25. Cacao

We don’t find chocolate as impressive as we should. We find it exciting, yes, particularly when we are young. We love the taste. But we don’t see it as remarkable. Anything you can buy with the change in your pocket is apt to lose its wonder.

But it is impressive. Remarkable. Wonderful. The seed of a South American understory tree, hacked off the branch with a machete, fermented, dried, roasted and ground. That all happens before you start making chocolate itself, which is a whole other convoluted process. It’s a lot of work for something you buy at a petrol station, three bars for a pound.

Anyway. The tree that brings chocolate into our world, Theobroma cacao, is beautiful. I would like to draw your attention in particular to the flowers, which emerge directly from the trunk in a way that seems entirely fake. Exhibit 1:

cacao flowers

These flowers, once fertilised, become beans. In the customary fashion. They also look fake. Exhibit 2:

cacao pods

I mean, come on.

But this tree, impressive though it is, isn’t really what I want to write about.




(CN: eating disorders)

It’s nearly Lent, and people are giving up. They are giving up Coca-cola. They are giving up crisps. They are giving up sugar and pizza and alcohol. And, more than anything else, they are giving up chocolate.

The Lenten fast, of course, is a Christian thing. But it has long outgrown Christianity. Many people who, like me, would spontaneously combust if they stepped inside a church, nevertheless choose to give something or other up, to mark Jesus’ walk in the wilderness.

And fasting in general is on the rise. Dry January is now well and truly mainstream, if my friends are anything to go by. Veganuary is hot on its heels. Fitness and diet gurus extol the virtues of intermittent fasting; magazines, particularly women’s magazines, are adamant that we all go on a ‘detox’ (note: not a thing).

It feels like the whole world is fasting. But I am not, and nor will I ever be. And I want to tell you why.

In the UK today, 700,000+ people are living with an eating disorder. That’s not including those who have disordered eating in a more general sense: those who use rules to dictate and manage what they eat, when they eat, and how they eat.

The etiology of eating disorders is complicated, but many experts see the way our society treats food as part of the problem. Namely: there are good foods, of which you should partake as often as possible, and there are bad foods, which are tantamount to poison.

This way of thinking about food is very profitable. Where there are bad foods, there is guilt, and guilt sells. A guilty woman buys magazines that tell her which foods to avoid, which exercises to do. A guilty man buys dumbbells and gym memberships. Conversely, the idea of good foods, of some heretofore unknown dietary trick that will make you thinner, younger, happier, more productive, more promotable – this idea is powerful, too. It sells juicers. It sells spiralizers. It sells blueberries and chia seeds and, just to bring things full circle, cocoa nibs.

I can’t blame Lent for all of this. But I do think our  passion for fasting is symptomatic of our tendency to see the world in binaries, because that makes things easier. There are good guys and bad guys. Wars are won or lost. Every food is bad or good, worthy or unworthy. We eat, or we don’t eat.

Most people can give things up for Lent quite happily, and then, when Easter rolls around, take them up again with alacrity. But, if having an eating disorder teaches you anything, it is this: something being OK for most people does not make it OK. When you hurt a minority, it matters. When you hurt one person, it still matters.

Who is this guy, right? Is he actually telling me I can’t stop eating ice cream for a month and a bit?

I’m not.

Look, your chocolate is your chocolate. I’m not about to make you eat it, and if not eating it for a while is important to you, great. But I would ask you this: consider the way you talk about fasting, and how it might affect the people around you.

So if, for example, you work in an office, don’t start a water cooler conversation about who’s giving up what. Don’t ask people to sponsor your self-denial. Don’t post self-congratulatory Instagrams about all the calories you haven’t eaten (or, indeed, all the ones you’re going to eat come Easter Sunday). Give up whatever you want, but please, give up talking about what you’ve given up, too.

And if you aren’t doing it happily, lightly, joyfully; if you spend a lot of time thinking about the calories you’re ‘saving’; if it’s less about the gesture, and more about the rule, talk to someone about it. Talk to me.

Because chocolate is wonderful, and so are you, and if we all gave up feeling guilty about the food we eat,the world would be a much, much better place.



  1. Not directly linked, but I vividly remember a young, slim, female colleague coming into the office a few years ago with a doughnut, saying she knew it was ‘bad’ but she’d just had a sudden craving for one. I think it’s probably not ideal to eat doughnuts ALL the time, but it really struck me that even as an occasional treat, it was labelled as ‘bad’ and something she felt she had to almost apologise for. The messages we hear (and convey and absorb and perpetuate) around food are often so binary, as you say — and often, too, our eating habits are unrelated to hunger: we eat because it’s lunchtime, or dinner time; we don’t eat because we’re on a diet; we eat because we’re feeling low, or bored; we don’t eat because we’re worried about our weight or appearance… (These are just examples, of course; there are many other reasons why we eat or don’t eat — but often, I feel, those reasons have little to do with being hungry or not.). I struggled with an eating disorder for years and years, and it’s only since I turned 40, and had a child, I think, that I’ve finally felt able to relax around food. (The child thing isn’t because being a parent ‘changed’ me, by the way; it’s just that I’m very conscious of the messages I give my now 4-y-o about food, weight, exercise, her body, etc — and that’s actually been quite a positive for me.)

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