Many people sing the praises of chocolate. In fact, its combination of nutrients might even qualify chocolate as a super-food. It counters the decline of an aging brain, calms the heart, steadies the nerves, and lifts the spirit. It even supports the birds and pollinators in the forest gardens of Central America, where it was first domesticated by the ancient Mayans.
The Mayans treated chocolate as food—more precisely, “food of the gods.” They put corn and “xocolata” at the centre of one of the world’s most advanced civilizations during the millennia before 1492. This tradition is being upheld by Toronto-based ChocoSol, which buys cacao from Indigenous farmers in Oaxaca, Mexico, to make “bean-to-bar” chocolate at its west-end storefront on St. Clair near Dufferin Street.
When I took a class of 12 fourth-year York University students there for a workshop earlier this year, I discovered another power of chocolate: it’s good for what ails university students.
“I discovered another power of chocolate: it’s good for what ails university students.”
When we set off for ChocoSol, I had a conventional teaching agenda. I wanted students to experience hands-on, low-tech artisanal production so they could compare it to industrial methods. I wanted them to learn how much the global food system owed to the theft—referred to as “the Columbian exchange” in honour of Christopher Columbus’s expedition of 1492—of several brilliant crop inventions by Indigenous peoples of the Americas. I also held out a slim hope that a workshop might be different enough from a seminar to ignite some fire and passion in my students.
Michael Sacco, who heads ChocoSol, kicked off the workshop. He is best described as a force of nature.
“We are a learning organization, a social enterprise, and a business,” he boomed, as we gathered in the retail section of the shop. “Learning must come from within. Only the individual can learn. Life is a learning journey, and a healing journey. This is your chance to participate in something larger than yourself. A good idea is not enough. You must do better than invent a better mousetrap. You must use your mind, body, and soul to develop the relationships that can bring your work to the world. We turn problems into opportunities. That is why we are actionists. I want to be a philosopher who lives his ideals.”
Uh oh, I thought to myself, he’s on a rant. When I looked up, I was surprised to see all of the students staring at him, riveted.
He then split the students into two groups so they could take turns experiencing each work station, hands-on. Mathieu McFadden, ChocoSol co-owner in charge of retailing, took my group to the upstairs kitchen to demo how to make tortillas.
Though the signature product of ChocoSol is chocolate, their mission is to use chocolate, alongside such Mayan classics as corn and beans, as vehicles of two-way cultural exchange between producers and consumers. Like the ancient Mayans, their descendants drink chocolate and eat foods based on corn, beans, squash, and wild greens, all originating from the Old World of pre-Columbian Mexico. These ingredients, many of which are grown locally (and some of which are grown on ChocoSol’s roof), are prepared in the traditions of what ChocoSolistas call “Mexico Profundo” or Deep Mexico, and are a mainstay of ChocoSol stands at farmers markets and folk festivals.
What makes our tortillas unique is our supply chain,” Matt explained. “It’s based on reciprocal relationships. We are not helping Mexican peasants. We are in solidarity with them and their food creations.”
“What makes our tortillas unique is our supply chain. It’s based on reciprocal relationships. We are not helping Mexican peasants. We are in solidarity with them and their food creations.”
Some of us tried our hand at making tortillas at the grill. Then we got to sample one. I thought of how weird it was, that students in Toronto could get so up close and personal with foods invented thousands of miles away but grown just tens of miles away.
Our group moved to the downstairs kitchen, where Nelia Ventura put us to work stirring chocolate, which had been roasted and fermented in the garage out back.
“We do everything by hand,” she said, passing bowls and stirring spoons to students, and showing them how to add vanilla, which also hails from Mexico. “This is not a job. This is love,” she said.
Nobody seemed touched by this, and I figured that maybe they thought it was corny.
When both workshops were over, we met upstairs. We sat in a circle with Michael. “We always meet in a circle because we have no room for wallflowers,” he said. “Tell me, what surprised you and what gave you gratitude.”
My students, who barely said boo in any of my classes, suddenly opened up:
No-one thought to ask what surprised me and gave me gratitude. If they had, I would have confessed my surprise that everyone had taken Nelia’s comment about love to heart. I might also have confessed that while watching that day I had come to understand that students want and need lessons in life, which are seldom taught or learned in a classroom. No notes taken in class compare with being moved by new knowledge based on experience. No teacher, however many things he or she has studied, can stack up against entrepreneurs and life adventurers who’ve done many things.
In the hands of Michael, Matt, Nelia, and others at ChocoSol, chocolate is a heart food capable of treating many deficiencies. When we do it and other traditional foods justice, they will transform us and reward us with deep understanding.