Reconnecting with Catholic social teaching through chocolate
Feb. 8, 2019
After World Youth Day in Panama had concluded, I had the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica with my husband, Andrew. While there, we attended a chocolate-making workshop, where we learned from the owner of a small chocolate company – named “Two Little Monkeys” after his two small children – how to make chocolate “from bean to bar.”
We started by walking over to a cacao plant and seeing what the cacao fruit looks like when it is growing. Then, our leader chopped open one of those large, colorful fruits, and we tasted one of the seeds inside. It was slimy and sweet, and when we cracked it open, it was purple on the inside. It looked and tasted absolutely nothing like chocolate.
We learned that chocolate producers ferment and then roast that seed, and we held a seed that had gone through that process. When we cracked it open this time, it turned into “cacao nibs,” which can be eaten plain – and apparently have great health benefits – or can be ground up and used to make chocolate with added milk or sugar. Since adding milk reduces the chocolate's health benefits, the chocolate we made only had sugar added.
Anyone who knows Andrew and I can attest to the fact that we really love chocolate. After I learned he was from Ohio, one of the first things we did together when we met in college was melt large quantities of chocolate in our new parish’s kitchen to create the traditional Ohio dessert of buckeyes (peanut butter balls covered in chocolate), which my grandma had always made for me when I visited her in that state as a kid.
Growing up, I had a reputation for being the chocolate lover, and when I met Andrew, I soon realized he is even more of a chocoholic than me. I don’t complain about his tendency to add an extra bag of chocolate chips to any store-bought cookie dough or brownie mix.
Needless to say, chocolate is important to us. But until this trip, I had never thought twice about how that delicious food makes its way into the candy wrapper and eventually into my mouth as I savor its taste. I had given some thought to the importance of buying small and local when it comes to things like vegetables or eggs, but the fact that chocolate comes from a plant was, at best, a distant thought in the back of my mind.
Conveniently, on my way to Central America, I read The Grace of Enough by Haley Stewart, a book about how Stewart and her family lived on a farm for a year in an effort to simplify their life, reconnect with God’s creation, and fight against what Pope Francis has called the “throwaway culture.”
In the book, Stewart quotes novelist and environmental activist Wendell Barry, who said eaters “must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.”
Admitting that she has often missed that connection, Stewart writes, “Many of those caught up in a throwaway culture have forgotten that food and creation are inextricably linked…When we turn a blind eye to this connection, we begin to lose touch with the responsibility God gave us to be stewards of the earth. When that happens, it is only a matter of time before other problems emerge, such as injustice toward workers in the agricultural and food service industries, hoarding waste, and unhealthy agricultural practices.”
Though the chocolate workshop was more focused on educating us about the process of making chocolate than it was about any related justice issues, the mere act of seeing the plant that chocolate comes from, holding the bean in my hand, using my strength to grind it up, and ultimately crafting the final product of chocolate made me feel a connection to my food that I had not felt before. To be honest, I had no idea how much work goes into making one chocolate bar, and I now more fully understand the connection between its origin as a part of God’s creation, its production at the hands of many hardworking people, and its enjoyment when it finally gets to me.
The man leading the workshop pointed out that making chocolate takes about the same amount of work as making other fermented foods, such as wine, but chocolate sells at a much lower price, which I could imagine makes it difficult for large companies to pay all of their farmers and laborers fairly. After seeing the full process, I am more motivated to spend the extra money on fair trade chocolate that ensures fair wages to the people who did the work to get it to me, because as Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si, “Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment."
"Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs," he continues. "The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work.”
Though I went into this workshop only with the hopes of learning about (and enjoying) chocolate, I came out with a renewed dedication to Catholic social teaching and its emphasis on both caring for creation and caring for the workers who produce and make our food. I am grateful to God for making the cacao plant, and I am grateful to all those people who work hard and long days in the hot Costa Rican sun to help produce the snack that brings me happiness, even on the worst days.
(If you are interested in purchasing some fair trade chocolate, Catholic Relief Services maintains a listing of fair trade products, including chocolate, which can be found here.)