Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Light and Dark

by Mort Rosenblum

published by North Point Press

304 pages, 2005

Buy it online





Melts in Your Hand, Not In Your Mouth

Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum


About three years ago, I was with my infant son in Santa Fe. We ducked into a small chocolate shop, where I treated myself to a tiny chocolate box filled with a milk chocolate goo. It was divine. When I glanced down at Ian, I saw in his eyes a definite curiosity: What's making Daddy swoon so? So I bought another one, bit away one side of the box, then dipped my pinkie into the smooth pool. Then I offered Ian my pinkie -- and with one touch of his tiny tongue, his life was changed forever.

This is the allure of chocolate, a substance of which I have always been a rather large fan. I don't know what it is: its creaminess, its flavor, its silky lusciousness. But there is little in life that feels quite as good as giving a chunk of chocolate the time it requires to melt on your tongue. If you know what I mean, then you know what I mean. If you don't, well, then, I'm very sorry for you.

You can imagine my delight when confronted with a book called Chocolate. Even more alluring than the title was the jacket design: it's green, with brown-tinted stripes, raised lettering and gold accents. A beautiful thing, just as tempting as that little chocolate box in Santa Fe.

When I started devouring the book -- with text, by the way, cleverly printed in dark brown ink -- I was utterly fascinated. Mort Rosenblum has an absorbing style that drew me in quickly, much the way Diane Ackerman did with her milestone work, A Natural History of the Senses, which is one of those books I can't imagine not having read. (If you haven't read it, I urge you to drop what you're doing and go get a copy. Now.)

Anyway, Rosenblum drew me into his take on the history of chocolate, from the characteristics of the cacao beans that grow near the equator to some of the techniques used by finicky chocolate artisans throughout Europe. I loved reading about what makes a good cacao bean and what doesn't. I loved learning about their fragility. I loved reading about ancient cultures and their reverence for chocolate, and I loved reading that there were cultures for whom the beans themselves were actual currency.

Rosenblum had me at "hello" -- and then, about 100 pages in, he lost me. Suddenly, I didn't care. Suddenly, I was bored. Suddenly, he'd veered off of chocolate into tales of the personalities behind it. Milton Hershey and his folk. The Mars people. The woman whose job it is to taste chocolate for Fortnum & Mason. Or was it Harrod's?

I'd gone from being captivated to captive.

Where Ackerman's book was structured with chapters on each sense in which she delved endlessly and surprisingly deeper, revealing along the way even the most minutely fascinating bit of tid, Rosenblum's book seems without structure. Quite frankly, it's not reader-friendly. He jumps from this tale to that with no real apparent rhyme or reason, back in time, ahead, across the continents. I found myself lost -- and having to fight down the urge to skip whole sections.

A metaphor, if I may: I felt as if I'd signed up to nibble on some of the world's best chocolate and instead bit into a rancid, fruit- or nougat-filled imitation.

Rosenblum hasn't moved me off of chocolate -- impossible! -- but he has managed to move me into the area, perhaps, of someone willing to forego knowledge of one of my favorite substances; I'll take my chocolate with a little mystery, thank you very much. I much prefer my unadorned, even uneducated love for chocolate. And, I expect, long into his future, Ian will too. | February 2005


Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse. He and his family live in Lawrenceville, NJ, and he is Creative Director/Copy for a pharmaceutical ad agency in Philadelphia.