goodbye old friend

The holidays brought me home to small-town B.C. -- my family, gentle snowfalls on fir trees, childhood friends.

And home to all the books that have been waiting on my nightstand for weeks, unread and lonely. There was Lovely Bones, Belinda and I Am the Messenger.

But my must-read this winter? The book that's kept me up at night for weeks?
Carol Off's Bitter Chocolate.

Now, I love chocolate as much as the next girl. Possibly more. That's me on the right, after all, after a particularly wet ride at last year's Calgary Stampede....

But it's time we all take a very serious look at where it comes from. It's a subject I've been somewhat obsessed with since I was in my second year of university, in 2001. I caught this story that spring in the Ottawa Citizen:
"Agencies prepare to aid child slaves"
Jean-Luc Aplogan
COTONOU, Benin -- Aid agencies and authorities in Benin prepared yesterday to assist scores of suspected child slaves on board a ship turned back by two African countries.
The children, from Benin and neighboring Togo, were believed to be caught up in a lucrative trade in minors sold by poor families and forced to work abroad on plantations or as domestic servants....
Despite international efforts to curb the trade, child slavery persists in West and Central Africa, from where European slave traders shipped millions of people to the Americas from the 16th to 19th centuries.....
Many child slaves from countries such as Benin, Togo and Mali end up working on plantations producing cocoa and other cash crops in Gabon and Ivory Coast, where farmers can pay modern-day slave traders up to $340 per child....

The stories stemming from this news, mostly wire stuff buried on back international pages, put me off chocolate for well over a year. I was a good little humanitarian.

But milk chocolate lured me. Chocolate-dipped strawberries tempted me. Gorgeous Rogers' chocolates in Victoria won me over. I put aside my sensibilities for a summer. Then a fall. A winter.

You get my point.

But it's time for me, at least, to get back on track. If not because of child slaves in west Africa -- because there are those who would argue this is not as widespread a problem as some NGOs would have you believe -- at the end of the day, most of the people who pick the cocoa have never sampled the colourfully-wrapped chocolates we enjoy at Christmas. They've never sipped hot chocolate through a layer of whipped cream in a thick warm mug. They haven't a clue how good it all tastes because they simply don't have access to it.

As Off writes in her epilogue, "It's a measure of the separation in our worlds, a distance now so staggeringly vast.... the distance between the hand that picks the cocoa and the hand that reaches for the chocolate bar."

Read Off's detailed investigation of chocolate and its roots. At moments, the human stories will break your heart. Tales of reporters who have tried to uncover the story will tantalize you. But mostly, it will make you think about the food you eat and who makes it possible for you to eat it.

And yes, I know cocoa is just one food item that raises ethical flags. But giving it up is a start.

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