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A Christmas Sermon about Chocolate

Roaster and artisan of chocolate "imported from the French colonies" since 1897

This week, in celebration of the Christmas holiday and in reverence to the snow and extreme cold, we take a break from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to remember one of the most unique ways chocolate has been memorialized as a winter drink in the United States.

In the last Christmas sermon before he was shot and killed, poignantly entitled, “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” Martin Luther King, Jr. called on Americans to wake up to their dependence on the world. Peace required it, he said. Chocolate and the other hot beverages appear among a host of common household items—just the ones we tend not to notice—as examples of that dependence. It's lengthy and poignant. I quote the section in full:

Did you ever stop to think that you can't leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world? You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that's handed to you by a Pacific islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that's given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning, and that's poured into your cup by a South American. And maybe you want tea: that's poured into your cup by a Chinese. Or maybe you're desirous of having cocoa for breakfast, and that's poured into your cup by a West African. And then you reach over for your toast, and that's given to you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you've depended on more than half of the world. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren't going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.

King’s mid-century description of world commerce may now seem outdated, but that’s partially because in 1967 the commodities of typical US morning ablutions and breakfasts came from societies for whom they constituted natural resources. Through forces of colonialism and global trade, they had become popular worldwide. The passage points to how late in history we could still identify stuff with the agricultural source cultures of its raw materials. In fact, everything on the list is a raw material or has been prepared and sold to American consumers by foreign artisans—not Walmart.

King has a human representative of the plant’s source culture pour each drink into an American’s mug. It’s a warming twist on Dufour’s beverage summit and a carefully worded critique of how the US acquired goods from other world cultures. But a funny thing has happened to the provenance of cacao and coffee beans: they have both moved to another continent. In 1967, King has Americans identifying chocolate with West Africa, perhaps Ghana, and coffee with South America, probably Brazil and Columbia.

Aficionados and readers of this blog will know that cacao hails traditionally from the Yucatán peninsula, particularly the southern region of modern-day Mexico and northern Guatemala, the ancient empire of the Maya and then capital of the conquering Aztecs until the fall of Montezuma II to Hernán Cortés. Coffee, for its part, long remained associated with the Levant, defined by early-modern Europe as the lands of Greece, Syria, Egypt, and eventually Mesopotamia and the Arabian Peninsula. Beans came from Mocha, Yemen via Ottoman Constantinople (today Istanbul) and Cairo Egypt into Venice, Italy and Marseilles, France.

The detailed how and why that spread cacao to the African continent and coffee to the Americas (a future post…someday) took centuries and are less significant for our purposes today than the fact of those migrations as they come up in King’s sermon. Readers following cacaosophy here will recall that both coffee and cacao grow in the tropical region of the planet now known as the “Bean Belt,” that stretches about 25 degrees above and below the Equator. The tropics as a region first took shape in the colonial imagination when the Portuguese reached the West coast of Africa near Guinea, established the city of São Vicente, Brazil, and set up a port at Goa in South Asia--all by 1510.** European traders and colonists connected these world areas as they felt their sweltering heat, analogous rain patterns, and the consistent challenge posed by their diseases and cures to Western medical understanding.

Once "the tropics" as a global concept was born, European powers commenced moving the beans and the botanical wisdom necessary to grow them around the world to find the most hospitable soils and coax the most luscious tastes from them. While chocolate in Ghana may look native now, it was not then. Cacao plantations on the African continent tell a complex tale of imperial migration for which the West bears responsibility. That's only part of King's larger point in the sermon, but central to why chocolate and coffee appear.

The whole sermon is moving and, just shy of 50 years after King gave it, still a pertinent and jarring wake-up call. The West enjoys countless tropical luxuries like chocolate on the backs of planters, growers, and harvesters. Until we recognize that profound interdependence and fight for universal human rights, King preached at Christmas, there will be no peace on earth.

Read the full sermon here.


* “Introduction,” The Republic of Letters and the Levant, eds. Alastair Hamilton, Maurits H. Van Den Boogert, Bart Westerweel, 1-10 (Brill 2005), 3.

** See Hugh Cagle, “Beyond the Senegal: inventing the tropics in the late Middle Ages,” Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies 7, no. 2 (2015): 1-21. For one explanation of the geopolitics that drove Columbus’ fateful encounter with the Americas, see Nicolás Wey Gómez, The Tropics of Empire: Why Columbus Sailed South the to the Indies (MIT, 2008).

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