Unwrapping the True Story Behind Your Favorite Indulgence: “Cocoa”, by Dr. Kristy Leissle

Africa, Bean to Bar, Chocolopolis, Seattle / Tuesday, March 6th, 2018
"Cocoa" by Dr. Kristy Leissle
“Cocoa” by Dr. Kristy Leissle

We get a lot of deliveries at Chocolopolis, most of them large boxes filled with chocolate. When the UPS driver arrived last week there was a small package mixed in with the many large boxes. Not recognizing it, I immediately looked at the return address and thought, “What are we expecting from the publisher John Wiley & Sons?”

I opened the box, and, much to my surprise, a copy of the long-anticipated book of my friend, Dr. Kristy Leissle, fell out of the cardboard wrapper. I knew the debut of her book was coming, but I was not expecting a copy to arrive on my doorstep. It was exciting to finally see the fruits of many years of thought, introspection, research and labor on Dr. Leissle’s part, culminating in Cocoa.

Dr. Leissle is flying in from London and Ghana to sign copies of her book at the University of Washington Bookstore this Wednesday, March 7 at 7:00pm. I will be there, and I hope you will join me. If you need a teaser for the topic, let me share the introduction from her book cover:

“Chocolate has long been a favorite indulgence. But behind every chocolate bar we unwrap, there is a world of power struggles and political maneuvering over its most important ingredient: cocoa.”

Dr. Leissle’s book covers these struggles in depth.

I first came across Dr. Leissle, a.k.a., Dr. Chocolate, at the first Northwest Chocolate Festival in July of 2008. The festival was held in Portland the week after Chocolopolis first opened its doors. It seemed like a must-see event, so my chocolatier and I drove to Portland and participated in a day of chocolaty panels, tastings and discussions – very small-scale compared to today’s festival. At the end of the day there was a panel of famous chocophiles that included Steve DeVries of DeVries Chocolate, Joe Whinney of Theo Chocolate and the late Mott Green of Grenada Chocolate. Everyone at the festival crowded into the room, making a total of about 40 people. Dr. Leissle was the moderator, and she clearly understood the socio-economic and political issues relating to cacao.

I came across her again a few months later when I was invited to attend Theo Chocolate’s Chocolate University. Dr. Leissle led the session on the cacao trade in Africa, specifically Ghana, the subject of her doctoral dissertation. Her thesis focused on value-added processing and distribution of chocolate in Ghana and its cultural significance as a food. I was riveted by what she had to say. Her talk covered topics of economic, political, social and cultural issues related to cacao in an African country that has no cultural tradition associated with chocolate.

This was the most honest and open talk I had heard on issues relating to fair trade and child labor, among other topics, coming from someone who had spent time in Ghana. She showed video from her visits to cacao farms, including a farmer spraying his fields with pesticides, despite lack of protective clothing. She had plenty of video of children in the villages jumping around in front of her camera because they had learned that they could see themselves in the replay on the back of her camera. She gave me my first, and one of my only, glimpses into the real life of a cacao farmer in Ghana. And she had more credibility to speak on the topic than anyone I know. She’d lived there, she’d visited farmers on her own, and she’d studied two of the largest cacao cooperatives in Ghana.

I asked Dr. Leissle to give the talk at Chocolopolis, and we invited customers to attend. It was a small gathering, and I think back on the evening as a somewhat selfish endeavor. I wanted to hear her speak on these subjects again, and she was willing to do it for me. I don’t remember exactly how it happened or if this evening was the catalyst, but Dr. Leissle and I became fast friends. I’ll call her “Kristy” from here.

Kristy and I could spend hours together. We would talk chocolate most of the time, and we discovered that it was impossible for us to meet for less than 2 hours. I think back to a summer in Seattle when the sun was out and the weather was beautiful. She stopped by Chocolopolis and we took our lunch out to the park behind my store. We proceeded to fill two hours with chocolate talk, a meeting I had not scheduled into my day. She was starting to think about a book on chocolate, and she was wrestling with topics. There was one that seemed to grab her interest most, so she began her research on the craft chocolate market. She was moving forward with this line of inquiry, but she was not entirely happy with where it was headed. After many months of starts and stops, she stopped. The timing wasn’t right, and she didn’t have the right passion for the topic. It just wasn’t flowing.

With the launch of her new book, Cacao, however, the timing and the topic are right. She covers the areas that I find most riveting about her research and her scholarship. If you are interested in issues of equity, fair trade, gender and politics as they relate to cacao, this is your book. It’s an unvarnished look into the world of cacao. It illustrates the complexity of the issues related to cacao farming and production that certifications aim to over simplify. It has eight chapters that include topics such as, “Power in the Market”, “Economics on the Ground” and “Trade Justice”, to name three politically-charged subjects that often receive glossary coverage. Here you get an in-depth evaluation of the good, the bad and the trade-offs of well-meant strategies that may not work as expected. Having lived in Ghana during her doctoral dissertation (and now), she has credibility from her first-hand knowledge and experience that others don’t.

Admittedly I am biased. She is a good friend. But I hope you’ll give her your ear and see if she can’t spark your interest in the socio-economic and political issues that are rife in cacao farming and chocolate production.

If you live in Seattle and you would like a preview of her book, please join me this Wednesday, March 7 at 7:00pm at the University of Washington Bookstore where Dr. Leissle will be speaking about her book and signing copies. As a Lecturer at the University of Washington, Bothell, she is excited to be launching her US tour at the UW Bookstore. If you love cacao, this is an evening not to miss.