Thursday, February 20, 2014

"The Emperors of Chocolate"

Yesterday night: culinary book group again. Book selection: The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret world of Hershey and Mars by Joel Glenn Brenner.

Agreed by the six participants who had read it: the book was great!

Also agreed: the Reese's PB Cups (brought by one of us) were a great way to kick off the discussion.

Reese's Cups and Reese's pieces, Snickers, 3 Musketeers, Hershey Bars, M&Ms, Milky Ways, and many of the other candy bars from these corporations are their best-known products, but we were also surprised to learn that Mars makes pet food and Hershey is a major producer of pasta.

From Time
Any mention of candy bars anywhere is a big deal: in Time magazine this week, there's an article on "The 13 Most Influential Candy Bars of All Time." The Hershey bar, Milky Way, and Snickers, as featured in our book, are all on the list, along with more obscure bars like "Chicken Dinner" which was available from the 1920s to 1960s, with vintage pictures of some of their original labels. This perpetual relevance made Brenner's work all the more fun to read.

This book is a work of profoundly important research, as the author was allowed to interview people and read documents that are now off-limits to journalists or researchers. The author describes culinary history, social history, economic history, food manufacturing history, and more -- and makes them all very appealing to read about. The Emperors of Chocolate is around 15 years old, and we all would have liked to know more about the recent past (some of us googled it) and about the larger chocolate industry. No doubt, this is a classic book.

A few of the things we liked about the book:

  • The historical coverage of the founding of each of the two biggest players in the history and present of candy bars -- Mars and Hershey's. We read how candy making went from small-batch, local production to mass production and mass consumption. Detailed descriptions of the experiments that went into chocolate processing and creating the flavors and colors of the candy were fascinating. Attitudes of European chocolate makers and cognoscenti towards American chocolate are also interesting: mainly, they are contemptuous of the sour flavor of Hershey's milk chocolate. But the book stays pretty much on the topic of the two American dynasties.
  • The personalities and family dynamics of Mars, still a privately held corporation and Hershey, long dominated by Milton Hershey. We were intrigued by the horrible relationship between Forrest Mars, Sr. and his sons and daughter who inherited the company. Also by the relationship of Milton Hershey with his parents and his immediate employees, and his legacy. Though public, much of the Hershey corporate stock is owned by a foundation that he created, which runs a school for orphans or children with difficult family situations.
  • Rivalry of the two companies over time. This story of business and adverising is also compelling. They vied with each other to supply chocolate for the troops in World War II; they cooperated in the creation of M&Ms (the first M is for Mars but the second is for Murrie, a Hershey executive's son -- hired then driven out of Mars when the family wanted to compete rather than take advantage of Hershey), and then they rivaled each other for popularity and for shelf space in supermarkets and anywhere candy is sold. Still do!
  • The blindness of the Mars family to modern business practice because the owners are secretive and neurotic, and some of the slips at Hershey's because they weren't aware of the need to promote their product. Above all, we liked the story of the Mars family's refusal to let M&Ms be used in the film "ET" -- instead as everyone knows, ET ate Reese's Pieces, a Hershey's product, which were just becoming popular and received a huge sales boost from the film.
Next time we are reading Wine and War, which describes the events of World War II in France through the eyes of wine growers, wine merchants, and other French men and women in the wine trade, beginning in about 1939 and proceeding historically as the Nazis conquered France. I've read it before and wrote about here: Wine and War. As always I'm looking forward to another lively discussion.


Rosita Vargas said...

OMG se ve muy delicioso me gusta aquƬ le llamamos besitos,abrazos.

Tracy Feldman, painter said...

Today at our Common Hour I sat next to a friend who is a graduate of the Milton Hershey School. He is a master gardener, and the retired head gardener equivalent at the College. I used to serve on a local admissions committee with the chief counsel of Hershey Foods; his paternal grandfather was the inventor of the peanut butter cup. He used to bring big bags of experimental Hershey products to our meetings. Hershey himself had a bad start as a candy maker in Lancaster; the story must have been in the book you read. Arny

Jeanie said...

You read the best things in your group! This one looks especially good (a nice Valentine's read, I think!). I'll bet you had fun treats at that meeting!