Michael Grofe: professor of cultural anthropology and chocolatier
Grofe studies Maya mythology and makes chocolate to support the nonprofit Mayas for Ancient Mayan.
Michael Grofe, cultural anthropology professor at Sacramento City College and bona fide Maya archeologist, has a sweet tooth for all things chocolate, especially if that chocolate is fair trade and ecologically sustainable. That cocoa tooth took root when a seemingly random opportunity to explore life as a chocolatier crashed headlong into Grofe’s tireless capacity for anthropological curiosity. Like chocolate and peanut butter, a love affair was born. From that day forward, Maya mythology, chocolate, and Grofe’s sincere commitment to inform, honor, teach and protect the ancient culture forever intertwined—like twin fish of Maya lore—into what would become and still remains as his life’s calling.
Oh, yeah, and did we mention he makes chocolate?
A beautiful box of chocolate, in fact, replete with realistic castings of the Maya calendar glyphs. Handmade and filled with different flavored centers, these chocolates are made to aid the fundraising for Maya to translate the writings of their ancestors and be the recoverers of their own histories.
SN&R chatted with the chocolatier about Maya folklore, his history with chocolate and more.
How did you become an apprentice chocolatier?
Rewind to 1995. I was a master student in cultural anthropology in San Francisco. I needed a side job. My partner at the time, his friends, owned a chocolate factory they’d started about 12 years before. Tom was looking for additional apprentices, and he threw me right into it. It was an entirely mail-order business.
Did you have any interest in chocolate before this?
It wasn’t something that I sought out … About a year after I started working there, Tom sold the business to me. I didn’t want to be a businessman, because I was very concerned about capitalism. After I bought the factory, I decided to study chocolate for my master’s thesis … My master’s thesis ended up being about the chocolate industry. I did an ethnography of the industry and found out about their horrible practices. It eventually led me to closing the company, because I felt like I could not justify making money off chocolate, which came from unsustainable, socially irresponsible and ecologically irresponsible ways.
How did your passion for Maya mythology grow from your early experiences with the chocolate industry?
I was thrust into this job as a chocolatier and wanted to connect to it … That led me to the relationship between humans and ecology, which led me to the ancient Maya. My father wanted to be a Maya archaeologist, and I kind of lived out his dream by becoming one.
How did that lead to making Maya glyphs with the chocolate?
I finished up my grad degree in Australia, and I remember in the library getting this book called Maya Hieroglyphs Without Tears, by J. Eric S. Thompson. I opened the pages, and I fell in love with those glyphs. … I thought, I’m going to close my company now, but maybe one day I’ll reopen it and teach people about the Maya story of chocolate by sculpting calendar glyphs and casting them into chocolate. I’d assumed somebody had already translated them. But the glyphs hadn’t been translated! That just completely intrigued me.
So, the biz closed, but you’re still making chocolate.
In 2015, I was selected to be the president of a nonprofit called Mayas for Ancient Mayan. One thing I do for MAM is fundraisers. … I wanted to make these chocolate boxes out of chocolate grown by the Maya fair trade, so they would make money from it and help to teach the world about how the Maya came up with chocolate and about their sophisticated astronomy. I give the entire profits to MAM. It’s helping Maya people learn how to read and write in the script that was taken away from them 500 years ago.
What kind of chocolate do you like to eat?
I like dark chocolate. In the past, I’ve eaten too much. When I first started as an apprentice, working in the factory all by myself, I could eat as much chocolate as I wanted to, and ate about a pound. I will never do that again.
Does anyone ever call you Professor Chocolate?
Doctor Chocolate! Or Willy Wonka. I get that too. Once people find out, I am forever woven together with chocolate in their minds. If they hear anything about chocolate, they will send it to me. It’s fun.
It seems like chocolate has a special significance for you.
I feel intimately interwoven with chocolate. Chocolate is part of my story now. It took me by the hand because I was curious. And it led me to where I am today. I would not be a Maya archaeologist were it not for chocolate. It brought together a confluence of my interest in ecology, social justice, biology, astronomy and science. All these things coalesce in the story of chocolate. The real crux of the story for me is the interconnectedness that the story is meant to teach people: “We are related to the cosmos.”