Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Melting Pot

Everything you never knew about your chocolate bar.

By Susan Ellis

MAY 10, 1999: 

The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars, by Joël Glenn Brenner, Random House, 324 pp., $25.95

Joël Glenn Brenner's The Emperors of Chocolate, an investigation of candy-making giants Hershey and Mars, is part history book, part industry manual, and part marketing primer. But it begins as a thriller.

The year is 1990; the place, Kuwait City. The Persian Gulf is humming with the threat of war, and a Mars associate, the pseudonymous Omar Sharir, has been missing for days. Five weeks later, Sharir resurfaces unharmed, having remained in the region in disguise but still determined to keep the Middle East supplied with chocolate.

Probably not all Mars employees are as dedicated as Sharir, but the point is made: When it comes to chocolate, people can get a little intense.

What makes The Emperors of Chocolate an immensely satisfying read is the way Brenner takes a simple candy bar and illuminates the innumerable events that lead up to the first tear of the wrapper. Marketing plans have been hatched and abandoned, the size of the bar has been shrunk then made king-size, while sugar prices have soared and plummeted. Hershey and Mars control two-thirds of the business, and they mean to keep it that way by making their wares not a treat but a necessity.

But back to the Persian Gulf. The Mars folks weren't just sweating over their missing coworker but also over maintaining their hard-won headway in the area. Plus, they were having a set-to with Hershey. It seems that Mars took advantage of its proximity to U.S. soldiers in the Gulf, securing a contract with the Pentagon to provide candy bars for rations. Hershey, which had provided that service in previous conflicts, protested the contract, complaining that its competitor's bar didn't meet the 140-degree melting point required by the military. Hershey lost that battle, but won that particular war by garnering lots of PR by selling the patriotic Desert Bar stateside.

Score one for Hershey but, as Brenner recounts, this was hardly the beginning or the end of upmanships and poundings Hershey's seen in its dealings with Mars, maker of M&Ms, Milky Ways, and Snickers, among other treats.

Brenner goes back decades before the Persian Gulf skirmish, tracing Milton Hershey's rise from failed businessman to caramel king. At the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, at a booth featuring German chocolate-making equipment, Hershey ate his first chocolate bar. Shortly thereafter, he decided to introduce his own version to America and have it produced in his very own chocolate-themed town in Pennsylvania, where he'd provide the electricity and a fire station and his employees would live on streets named Cocoa and Java.

Years later, Frank Mars, who also knew a thing or two about bankruptcy, struck out on his own candy ventures, and in a plot twist worthy of the movies, was reunited with his long-estranged son, Forrest, who then re-estranged himself, took off for England, started his own company, and returned to America to build the Mars empire.

There once was a time when matters were much sweeter between the two giants. The Hershey company provided the chocolate for the then-upstart Mars, and they collaborated on M&M's (M for Mars and M for Murrie, in honor of the son of Hershey's president). Those days, however, have given way to two industry leaders that battle for shelf space and zealously guard their trade secrets. (Mars, for example, blindfolds contractors on their way to and from their particular job sites, so no information about machines and methods can be leaked.)

As Brenner expertly weaves her way through Hershey and Mars lore, she plucks enough facts and figures about the candy industry to give the reader a sugar rush. For instance, chocolate cannot be reproduced in a lab, and to this day no scientist can explain how Hershey gets its unique taste, a taste that is denounced as sour throughout the world by chocolate snobs. Americans ate $28 billion worth of candy in 1997, adults eat more of it than children, and every time you throw in a bag of Reese's Pieces with your toilet paper during a run to Walgreens, somebody is doing his job.

Passage to India

Freedom Song, by Amit Chaudhuri (Knopf, 434 pp., $24)

"Why did these houses seem to suggest that an infinitely interesting story might be woven around them?" a 10-year-old boy named Sandeep thinks to himself in Amit Chaudhuri's A Strange and Sublime Address, the first of three short novels collected in Freedom Song. The boy from Bombay is visiting his uncle and cousins in Calcutta one summer, and an early-evening stroll is taking them through the city's back lanes. What they encounter during that stroll is prompting the thought.

"And yet," the boy also thinks, "the story would never be a satisfying one, because the writer ... would be too caught up in jotting down the irrelevances and digressions that make up lives, and the life of a city, rather than a good story -- till the reader would shout 'Come to the point!' -- and there would be no point .... The 'real' story, with its beginning, middle, and conclusion, would never be told, because it did not exist."

As, in fact, it does not exist in the stories that Chaudhuri is telling in Freedom Song, stories that are, on the face of it, all "irrelevances" and "digressions." And if there is no "point," so be it. For Chaudhuri, the wonder is in those very irrelevances and digressions, and he delivers them in perhaps the most assured, most calculatedly precise prose you may encounter this whole year.

But bear in mind Sandeep: Open Freedom Song and forget beginnings, middles, and ends. Enter, instead, India -- middle-class India, to be sure -- with its government-subsidized, failed businesses, with its tensions between Hindus and Muslims, with its meetings of tradition and the latest Western trends, but by far most importantly, in the case of this award-winning author, with its sunup to sun-down round of just plain living. Depart from those rounds, as Afternoon Raag, the second novel here does, and you're in Oxford with a student divided between two loves but still under the spell of Mother India.

Amit Chaudhuri writes with the utmost restraint and utmost craft, with his one weakness paradoxically generating his greatest strength. And Freedom Song, this volume's third novel -- the title lends its name to the entire collection -- spells out that weakness in short but in full: "All works of art are illusions, for the worlds they portray do not exist; but some forms conceal that fact less than others, because they are replete with the shape of real people and real streets, almost in spite of themselves."

The "shape," then, of real people, real streets, but in Chaudhuri's hands the infinitely interesting and genuine article: art. -- Leonard Gill


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