Chocolate Alchemist at Work in Santa Fe
by Nicky Tiso '10
Mark Sciscenti '88 is a soft-spoken, self-proclaimed chocolate historian and alchemist, a rare cross between Willy Wonka and Michael Pollan. He's one of a very few chocolate historians in the U.S., and the only one of them to actually make chocolate.
Simply put, Sciscenti is crazy about chocolate, and not the typical corn-syrup-sweetened candy kind. As a chocolate maker and historian, his unique trade is as scholarly as it is unusual: Sciscenti recreates traditional pre-Columbian Mesoamerican Mayan Aztec drinking chocolate, 1600s European drinking chocolate, and colonial American and colonial Mexican drinking chocolates, in the form of what he calls chocolate elixirs, all made at his recently opened Kakawa Chocolate House in his hometown of Santa Fe. Kakawa is a pre-Mayan word that loosely translates to "chocolate." It may be redundant, but only for Mesoamerican linguists and the five other chocolate historians alive.
The drinks are called elixirs because they're handmade artisanal drinks that use chocolate in ways both magical and medicinal, as a ritualized method of "evoking the sacred, sensuous and delightful experiences of life," like the ancient Aztec and Mayan cultures he studies once did. There is a consistent duality in Sciscenti's approach to making and selling chocolate in which the pleasure of taste is inextricable from its cultural roots. Usually, Sciscenti says, his customers "walk away very happy and more historically informed."
It's almost too easy to highlight Evergreen's impact on Sciscenti's profession and passion, given his cross-cultural specialization. Trained as an herbalist, he focused on environmental studies that gave him knowledge not just of the earth, but also of the cultures inhabiting it.
"Evergreen helped me see the consequences and connections, and without that positive understanding, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now,” he says.
Sciscenti also gives widely-acclaimed lectures on the history of chocolate to various universities, museums and other institutions across the country.
Kakawa Chocolates was the site of a recent Evergreen Traveling Seminar. Facilitated by faculty member and alumna Rita Pougiales, the seminar drew a group of alumni who gathered over chocolate elixirs and other specialties to discuss "The Conscience of Words: The Power of Language in Revealing Our World."
Learn more about Sciscenti's Kakawa Chocolates