The dark side of chocolate

Writers and artists have been inspired to create magical worlds involving the richness and exoticism of chocolate. But it has a sinister side as well, which should not be forgotten.

Chocolate has featured in several successful books and films. In 1964, Roald Dahl published the children’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It recounts how a poor boy named Charlie Bucket wins a golden ticket to take a tour of the greatest chocolate factory in the world, owned by Willy Wonka. Two film adaptations of the novel were made: Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) starring Gene Wilder, which became a cult classic. Thirty-four years later, a second film adaptation was produced, titled Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, starring Johnny Depp.

After his death, the Estate of Roald Dahl sanctioned an operatic adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory called The Golden Ticket, written by American composer Peter Ash and British librettist Donald Sturrock. Commissioned by American Lyric Theater, and with original music, its world premiere took place at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis on 13 June 2010, in a co-production with Wexford Festival Opera.

Like Water for Chocolate (Como agua para chocolate) is a 1989 love story by novelist Laura Esquivel, made into a film in 1992. The plot blends magical realism with Mexican cuisine, and the title in Spanish is a double entendre, referring both to a recipe for hot chocolate and to a metaphor for sexual excitement. Chapter Nine provides the ingredients for the chocolate:

“The first step is to toast the chocolate beans. It’s good to use a metal pan rather than the earthenware griddle since the pores of the griddle soak up the oil the beans give off. It’s very important to pay attention to this sort of detail, since the goodness of the chocolate depends on three things, namely: that the chocolate beans used are good and without defect, that you mix several different types of beans to make the chocolate, and, finally, the amount of toasting.”

Chocolat, a 1999 novel by Joanne Harris, tells the story of Vianne Rocher, a young mother, whose confections change the lives of the repressed townspeople of the fictional French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes. In the Harry Potter series of books by J. K. Rowling, published between 1997 and 2007, chocolate has special properties in the wizarding world. It serves as a powerful antidote to the chilling effect produced by contact with Dementors and other nasty forms of dark magic. Remus Lupin carried chocolate with him on the Hogwarts Express and gave Harry Potter some after he was attacked by a Dementor.

The fantasy of the chocolate story is, however, marred by exploitation. According to UNICEF, around 600,000 children (the figure may be much higher) are used in cocoa production in the Ivory Coast. The work they do is backbreaking and hazardous. The children have to go into the bush to climb the cacao trees. Wielding heavy and dangerous machetes, they cut down the pods and crack them open. The cocoa beans are then extracted, dried and bagged for sale. Most of the children who harvest the cocoa don’t go to school and they are rarely paid for their labour. Worse still, thousands of children are trafficked every year into West Africa to work as slaves on cocoa farms. The story of chocolate is not a wholesome one.

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