Histórias de Cacao/Cacao Stories
The stories we tell about our food are some of the most important, pervasive, and oldest, as demonstrated by the countless mythical origin stories for culturally sacred foods, of which chocolate is one. Stories are central processes we use to give our lives meaning, and they can often have practical applications as they help us make decision for how best to nourish or heal our bodies. These stories are increasingly becoming part of how foods like chocolate are marketed.
More often than not, these stories are being told about the people at origin, rather than by those people; their voices are rarely heard, even if their images may appear on a wrapper. Histórias de Cacao/Cacao Stories, a Real Food Stories project focused on cacao and chocolate in Nicaragua, aims to change this by collecting stories from people in Nicaragua involved in various aspects of the chocolate and cacao industry, from farmers producing some of the finest cacao in the country, to cooperative producers struggling to find a market; From the middle men selling bulk cacao in the rural backwaters, to the major exporters drying and processing cacao for the international market; From the indigenous groups using cacao to fight for land rights, to the coffee plantations owners switching to cacao in the face of climate change; And from the small producer of traditional Nicaraguan cacao drinks, to the fine chocolate start up. Historias de Cacao/Cacao Stories is an emerging digital archive of first person stories that viewers can put together to create a mosaic of Nicaraguan Cacao, helping those outside of Nicaragua connect more directly with this fine chocolate origin. We theorize this new form, something only possible with the advent of digital media, as a “mosaic documentary,” and articulate its importance in the struggle for meaning-making around food.
Histórias de Cacao/Cacao Stories
A Real Food Stories Manifesto
A mosaic of nourishing cocoa and chocolate stories from across Nicaragua
For those who bewail its absence, honesty is a moral problem. For those who try to achieve it, it is a technical one.
-Dai Vaughan (1999)
As Communication scholar Julia Wood writes, “we humans layer food and eating with meanings beyond merely satisfying hunger.” We often create these meanings through stories, which, in the case of food, are also some of the most culturally important, pervasive, and oldest stories we tell. The mythical origin stories for culturally sacred staple foods like cereals, rice, wheat, and corn, the still sacred olive (oil) and wine, or chocolate, all of which have their mythical origins as gifts from various gods while also coming to stand in for the cultural identities of many groups. For example, the creation myth of the Maya-K’iche people of Guatemala, as chronicled in the Popol Vuh, entails the gods making the first man and woman from corn masa; Or the mythical origins of the olive as a gift to the city of Athens from the goddess of wisdom, Athena; or the Mesopotamian myth that saw the gods create humans to do the labor of agriculture, thus providing food for the gods.
Stories are central processes we use to give our lives meaning, and they often have practical applications as they help us make decisions for how best to nourish and heal our bodies and the bodies of our children. Within the field of Anthropology scholars use the term “foodways” to describe the web of socially and culturally informed beliefs, feelings, behaviors, rituals, and practices, including stories, about food within a particular geographic, historical, and/or cultural context. Whereas the stories of traditional foodways have tended to focus attention inward, for example the myths of an elder or religious figure helping a group make sense of a culturally significant food, the stories we increasingly tell are focused outward, for example the marketing of a company or organization that wants to helps us make sense of what to buy. This is as true of chocolate as it is of any other food product. The inside of the wrapper on your chocolate bar may tell you a story of the farmer who sourced the cacao that went into your bar, the social issues at the cacao’s origins, the endangered species that will be protected by a portion of this bar’s profits, or the craft chocolatier who is rediscovering or innovating the techniques for making artisanal chocolate.
This is, to a large degree, a result of our increasingly industrialized and globalized food system. As many scholarly and popular works have shown, any given meal may now feature strawberries picked in Mexico, spinach from California, asparagus from Chile, onions grown in China, and feta cheese produced in Greece. It is no wonder that we feel increasingly alienated from our foods when we can no longer even imagine where they come from, or, in some cases, what they are actually made of. A further look at our food system reveals the extent of this alienation in the form of our various strategies for responding to that very alienation. These include but are not limited to the resurgence of farmers markets, community gardens, and DIY gardening, which all try to reconnect consumers with their food more directly by cutting out as much as possible all of the people and institutions that might otherwise stand between a consumer and a producer. These also include labels, both those mandatory ingredient and nutrition labels that tell us what is in a food—something that is only necessary as our food becomes more complex and less familiar—and those voluntary labels like “organic,” “non-GMO,” “Humane” “Kosher,” or “Halal” that seek to stand in for you as witness to a production process you cannot see, assuring you that a product has been produced in a particular way out of particular ingredients.
Stories are yet another strategy we use to try to overcome our alienation from food and its origins. Mikulak calls these “storied food, a genre of literature, film, and new media that attempts to reveal the ‘truth’ behind the veil of incomprehensible ingredient lists, transnational foodways, and genetically modified ingredients in order to trace the hidden world of agriculture” and food. He further divides “storied food” into sub-genres like “the commodity biography, nostalgic pastoralism, utopian pastoralism, and the foodshed memoir”. Mikulak borrows the term from Pollan, who introduced it in one of the founding texts of this “genre,” The Omnivores Dilemma. Whereas Mikulak uses the term to refer to a genre of texts that attempt to demystify the complex global food system—“the concept of storied food is about creating readable narratives of the foodshed which have the potential to reveal the social mystery of capitalism in a lived, material way…” Pollan uses “storied food” to refer to marketer’s often dishonest and/or mystifying use of language and imagery to sell food by helping us imagine our connection to an origin, even if it is a fictitious origin. Despite these seeming differences, these versions of storied food are two sides of the same coin; both are reactions to our alienation from our food, and the desire to connect to it more strongly.
To return this to the field of Communication, Pollan and Mikulak each see their versions of storied food as responses to an “industrial foodshed… characterized by a broken semiotic chain: it is exceedingly difficult to know the story behind a package of cereal, whose ingredients are by their nature commodified at every level, right down to the genome”. Like Barthe’s mythologies, among which food advertising featured prominently as sites for analysis, this broken semiotic chain of stories of food is a function of its length: the further we are from the initial meaning, from the food as a sign, the easier it is for the chain of signification to break, and for the signification, or meaning, of the food to become obscured in the process (see  for additional applications of semiotics to food). The responses, exemplified by both Pollan and Mikulak, attempt to shorten or fill in the gaps left by the broken semiotic chain through narrative or story. In some cases, this is the label of “organic” certification that either implicitly—via the standards we imagine it enforces—or explicitly—via descriptions of grass-fed animals—creates a narrative structure for the consumer about the food so labeled. In other cases, it’s through commodity biographies that examine the histories of particular foods like salt, fish, or chili peppers.
Regardless of its form, “the central concern of storied food is thus to peel back the plastic and reconnect people with the ‘agricultural act’ associated with eating. The goal for Mikulak is largely educational, revealing what is concealed in the hopes of raising consciousness and changing everyday habits of the audience”. This is not so far from Pollan’s version of storied food, where a trip to Whole Foods becomes an experience in story-based marketing, what he names “supermarket pastoral” for its reliance on images of “family farms”—a farmer driving an old tractor, a big red barn, or cows grazing in a green pasture—that sells food products long divorced from the image of small-scale agricultural production they cultivate. The narrative behind “storied food,” whether invoked by a food producer/marketer or an educator, serves as “an imperfect substitute for direct observation of how a food is produced, a concession to the reality that most people in an industrial society haven’t the time or the inclination to follow their food back to the farm, a farm which today is apt to be, on average, fifteen hundred miles away”.
Real Food Stories
As imperfect substitutes, stories necessarily obscure rather than illuminate our foods, but that is not to say that all stories do so equally. It matters who is telling the story. In addition to being commercial texts, more often than not, these stories are being told about the people at origin, rather than by those people; their voices are rarely heard, even if their images may appear on a wrapper or in a commercial. Historias de Cacao/Cacao Stories, a Real Food Stories project focused on cacao and chocolate in Nicaragua, aims to change this by collecting stories from people in Nicaragua involved in various aspects of the chocolate and cacao industry, from farmers producing some of the finest cacao in the country, to cooperative producers struggling to find a market; From the middle men selling bulk cacao in the rural backwaters, to the major exporters drying and processing cacao for the international market; From the indigenous groups using cacao to fight for land rights, to the coffee plantations owners switching to cacao in the face of climate change; And from the small producer of traditional Nicaraguan cacao drinks, to the fine chocolate start up. Historias de Cacao/Cacao Stories is an emerging digital video archive of first person short stories that together create a mosaic of Nicaraguan Cacao, helping those outside of Nicaragua connect more directly with this fine chocolate origin. Through our project, we hope you not only gain a more direct sense of some of what is happening with chocolate/cacao in Nicaragua—the Nicaraguan cacao/chocolate story—but a more critical lens for how to evaluate the food stories they experience on a daily basis.
At issue is the power of food stories. In the introduction to their edited collection, The Rhetoric of Food, Frye and Bruner address this power directly:
Discourse. Materiality. Power. These are the sinews that connect rhetoric to food. Food is central to humankind. It is a requirement for survival, but also functions as a defining element of human culture and identity. Modes of producing, distributing, consuming, and marketing food have socioecological, socioeconomic, and sociopolitical motives and consequences.
Historias de Cacao, as a Real Food Stories project, takes this power seriously. While analyses of food discourses are important, this project attempts to intervene at the level of the stories themselves by creating new stories that represent food and thus help audiences make meaning of their relationships to food.
This intended intervention is also bound, however, by the medium we’ve chosen, as the epigraph by Vaughan suggests. There are not just “realities of film language” to contend with, and the audience expectations and literacy that accompany them, but also the actual material conditions of production themselves, including money, time, and technology. Historias de Cacao takes what we believe is a novel approach to documentary, taking advantage of the unique qualities of digital video for producing and disseminating content. Just as 16mm film allowed for whole new forms of documentary by making the means of production more accessible, digital video has done the same to an unprecedented degree. High definition cameras come standard on many cell phones, and most personal computers come with free basic video editing software, putting the tools of video production at the fingertips of many across the world. As a Real Food Story project, Historias de Cacao hopes to leverage the relative accessibility and ubiquity of these technologies by creating an affiliate program whereby content can be added to projects by people around the world. We are seeding the Historias de Cacao project, and future projects, with videos that begin to form the overall mosaic of each food in its particular country, in this case cocoa and chocolate in Nicaragua, that we hope will set the tone for additional stories submitted by our affiliates.
This affects the form the “documentary” takes. Vaughan writes about the difficult tension between wanting to keep a documentary film open-ended such that it does not presuppose too much, and the necessity of creating some structure so that it isn’t an “amorphous mess” in the end. Yet this difficulty stems largely from the difficulty of the linear structure of film and video which has defined not just the production, but also the dissemination and reception of documentaries. Digital video has largely freed us from the strictures of linearity in the production of documentaries, at least in the labor of editing, but it hasn’t led to a larger rethinking of the forms that documentaries can take. That is to say, we still suffer from linear thinking: we are still locked into understanding the documentary as a more or less linear piece that unfolds unidirectionally e.g. from start to finish. Historias de Cacao, and all Real Food Stories projects, also attempts to intervene at the level of the documentary form itself by seeking to create a non-linear documentary. Rather than create one long documentary weaving together the various stories of our subjects to provide a single story of cocoa and chocolate in Nicaragua, or even to edit each individual story into a complete little package, we’ve chosen to create what we call a mosaic documentary. Mixing aspects of Nichols six sub-genres of documentary—for example the experimental non-narrative structure of the poetic documentary, or the focus on recounting a specific history of the expository—the mosaic documentary provides the viewer with a collection of smaller sections, that may or may not resist individual completion and closure, and which can be watched in any order to create a varied and shifting larger “documentary.”
We recognize that, to poach words from Vaughan “in our anxiety to avoid using film language to communicate a closed message, we risk forgetting that without this language a film communicates nothing at all.” Yet we also believe that the ubiquity of the internet and digital media technologies has shifted the language of “film” such that viewers can embrace the non-linear, open-ended, and DIY approach of mosaic documentaries like Historias de Cacao because viewers now expect participation as much as they expect a pre-constituted message; there is room for both the pre-prepared microwaveable documentary and the mix and match customizable mosaic documentary. These shifting expectations are largely the result of shifts in technology, namely the shift toward digital media. For Miller, digital media are characterized by shifts in three key areas: technical processes, cultural forms, and the immersive experiences or environments they bring into being. The documentary power of Historias de Cacao, and all Real Food Stories projects, is founded on shifts in all three areas. Of the technical processes Miller identifies, Historias de Cacao takes advantage of the networked, hyperlinked, and interactive architecture of the internet, as well as the flexible and accessible nature of digital video, to create what is essentially a database of mix and match video segments that viewers can arrange into a customized documentary.
Historias de Cacao also embraces the new cultural forms of digital media like variability—the ability of viewers to create personalized iterations of the documentary—while also shifting the expectation away from product to process—the “documentary” remains unfinished, always potentially transforming as new segments come online, the mosaic at the heart of the project is ever shifting. In this sense, the relationship of the segments within the project, as well as the project in relation to other Real Food Stories projects, is also rhizomatic in that it resists being reduced to a collection of individual segments nor does it ultimately add up to any one particular whole. Each project is non-hierarchical, open to variation, expansion, and random connections. We hope that Real Food Stories as a concept will similarly reproduce rhizomatically, branching off to cover additional foods and additional countries. Finally, and in some ways above all, we hope that Historias de Cacao and other Real Food Stories projects result in tangibly different user experiences as users feel immersed in the mosaics they craft from the stories.
Seeds of Meaning and Change
In Hall’s widely watched lecture on representation, he argues that representation is constitutive, working to actively create meaning rather than simply standing in for an already existing meaning that exists independently or outside of that representation. In this sense, Historias de Cacao and all future Real Food Stories projects, seek to engage not only in the formal questions of documentary production, but directly in the struggle over the meaning for our food right in the terrain of popular culture itself, for, as Hall has also articulated, that is where “the people” and the “power-bloc” vie for power. Food is in many ways unique for being both discursively, materially, and ontologically central to our lives, while remaining fundamentally “popular.” This makes food an exceptionally potent site of struggle and meaning making. We hope that our choice to focus the voices of the people at the center of Real Food Stories projects like Historias de Cacao, and to do so within the remixable structure of the mosaic documentary, make clear that we are for the people, rather than the power-bloc, and in so doing, plant seeds of meaning that will grow into change.
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Aaron Dickinson Sachs PhD is Associate Professor of Media Technologies and Culture and the Chair of the Communication Department at Saint Mary’s College of California. During his sabbatical year in Nicaragua in 2016-2017, Aaron teamed up with John Drew to launch Historias de Cacao, a Real Food Stories project aimed at gathering stories of cacao and chocolate in Nicaragua.
John Drew is an Assistant Professor of Digital Media Studies at Adelphi University as well as an award-winning web designer and multimedia and digital video producer. He recently wrote and co-produced Saeed, a short fiction film exploring a Syrian family recently resettled on Long Island and dealing with the traumatic after effects of war.