The Chocolate Life

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While I knew before I entered high school that I wanted to pursue photography as a career, it wasn't until I was in my freshman year in college that I was exposed to a formal philosophy of Art in the form of John Dewey's Art as Experience. To paraphrase Dewey:

1) Art "works" because all humans share the same emotions. Granted, we experience those emotions differently, but we all experience the same range of emotions.

2) Art consists of two things:

a) The process a person goes through to make an art object
b) The experience a viewer has with an art object

Dewey is emphatic that the art object (painting, drawing, sculpture, bar of chocolate, etc.) has no intrinsic value. Art objects "become valuable" because of their ability to evoke responses in viewers. Because we all experience emotions differently, the same art object might be more valuable (i.e., it evokes strong emotions) to some people and less valuable to others (i.e., evokes weak or no emotions). Art objects are neither good nor bad in any abstract universal sense; they are more or less successful depending on a viewer's experience of them, or, as Dewey says, "with and in" a person's experience.

Above all, Dewey cautions, art is not words or ideas and it is important not to let words and ideas become more important than our experiences and emotions. To do so, he suggests, puts "Art" at arm's length, removed from our every day experience of life and places it in a realm that is accessible only to those who know how to manipulate the vocabulary of "Art." Dewey believes that art is in everything and everyone all the time - that any act that anyone derives any sort of aesthetic satisfaction from is art - for them. And that the audience of one is enough.

I bring all this up as a prologue to a question I want to ask anyone on TheChocolateLife who wants to answer it. It concerns writing about chocolate and what sorts of descriptions are useful and usable. I've been having a correspondence with someone who was copied on an e-mail that I was also copied on last week. The e-mail asked if any of us had tried a particular bar of (raw) chocolate. In a few hours, the following response was sent to everyone:

Had the 78% with Nibs. Clearly CCN material (no matter what the new chocophiles try to proclaim ["if well-processed... ba ba ba"], it ain't the Ecuador of yore).

Decent temper held out hope that maybe this received a proper conch ala Divine Organics. Alas, no such luck. Raw as it ever was: evasive chocolate flavor typical for raw bars with agave hard on its heels controlling the progression to... nowhere really, except reflecting back to that sweetener's prickly self. Then comes a cold bitter in rear recesses. Eventually tuberose & sisal, camacho plant, groaning vines & brambles in the dirt of the after-math toward a microbial fest (worms digesting molds, spores, bacteria, etc.)

At 22% agave annhilates cacao until that after-life when the dregs react to the beating by discombobulating the bowels, wrenching then pulling out the intestines – Bruce Lee style – to show you your guts. It takes massive balls to sell this stuff at all... let alone for $11.

Even though I've been eating chocolate with the intent of figuring out how to describe what I was experiencing, this description lost me in the first sentence because I was put off by my perception of the author's disdain for people who disagreed with one of his beliefs. I certainly do know that the author does not like the chocolate, but I was left with the impression that the author was trying to be too clever by half. With reference to Dewey, the words had somehow become more important than the chocolate.

For as long as I can remember, my father has been telling me, "If it's not worth doing, it's not worth doing well," and I realize that I would apply that approach to a review of a bar that I disliked as much as this author did. Rather than waste time performing feats of linguistic gymnastics, my tendency would be to write something like, "This bar of chocolate tasted like crap only crap tastes better." I think this conveys the essential critique of the chocolate (i.e., don't waste the money or the calories). It does not provide, however, any descriptions of what I thought the chocolate actually tasted like. But - if it's not worth doing, why do it well?

My question to all of you is - what do you want to see?

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You're right, this person is just trying to be clever. I think there are enough examples of chocolate/food/wine critique out there to know that there is a clear standard (not-so-clever and maybe a bit boring) way to describe these things: What flavours do you taste (and in what order), what are your impressions of the physical texture and what is your overall impression of the balance of ingredients (mass/fat/sugar/other)? It should be pretty straight forward. As was mentionned in an entry by Samantha Madell, speaking in metaphors will likely confuse the reader. (what DOES an orchid lost in a dirty noisy city taste like anyway?). That is not a clear form of communication. The art is in making the chocolate and eating the chocolate, not in the critique. I don't read tasters notes to be emotionally moved.
We should be aware however that with enough clearly communicated critique, the art of both making and tasting chocolate can/will be elevated.
I think that your absolutely correct about this review. I think it is tough enough to make good chocolate. There are almost an infinite amount of variables that affect flavor. How many flavors the human mind can describe are less. On one hand descriptions of "dirt, sand, mud" while they convey a mental flavor- how many chocophiles do you know that have closed their eyes, and TASTED, while chewing only 3 times and swirling it all around their palate with a pen and paper describe that experience, and then rinse their mouth out and repeat with sand.

In attempting to be accurate, the descriptions are so specific, it leaves very little wiggle room for the brain to translate. I often wonder if I should give tasting notes. I want the flavors to stand up on their own that anyone paying attention (key component) would be able to write them themselves. After all, isn't that the appreciative element of eating chocolate?

I recently dropped around $300 in fine chocolate in the US and tasted it with my parents. We had a great time describing to one and other the different flavors.

One of the bars was a taste pack from Amedei. To me, the Jamaica bar tasted very similar to a raisinette. Great dark chocolate flavor, with a creamy "dairy/buttery" texture (I find this common in Amedei that the texture makes me think of milk chocolate even when it is dark) paired with purple raisins. Now I didn't want to say raisinette. I kept it to myself. When both my parents, and later friends said that it was dead on raisinette-that shared experience was greater by all of us being able to come to it on our own senses.

Isn't that what we strive for in making great chocolate? That our customers taste and perceive what we do- even when we don't tell them.

However some people need some kind of map-so I understand giving flavor notes. But lay off the metaphors and diatribes (I apologize for this one, I have a batch of chocolate in the melanguer and have probably ingested too much and will be up for the rest of the night!)

I think that writing something critical is worth doing if not to help others to decide whether their tastes match yours but at least to help remember what it was that you did not like about it. There have been many times I've noted that a movie, or a restaurant, or a book was bad, but when I came to think of what it was that was bad about it, I couldn't remember, which often led me to try it again! And only then do I remember what it was that was awful about it. So, at least to help jog the memory, it's worth jotting down a few notes.

Now, for the point regarding Dewey. I'd say there a couple of distinct ways in reviewing something. There is the simple analytical approach which is appreciative to the reader when she would like to make a decision as to whether it's worth her time/money to invest in the reviewed object. Something simple, like flavors: cherry, hazelnut aftertaste; melts in mouth; 4 out of 5 stars (on the reviewer's 5 star scale which can be correlated to your own 5 star scale). Or flavors: mold, dirt; crumbly texture; 1 out of 5.
Then, there's the review for review's sake which in itself becomes an art form. The object of the review is no longer center stage, but the review and by extension the author themselves are now in the spotlight. I find if I'm at all receptive to this type of review, it's only because I happen to be reading a biography/memoir of the author (say, Jane Goodall's take on marmite in Harvest for Hope or Anthony Bourdain's review of fermented shark in No Reservations). I think this kind of review is for the most part not worth doing, unless explicitly requested.

Cogent and to the point.

I do agree with you, that simple, understandable, descriptors and some sort of rating, whether it is numerical (as most are) or descriptive (as mine is) can be a great help.

My only quibble with what you write is that if I had a bar that I described with -

flavors: mold, dirt; crumbly texture;

- on a scale of 1-5 I might be tempted to give it a 0 as I like the idea of a ratings system that offers assessments that are literally "off the charts" for truly good (and bad) experiences.

With respect to your comment on Dewey I happen to think that the only thing lacking in my characterization of a chocolate as "tastes like crap only crap tastes better" is the assignment of the lowest possible rating (Bad, I could find nothing remotely redeemable about this chocolate) on the 7 position ratings scale I use. At that point, "crap with hazelnut and roasty notes" doesn't seem to match my opinion; however "crap with an oppressive, lingering finish that attacks the tonsils with the tenacity of a pit bull" seems completely on-target because humor is always appropriate in these situations, showing that I am serious about the review, and I don't take myself too seriously which is an issue I have with the review I cite here.

:: Clay
It's now about a week since Sam posted this and I have to admit that my feelings about this post and its content have been all over the map. I have to thank Casey, again, for her advice to me just after I started TheChocolateLife that TheChocolateLife will only thrive if I let go of controlling everything that goes on here. So I did not immediately respond telling myself to wait a week before doing anything.

In reading all of the comments, corresponding with Sam, and thinking about the way the thread has evolved I have come to the conclusion that it was inappropriate for me to include Mark's post anonymously, out-of-context, and without letting him know about it. Without trying to get into a he-said/he-said argument, I don't think that Mark's representation of our correspondence is complete. It's not inaccurate, but it's not complete.

To everyone who's read this and felt any unease at all, I apologize.

One thing I did not contemplate was that there would be ChocolateLife members who would recognize Mark based on the small snippet I quoted.

I went looking on the Internet for information about Mark and could not find anything that provided anything useful about him with respect to chocolate. All I could find was references to his other business, an online travel booking service.

I did ask Mark to provide some background about himself so I could know what his experience and credentials were and where he was coming from. He replied that he would but eventually I got no response from him. I was interested in knowing what ChocolateLife members thought about Mark's approach, so I made the original post unaware that anyone here would be able to figure out whose writing I was quoting. (If anyone can point me to a collection of Mark's writings on the Internet, I am still very interested in reading them.)

One of my main complaints with what Mark has to say is not what he said but how he chose to get them posted - through a third party. By posting his remarks that way, Mark effectively removed himself from having to take responsibility for what he posted. He had his say and said, in effect, that he did not care enough for the community here to care to hear how we might respond. Citing Groucho Marx ("I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members") is startlingly unoriginal.

You may not know that it is not my decision to require people to become members in order to post. That is the way the software is set up; I don't do it to be exclusionary or to force anyone to do anything, the site is set up that way because that's how the software is set up. Same principal as Facebook. However, I believe that joining is a good requirement because a) it reduces spam posts exponentially, and b) it requires members to take some measure responsibility for what they write.

One of my primary goals with TheChocolateLife was to create a place that wasn't all about me and what I thought. That's what I'd been doing for seven years on Many of you may not know that even though you are required to join TheChocolateLife to contribute, I do not moderate anything that is posted before it goes live on the site. I do respond to complaints about content that members think is inappropriate and try as hard as I can to resolve those complaints privately. Several times this year, members have taken me aside (figuratively) and told me that I had made a mistake responding publicly in a particular way. I have taken steps both public and private to reach out and make amends.

I wonder, when Mark get's the C-Spot up and running, whether he will have the same respect for others who take issue what he has to say and how he says it.

:: Clay

BTW, I am copying Mark on his private e-mail so he'll know my response.
And, if I may respectfully direct this to “FTonly”: far from hiding behind metaphors, the flavor progression was amply laid out before any metaphoric references were noted, in addition to an explanation of how it might have arrived there. I ask earnestly and humbly, what more would you like in a review, mindful that we’re a species hard-wired to narrate in metaphors and, cacao, endowed with personality, feeds this penchant?

Mark (or Samantha or whomever),
My question is who were you writing the review for? Who is your audience? While you did describe the flavour progression, I am curious to know how many of us know what tuberose & sisal, camacho plant and groaning vines taste like? These are not even close to common taste notions (are they?? maybe I'm the one lacking culture here...). Without a common point of reference, the information is useless. This and the fact that you had to be so verbose in the defence of your own review style cements my point that you are trying to be clever. Don't get me wrong, you are succeeding quite well at this. However, if you want your message/opinion to be useful to a greater number of people, it needs to be clearer. Just because we like chocolate, does not mean we are all as smart as you might hope we are.

Your point about not liking the chocolate did come through, but the specifics are a little confusing.
"Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

For purely altruistic reasons, I am giving this post a review of "crap." (Yes, I'm critiquing the critique of the critique of ...) Hopefully, someone will be able to save their 15+ minutes of time and find something else to do with it. Unfortunately, mine has been given and can't be refunded.
On a side note, in Savannah, there's a candy store that sells fudge in the shape of a cow pie. I had to get one for my brother. >:D The fudge there was pretty tasty ( but a bit nutty .. sorry :)
Gwen, an entire industry exists around the world providing product review and comment. Think of motor magazines for instance, or consumer guides like Choice Magazine in Australia. They review products and rate them based on their performance. If the product is lousy and doesn't represent value for money, or doesn't do what it claims, or is poorly constructed then the reviewer will say so.

There is nothing unfair about this process; it is the responsibility that you take when you sell or give something to someone. If you take a person's money in exchange for a product or service - or give it to them for free in the hope that they will promote it for you - then it is only reasonable that the recipient is free to comment on the product.

In my opinion, the only time a product should be vociferously slammed is if it deserves it. Manufacturers have a very powerful voice in the marketing and advertising that they use to promote their products. Critical review is the consumers' right of reply. A right that defamation laws around the world protect, so clearly our societies value that right.
Gwen, you wrote:

"Miserable people publish scathing reviews"

It sounds like you have someone specific in mind here, would you care to fill us in?

In response to your comment about food and fashion, I would point out that the wine industry has a very strong culture of review. Rather than undermining the industry, this has enhanced it by helping to develop standards, improve quality and transparency. It also encourages competition.

Having frank and open discussion is beneficial to any industry.

The chocolate industry could have a worse role model than the wine industry.

If I may edit a quote from your post ...

"I abhor the use of art as a status symbol. I refuse to watch others take something that is a simple pleasure and turn it into something that can only be understood by "special" people. ..."

This is the essence of Dewey's point and why I saw the connection between "Art" and chocolate. What I think we have to be mindful of is not letting words - or the people writing them - become more important than what is being written about. When that happens, the world becomes a poorer place.

The recent back and forth between you and Langdon also brings up another very good point when it comes to reviews: it is important to know the background, biases, and related views of the person doing the reviewing as well as having a body of reviews to look at. That way, you can determine if the person doing the reviewing a) shares your views about things generally, and b) has any axes to grind.

Reviews can be helpful, but they can also be detrimental, hurtful, or both, and it is often difficult to discern what factors motivate the person doing the reviewing. The challenge we face is to pick a source of reviews to trust. It is the lack of a basis for establishing trust in a reviewer that is problematic. For me, the tone of a review is often enough for me to dismiss a review as well as a reviewer (that's my basic problem with what Mark wrote - the tone just irritates the heck out of me; others will certainly react differently - YMMV). From what you wrote I sense you have similar experiences.

I have to agree with Mark that it is possible to make objective comparisons - this bar of chocolate is not as good as that bar of chocolate and this is why. If someone paying close attention does this often enough, it's possible for them to develop an objective sense for what constitutes a "good" or "great" bar of chocolate as opposed to an "ordinary" or "bad" bar of chocolate and to explain why.

However, that does not give the reviewer the right to make anyone feel bad for liking something they don't like. That's where I find reviews cross the line - when personal opinion somehow becomes objective "truth." I may not like white zinfandel, but it's not my place to ridicule someone who does. I may not like white chocolate all that much, but it's not my place to ridicule someone who does. It is possible to objectively "know" that a chocolate is not all that good, but still like it anyway.

As I wrote my book, my feelings about my role as a chocolate critic changed. I no longer saw myself as needing to "own" the best rating system and most comprehensive collection of reviews. In part because, unlike with Robert Parker, there is no economic value in the rating: giving a bar a high rating does nothing to affect the market price of the bar. Also unlike Parker (and this is where I disagree somewhat with Langdon's opinion on wine reviews specifically), it is unlikely that I am going to be able to influence chocolate makers to make chocolate that appeals to my taste preferences just to get a good review from me. Because there is no economic value to them in doing so. You are right, Gwen, in perceiving that this is because there is no collector market for chocolate; chocolate does not increase in value with age, only perceived scarcity.

Today, I perceive my goal not as being "the" arbiter of good and bad chocolate (which is where I started out in February, 1994 when I first got the idea to do this in the first place). Instead, I strive to help people understand what it is they like about the chocolate they like to eat. This is a very different goal and a very different process.

Nonetheless, people ask me to rate and review specific chocolates. I now do this in two parts - one part is personal, whether I do or do not like it and why; the other is to compare the chocolate, using scales I have devised, with the characteristics of the uncounted hundreds of other chocolates I have eaten, that "objective sense" I wrote about a few paragraphs back.
Clay, I think that you have missed the point that I was making about wine reviewing.

My point was: the body of work created by _all_ reviewers of wine (not Robert Parker or any other reviewer alone) has acted to help the wine making industry to lift its quality, even the cheapest bottle of wine on the shelf has benefited from the industry of wine reviewing.

Open and frank discussion of the quality of wine, or chocolate, or any other product gives everyone (including the manufacturer regardless of how large or small they are) the opportunity to discuss the product's strengths and weaknesses. The maturity and very high standards of wine making the world over is testament to that.


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