March 19, 2015


Chocolate: Sweet Science & Dark Secrets of the World’s Favorite Treat. By Kay Frydenborg. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.

     This is a picture book, a recipe book, a history book, a sociopolitical tract, an advocacy book, a celebratory book and a science book – or at least it wants to be. Unfortunately, Kay Frydenborg’s attempt to make Chocolate: Sweet Science & Dark Secrets of the World’s Favorite Treat into all those books means it is not very satisfying as any one of them – certainly not as satisfying as chocolate itself, a topic that invites delectation both intellectual and sensual. From time to time, Frydenborg shows herself aware of chocolate’s attractions, and this tends to cause her to lapse into hyperbole: “For most people on earth, eating chocolate feels like a necessity, almost like breathing air and drinking water. …Chocolate is a glue that binds people, cultures, history, and the health of the planet. It’s a bridge to understanding.” But quickly enough – in the case of the above excerpt, beginning with the very next sentence – Frydenborg moves away from the positive (even if overstated) elements of chocolate to what seems to be her real focus, which is that people should not enjoy it too much, because it conceals what her book’s subtitle calls “dark secrets.” Specifically, after introducing her “bridge” metaphor, Frydenborg continues, “Crossing that bridge present many barricades built on centuries of oppression, exploitation, and misunderstanding, and it has been a long road to try to reach this understanding, and we’re not all the way there yet.”

     Leaving aside the odd notion of a bridge crossing that presents barricades, this passage shows that Frydenborg sees chocolate as yet another thing for which “exploiters” (usually Europeans of centuries past) ought to be held to account by having their modern descendants (spiritual if not literal) feel guilty, especially as regards what lighter-skinned “conquerors” of chocolate-producing regions did to darker-skinned indigenous people and, by extension, to those people’s modern counterparts.

     Those not interested in being guilt-tripped where chocolate is concerned can skip many of the passages that do so, but likely not all of them, since this element of Frydenborg’s book is pervasive. Nevertheless, there are many other aspects to chocolate explored here, to at least some degree, and they contain most of the fascination to be found in the book. The many photos of cacao trees and pods are quite interesting, as are some of the historical discussions – of the days when cacao beans were used as money, for example, and of the relationship between chocolate as food and chocolate as medicine. There are passing discussions of “the science of taste,” of specific types of cacao beans, of the reasons chocolate is poisonous to dogs and cats, and of other topics. There are recipes for Mexican and Ecuadorian hot chocolate, Toll House chocolate crunch cookies, and “My Grandma Crowell’s Fudge Pie.” There is even a list of the Web sites of small, specialty chocolate companies, albeit one introduced with Frydenborg’s usual preoccupation – she says these firms are “doing some incredible, exciting things today, in so many ways: flavor, innovation, sustainability, and social justice.”

     Although Frydenborg generally gets the history and science of chocolate right, her presentation contains some elements that are confusing or just plain wrong, for reasons that are impossible to decipher. In explaining about taste, for instance, she includes a diagram of the human tongue, marked for sections associated with specific tastes, and then says in the caption, “This tongue mapping has been discredited by more recent science, but was once believed to be true. Many people still believe it is!” But if it is discredited, then why make it the sole illustration of an important scientific point? Elsewhere, she writes that Western medicine, in the time of the Spanish conquistadors, “was based almost entirely on classical Grefi [sic] theories that dated back to Hippocrates…and Galen.” She presumably means “Greek” theories, but never explains why she refers to them this way.

     There is also an irritating typographical oddity in the book. The letters “eh” are replaced by a sideways caret, so, for example, the word “households” is spelled “hous>olds” and the word “comprehensive” appears as “compr>ensive.” This makes reading more difficult, and there is no reason given for it. Something similar was done in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s recent edition of Terry Pratchett’s The Carpet People, but there it seemed to be part and parcel of telling a fictional tale set in a strange place, while in this book of nonfiction, it comes across only as a bizarre element or an outright mistake.

     There is some genuinely fascinating material in Chocolate: Sweet Science & Dark Secrets of the World’s Favorite Treat. Indeed, it would be hard not to find some matters of high interest in a substance that so many people have enjoyed for so long, for so many reasons. Frydenborg does a good job of explaining the difference between “cacao” and “cocoa,” for example, and manages an occasional strikingly wry comment when doing so is in line with her sociopolitical agenda: “[F]or the rest of that century [the 18th] chocolate was widely prescribed for the prevention and treatment of many ailments, even for the deadly smallpox virus. This was ironic indeed, considering that it was smallpox – brought by the Europeans – that had all but wiped out the Native Americans who had introduced them to chocolate in the first place.” But the book as a whole is too unfocused, too scattered and too argumentative about “social justice” concerns to serve as a fully satisfactory introduction to the lore and love of a substance whose popularity seems to know almost no bounds.

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