Walk Down the Jewish Chocolate Trail

New Book Looks at Rich and Sweet History

Bean to Bar: Rabbi Deborah Prinz traveled to the globe’s chocolate meccas for five years in search of several-hundred year old tale of Jews and chocolate.
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Bean to Bar: Rabbi Deborah Prinz traveled to the globe’s chocolate meccas for five years in search of several-hundred year old tale of Jews and chocolate.

By Leah Koenig

Published January 22, 2013, issue of January 25, 2013.
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(page 2 of 3)

Weaving together history and personal narrative, Prinz makes a lively and convincing case that Jewish legacy is interwoven with the global story of growing, processing, crafting and consuming chocolate. (The cocoa-focused recipes she includes along the way extend the book’s use to kitchen from living room or classroom.)

Prinz begins her story with the Jews of Spain during the time of the Inquisition, the same time that explorers brought the cacao bean to Europe from the New World. Despite being forced into exile or to convert, Jews quickly became involved in the trade of cacao beans and helped spread it around the globe.

She writes of how in Bayonne, France, 20 miles from the Spanish border, “Jews… were crucial leaders in the contraband trade with Spain, including the business of exporting, re-exporting, and smuggling chocolate.” By the 17th century, a community of Jewish craftsmen thrived there as chocolate makers. As a result, Prinz writes, “In 1681 Bayonne leaders implemented an ordinance to limit Jews’ wholesale chocolate trade… forbidding Jewish sales in retail shops or directly to individuals in Bayonne.” More restriction followed, and by 1860, “only two Jewish artisans practiced their craft” — a discriminatory blemish omitted from the rosy pamphlet that Prinz found in the Paris chocolate shop.

In 18th-century Mexico, Jewish refugees, conversos and crypto-Jews were involved in all stages of importing and producing chocolate. Prinz writes that chocolate also became incorporated into Jewish ritual: “Mexican crypto-Jews used [warm drinking] chocolate for welcoming the Sabbath because wine was scarce in New Spain.” Some families also included hot drinking chocolate, along with the more customary hardboiled eggs, as part of the ceremonial shiva meal.

Meanwhile, in Colonial America, two Sephardic clans — the Gomez family in New York and the Lopez family in Rhode Island — traded in and produced chocolate before the advent of Baker’s Chocolate Company, which started in 1780 and is typically regarded as America’s oldest chocolate maker. There is even historical speculation that Jews brought cocoa beans to North America sometime in the seventeenth century.

While Prinz’s original inspiration for the project was the Jewish connection to chocolate, her research also encompasses other religions’ connection to it. She devotes the second portion of the book to the people of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, who were among the first to celebrate and consume cacao; the convents and monasteries of Europe that produced chocolate sweets, and how the famous English chocolate company Cadbury has deep Quaker roots.

Prinz also notes the places where the Jewish and Christian pursual of chocolate overlapped through the centuries — both in relative peace as traders and as merchants — and also how Jewish oppression contributed to the chocolate diaspora. Flashing forward to 1938, for example, a prominent Vienna chocolatemaker named Stephen Klein fled Nazi rule and moved to America. There he established Barton’s Bonbonniere, which today is better known as Bartons Candy. By shedding light on these moments of context, Prinz manages to illuminate Jews’ important contributions to chocolate while avoiding the pitfall of suggesting that those contributions occurred in a vacuum.


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