Enlarge Image Credit: Annie NovakOver the past seven years, I've traveled to nine countries to harvest crops from garlic to cassava. Today I farm on a 6,000-square-foot green roof in Brooklyn, growing tomatoes, chiles, and greens in six inches of soil. But I didn't become a farmer for my love for land, but rather, for my love of chocolate.
In 2003, while searching for ideas for my college thesis, I came across information on Kuapa Kokoo ("Good Farmer's Cacao"), a fair trade cooperative of West African farmers who sold to England's Divine Chocolate Company. Perfect! I thought. A candy bar addict (Snickers and Twix were top choices), I figured learning about my favorite food was a fine project. I applied for credits through the University of Cape Coast, in Ghana, and flew from New York to Accra.
The first farmer I met, Ebenezer Asamaal, invited me to walk his land outside of the city of Kumasi in Ghana's rainforest region. It was his third decade farming, and he moved with ease through tangles of branches. After two hot, sticky hours, I finally asked where the cacao was. "Here," he replied, pointing in every direction. "All this is chocolate." I was shocked. I'd spent a semester researching chocolate, and I hadn't recognized the plant. To cover my embarrassment, I asked him what his favorite type of chocolate was to eat. He again pointed his machete at the football-sized pods ripening from russet to gold on the trees. "This is the only kind I've ever eaten," he laughed, "Chocolate bars would melt in this heat."
Ebenezer sliced open a pod. Inside were dozens of beans, in rows as perfect as teeth. He showed me how to suck on the sugary membrane surrounding the bean for its caffeinated buzz. We spread the beans underneath banana leaves to encourage them to ferment. In the five or so days it took the membrane to dry, beans by the thousands lay on tarps in the village, their flavor concentrating. When I cracked them open to chew the raw nibs, the cacao powder and butter separated in my mouth, and the dark, aromatic taste spread across my tongue.
At the end of my fieldwork, a package arrived from my father full of bite-sized Snickers. They did not go over well with my neighbors. "This is too sweet," one auntie said, wrinkling up her nose. I unwrapped my own. After weeks of eating cacao beans, rich with nuances of each farmer's growing, fermentation, and curing practices, the candy tasted nothing, to me, like chocolate. That's when that I understood the point of my studies: before then, I had spent every day eating a food I knew little about. Now I spend each season solving the mysteries of the foods that I love.
Annie Novak is the founder of the Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Brooklyn, New York, and Growing Chefs, a food education program.