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The cacao cult: why chocolate is hot right now

The cacao cult: why chocolate is hot right now

Now it’s a superfood, but pre-Columbian civilisations thought it was a divine gift. Kieran Dahl joins some worshippers at a ceremony in Brooklyn

Now it’s a superfood, but pre-Columbian civilisations thought it was a divine gift. Kieran Dahl joins some worshippers at a ceremony in Brooklyn

Kieran Dahl | January 22nd 2019

Living in the woo-woo wellness epicentre of north Brooklyn has taught me two things: what’s bad is actually good, and what’s old is new again. Seeing red wine and black coffee not as vices but as virtuous elixirs has been easy enough. But I’ve struggled to embrace the millennia-old rituals that have been afforded shiny makeovers in the age of Instagram. Meditating with an app felt deeply wrong. Yoga made my knees ache. Carrying around shiny rocks – sorry, healing crystals – seemed downright Sisyphean. But I will try almost anything to assuage my on/off depression, and my own humble wellness regime of daily smoothies and not-quite-daily workouts was not doing the trick. What I needed to stave off the winter doldrums, according to a trusted and trend-conscious friend, was to experience a “sacred cacao ceremony”.

Pure, unprocessed cacao – the raw material from which chocolate is made – is one of nature’s most deluxe pharmaceuticals. It has more antioxidants than blueberries, more iron than spinach, and more calcium than cow’s milk. Studies have found that its bioactive compounds can improve blood flow, mood, cognition and alertness. No wonder that pre-Columbian civilisations, believing it to be a divine gift, used it as a ritualistic medicine. (Its generic name, theobroma cacao, translates as “food of the gods.”) No wonder, too, that the ancient bean is now trending. Clean-eating influencers sprinkle the “superfood” atop açai bowls and bake it into gluten-free brownies. Holistic-wellness enthusiasts use it as a PG-rated club drug at dance parties like Lucid, a booze-free Berlin rave. At cacao ceremonies, held at yoga studios and New Age-y healing collectives in Bali, Silicon Valley and Brooklyn, groups of people get together to, well, get high on chocolate. It definitely sounded more appealing to me than acupuncture. If a pint of Ben & Jerry’s could make me feel as happy as it does, I wondered, what could a good dose of pure Guatemalan cacao do for me?

I signed up for a ceremony at a community centre near my home. When I walked into the drafty, candlelit room, 40 or so people were sitting on yoga mats and blankets around a rainbow-coloured altar. They looked like they’d just time-travelled from Woodstock. Their clothing was drapey, diaphanous, adorned with beads, flowers and feathers. With their glowing skin, Photoshop smiles, voluminous man buns and tresses like golden waterfalls, they radiated joy and vitality. A willowy woman with waist-length hair squirted cannabis oil onto her tongue, closed her eyes, and clasped her hands over her heart. In my notebook, I scrawled the words HAPPY and HEALTHY, then underlined them.

“We’re going to get outside this body,” said the shaman to kick things off. “This body is borrowed.” He explained that cacao can “open the heart and connect it with the mind,” adding, with a grin, “sometimes chocolate is even better than sex. They say that once you have chocolate the right way, you’ll never make love again.” We were given paper cups of cacao brew – dark slurry that looked like congealed hot chocolate. It tasted like dirt and made my mouth feel gritty. While it took effect, the shaman said, we’d all hold hands and meditate. As the low, steady sound of a gong filled the room, the women around me started wobbling, like docked boats on a choppy sea. I didn’t feel anything, apart from my neighbours’ bony knees bumping against mine.

The shaman’s assistant, a dreadlocked doppelgänger of Captain Jack Sparrow, read an “ode to love” with the irksome lilt of a spoken-word poet. “Love is the essence of any religion being honest,” he said, and people clicked their fingers in appreciation. “Eating words like good food,” he said, and they mmm-ed as if eating steak. “Love of self is” – and the roar of revving motorcycles drowned out his words. I stifled a snicker and peered around the room. Did no one else feel the psychic barrier between out there and in here get suddenly, irrevocably punctured by some dudes on Harleys? Evidently not. The ode’s end was met with scattered sniffles and whispered praise. A woman near me rubbed tears from her cheeks and said, “Ohmygosh, wasn’t that just so beautiful?”

I still wasn’t feeling it. But then the shaman and a makeshift chorus began to chant, their soft voices buoyed by drums and chimes, and a warm nothingness enveloped me. I had a vague but pleasant sensation of drifting. Was it the burning sage and incense, the soothing music or the cacao itself that was making me feel these feely feelings? I didn’t care. My relaxation was total. My head was ever-so-gently lolling off my neck. I began to understand why a group ritual that unites people in one room and one collective headspace, is so appealing in our age of fractured discourse and internet-induced loneliness.

As the music grew louder, the ceremony evolved into a sedate dance party. I was on my feet, swaying with my eyes closed. When I opened them, one woman was doing an upside-down handstand against the wall. Another was in the middle of a full split. The ceremony concluded with the shaman telling us to embrace our neighbours. I had a panicky flashback to Sunday school, which always ended with hugs I wanted no part of. When a woman opened her arms wide enough to comfortably encircle five of me and then rested her head against my chest, I felt like I was swaddled – in a cosy straitjacket.