Can chocolate ever be considered ethical? (Part one)

Peeps. Here’s a tip: don’t read super depressing books on vacation.

Maybe everyone knows this but me, but I never get time to really tear through books like I so love to do. So, on my annual month off from cooking I haul all the books I’ve been hoarding throughout the year to my little vacation paradise (a shack next to Jacob’s dad’s house on Kauai) and read until my eyes burn. Here’s what I’ve devoured so far:

Momofuku by David Chang & Peter Meehan: UTTERLY FASCINATING cookbook. Yes, pretty damn meaty. But really wonderful. More about it later…maybe (see how I’m being so good and not forcing myself to write blog posts on vacation?). I read literally every word and every single recipe—even for things like “Pig’s Head Torchon,” (I got though that one by not looking at the pictures) and I learned something new and interesting on every page.

Celebrate with Chocolate by Marcel Desoulniers: picked up at a thrift store for $1, really lovely.

Bakewise by Shirley Corriher: like Momofuku but even more so: constant firecrackers of ideas and inspiration going off. Truly invaluable.

From A Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawai’i by Haunani-Kay Trask. See below.

The Boss of You: Everything a Woman Needs to Know to Start, Run, and Maintain Her Own Business by Lauren Bacon and Emira Mears: haven’t started it yet, looks great. Update! GREAT! Gave me lots of good ideas for how to inject some zest into my boring businessy inner workings.

Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Workplace by Pun Ngai: heartbreaking, fascinating, heartbreaking, heartbreaking.

My Bread by Jim Lahey: haven’t started yet, very very excited!! Update: AMAZING, LOVED IT, SO MANY GOOD IDEAS! Sorta slim, but all in all a well-crafted, well-edited, curated little collection of ideas and recipes. The dude loves and cares for bread, that’s for sure.

and finally, Bitter Chocolate by Carol Off

Throw in about 20 magazines, and I feel on top of the world of words. An amazing feeling.

But Bitter Chocolate and, to a lesser extent, Made in China and From A Native Daughter, are messing me up more than I’d like to admit.

From A Native Daughter is primarily about why haoles (white people like me) shouldn’t ever go to Hawaii because it was stolen from Hawaiians, etc. It’s pretty devastating in its critique of American imperialism and the horrors capitalism hath wrought. I’m only halfway through it right now, but it’s not actually making me feel more guilty than I already feel about spending so much time on this stolen island—because here’s the thing: if Hawaii wasn’t a state—and I do believe that it should be given back to native Hawaiians tomorrow, make no mistake—I’d love it even more. If tight restrictions where put on where tourists could go (so ancient and sacred sites were protected, for example) and what they could do (if the stupid horrible fake “luaus” and hula shows and things were ended, for example), I’d feel much happier about enjoying this island. Similarly, I’d love to know my tourist dollars were going to local businesses owned by residents and native people rather than American multi-nationals. Hawaii should be a country. That’s the bottom line for me. I have a feeling, however, that Trask still wouldn’t want my white face around, and I’m hoping the rest of the book can help me understand her position a little more. She is filled with a sometimes explosive rage, and as you can imagine that thrills me to no end. She’s one of us! (I sort of want to name a chocolate after her, can you tell? She’s been on my short list for a while.)

So when I’m not reading about how I should be ashamed to be in this place I adore so, I’m reading about how my entire beloved business is built on the backs of poor people halfway across the world. Bitter Chocolate is harsh.

Here’s what I emailed to my friend Randy about it:

…See, I’m reading this book, Bitter Chocolate, all about, well, the chocolate industry. As expected, it’s horrifying. The phrase “death by chocolate” is used, and it doesn’t refer to a decadent cake. And I of course knew all of this, but what the author has to say about fair trade chocolate is predictably terrifying as well. So sad. And the choc I use (Tcho) isn’t fair trade certified [and I’m happy about this, because I increasingly doubt the ability of the too-tidy f/t label to really do what it says and the process of getting certified can actually make things worse for small farmers–more on this in a minute]—they work with small farmer co-ops and they document everything and pay fair wages, blah blah. Their bags are printed with “no slavery” and they talk all about the issues on their site, and I’ve had several really reassuring phone calls about it with them. But here’s the thing: can a product like chocolate–made largely by brown people to be eaten largely by white people (the name of this book could be “Brown People Died To Bring White People Candy”)–ever be ethical?

Argh. I try to make my business my activism, but maybe nothing can be done.

I know I’m saying that now and tomorrow I will know again that some people are buying my choc who would have bought Hershey bars, but…tonight is tonight.

So that’s where I’m at. I feel better today, I’m not about to shut my business down or anything, but I am unsettled about it, for sure. So you can share my discomfort, tomorrow I’ll share some facts I’ve pulled from Bitter Chocolate that particularly struck me. But for now, here’s what Randy wrote back (which I didn’t ask his permission to print—let me know if I should take this down, yo!)

I am glad you are reading your book and using the information to improve your interaction with the world.  That is in itself the right thing to be doing.  I don’t think there will ever be a point when your negative impact on the planet and other people is eliminated.  You will always want to do better, but never hit the zero mark.  That is ok!  You have to be and being makes a mess.  This is not a reason to make as big a mess as you might find convenient, but it is a reason to not beat yourself up for ending up somewhere short of perfect.

Talking things over with Randy, like talking things over with Jacob, always helps. And, like Jacob and so many others in my life, Randy often points out to me the impossibility of achieving perfection. I appreciate it, but it also sort of turns me into a whining child: but I want perfection. It is, in fact, all I’ve ever wanted. And to admit to myself that it’s not possible to achieve it—in this case, to run my business in the absolute most ethical way—terrifies me. Why even try, if you’re not going to try for perfection? You’ll rarely make it, but those tiny times when you do—that feeling is why I’m alive. But, yes, to find a way to fall short without tearing your insides to shreds—there’s the rub.

Enough cheeseballery. Tomorrow: depressing choco facts.

11 Responses to “Can chocolate ever be considered ethical? (Part one)”

  1. Randal Putnam

    I am honored you shared my words. One more thing, though. You CAN achieve perfection. I think you often do, evidenced by many of the delights I have savored in your kitchen. You don’t become that perfection, though. You are an amalgam of all that you do, some of which is probably not perfect. Follow the example of the clock and keep moving forward.

  2. brittany

    you won’t rarely achieve perfection, princess – you never will. but you’ll get pretty damn close and improve so many things along the way, so isn’t “better” just as good as “perfect”?

  3. christy h

    I think about this a lot in regards to coffee… as a coffee drinker and a person who spent almost 10 years in the business. I hate the idea of living without coffee, but it’s almost impossible to achieve the necessary oversight to make sure you aren’t causing endless devastation. i don’t believe in certification processes either… they are sales gimmicks that don’t even approximate what i would define as ‘fair’ or ethical. It comes down to this, coffee and chocolate should be expensive and people who do the difficult work of bringing it to us should live pampered lives. Short work days followed by white people f’ing fanning them with banana leaves and bringing them fancy cocktails. but, and i am not THAT comforted by this, simply discontinuing use of coffee or chocolate on a personal OR societal level won’t fix it. growing these things constitutes the livelihood of so many… so we have to educate people and create a market for this stuff that honors it’s true value. and lagusta, you do that! getting closer and closer to the source is the key. a lot of ‘relationship coffee’ companies do stuff like this in ways i dig. they even GO THERE and pay for coffee in advance in order to allow growers to invest in infrastructure and provide living wages, health insurance and schooling for those they employ… because they are confident their product has been sold and for a good price. Personally witness production and invest in the kind of production you would like to be associated with… Maybe this is the next step for you? Sounds expensive… but if pursuing perfection is the goal… i don’t think it comes cheap.

    • Merce

      christy h,
      You say that you don’t believe in certification processes, but then you say you like what ‘relationship coffee’ companies do, and, inadvertedly, you are describing fair trade: advance payments to invest in infrastructure, decent wages, health insurance… that is exactly what fair trade is about.
      Please get some information before saying it’s all a sales gimmick. It may be offensive for people who’ve been working hard for many years to bring justice to workers all around the world, likek them:
      And, you know what? Many of them started to work in the fair trade movement because they had the same thoughts and questions as lagusta.

  4. Doug

    Momofuku is good? I found a copy at a friend’s apartment this weekend and immediately flipped open–naturally–to the Spirited Defense of Foie Gras pull-out section. The pictures they included to show how great the ducks’ lives are looked to me an awful lot like a small confinement operation (seems like they were kept in close quarters indoors at all times, at the very least), but the biggest irritation was that the authors wrote something like (paraphrasing) “They’ll have you believe that foie gras is awful, to which we say, ‘Bullshit!'” Just seemed so snide and defensive. Couldn’t get over it to check out the rest. But I once knew a dog named Momo, Japanese for peach, so I was instantly curious and attracted before being stunned and miffed. Perhaps I’ll try flipping it open again–and hopefully I’ll land on a different page.

    • lagusta

      Yeah, that HVFG thing was horrid. But I dunno, I guess it did impress me that they cared enough to go. And I do think that they treat the animals fairly well there…compared with your standard factory farm. Not that that means that they treat them well, just well in comparison. Ugh.

      And yeah, their attitudes are super snide. Which I like! Except for when they are snide about, you know, animals dying. Here’s my thing: it’s so hard for me to find a place for myself in the food world—the vegan chefs (with the exception of a few) are all prissy and blah and the mainstream foodie world is candying bacon and shit—that whenever I see someone whose attitudes resonate with mine, even if we disagree on fundamental issues, I’m thrilled. They treat vegetables very…how can I put it?…respectfully in the book—not just as garnishes. I don’t want to go to their restaurants or anything, but reading the book got my mind working, and that was nice. I’d venture to say that most vegetarians would HATE it. Just thinking about my mom reading it makes me nervous. But I learned a lot, what can ya do.

      • Doug

        I can definitely understand. Thoughtful, creative people are still thoughtful and creative even if they cling tenaciously to ideas that are contrary to our own (I, for my part, certainly do plenty of tenacious idea-clinging…). I guess it was just one of those moments that was doubly disappointing since my curiosity was so piqued before opening it and the foie gras bit instantly shut me down. My own button, I suppose. But I’m glad you liked it–and if you end up doing the blog post about it, I’d love to read more of your thoughts. Hope all’s well.

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