Cacao Kapow!

Coffee and chocolate. For me it’s been a love/hate relationship, and yet it seems coffee and chocolate are staples of the Alternative Spring Break trip I’m going on in March. It’s a comical story–but it has grave consequences.

Then again, I might just be full of beans.

Growing up I’ve always loved chocolate. I remember, whenever we bought ice cream, we’d get vanilla for my dad and chocolate for my mom. Then there were all those cakes and candies–M&Ms, KitKats, Swiss Rolls, and on and on, and my mouth is watering so much right now. I remember spending afternoons with one friend, a certified chocolate addict, just tasting all of the exotic chocolate bars she had. The chocolate and chili one was pretty good–spicy, yet smooth and creamy. For my birthday last year, my sister even got me a basket (and by basked, I mean a laundry basket) full of all the things I’d need to move on campus–including a bunch of chocolate bars.

I set those aside to save for when I needed something sweet to snack on.

And then–like a bird crashing into an airplane–I developed an allergy to nuts and all those delicious things slipped from my life forever.

Even the chocolates I’d been saving to snack on.

Chocolate itself I can eat, but most chocolates are produced in factories that also produce nuts (and I don’t blame them–nuts and chocolate go beautifully together, or have you never tasted Nutella? In Israel, I ate it all the time for breakfast), and so therefore, all of these chocolates may contain trace amounts of Darren-poison.

Thankfully, there are still a few sources of chocolate sustenance left in the world for me: Chocolate ice cream, for example, is usually alright, and Andes Candies and Junior Mints (both exploiting chocolate’s other sidekick), are great, too, and I can kiss a milk chocolate kiss any time I want–although M&Ms are still out of the question. I’m sorry, Mars, they’ll have to melt in the hand this time.

Anyways, what’s the fascination with chocolate for? I mean, do you even know the scientific name for the chocolate tree? It’s Theobroma cacao, which pretty much just means “food of the gods,” as if that says anything spectacular. Wait? Food of the gods? Absolutely, and for good reason!

I can’t say I’m an expert on the science of chocolate (which actually comes from the cacao tree, not the chocolate tree), but with all the studies that have been conducted on this most amazing food, you need not be Willy Wonka to know its wonders: Chocolate naturally causes the body to release endorphins, which make you happy. In one article I read a number of years ago, the writer compared the physical effects of chocolate to the same processes that cause someone to feel elation when they’re falling in love. That’s pretty deep stuff.

Chocolate also has a rich history, no pun intended. Across south America, chocolate’s roots grow deep–but I’m not a historian, and Alton Brown does a better job at making it a story than I do. But the point remains: If you like your food with a side of cultural significance, chocolate makes a great first dish.

Of course, one of my earliest memories of chocolate have nothing to do with eating it at all: There was an entire episode of The Magic School Bus in which Ms. Frizzle took the kids to the rain forest to learn about cacao trees. It was amazing (every episode was), but something even more amazing was the amount of biodiversity required for the cacao tree to grow properly. Only a very small insect is able to pollinate the cacao flowers that will ultimately form the fruit of the gods, and this small insect only lives in a very specific rainforest habitat. Take away the rainforest, you take away the insect, and then you lose chocolate forever.

See, for me, chocolate isn’t just about eating something tasty that’ll make me feel like I’m falling in love (because, frankly, I hardly need chocolate for that), it’s also an expression of appreciation for biodiversity. Every bite of chocolate I have reminds me of the rich and abundant processes at work in the world that require such an amazing balance of factors to produce the incredible, endorphin-releasing morsel of deliciousness that maybe does melt in your mouth and not in your hands. To taste chocolate is to taste the product of not one plant or animal, but of an entire ecosystem. It’s all of nature in one mouthful.

And, honestly, since I’ve come down with this allergy to nuts and I haven’t been able to eat chocolate like I used to, I’ve really grown even more thankful for the bits I am able to have–whether it’s a Hershey kiss on the road with friends or a bit of soft-serve from the dining hall, it really means a lot for me.

Of course, all of these things are only the end results of a much longer journey–a journey that soon I will be able to witness from the beginning.

When I travel to Belize in March for my service trip, we’ll be working with the Toledo Cacao Growers’ Association; their website says a lot more than I ever could, but their mission statement makes a fine point about their purpose, “To improve the socio-economic standard of living of our farmers through competitive and diversified systems of production that incorporate sound ecological practices.”

If you read my post on Fair Trade yesterday, you’ll recognize a lot of the same principles I spoke about reflected in their mission statement. If you didn’t read my post on Fair Trade, you should make a point to.

Cacao is an important part of both the economy in Toledo and the environment in Belize, and the work we’ll be doing once we get there will help to ensure it remains that way for a long time. It might seem silly to call chocolate the food of the gods, but after you’ve seen how it truly takes all of nature to produce just one bean, no other name seems fitting enough to describe it.

(Please consider making a donation to help me pay for my trip to Belize to work with Fair Trade cacao growers here; for more information, click here.)

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