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Book review: 'The Chocolate Wars' by Deborah Cadbury

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You don't usually hear the word "chocolate" in conjunction with "dynasty," but that's the focus of "Chocolate Wars" by the British author Deborah Cadbury (yes, of that Cadbury clan). Her fascinating book chronicles the history of chocolate, from its Mayan and Aztec origins to the Victorian-era rise of the chocolate industry and her family's formative role in it.

In the 1860s in Birmingham, England, two Quaker brothers, Richard and George Cadbury, owned a small factory that, along with other manufacturers, were trying to figure out how to make use of an intriguing New World commodity called "cacao" or cocoa. (Its scientific name, "Theobroma cacao" is aptly translated as "food of the gods.") At first it was sold as a drink, but not as the sweet, creamy confection we know today. "Only one-fifth of it was cocoa," George Cadbury once noted, "the rest was potato flour or sago and trace: a comforting gruel." (Unscrupulous manufacturers stretched the pricey cocoa butter even further by adding substances such as potato flour or animal fat.)

By the late 19th century, confectioners hadn't yet perfected the means of turning this exquisite product into a solid, edible, refined mass. The author charts the race among various companies to make their fortunes from chocolate, which included some now-iconic surnames — Nestlé, Lindt, Hershey and, in the early 1920s, Mars.

Cadbury's book (though written in a flat, perfunctory style) is filled with wonderful anecdotes, such as the invention of the Milky Way, and the Dairy Milk Bar, which in 1905 catapulted the Cadbury company to a new level of success.

"Chocolate Wars" tells the story of chocolate's evolution from bittersweet treat to the divine innovation of milk chocolate (a breakthrough for which we can thank the Swiss). It also reveals how the strong values of the author's Quaker ancestors profoundly shaped their business practices. When Cadbury eventually became a profitable empire, much of the family's wealth was invested in philanthropic ventures.

This was a family-oriented firm that emphasized humane working conditions and quality products over the bottom line. (Interestingly, many English competitors were Quaker-owned businesses as well.) Part of what makes this book so absorbing is the incongruity of the austere Quaker movement, with its idealistic values of social justice, inspiring such a decadent, sensual obsession as chocolate. Cadbury also delves into how far removed we are today from "the Puritanical ideal of abstemiousness and self-denial," considering the obesity epidemic we face. (In the U.S., she notes, nearly 40% of adults are clinically obese.)

"Chocolate Wars" ends on a disheartening note. Following a hostile takeover by Kraft Foods in early 2010, the Cadbury company — so carefully built over more than 150 years — is as far removed from its Quaker origins as one could imagine. Going forward, the beloved British icon, with its rich heritage and altruistic values, may have a tough time maintaining its identity.

The author gives a blow-by-blow account of Cadbury's futile battle against Kraft, which also owns brands such as Oscar Mayer and Philadelphia Cream Cheese. She does not hesitate to cast Kraft's CEO, Irene Rosenfeld, as a defensive, aloof villain. (Cadbury's former chairman characterizes Rosenfeld as "clinical, distant, and quite hostile" during their negotiations.)

Cadbury's fate is a sad one, and all too common in this era of global conglomerates. Yet there is still plenty of chocolate out there. Read this excellent book, then go have some.

Ciuraru is a critic and the editor of poetry anthologies, including, most recently, "Poems About Horses."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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