My past several months on Princeton’s campus have been defined by chocolate. During the week leading up to Dean’s Date I may have personally made the C-Store run out of chocolate covered peanuts. I then bundled up regularly for long walks to the U-Store, slipping on ice all the way down campus just for a few bars of Lindt, Chocolove, or whatever other study snack I could get my hands on. 

Of course, I justified these extremes. 45 pages in a week was a lot to write, and I needed to indulge in whatever would get me through. That bite, that satisfying snap and then the layer of smooth bittersweet slowly melting, releasing an undertone of blueberry linger (though in the case of the C-Store, no linger at all, but I’ll take what I can get) is what made chocolate my vice of choice during countless lonely writing hours.

As the habit continued, my friends and I sat on Frist couches devouring our bars of stress chocolate while mollifying our sugar guilt by making running and yoga plans. Yet on Dean’s Date when all of my stress should have been gosexy chocolatene, we returned to the same couches to celebrate our academic victory with the same glorious treat. As we sat down with our spoils, I felt crumbs crunching between the seats and I had the heavy feeling that if I lifted up the cushion I might also find some remnants of my previous chocolate feasting. The guilt starting seeping in after the first few bites, just like the sounds of the Frist piano filtering through our conversation. After our Dean’s Date euphoria settled into regret, we did actually make it to the gym, but the entire process repeated as finals loomed. Stress. Chocolate. Justification. Chocolate. Chocolate celebration. Guilt. Gym. I was definitely stuck in an addict’s cycle.

In viewing chocolate in a material context – how it tastes and what it’s made of – I could chalk my snacking guilt up to my own lack of impulse control. I could say I’m addicted to sugar and, as with many addictions, I binge eat and then regret. My problem could be purely centered in the sugar-induced pleasure centers of my stressed, overworked brain.

This explanation suffices until I recall that chocolate has a bit of a social history of being a binge-eating, guilty food. A classic example is back in middle school when I watched Legally Blonde and the distressed, beautiful Elle Woods bit into countless truffles after her breakup. As she threw the half-eaten box towards the faces of the romantic comedy stars on her TV, I, along with countless other American preteen girls, built a notion that chocolate needs to be justified by an emotionally charged situation. Even beyond the messy breakup stereotype, American media in its rhetoric presents chocolate as a sinfully delicious dessert, so much so that it is intricately tied to guilt in everything from advertising to popular culture. It is no surprise that the sick feeling I felt after my final bites of Dean’s Date chocolate had less to do with the quantity I ate and more to do with my own associations. I may have gone slightly overboard on sugar, but my snacking was certainly within the realm of reason and did not in itself justify obsessive contemplation. 

These associations stem from chocolate’s social dimensions. Until recently, the study of food as a cultural commodity has been an amateur, niche area of study despite gastronomy’s clear historical and sociological dimensions. Whether we are eating it or talking about it, food falls into the category of a base, bodily act in accordance with our puritanical roots: relishing in the discussion of eating is closely tied to gluttony. Studying food intellectually, though, would contradict these hedonistic associations. Rather, it lends eating a social legitimacy that’s hard to reconcile with these traditional values. Food, including chocolate, can help us explore hidden social frameworks and should widely be understood as inherently cultural.

In recent decades, we’ve been slipping away from these limitations. Intellectual food is not forbidden, food writers are respected, and courses are taught solely on food and its historical representations. At Princeton we have courses devoted to food as an academic topic – take the Spanish class “Gastronomy in Spanish Literature” taught last semester or the anthropology course on “Biocultural Aspects of Human Diet” available this spring. However, in mainstream food rhetoric we still rarely have in depth discussions of what culturally inspires food movements. Some of the more popular and accessible works, like most Best Sellers in the Food and Fitness section of the New York Times Book Review relate to health of food, recipes, restaurants or the experience of eating, and environmental impact. Most food blogs explore food on the level of physical experience. As a result only a niche group of people contemplate food in a culturally critical way. We shouldn’t replace our consideration of the aesthetic and material aspects of food, but add a much more prominent social facet to the mainstream conversation – we can learn a huge amount about ourselves by considering our own foods’ connotations, both historical and contemporary. After all, you are what you eat.

I faced my own chocolatey demons when I read The True History of Chocolate, a book written by Sophie D. Coe with the intention of revealing a full history of the chocolate without its modern misconceptions. For the first time, I had to concretely identify my own perception of chocolate, ranging from the simple – chocolate is sweet – to the slightly more complicated, like who has access to this snack and in what contexts. Children or adults can eat this luxury, but when adults have it, they’re viewed as treating themselves, especially on holidays like Christmas. It’s also viewed as almost aphrodisiacal, associated in our early years with Valentine’s Day and prom and then eventually with serious romance and sex. In these associations we fetishize chocolate and frame it as a pleasure-ridden indulgence.

In some respects these associations have to do with chocolate’s material form. Chocolate is objectively less healthy than kale. Beyond these basic distinctions, though, how much do our connotations actually relate to the actual chemistry of chocolate? How much do they indicate our current social and moral values? They have very little to do with chocolate itself, or at least hardly anything to do with what chocolate has appeared to be throughout history. By assuming that food is purely material, we miss its most interesting dimensions.

Take the basic assumption that chocolate is a sweet food. This has not always been the case. Chocolate was actually consumed with various South and Central American spices and only occasionally consumed with a touch of honey until it came into contact with the European sweet tooth. If chocolate has not always been sweet, then, has it even always been a food? Beyond the fact that for the vast majority of its history (practically up through the Industrial Revolution) chocolate was a drink, not a food, in its initial, sugary European form it was actually considered a medicine as part of the Galenic understanding of health. As such chocolate was distant from its current associations with hedonistic pleasures—it was actually one of the exceptions to ecclesiastical fasts upon its entrance to Europe. Chocolate’s medicinal place in society even determined the way it was consumed—it had to be a hot liquid, according to the medical understanding of the times. Only as modern medicine came into play was chocolate consumed in its solid food form, right at the same time as it was demoted to the category of treat.

At certain points in history, chocolate even took a role in politics. In late 17th century France and England, chocolate was a more expensive and time-consuming beverage than coffee and was for that reason considered the luxurious drink of the upper echelons of society. Coffee, on the other hand, was the drink of the middle class workers and intellectuals of the era. The politics of social class began to at least partially be defined by the conspicuous consumption of certain hot beverages.

Clearly, chocolate in its chemical makeup is not inherently a guilty pleasure – throughout history it has been both medicinal and political. Chocolate as a stress-remedy, though not viewed as such by everyone, is to a large degree the result of our current cultural environment as it is of sugar content and as such can reveal concerning aspects of today’s food culture. Take, for instance, the gender dimension of chocolate. TV shows generally don’t show sad men stuffing their faces with Godiva in any serious capacity because eating chocolate out of stress or post-breakup sadness is stereotypically a female condition. The fact that we regularly see the indulgence as meant specifically for women, but only accompanied by guilt or sadness, indicates a huge double standard: women are constantly presented eating sweets and then are expected to stay thin which, for many body types, means eating chocolate approximately once a month. At the same time, men are neither expected to eat the snack or to feel guilt if they do.

My Princeton Reading Period Frist couch escapades are akin to Elle’s truffle binging or even 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon singing to cheese alone in her apartment: it can be entertaining or embarrassing in a cute way as long as I stay thin, but becomes incredibly pathetic if I don’t. For a healthy woman, eating chocolate can quickly spiral into a shameful low point that necessitates justification. For a healthy man, eating that same chocolate is a snack.

Chocolate’s current associations may even have wider implications beyond widely known body image issues. Advertisers, especially as Valentine’s Day approaches, associate chocolate with sex and pleasure. If women are meant to feel guilty about eating chocolate, does this correlate with women feeling guilty about indulging in sex? This past Dean’s Date I heard my female friends and acquaintances rush to explain their spontaneous, drunken hookups with the same stress-release justification that I used in defense of my chocolate celebration; at the same time, my male friends used no excuse whatsoever. Chocolate’s gendered dimensions could be symptomatic of more systemic social issues surrounding women’s bodies.

Food’s ability to unveil cultural dispositions is in no way limited to chocolate. As a result of the recent surge of food-writing legitimacy, intellectuals are also beginning to dispel other food history myths. Dan Jurafsky is a professor at Stanford University and a linguist who studies food. He takes ketchup, one of the most notoriously “American” foods, and traces its linguistic origins. It turns out that ketchup is not nearly as American as one assumes. It actually originated in seafood preserves of coastal China, and sailors most likely picked it up as a travel-friendly condiment. Only after it came to Europe did it lose the fish and gain tomatoes. In America, we added sugar along with other ingredients to make it our favorite French fry pairing. This history lesson reveals the global economy and cultural appropriation behind what we consider to be one of our most patriotically American foods and reminds us that those connotations we have after our first few bits of sweet-tomatoey-goodness may be based more on our ideas of the United States than on the condiment itself.

In the same vein, gendered food guilt reaches far beyond a Hershey’s bar. My first-ever official date resulted in my first lesson on the complexities of the American woman’s eating shame. When a boy I had liked for months asked me to go to dinner at my favorite Italian restaurant in my hometown I had no clue what to expect beyond red-and-white checked tablecloths. In recognition of my naïveté and classic teen lack of self-confidence, I went to my more experienced friends for pre-date advice and planning. It turns out these friends were more enthusiastic than experienced, but we began the conversation by deciding the perfect dress-sweater combination to wear. Upon completing that topic the discussion quickly transitioned to analyzing what I would choose to eat. We pulled up the restaurant menu online and poured over the options. One girl explained that each dish I chose would say something about my character. Ordering a salad says I am a high-maintenance, dieting girl, but choosing heavy foods with cheese sauce or red meat could come across as gluttonous. I learned not to be the girl to avoid the bread at the table (that girl is the same as salad girl), but to gracefully stop myself at only one piece.

On the date itself I walked the line perfectly. To this day I remember every calculated bite I placed in my mouth more than the conversation itself: I artfully picked at my single piece of golden-brown garlic bread and triumphantly ordered the perfect entrée: pesto penne with sundried tomatoes. I even left a few penne strewn about the plate with what I felt was sexy, devil-may-care finesse. When the dessert tray came around my resolve only briefly faltered when I considered celebrating my successful date with a personal slice of the delectable double-chocolate cheesecake, but I regrouped and suggested my date and I split the much daintier crème brûlée. My friends’ comments built upon the constant discussion of women’s eating on TV and advertisements until I was convinced that each plate I partially ate had the ability to send a message about my attractiveness. Now when I think back to these dishes I instead realize the immensity of the expectations of how a woman should interact with food.

What connects food’s past and present is that studying it sociologically reveals uncomfortable truths about the way our culture has functioned. When chocolate first entered Europe plenty of aristocrats had scientific and philosophical discussions about its role as a medicine yet no one paused to think about the racism involved in needing to change a Mesoamerican food to fit the European worldview. When I limited myself to thinking of chocolate only as a sugary material commodity, whether from Frist or in cheesecake form, I accepted my guilt blindly and fed (pun intended) into a repressive, controlling system surrounding women’s bodies. Now that I’ve investigated more, the next time I bite into chocolate I want the satisfying snap without linger of guilt.

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