE: Mitsitam Cafe buffalo and duck burger

Buffalo and duck burger topped with roasted pepper, Dijonaise sauce ...

RECIPE: Mitsitam Cafe’s Mexican hot chocolate warms up cool summer nights

When the summer sun gives way to cool nights, chef ...

RECIPE: As cherries blossom, a taste of summer

Cherries pair with the earth and sea in this favorite ...

RECIPE: Chocolate’s indigenous history makes spicy tale

Washington—Chocolate is a flavor as old and varied as the ...

Readers' Favorites

CULTURE: Children step up as culture-bearers

CULTURE: Children step up as culture-bearers

Washington, D.C.—Kelly Church, a weaver of black ash baskets, is ...

EXHIBITION: Quileute separate fact from fiction for ‘Twilight’ fans

Seattle, Wash.—The Seattle Art Museum opened an exhibition of some ...

ART: One man’s interest helps save ancient art

Dennis White, 63, an Ojibwe mathematics scholar from the Lac ...

ARTS: Jungen’s farfetched animals stretch the imagination

Washington—Artist Brian Jungen’s oversized animals have invaded the Smithsonian’s National ...


MUSIC: Nakai expands the language of Native American music

MUSIC: Nakai expands the language of Native American music

R. Carlos Nakai’s new album “Dancing into Silence,” (with William ...

MUSIC: Sky’s the limit for blues musician Derek Miller

Washington, D.C.—Derek Miller stepped onto an international stage in early ...

MUSIC: Jazz sax in a Native key

New York—Cherokee saxophone player and bandleader Sharel Cassity has a ...

MUSIC: Native American school band rocks the oldies – and the ancients

Ten years ago Kim Cournoyer answered an ad seeking a ...

MUSIC: Roots of the blues go deep into shared Native and African American history

Jimi Hendrix meteorically rose to rock-and-roll fame playing, smashing and ...


PEOPLE: Helen Maynor Scheirbeck (1935-2010)

PEOPLE: Helen Maynor Scheirbeck (1935-2010)

Washington, D.C.—Dr. Helen Maynor Scheirbeck, longtime champion of American Indian civil rights, ...

MOVIES: Big and blue, ‘Avatar’ with Wes Studi comes to DVD

Cherokee movie star Wes Studi is no stranger to standing ...

Movies: Native film star tells of his hero’s journey, on and offscreen

For Wes Studi, playing a character confronting colonial powers while ...

People: Unsung hero has a million books he’d like you to check out

Irving Nelson has had a desk in the director’s office ...

Museum: Seeds of understanding accompany interns into wider fields of work

Washington, D.C.— As the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American ...

Online Exhibitions

ARTS: Animal images tell visual story of boys in trouble

ARTS: Animal images tell visual story of boys in trouble

Rick Bartow’s sculpture “From the Mad River to the Little ...

Exhibition: “A Song for the Horse Nation” gallops into museum and onto the

The exhibition “A Song for the Horse Nation” recently made ...

Fritz Scholder continues to stir, stretch boundaries of Indian art

The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian recently held ...

U.S. Postal Service delivers a tiny timeline of Native America

Washington—Stamps have carried art portraying Native Americans all over the ...