A Chat with Dr. Chocolate

Kristy Leissle, Ph.D., teaches "Chocolate: A Global Inquiry," at UW Bothell. The course uses the subject of chocolate to teach students about history, culture, economics and more. We recently had a conversation with Dr. Leissle about her life and her work.

First word that pops into your head when we say chocolate?
Food!

First memory of chocolate?
Trying to run away from home when I was about four years old, because my mom would not take me out to buy a 3 Musketeers bar. I had been watching my cartoons and saw a commercial for it on TV. I can still remember the way the melted chocolate poured right over the bar of nougat in that commercial—it was mesmerizing, the most delicious looking thing I had ever seen. I needed to taste it immediately. My mom said no, I would have to wait, so I packed a little bag, told her I was leaving, and marched down the long flight of stairs to our front door. I remember opening and shutting the door, pretending like I had left, but really I just sat there for a while, waiting to see if my mom would come running down after me. She never did.

Where did you go to college?
BA, Boston College, MSt, Oxford University,  MPA, University of Washington, Ph.D, University of Washington

List of countries you have visited on the search for chocolate?
US (Hawaii, New York, Seattle), Malaysia, Singapore, UAE, India, Ghana, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Great Britain, Austria, Finland, Italy, Argentina. Upcoming: Belize, Nicaragua. On the bucket list: Madagascar, Peru, Mexico.

Favorite kinds of chocolate/types and brands?
Any single origin, artisanal, bean to bar chocolate I generally enjoy very much. Some of my favorite artisans are Art Pollard (Amano), Colin Gasko (Rogue), Cameron Ring and Todd Masonis (Dandelion), and Rob Anderson (Fresco). Generally I like Madagascar origin bars, especially the ones by MadĂ©casse. Chocolate I can eat by the pound: Dandelion Madagascar, Francois Pralus Ghana, and Lindt Sea Salt dark bar. I love sea-salted caramels, like Fran’s. I also like white chocolate, especially if I pair it with something very dark, in the 80 or 90 percent range, and make a little white/dark chocolate sandwich. Another big favorite is basil ganache, which I make a lot in the summer.

Favorite chocolate fun fact?
Drying cocoa beans smell like stinky socks and fermenting beans look like rotting brains.

Is there any kind of chocolate you don't like?
No. Well, there are some flavorings I won’t choose if there are other possibilities around, but in a pinch I’ll eat anything. Generally I’m not a big fan of nuts or fruits in my chocolate, although I do like NestlĂ© Chunky, which has both, and also those chocolate-covered macadamia nuts you get in Hawaii. I also am no friend of liquors in confections, although my friend Aaron Barthel at Intrigue Chocolate does these so well, I will eat his liquor truffles very happily.

What do you hand out to trick-or-treaters on Halloween?
Gosh, usually nothing, because they never ring my bell! I tend to live in weird, inaccessible places, like boats and cottages, which are off the regular trick-or-treat routes. But if they did, I would probably give them homemade mendiants—little discs of chocolate decorated with pretty, edible things—or just blobs piped out of a piping bag. The loveliness of mendiants might be lost on children who just want to eat as much chocolate as they can, as quickly as possible, and chocolate blobs taste just as good without the decorations.

What you really want people to understand about chocolate?
That it deserves our respect and attention, and is not something to consume mindlessly, even as a snack. In US culture today, chocolate is advertised as an easy treat, but nothing about it is easy. So much labor goes into making chocolate, both on the farm and in the factory. As with any food, we should take a moment to extend our gratitude to those people who, in many cases, devote their lives to bringing chocolate to our tables.

Do you really eat chocolate every day? How much?
Yes. I start out with a handful of chocolate callets (large, flatish chips) in my steel-cut oats every morning. I generally use Cacao Barry single origin Tanzania or Mexico for that, although if I run out of those I will put any chocolate I have in the house into the oatmeal. Without chocolate, it does not even seem like breakfast. During the day I sometimes snack on those same callets or, if I have baked recently, a piece of chocolate cake or a brownie. After dinner I like to eat a small piece of something exquisite—a truffle, or a very fine bar. I have a special box where I keep my expensive artisanal bars, and I’ll take that out in the evenings and pick one that matches my mood.

Is chocolate your beauty secret?
Yes.

Name of your courses on chocolate?
At UW Bothell, my class is called Chocolate: A Global Inquiry, and it’s only for first year students. I teach it every winter quarter. I also do lots of public events and lectures, and the occasional private tasting.

What do students come away from your classes knowing?
A bit of everything about chocolate: its history, where the tree grows and what it’s like on a cocoa farm, how cocoa is traded on the world market, the process of manufacturing a chocolate bar, what it’s like running a chocolate business, the biography of industry leaders. They also study the cultural aspects of chocolate—how it’s advertised, how it’s portrayed in literature and film—and contemporary debates and contentious issues, from health impacts to allegations of child slavery in cocoa production. I teach a multi-disciplinary inquiry into chocolate, so we cover many different angles. It’s an ideal food for this kind of study, because chocolate is so economically, historically, and culturally meaningful. I couldn’t teach the same way about, for example, broccoli, or even vanilla.

What is single source chocolate and why is it important?
Single origin chocolate is made from beans that come from one location—generally a country, but increasingly from one grower cooperative, or even a single plantation. It’s important for the same reason that wine grapes are important: cocoa bean strain and terroir matter to flavor! If you make a chocolate bar using beans from Sambirano Valley in Madagascar, it will taste really different than if you use beans from the Ocumare region of Venezuela: the former tastes of bright sour cherry, lime, or other citrus fruits, while the latter tastes to me like licorice.

The chocolates we knew growing up don’t really tell us anything about where the beans come from, whereas single origin chocolate names the place where the cocoa grows right on the front of the bar: Dominican Republic, Grenada, Tanzania, Ghana, Peru. So we learn something about cocoa—at the very least that it comes from a place far away—when we pick up a single origin bar.

Is it ok to call you Dr. Chocolate?
Sure. Friends and colleagues started calling me Dr. Chocolate when I defended my dissertation, and it stuck. It’s catchy, I don’t mind it. I can think of less interesting professional nicknames!

dr. Chocolate

Dr. Chocolate with a very large chocolate bar.