Deborah Cadbury's "The Chocolate Wars," reviewed by Carolyn See for the Washington Post on October 29, 2010
Once upon a time in a small Swiss town in the middle of the 19th century, a boy was born who wouldn't take his mother's breast. As he weakened, death seemed inevitable. The desperate young father approached a neighbor who had been working for years to perfect a substitute for mother's milk: powdered cow's milk, mixed with a little cereal. The father took the formula home and soon "came the sounds the distraught parents had so longed to hear: normal suckling from a contented baby. The milk lived up to its promise."
The man who had been tinkering for so many years with his baby formula was Henri Nestlé, who would go on to become an internationally known chocolate magnate. The young father, Daniel Peter, had been experimenting with milk and chocolate for years in another way: "His plant was open round the clock; he made his dark chocolate confections during the day, and at night he experimented with different ratios of milk powder and cocoa powder." Friends told him it was impossible to make a decent milk chocolate bar. "I did not lose courage," he said, "but continued to work as long as circumstances allowed."
These are just two of the intersecting characters in an amazingly appealing two-century-long story of how chocolate came to be so important in our modern world. In particular, "Chocolate Wars" follows the history of the British Cadbury chocolate company, owned by a couple of extraordinarily decent and virtuous Quaker brothers, George and Richard Cadbury, who disdained the callous and ruthless business practices of many of their Victorian rivals, put the welfare of their workers first and developed a series of marvelous chocolate products as well.
Their story ends sadly: Earlier this year the business was ignominiously bought out from under their descendants by the very tough Irene Rosenfeld, the Queen of Kraft Foods. Chocolates once lovingly assembled in "Fancy Boxes" by industrious damsels and described by critics as "the most exquisite ever to come under our notice" are now deprived of any lingering elegance by the American manufacturer of Velveeta Cheese, Miracle Whip and a "boxed macaroni and cheese dinner." The two grandsons of George Cadbury, Sir Adrian and Sir Dominic, "described the news quite simply as 'a tragedy.' "
But between the sellout to Kraft and the beginnings of the business in 1824 in a little tea and coffee house in Birmingham, England, that belonged to John Cadbury, the enterprise evolved through nearly two centuries of espionage, exploration and the creation of things that hadn't yet been seen on this earth. In the middle of the 19th century, chocolate was almost nothing like the product we think of today. Manufacturers knew it had to be good for something, but they didn't know quite what.
In the early days, when chocolate beans were roasted and ground, there remained too much cocoa butter to contend with. Manufacturers didn't know how to get rid of the excess fat. As a hot drink, cocoa was greasy, gritty and unappetizing. The first chocolate bar didn't appear in Britain until 1847, offered by the Fry brothers, who were among England's foremost Quaker candy makers, but it was hard, bitter and close to inedible. The Cadbury brothers struggled, along with their English Quaker rivals, for a way to make the stuff palatable. At one point they even added tree lichen to their product and dubbed it "Icelandic Moss," so it might sound good for English health.
All of this stuff was brought into being by real, actual striving human beings: Rodolphe Lindt, C.J. Van Houten, Domingo Ghirardelli, Milton Hershey and, of course, Nestlé and Cadbury. Not only were these people making up products as they went along, they were marketing them in Africa and everywhere else in the world.
The author here, Deborah Cadbury, a relative of the family, has done a wonderful job conjuring up visions of the Victorian age. The archives she draws on are full of nostalgic memories of the two young bosses making sure that their "industrious damsels" changed out of their wet shoes if they walked to work in the rain. The Cadburys revolutionized business practices by building a "fairyland factory" outside of Birmingham to give their workers the advantages of fresh air. There was room for cricket, rose gardens and swings for the ladies.
This is a delicious book, seductive as a tray of bonbons, a Fancy Box in every way.