“Chocolate Making in New York: A Colonial History”
~Michael Laiskonis ~
Institute for Culinary Education, New York, February 12, 2018
On chocolate: “If you’re not enjoying yourself, there’s something wrong.” Ed Seguine, President, Seguine Cacao Cocoa & Chocolate Advisors
Former Executive Pastry Chef at Le Bernardin and IACP’s 2014 Culinary Professional of the Year, Michael Laiskonis is Creative Director and Pastry and Baking Arts Instructor at the Institute for Culinary Education. In 2015 he launched the bean-to-bar Chocolate Lab at ICE. His path to finding his culinary voice started in the fine arts, a connection that was showcased in the exquisite chocolate creations he prepared for us: chocolate hazelnut bonbons; plain chocolate mendiants with cacao nibs, salt, and dried orange peels; chocolate puff pastries; flourless chocolate wafers; three-layered verrines of chocolate, coco, and mango (“what grows together, goes together”); a sweet drink made from re-purposed juice from cacao pulp; pȃtes de fruit, also using cacao pulp; and finally, his own hot chocolate creation, mixing the traditional Mesoamerican elixir with an array of spices (e.g., cinnamon, vanilla, rose, aniseed, etc.).
Laiskonis’s talk on the history of chocolate in New York City traced chocolate’s evolution from its Amazon-Mesoamerican origins to the Caribbean cacao trade in colonial America, from commercial chocolate-making in Manhattan to the contemporary artisanal movement centered in Brooklyn (e.g., the Mast Brothers, Raaka, and Cacao Prieto).
The evolution of the spicy, porridge-like Indian nectar to the sweet, hot beverage introduced to Europe via Spain, the clergy, and Sephardic Jews is inextricably linked to sugar. In Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985), anthropologist Sidney Mintz traces how Europe’s desire for stimulants sweetened with sugar (i.e., tea, coffee, and chocolate) transformed drinking habits and modes of social interaction. Profits from the trade of these luxury commodities became the engine of empire, fueled by the Spanish encomiendo system in Central and South America and by slavery in the Atlantic World that linked the Caribbean and American colonies with Europe and Africa.
Beginning with the first shipment of beans from the West Indies to Boston in the 1680s, the cacao trade increased in the 1700s. In Dutch New Amsterdam and later British New York, key players and families in the chocolate world were linked not just through business connections and mergers, but also through genealogy and marriage. Among the prominent names in this history were Sephardic Jews, such as the Gomez and Wagg families, the Roosevelts, Peter Swigard, Tobias Van Zandt, and the Van Dyks.
After the American Revolution, chocolate-making picked up in the 1800s. The Industrial Revolution brought notable changes to chocolate processing: (1) invention of the cocoa butter press (Casparus Van Houten) which defats the cocoa mass or liquor; (2) alkalization, or “Dutch processing,” which makes chocolate more soluble (Coenraad van Houten); (3) fabrication of milk chocolate using milk powder (Nestlé and Peter); (4) invention of the conching machine to evaporate acids and make chocolate smoother and more refined (Lindt); and (5) the tempering process which transforms chocolate’s crystals to make the final product shiny and “snappable.” These improvements heralded the “Golden Age” of chocolate as it shifted from beverage to confection and food, and cookbooks included chocolate and cocoa recipes.
In the early history of New York, all major chocolate companies were located in Lower Manhattan — on Gold, Barclay, Duane, William, Elm, Bowery, Broad, and Beekman streets. In the second half of the 19th century, chocolate-making migrated northward to “cocoa corners” in the West 20s between Sixth and Eighth Avenues. As industrial activity moved away from Wall Street, it would in time leave the city altogether. Increasingly German, Dutch, and French entrepreneurs invested in chocolate and confectionery businesses, but religious and ethnic diversity had always been a part of New York’s chocolate scene as well as the other cities, in particular, Philadelphia, Boston, and Newport, involved in the cacao and chocolate trade .
The 20th century witnessed the rise of “big chocolate” companies, such as Nestle’s, Mars, and Hersheys, but after WW II, chocolate-making in New York declined. Today vintage photographs of factory buildings with their logos are the only visual evidence of family-run chocolate businesses in the city. But chocolate memorabilia abound — of company logos, family branding and advertising using catchy phrases, and posters of the finer sex to sell the sweet products.
The story is not just about pleasure. Dangerous working conditions, fires, industrial accidents, and health issues complicated the industry. Fear of poisoning by adulterating chocolate with other ingredients was another concern, whether real or imagined.
With the Millennium, the artisanal, bean-to-bar movement has revived chocolate-making, and micro-batch chocolates are now produced from specially sourced, fine-flavor beans. While the sweet aroma of chocolate no longer permeates Lower Manhattan or the West 20s, thankfully we can visit ICE’s Chocolate Lab and watch award-winning Chef Michael Laiskonis as he tests cacao bean varietals, demonstrates chocolate techniques, and reinvents classic desserts.
Write-up: Ellen M. Schnepel