My cacao origin story
My first Letter to Clay
November 17, 2023
Watching the interview reminded me of our first contact, and how far we’ve both come. It’s strange to think it has been seven years since I published the book that would launch me down a rabbit hole deeper than the Taku Glacier, and introduce me to the wondrous and complex world of chocolate—and the people who inhabit it: the growers, the makers, the scientists, the journalists and researchers, and the chocophiles around the globe. There are a few people and organizations I met in those early days who stand out: you and The Chocolate Life, Mark Christian and the C-Spot, the folks at the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund, the FCIA, and a few others.
Too often the important things go unmentioned, so let me say this now: I’ve always been grateful for your open doors. Whatever ideas I wanted to run by someone, whatever questions or concerns I had, or a request for the right source for my research, you were there, always responsive—in fact you went above and beyond, offering context I had not asked for, that gave me a much broader and deeper understanding of my questions and musings.
You’ve known about my book for a long time… but I’m not sure if I ever told you the full origin story. If you have an evening free, perhaps with a nice cup of tea—better yet, hot chocolate!—I hope this story will keep you good company, unfold the wings I have kept tucked in for so long, and take you to the headwaters of my chocolate journey.
To begin, then:
I have always been fascinated by ancient cultures and their mythologies. Growing up in the Czech Republic with no Internet, no cable TV, no smartphones and not even answering machines, only a black & white state-run television channel that aired a single children’s cartoon every evening, I found books to be wondrous portals of the imagination, doors to entire worlds. I read myths from Oceania, China, France, and of course the inimitable The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien—yes, translated into Czech! No mean feat, that.
A few decades later, living here in North America, my fascination with ancient stories led me to Mesoamerica, in particular the Maya, who had taken a keen interest in a system of calendars and timekeeping from other Mesoamerican peoples who had preceded them. The Mayan calendar, as it’s popularly known, is in fact a system of integrated calendars, each with its own purpose and function. The calendar that is most known to people is the Tzolk'in, a 260-day personal astrological calendar.
The Maya, however, had a marketing problem. A few American and European authors had discovered that they could make oodles of money and gain thousands of fans by writing books about the Mayan Calendar and embellishing things a little. Or a lot. José Arguelles is perhaps the most infamous of them all—I won’t go into details here but suffice it to say his “Harmonic Convergence” in August 1987, and especially his Dreamspell calendar, a New Age spin on the Tzolk'in that the Maya Elders explicitly rejected, did a tremendous disservice to the ancient and living Maya and their cultural legacy. The Maya of course had none of the marketing know-how, and even less of the funds, to power up their own global communications platform. And so it was that hundreds of thousands of people around the world were fooled into thinking the Dreamspell is a better Tzolk'in, brought to humanity by none other than Mr. Arguelles—who, incidentally, was infatuated with the idea of himself as an ascended spiritual being called Valum Votan.
As a journalist, writer, and researcher with a fierce distaste for deception and PR spin, I decided to set a few things straight. I read scholarly works about the Mesoamerican calendar and timekeeping, interviewed one of the living Maya elders in Guatemala, and carried on a long correspondence with a few Maya scholars I knew and respected. The result was a book that honored the Mayan way of timekeeping, dispelled the New Age alternative versions of the calendar, and gave people outside Mesoamerica a guide to the calendar they could use in their everyday lives. The book is called The Serpent and the Jaguar, in honor of two of the most powerful animal spirits in Mayan cosmology.
The research I conducted while writing the book introduced me to the Popol Vuh, the Sacred Book of the K'iche' Maya that tells the stories of creation. In the Popol Vuh, cacao and maize (corn) are of divine origin and play a critical role in the creation of humanity.
Hold that thought a moment.
Rewind to 1998, the year I began working on Tropical Rainforest, a book about the Amazon rainforest by Dr. Arnold Newman. That sparked a life-long passion—and career path—in sustainability. Only a few short years after that project, I started my own firm and leveraged my first career in film production to produce environmental documentaries, and later pivoted to sustainability communications. I also became active in international sustainability conferences. I sat next to executives from some of the world’s largest corporations and NGOs in the expansive halls of the United Nations, discussing deforestation, water crises, human rights, and other pressing social justice and environmental issues.
But soon after my daughter was born, I began to tire of all those conferences and round tables and workshops. Perhaps I was too exhausted to put up with the artifice any more, being a first-time mom with no family close by (either mine or my husband’s) to help, and having moved back to California just in time for the longtail impacts of the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Our rent doubled, my client pipeline dried up, and my husband’s employer, one of the big name consultancy firms, let him go a mere three months after our daughter was born—fully aware, of course, he was a new father.
Or perhaps somewhere deep inside, I had begun to internalize what all this “talk” was really doing for the world I had just brought a new human being into. And that was, Nothing. I couldn’t see real, tangible results. No material impacts on the lives of the people these conferences purported to address.
I stopped attending the conferences. I felt an instinctive pull back toward storytelling. We humans are hardwired for stories. All cultures, all societies, all families have their stories, and we share those stories with one another, passing them down through the generations.
You might remember that well-known quote from Sir David Attenborough, “No one will protect what they don’t care about; and no one will care about what they have never experienced.” I have my own shorter version:
You won’t protect what you don’t love, and you can’t love what you don’t know.
How can we expect anyone to change their behavior, be it the resources we extract, the food we eat, the cars we drive, or the clothes we wear, if we are all so disconnected from the natural world that makes our comfortable, convenient lives possible?
The idea for the book didn’t take long. It dropped into my brain on a landslide of melted chocolate. It made so much sense all at once. People love chocolate; its history is deep and rich and dramatic; it’s threatened by disease and climate change; it’s become industrialized and commercialized. And on top of that, it’s got its own creation myth. It was just… perfect.
I would write a mythic fantasy. For kids and the kids in us grown-ups.
You can see how all of these primary threads came together: my love of mythology, my knowledge of the Mesoamerican creation stories, and my experience with environmental issues intertwined with my being a storyteller, a total foodie, and a new mama.
And you know, of course, the rest of the story… I dove down the deep and complex cacao rabbit hole, which turned out to be an entire ecosystem of paths and tunnels and doors. That is how you and I met.
I shall leave it there, for I have already spilled more than a letter’s fair share of black pixels on this screen. I’m looking very much forward to the launch of Pod Save Chocolate, and consider it a great honor to be your inaugural guest.
Warm cacao regards,
Clay has just posted his reply—read it on The Chocolate Life, one of the longest-running blogs dedicated to all things cacao and chocolate.
And if this is your first time here on The Cacao Muse, welcome! Please feel free to leave your chocolate-stained fingerprints all over the comments.
Broadcast from the London Studio of Channels Television, a 24-hour news channel based in Lagos, Nigeria. The interview starts at 14:32.