Chocolate – A taste of history

Moorhead native Ross Collins has written the definitive book on the history of chocolate (cacao), a 10-millennia tale of colonialism, slavery, medicine, big business, agriculture and social culture. (Photo/Nancy Hanson)

No food in the world has a history as storied as chocolate. With his new book “Chocolate: A Cultural History,” Moorhead native Ross Collins has stepped forward as its premier story-teller.

Collins, a professor of communication at North Dakota State University, has written a 422-page book that, if it doesn’t tell every aspect of the universal treat’s story, at least comes very close. Just published by the scholarly press ABC-CLIO, his academic-style volume covers 10 millennia of cultures’ appreciation of cacao, the small tropical tree of the Americas whose seeds become delicious cocoa and chocolate.

“It covers just about everything, from 8000 B.C. to 2021, when I completed the manuscript,” the journalism professor reports. “We’re talking about slavery and colonization, religion, medicine, Big Business, military rations … and of course, it’s nearly everyone’s favorite treat.”

“Chocolate” is Collins’ seventh trip to print. He has written five heavily researched previous books, mostly about journalism, history and culture, and edited two collaborations. Two are texts used in his field of study: “Editing Across Media” in 2011 and “Photocommunication Across Media” in 2018. Others focus on World War II, the history of western journalism, and “Children, War and Propaganda,” a study set during World War II; he is currently working on a new edition that will add that era’s use of comic books to the study.

“The story of how I came to write ‘Chocolate’ isn’t very romantic,” he recounts. “ABC-CLIO circulated an email about topics in which they were interested to authors who had published with them. I saw chocolate on the list. My training is as a cultural and social historian. I thought, ‘Hmm, maybe I should go back to where I started.’”

His encyclopedic study of chocolate consumed three years of research, writing and review. “There are already a lot of books on the subject,” he explains. “I started with the most respected primary sources, then branched out.”

His studies took him far from the tasty treat beloved by almost all youngsters. “As I got into it, I realized its history is a lot more impressive than I’d expected. Everybody worldwide thinks of it as a treat. Yet through most of its history, cacao has been associated with slavery and exploitation, even in the 2000s.” He cites a documentary by the BBC that explored the use of child slave labor in Ghana and Ivory Coast. “Even today, no major manufacturer of chocolate can claim that its product is absolutely free of those associations. It is raised on countless small farms in Africa and South America. No one – no one – can really say where all its product comes from.” He adds that calling it “slavery” may not be entirely true, since whole families living at the subsistence level are involved in scraping together a living.

Through most of its history, chocolate was served as a beverage. From the Olmecs and Maya to the Aztecs, it took root in Central America long before the arrival of Columbus. Collins writes, “Early Spanish explorers were dumbfounded to discover an entire culture underpinned by an almond-shaped bean natives called xocolatl. It was a part of Aztec weddings, funerals, harvests and human sacrifice. It was a form of currency. It was a drink of the gods, and a drink of an emperor who, purportedly, relied on it for potency during visits to his mistresses.”

The book’s 422 pages include 10 essays and 80 articles. Two of the essays were written by collaborators – Karl Bakkum’s piece on chocolate and religion, and Mike Klein’s piece, “Chocolate and the Arts.” Dotty Curry, former executive chef at the Fargo Country Club, even contributes a selection of original recipes.

As a scholarly work, “Chocolate” may fascinate, but it isn’t light reading. Nor is it especially cheap. Intended for libraries, the book’s retail price is $97. “Unfortunately, authors have no say in the pricing,” Ross concedes wryly. “Ask your library to order it.”

Collins grew up in Moorhead, graduating from MHS in 1973 and Moorhead State University (now MSUM) in 1979, where he majored in mass communications and history and minored in French. He completed his education with a master’s degree at the University of Warwick and a doctorate at Cambridge, both in the United Kingdom.

He has taught in NDSU’s Department of Communication since 1993. “Growing up, I never thought that I’d become a teacher,” he remembers. “From the age of 13, I wanted to be a photographer, and then a journalist.” As the son of The Forum’s Dorothy Collins, it was natural to nab his first spot as an intern at the Detroit Lakes Journal, then go on to The Forum, first as a photographer, then a general assignment reporter. Then his mentor, Melva Moline, suggested he try teaching for just a year. “I liked it,” he says. “Then I thought, ‘OK, if I want a decent job as a professor, I need a PhD,’ so I got one.”

He applied to 25 universities before being offered the position he was looking for at NDSU. He teaches what he calls “practical classes” in media, writing, photography, editing and design, with a bit of journalism history thrown in.

Now up to 29 years on campus, his vocation in the classroom is what led him to his alter ego as an author. “At NDSU, if you don’t publish, you don’t get tenure,” he states flatly. But that doesn’t mean that writing “Chocolate” wasn’t also fun. “As a full professor, you don’t need to prove yourself any more. But this took me back to my original discipline of cultural history.

“You can find a lot of other books on chocolate out there, but I don’t think there’s another that’s as comprehensive as this one. It’s based on more than 500 sources, many of them original. And, after all, who doesn’t love chocolate?”

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