"The Emperors of Chocolate," by Joel Glenn Brenner. Random House. 384 pages. $25.95. If you need further proof of the craftiness of marketing and the manipulability of human desires, consider the M&M.
This unassuming, utterly familiar little candied nodule is filled, of course, with chocolate - but not just any chocolate. The main ingredient of M&M's is, by design, somewhat bland. Thus, anyone seeking to satisfy a chocolate jones will feel compelled to eat handful after handful of M&M's: A small dose just won't do it.
This inside glimpse of Willy Wonka's kingdom comes courtesy of Joel Glenn Brenner's modern history of the American chocolate industry told through the stories of its two dominant firms, Mars Inc. (the maker of the M&M) and Hershey Foods Corp.
Brenner, a former Washington Post reporter, obtained unprecedented access to the hyper-secretive Mars while preparing a profile of the company for the Post's Sunday magazine. This reportorial coup, along with her subsequent research on the only slightly less secretive Hershey, gives Brenner's book admirable depth.
There are the makings of a good story here. Milton Hershey gains a fortune selling caramels, then repeats his success with chocolate. Not content to live out his days as a mere confection tycoon, he becomes the ultimate Sugar Daddy, founding the utopian company town that bears his name and giving educational and material assistance to thousands of needy children. After his death, the company and the town struggle to gain a new sense of direction.
Forrest Mars Sr., a tyrannical, superbly competent businessman, takes over his father's Chicago candy company and turns it into the world's largest, routinely outhustling Hershey with aggressive marketing. In his old age, Mars turns his company over to the sons he routinely terrorized. They prove to be nearly as autocratic as their father but less adept, and the firm begins to lose ground.
Unfortunately, these yummy elements melt in Brenner's hands. For no convincing reason, she plumbs Mars' origins first, even though Hershey is the older and more established company of the two. This upends the chronology and drains much of the drama from Mars' challenge to Hershey. Expositions on the history and basic economics of chocolate arise fairly late, again severing the narrative and depriving the reader of the chance to gain a fuller understanding at an earlier stage.
Brenner herself seems to get confused; late in the book, she trots out a three-line quotation that she had already employed verbatim more than 250 pages earlier.
Her writing is inconsistent, too often lazing into cheap sentiment and cliche. When she ponders the industry's consolidation, she xTC sighs, "Gone is the jolly bifocaled confectioner who delighted in watching children gobble down mouthfuls of sweets." The 1970s are described as - what else? - "the decade of leisure suits and disco."
When Brenner lets her story tell itself, "The Emperors of Chocolate" is a good, galloping read. However, these stretches merely hint at the book this could have been. Like small handfuls of M&M's, they have a promising flavor but are not enough to satisfy.
Mark Ribbing, a Sun reporter covering the telecommunications industry, has a law degree from Columbia. Before joining The Sun he was a staff writer and corporate counsel for the Lehman Communications Corp. in Colorado.