Every other Monday, we’ll introduce you to a member of the Dandelion community through a Q & A. Stay tuned to meet our chocolate makers, café staff, kitchen team, producers, partners, importers, mentors, friends, and everyone who helps make chocolate possible. This week, we step outside of our typical interviews with chocolate makers and cacao producers to meet Birgitte Rasine. Birgitte is an author and sustainability warrior who fuses mythology and biology in her latest book, The Jaguar and the Cacao Tree, which works to connect us closer to the ancient roots of our food. She has worked in sustainability since 1998, and the first book she worked on was Dr. Arnold Newman’s Tropical Rainforest with an introduction by Dr. Jane Goodall.
NAME: Birgitte Rasine
HOMETOWN: Brno, Czech Republic
FAVORITE CHOCOLATE: Heirloom chocolate, especially To’ak and Ingemann Cacao Fino
Title: A.P.E. (Author, Producer, Entrepreneur)
Favorite Food: Soups and sauces
Q: Hi Birgitte! So, your book, The Jaguar and the Cacao Tree, comes out tomorrow. What’s it about?
A: It’s a fantasy, action, and adventure story. It follows Max, an American boy, and Itzel, a Maya girl, and several other characters that span the generations: their parents, grandparents, and siblings, along with a few cool animals (real and mythic). Max travels the world with his bee researcher dad, which is how he gets to visit Guatemala where Itzel introduces Max to the rainforest, animal spirit guides, the Maya way of life, and a sacred cacao tree that—I won’t spoil it—can unleash some less-than-benevolent beasts and magic.
The book is about the history, mythology, and biology of cacao, and it’s part of a larger series called “Max and the Code of Harvests”—“code” referring to the DNA of food. The point of the series is to connect readers with the ancient roots and mythology of food.
Q: Tell me more about that mission.
A: I think that our connection with food has to change because our food systems have become so adulterated, mechanized, and processed. At this point, most of us, kids especially, really don’t know where all of our food is coming from. A study was done years ago that discovered that a lot of children in America didn’t know that you were supposed to peel an orange before you eat it. You ask: Where does milk come from? And too many kids say, the grocery store. Where does chocolate come from? A vending machine. Many people may not know that chocolate comes from a football-shaped fruit that grows on a tree pollinated by tiny midges, not bees.
Q: And why are those important things to know?
A: Well, once you know where your food comes from and who produces it, your understanding of it and relationship with it changes. I would say that whatever food we consider sacred, whatever food we have a relationship with, we respect. So if we have a relationship with food as well as the people who produce it, we can begin to respect them both. It’s the only way we can make changes towards a more sustainable food system.
Q: I hear you, but how do you build relationships to a food when that food and the producers who grow it are thousands of miles away? You can’t meet them at the farmers’ market like you can here.
A: That’s an excellent question, and one that we’ve been grappling with all along. My team and I are working with a number of partners, including the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund, which certifies heirloom cacao trees, on a media content initiative centered around our desire to reconnect people with the origins of chocolate. In addition to the novel, we’re producing a coloring book that’s coming out this fall, and developing an interactive game for the tablet about the flora, fauna, and foods of Mesoamerica, including chocolate. And with the HCP and our other partners, we’re working on projects to enable kids to connect with cacao farmers and chocolate makers. There are some language and technology barriers of course, but we’re working through it.
Q: How were the Maya connected to cacao?
A: The Maya were not the first to have hot chocolate, or to eat chocolate. Scholars believe the Olmecs, one of the most ancient civilizations in Mesoamerica, had domesticated cacao. Nobody really knows how or where it was discovered. It’s like corn in the sense that it’s a complicated process to make it edible; you have to cut the pod off the tree, break it apart, ferment and roast the beans, then grind them and go through all the steps necessary to produce chocolate. Either someone was really determined or it was a series of happy accidents that brought chocolate into being. And because it was so nourishing, exquisite, and healing, the ancient cultures considered it a sacred food. In cacao-producing regions across Mesoamerica, the cacao tree was considered the tree of creation, or the tree of life.
Q: Did it have any other roles in Maya life?
A: Yes, cacao was also used as currency. People know the rumors and story of the Aztec emperor Motecuhzoma—he had a storehouse of hundreds of thousands of cacao beans that the Spanish raided, and it is said he drank chocolate from golden cups. What most people don’t know is that the Maya had a special coming of age ceremony for children that involved cacao. In the ceremony, the four rain gods were invoked and the children were anointed with sacred water mixed with flowers and ground cacao beans. There were a number of sacred rites that involved cacao—usually birth, marriage, and death.
Q: How does cacao play a role in the lives of Max and Itzel?
A: When Max and Itzel open up the pods of the sacred tree, they literally come into contact with the history and the mythology of chocolate. It’s a way of taking our present and fusing it with the past. I want the story to bleed out into the real world, reconnecting our present and future with the past, and that’s why we’re putting together this media initiative. Integrating our history and our myths into our everyday lives and society enriches us in so many ways, spiritually, socially, and culturally, because we know where we’re coming from.
Q: Okay, last question, and it should be an easy one for you. If you could have hot chocolate with anyone from history, who would it be?
A: Lord Cacao for sure! He’s a real historical personage—he ruled Tik’al in 682 AD, and the recipe for his hot chocolate is on the book’s web site. I created a myth involving him, for the story. I’d hope he wouldn’t throw me down a pyramid for that!