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Cannonball Read IV: Chocolate Wars: The 150-Year Rivalry Between the World’s Greatest Chocolate Makers by Deborah Cadbury

By FDBluth | Book Reviews | April 25, 2012 | Comments ()


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Chocolate has an absolutely incredible history, when one thinks about it: starting from a novel bounty from the New World in the 1500s, it is now one of the most widely consumed food in the world, a ubiquitous luxury, as paradoxical as that phrase may be. Almost no thought is put into what the sweet treats entail, throwing away such thoughts like the wrappers they come with, their presence taken for granted after centuries of continual enjoyment. It's as much a part of the good life most of us enjoy, rather than, well, a real treat.

Deborah Cadbury's Chocolate Wars: The 150-Year Rivalry Between the World's Greatest Chocolate Makers talks about exactly that, with the focus mainly put on the Cadbury chocolate company, started by the author's ancestor, John Cadbury. Despite the title, the book isn't a retelling of a 150-year corporate espionage war, Willy-Wonka style, but more of a summation of the series of events that took Cadbury and the whole global chocolate industry to become the massive economic force of today. If that disappoints you (as much as it disappointed me early on), do not be disheartened, because the lack of exciting tell-all insider story of seedy corporate machinations does not mean that the book is bad, by any means. In fact, it's a fantastically interesting book, since, as mentioned above, it's a side that most people don't really think about, laid out in a thrilling way, hugely helped by the author's rather genuine tone.

The book lays out Cadbury's first start, its struggles, its innovations, and its values in business, but the company or even the subject of chocolate isn't the protagonist of the story. What narrative the book has is mainly focused on the people behind the company, the founders and chairmen from the Cadbury family who owned and ran the company until its purchase by Kraft Foods, and the book is much better for it. I like to define myself as a cynic, but the Cadburys talked about in the book almost makes me truly believe in the goodness of men and the triumph of good over evil; they are presented as righteous, kind men with a purpose much greater than themselves, without becoming gods in their own right. They are human, but exceptional, like the people in our heads that we believe we would make ourselves become, but unable to because of petty things like "I couldn't find the time" or "That cheesecake looked so good" or "What if I was the only one who didn't murder and hide that body of a homeless man?" Still, I wouldn't be a cynic if there wasn't that niggling doubt whether the characters presented in the book is an accurate depiction, since the author is their descendants, meaning she would have a motive to keep the family reputation as pristine as possible. Yet the earnestness of Deborah Cadbury's writing and the sheer likability of the figures depicted wins me over every time to push away the doubt, which is quite a feat.

The Cadburys aren't the only ones discussed in the book, including wide array of key figures in the industry, including the British rivals, Fry and Rowntree, the Swiss chocolatiers, Nestlé, Lindt, and Peter, and the American tycoons, Hershey and Mars. It's a sprawling tapestry of the birth and triumph of an industry, laid out in the threads of magnetic charms of interesting men. However, there is that sense of something being left out of the narrative, since from the little I know of the chocolate industry, there have apparently been some people (the Mars brothers) who were absolute terrors of human beings, not to mention extremely shady business practices like price-fixing and slavery. While the two subjects I mentioned as examples are briefly touched on (one more than the other, with a dedicated chapter on it), none of them are described in too great of a detail, putting the focus again on the Cadbury members and their reactions to this horrible thing, rather than the horrible thing itself. I understand that the author only had the purpose of telling Cadbury's story, and others in the industry were mentioned only to give proper context to Cadbury's story, but the book feels like it lost so much by not going the extra step somehow.

The final chapters of the book recounts the present day, particularly the hostile takeover of Cadbury by Kraft Foods, and this is when the book starts to unravel. Unlike the beginning, playing out like a feel-good Disney/Horatio Alger story of hard work paying off, the book becomes what it finally advertised to be, a depiction of intrigue behind closed doors, but more in the vein of Wall Street than Willy Wonka. It's such a jarring change, especially notable in the tone that changes from a genuine admiration of the subject to a sad regret at best and utter contempt at its worst. All in all, I think this book really would have been much better if it wasn't written by Deborah Cadbury, who is so personally involved in the subject, that she's willing to rely more on pathos rather than the objective truths in her writing; a sense of ulterior purpose resounds across the book, tarnishing the whole narrative.

Ultimately, I did enjoy reading the book, because despite what personal feelings the author might have had and infused into the book, it doesn't change the fact that it's an extremely interesting subject with equally fascinating people. The first two-thirds of the book really is something of a catnip to the romantics inside us, with the last third a rather cold, hard look at some of the evils of today's corporate society, with its eyes on only the short-term profit than a long-term sustainable goodness.

Like a dark chocolate, it does leave a bitter aftertaste after the initial sweet and fragrant flavor, but after the chocolate's melted, you're left there, wanting a little bit more.

This review is part of Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it, and find more of FDBluth's reviews on the group blog.







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