On a cold winter’s day in Harvard Square, L.A. Burdick Chocolate shop teems with lovers, poets, university students and chocolate aficionados. Customers sip from dainty cups filled with liquid hot chocolate bearing such tantalizing descriptions as deep Brazilian with a smoky essence of vanilla and Madagascar with a undertones of lychee.  Cacao is grown in tropical zones around the world, yet to most consumers its cultivation and production process are not part of the purchasing decision. As the Slow Food movement spreads, buzzterms such as Fair Trade, Organic, and single-estate have become not only a marketing device but also an ideology. Shoppers may pay an extra fifty cents in exchange for the psychological gratification of supporting cacao farmers thousands of miles away. But do they think twice about how chocolate is actually made? I urge them to ask: What is the reality of small-scale family operations that form the backbone of the cacao industry? How might landscape and climate change influence the sustainability of the industry? Is it more important to focus on consistency or character when it comes to flavor?


A world apart, coffee berries and guavas are within arm’s reach as Don Artemio and I stroll through his plantation. He is a third generation coffee grower from a small town in Central Veracruz; I am a young professional from Silicon Valley. Despite the cultural and linguistic differences, there is common dialogue. It is harvest season in November 2012 and I am visiting Don Artemio for the first time to establish preliminary research contacts. Don Artemio is a farmer and tenacious entrepreneur. In 2012 he won the prestigious International Cup of Excellence Award. Profits had more than tripled, allowing him and his wife to open the first coffee shop in town. But when asked how life has changed on a day-to-day basis, nostalgia enters his eyes. He spends less time in the fields and more time answering calls and emails. He misses the hours of tranquility roaming the coffee plantation and the freedom of picking guavas and bananas at whim’s desire. For him, coffee is not just a business; it is his deep connection to the land and his family heritage.  That conversation was the first of many awakenings to the complex world of coffee.

Cacao y Café

These two seemingly simple commodities represent endless contrasts: bitter and sweet, luxury and necessity, sin and virtue, harmony and chaos, the quotidian and the enlightened. From production to consumption, they break lines between disciplines and country borders. They are beautifully complex.  Their history, present condition, and future outlook are rife with hidden stories that capture the essence of humanity.