From Bahia, Brazil, to Hershey, Pa., our intrepid author tried to find out where his next chocolate bar was coming from. The search, he thought, would be short and sweet. He was half right
I AM HUNGRY, BUT I HAVE NO TONGUE. INSTEAD, THE NERVE END-ings on the hair of my two front legs tell me what is good to eat and what is not. Legs, I have six. A needle protrudes from my face, antennae from my forehead and two pairs of wings from my back. I am a tropical insect the size of a particle of dust. Because I am hungry, human beings can eat Hershey chocolate bars.
YOU THINK I'M CRAZY. YES. I SEE THE WORLD DIFFERENTLY SINCE I met the wrinkled brown man in the dense green forest of Bahia, Brazil. It was Igino who led me by mule to the white flowers that dangled in clusters off the bark of a tree.
"Flor," he said. "Chocolate."
"Chocolate? How does this flower," I asked in fractured Portuguese, "make chocolate?"
The tip of his machete moved from the flower to a small golden football of fruit. He sliced the fruit from its stem, cleaved it in half and pointed to the white pulpy seeds. He popped one in his mouth, sucked the pulp, spit the bare seed to the ground and motioned for me to do the same.
"Very sweet," I said. "But this is not chocolate."
Igino pointed to the seed I'd just spit to the ground: "Chocolate." We sat on a tree stump. He poured 64 years of knowledge into the next hour, and when it was done I knew everything about the cocoa bean from its birth to the day it goes off in a sack to another world.
And then Igino looked at me. "Now you tell me something, Americano. I have explained to you the life of cocoa beans in my country. What happens when they go to yours? How do you make chocolate?"
"Well . . ." I popped the last seed in my mouth, sucked and spit. "Igino . . ." I finally admitted it. "I have no idea."
I felt his eyes on me.
"You eat chocolate, no?"
How many Hershey bars had I eaten in my life? One thousand? Ten thousand? How much of my allowance as a kid had been spent on the bar in the brown and silver wrapper?
"Yes, Igino, I love chocolate."
"And you do not know?"
"I do not know."
Igino pointed his machete at a leaf on the ground. "Cansanc aåo," he said. "Feel."
I ran my hand over it. "A leaf," I said. "So what?"
"Now feel the other side."
"Ayyyyyyyyyyyyy!" Spines stung my palm and fingers like a hundred tiny splinters. Igino smiled. "Years ago there was a young man working in the fields who needed to go to the bathroom," he said. "There was no paper around and naturally he reached for a leaf . . ." Igino nodded toward the splinters and smiled as my face pinched in pain. I got the message about the price of ignorance. He dug his heels into the mule and disappeared.
From where I stood I could hear only crickets and mosquitoes, could see only green leaves, white flowers, golden fruit, black soil and blue sky. "I do not know." Those words would start it all . . .
I have no idea what I am doing on this earth. Would I be able to make electricity if I were the last person on the planet? Stripped naked, could I make cloth? Left alone to record civilization, could I re-invent a pencil or a piece of paper? Could I even make a wheel?
I am a product of the most advanced society in the history of the planet. And yet, I don't have the basic knowledge or skills that kept primitive man from extinction.
This feeling I don't like: I am totally dependent -- and I have no understanding of the things I depend on. Without realizing it, perhaps that is why I had packed my life into a small bag that had remained on my shoulder until I'd reached a forest in Brazil. And why now I am getting ready to pack it again, following the cocoa beans to learn how they become a Hershey chocolate bar. I SIT IN THE SHADE OF A COCOA TREE, pull out my pocketknife and skin an orange. So sweet it tastes. I set it at my side and open my book.
Theobrama. Greek for "food of the gods." The botanical name for cocoa. A tribe in Central America would go celibate for 13 days before planting its seeds, another would appease its gods by sacrificing chocolate-colored dogs.
Ch-clink. Ch-clink. Ch-clink. That noise, where is it coming from? I look, see nothing and return to the book.
Cocoa seeds once served as currency. A Mayan could buy a rabbit for eight beans, a slave for 100.
Ch-clink. Ch-clink. Ch-clink.
Aztec Emperor Montezuma II drank it only from gold goblets and threw each used one into a lake beside his palace so that the next serving would not be sullied. He drank 50 a day. Including one just before he entered his harem.
Ch-clink. Ch-clink. Ch-clink. What the . . . ? I turn left and right -- nothing there.
When the Spanish conquistador Herna'n Corte's arrived in 1519, Montezuma II extended him a goblet at a huge banquet. A year later, Corte's had Montezuma imprisoned in irons. Now they speak Spanish in Mexico and savor chocolate in Europe.
I reach for my orange and bite. A tickle in my throat, on my lips, a scrambling tickle on my chin. Ants! Red ants! All over me! Swarming my orange, chomping like piranha on the steel of my pocketknife. I jump up and shake, spit, gasp, spit, run, a frenzied madman alone in the forest. OF A MAN EATEN TO
death by red ants 500 years ago, people would have shrugged and said: "It was the will of the gods." Of that man in 1987, they would say: "How stupid!"
Now there are no gods -- no gods we hand our fates over to, at least. We worship knowledge. Knowledge rips the scepter from the gods and hands it to us. Often we are so busy shaking it, we forget the burden of holding it.
I think of a friend who recently was diagnosed as having melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer. His first reaction was shock. Should it have been? He believes more in knowledge than in gods -- wasn't it his responsibility to be aware that the protective ozone in the stratosphere is disintegrating, that the sun's radioactive ultraviolet rays are now a threat to any fair-skinned person's life? That knowledge exists. In our society, is there any excuse for I do not know? "IT MUST BE LIKE HAVING A STRAW FOR a mouth. That's the best I can figure it. And so this insect -- a midge, they call it -- sucks up its food that way. First it flies into the flower and goes straight to the male organ, the stamen, where thousands of these little grains of pollen are produced."
"Cal, I thought you -- "
"Speak up, I can't hear you over the static."
"I thought you were talking about Hershey bars."
"I am. I am. Just hang on. As the midge sucks in nectar, it brushes against pollen grains, which cling to the bristles on its body. After it's chowed down, it flies away covered with pollen."
"Cal -- "
"And then it's attracted to an aroma put out by the female organ, the pistil, of another cocoa flower. You can't smell it. Only a midge can. I guess it's sort of like a dog whistle."
"Caaaaaaaal -- "
"When the midge lands, pollen rubs off its bristles and germinates on the side of the pistil. A tube forms and grows down into the ovary, the warehouse for the eggs. Sperm meets egg and -- BINGO -- you've got the seeds of the cocoa fruit.
"Let me remind you your call is collect from Brazil. It's probably costing me $25 a minute to hear you talk about the genitals of a flower!"
"But this is important! Listen, if scientists can figure out the chemical properties of the aroma put out by the female sex organ and how to reproduce it, they could devise ways to increase pollination. That would increase the yield and attract more workers to Bahia so that people wouldn't keep going deeper and deeper into the Amazon and burning down rain forest to clear land for new farms. Did you know that the Amazon jungle is being burnt down by about 4 percent every year? At this rate, by the year 2000 there won't be any left."
"Listen to me -- your life may depend on those midges. Twenty-five percent of the world's oxygen comes from that jungle. Twenty-five percent of the oxygen you inhale in Washington."
"Well, I'm breathing a lot easier already. Hey, did you hear about the World Series? . . ." NEVER WAS ANY GOOD AT POOL. AND this is a lot stranger. The wooden pole in my hands could be used for a 19-foot vault, except that a boot-shaped blade gleams at the tip.
I position my pole at the tree's highest fruit and line up the blade. It veers. Slices the bark. Damn. Maybe from another angle. I watch Igino work at a nearby tree. B-thump . . . b-thump . . . b-thump . . .
My feet slide on leaves wet from the morning rain. I plant my sneakers in the ground and feel a certain satisfaction. The more asphalt and concrete we put between our feet and the soil, the more natural it seems to buy vegetables chemically preserved in boxes, to reach for apples that have been waxed to a see-your-face shine instead of grabbing the dull-skinned natural ones. We need to be here, close to the soil.
I reset my pole. Slice. B-thump. I look down at the fallen fruit, up at the sky, and inhale deeply. This is how man was made to live. I look to Igino for approval. He has already stripped his tree and moved on.
A spare-ribbed brown man spears the fallen fruits with a machete and drops them into a straw basket strapped to his back. He walks under his burden steady as a mule. When the basket is full, he empties it in a pile and starts over.
I slice. A fruit falls. I slice. A fruit falls. I slice. A fruit falls . . . Two hours later I am an expert. I am also very bored. I stop to wipe the sweat burning my eyes. The fatigue in my arms feels good, but I cannot imagine doing this for the rest of the day, to say nothing of the rest of a lifetime. Where I come from, when a job ceases to be challenging, you search for a new one.
A copper-brown worker with thick-veined forearms cleaves a felled fruit, spills the white pulpy seeds into a large crate and tosses away the shell. All this takes about one second. I watch for five minutes. He's split 300 fruits.
"You try," Igino says.
I grip the fruit in my left hand and flick the huge knife into the shell. It barely makes a crease.
"With force," Igino says, laughing.
"I'm frightened," I say, looking at my typing fingers.
The copper man looks up smiling, without missing a chop. He has to ink a thumbprint on the back of his paycheck to receive his $30-a-month salary, for he cannot write his name. Because this man is hungry, he will crouch under a tree and hack, open, spill, toss, hack, open, spill, toss, hack, open, spill, toss cocoa fruits for hours at a time. Because this man is hungry, we can all eat Hershey bars. AN ELBOW CRACKS MY RIBS, AND I BACK away from the pit where the men are screaming. There's going to be a fight. Mouths sneer, nostrils flare, fists whip through the air, screams, screams, wild, savage, barbarous, screams:
"DEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES! DEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES! DEEEEEEEEEEEEESATOHFIVE! DEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES!"
A shoulder rams me, nearly topples me, and I retreat farther from the pit. Welcome to civilization. I am now at the cocoa exchange in the World Trade Center, the earth's second-tallest building, in New York City. My guide, a white man in a gray suit, shepherds me to safe ground.
"Here's how it works," he says. "You've got farmers who need to sell and manufacturers who need to buy, right? All those guys in the pit may seem crazy, but through all that screaming, everyone in the world is negotiating the price." He points to constantly changing digits on a wallboard larger than a movie screen. "Look, a sale was just made for September at 1,985 dollars a ton. That same information just flashed on computers in the offices of buyers, trading houses and brokers all over the world. They have a point of reference. They can call in with offers."
I try to make sense of the numbers. "Looks to me like the sports betting board at Caesars Palace."
"There's a difference. A casino is to create risk. The exchange exists primarily to hedge risks. Give you an example. How many people are aware of the political situation in Nigeria? Not many. But it affects their Hershey bars. A coup in Nigeria, a lack of rainfall in Brazil, a crop disease in Malaysia all affect the supply and price of the beans. Hershey knows it will need a certain number of beans next year. It can buy futures contracts on cocoa to be delivered two months from now, six months from now, up to 18 months from now -- and lock in the price."
"So that's it. Dees at 05 means December 1988 at $2,005 a ton."
"That's right. There are other, more complicated ways of operating. And some of the men you're looking at have no interest in the beans at all. In fact, some have never seen a cocoa bean. They're speculators. They buy contracts with the intent of selling when the price rises."
"You mean a guy buys a contract at $2,005 hoping that a coup hits in Nigeria, that there's a world shortage, that panic will strike the market and that the price of cocoa will shoot up. Then he sells and does cartwheels?"
"Cartwheels?" The man in the gray suit smiles. "Well, let's put it this way. While the speculator may feel a certain sympathy for the people of Nigeria, he is more concerned about the tuition payments for his son at Princeton."
I look at the men in white shirts, pockets crammed with pencils, frantically scribbling and screaming.
"But don't forget the other side," he says. "Maybe there's good weather around the world, political stability, an excellent crop. The price falls, the speculator loses his shirt. And his kid ends up at Westchester Community College . . ."
I get lost in the lobby of the World Trade Center. Two men carrying attache' cases hurry past. One says, "I'm on 83," and heads toward the elevator.
The 83rd floor. Does that man have any knowledge of the physical laws behind the design of these towers? How can he be so sure that all 110 stories won't topple in a violent wind? Isn't he scared of the long drop from his office to the street? No. He steps into the elevator with blind trust.
As I leave the building, I pass a candy stand. I spot the brown and silver Hershey wrapper and reach for the change in my pocket.
"No!" a voice inside me scolds. "Not until you know how it is made." "SOMETIMES," SAYS JOSE, THE SECOND mate, focusing, "there are terrible storms, and we cannot eat or sleep. The ship rocks from one side to the other, and all you can do is hold on. Think of the sailors 500 years ago. How did they get out of those situations? Now, we have meteorological data to avoid storms. Five hundred years ago, every day must have been an adventure. Here, you would like to try?"
Jose' puts the instrument in my hand. It looks like something used during an eye examination. I set it to my right eye and close my left.
"Now line up the sun with the horizon . . ."
The Olivia is a cargo ship about as long as two football fields. The 40-foot depth of the hold is filled with sacks of cocoa beans. Before being loaded on the ship, the beans fermented for a week and dried for another on the farm. Then, when they had a rich mahogany tint, they were loaded in sacks, carried aboard trucks and transported to the port at Ilheus. There, samples were taken for inspection and thousands of sacks were covered with plastic and for 72 hours fumigated with aluminum phosphate. Then the sacks were grouped into 1,500-pound rectangles, bound with a nylon strap and loaded into the ship's hold. Now, on the fourth day of the voyage to Philadelphia, the beans are lost.
A computer aboard the Olivia is not receiving latitude, longitude and other navigational data normally transmitted through five satellites orbiting the Earth.
What do you do when the computer goes down?
You wait for someone to fix it.
What do you do when the repairman is in New Jersey, and you are floating at an undetermined point near the equator?
You go back in time.
The sextant, invented more than 200 years ago, allows the sailor to gain a navigational fix by measuring the altitude of the sun or stars above the horizon.
Jose' walks from the deck to a room filled with machines and charts. "Usually, the trips are very monotonous," he says. "A 10-year-old can do my job, follow the course. The machines do everything. Sometimes, it makes me wish to have lived 500 years ago."
With a pencil and paper he calculates the ship's longitude.
"It seems strange," he says, "but something like this, using a sextant, makes me proud to be a sailor."
A BRAZILIAN GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR slicing open beans that have fermented and dried into that rich mahogany tint, looking for insects and mold, sniffing for the proper aroma. Three thousand a day. Seventeen years at his desk, smelling more than 13 million.
Muscular brown men in Bahia balancing 150-pound sacks of beans on their heads as they climb stepladders to load trucks destined for the port of Ilheus. Three hundred times a day -- for about $10.
The second mate longing for adventure in a world more and more controlled by machines.
The repairman in New Jersey analyzing the satellite navigator, locating the problem and deriving a cerebral satisfaction in the fixing of it.
The screaming men at the futures market, charged by the voltage of chance and quick decisions.
I think of them all, and how efficiently the system functions. Trouble is, we are getting more and more done by using less and less of ourselves.
I wonder if there is any way I can go to sleep at night with a healthy fatigue in my arms, good air in my lungs, a pride in decisions made and an anticipation of the next day's possibilities and challenges. I wonder if there is still a way to have the reward of a whole that we have split into so many parts. Or is that too complex a wish? RIGHT NOW, I'VE NO PROBLEM LOCAT- ing the cocoa beans. Five thousand pounds of them are dangling uneasily over my head.
"Nervous, huh?" A Buddha-bellied longshoreman smiles as I edge out of the shadow cast by the beans.
A crane is lifting the rectangular formations of sacks and lowering them to the dock on the Delaware River in Philadelphia, where the beans will be forklifted into a warehouse and shipped by rail to Hershey, Pa.
"The straps being lifted by the hooks from the crane," I ask, "what are they made of?"
"Nylon, I think."
"Where do they come from?"
"Yeah," I say, "but how are they made?
The Buddha-bellied longshoreman looks right, then left, bobs his head and laughs through his nose. His expression says: "Oh, a wise guy, huh?"
"You mean six-inch-wide straps are keeping 5,000 pounds of cocoa beans from falling on your head, and you don't know how strong they are or where they come from?"
"Works, doesn't it?" He laughs. "And if it doesn't, you can bend over, stick your head between your legs and kiss the world goodbye. Because you won't be around to worry about it."
I look down into the hold at the members of Longshoremen's Local 1291 who are paid $17 an hour -- more than $30 an hour when you include health insurance and other benefits -- to tuck the steel hooks under the nylon straps around the cocoa. I can still smell the sweat on the men in Bahia lifting 150-pound sacks on their heads and walking up stepladders for $1 an hour. Funny how the compensation for a man's labor to move cocoa beans had multiplied 30 times just because the beans had crossed an ocean. Funny how Americans assume that it should be this way, that it will always be this way. HAVE YOU EVER FELT LIKE YOU'RE IN- side a painting? Walking past the freckle-faced kids pedaling bicycles with baseball gloves hooked on the handlebars, past potted flowers on wooden porches, trimmed lawns and picket fences, I am on the canvas of a Rockwell. I turn down Chocolate Avenue and walk under the street lamps capped with large replicas of chocolate kisses. This is Hershey, Pa.
Could Milton Snavely Hershey have envisioned this in 1903 when he built a factory in the middle of vacant farmland? Perhaps. But could he have imagined that it would spawn an amusement park that lures 1.5 million tourists every year, a flower garden with 700 varieties of roses, a school for orphans that has graduated 7,000 children.
Granted, he was a visionary. But from what I've read, his success stemmed from peripheral vision and a fierce work ethic that fought past repeated failure.
Here was a man who went through seven schools before dropping out at age 15 well behind his classmates. Who lost an apprenticeship in a print shop after clumsily handling type. Who, after learning how to make candy at an ice cream parlor, failed at business in Philadelphia, Chicago and New York. Who, with only the clothes on his back, returned to Lancaster, Pa., and turned a $700 loan into a million-dollar caramel company. And who, in 1900 at age 42, promptly sold it to start a new enterprise.
This is where his peripheral vision came in. While roaming out West between business failures, he'd seen in Denver a recipe for caramels different from his own, one that called for milk. At an exposition in Chicago, he'd seen a German chocolate-making machine. In New York and Philadelphia, he'd seen the demand for candy on street corners. From childhood, he'd known of the dairy farms in Pennsylvania. He made associations and set out to make a chocolate bar -- long considered a luxury for only the rich -- in mass and affordable to the common man. Henry Ford would become the Milton Hershey of the auto industry.
I wonder if there are people like Milton Hershey anymore, people who know a little about farming and machinery and can compare recipes in a kitchen for hours, who would consult with architects on the planning of a town and eat lunches with the plasterers doing the building, who open their eyes through world travel yet are not above joining their home town volunteer fire department.
Milton Hershey died in 1945 at the age of 88. He left behind a multimillion-dollar corporation. No, Hershey could not have seen ahead. He was too busy looking around. COULD I TRACE EVERY ELEMENT CON-nected with a Hershey bar to its roots? I wonder as I adjust a hairnet and insert plugs in my ears. I am about to tour the largest chocolate factory in the world.
The beans are unloaded from a railway car and dropped onto a conveyor. "Where does this belt come from?" I ask my guide.
"Wherever rubber comes from," he says.
I smack my forehead. The rubber trees back in the jungles of Brazil! Brazil . . . Brazil . . . Brazil . . . Didn't I promise Igino that I'd return to tell him how chocolate was made? I drift off, daydreaming about how I'd explain it all. I can see him on muleback, shaking his head . . .
"To take this tour, why must you look like a woman?" he asks me.
I laugh. "Everybody who enters the factory has to wear a hairnet. It's to prevent any hair from falling into the chocolate. They're very strict about it. You'd be amazed how clean the factory is. And earplugs are necessary against the noise."
"What does the factory sound like?"
"It's difficult to describe." I think for a moment, then hum a monotone. "Multiply that by about a thousand. In some parts of the factory, you can feel your knees shake from the vibrations of the machines."
Igino's eyes widen like those of a child.
"The beans come from all over the world -- from here, the west coast of Africa, Central America and Malaysia."
"Africa, I know. But where is this Malaysia?"
"Near Indonesia. I'll show you later on a map. The beans from different countries have different flavors and each type of chocolate bar has its own recipe. When the beans come off the railway cars, they are put in huge silos."
"Warehouses. Very tall warehouses. About the size of rocket ships. There are 24 of them. Together they can hold more than 5 billion beans. If all the beans in all the silos were used to make chocolate bars at once, they'd produce enough to link a chain to the moon and back."
"The beans go from the silos to the factory by conveyor belt."
"What is this?"
I sketch an oval in the dirt with a small branch. "It's a long piece of rubber that moves from one place to another and back again. There is a magnet over this belt that picks up any nails and coins that might have gotten in with the beans. And then the beans move through several screens that filter out any pieces of debris."
"Then the beans go to an oven as big as a railway car, where they are roasted in currents of air that reach 500 degrees."
"Oh, that's right. You use centigrade. Let's see. About 260 degrees, but don't hold me to it."
"Quickly, a burst of air blows the beans into a winnowing machine, where they smash into a plate of steel and the shells crack off. What's left is the meat of the bean, called the nib."
I sketch two wheels in the dirt, barely touching at one point.
"The nibs are put through grinders, two wheels that roll against each other. The pressure and heat release a thick liquid called chocolate liquor."
"And then?" he asks.
"Then this liquor is mixed with sugar and dehydrated milk and it becomes a paste, which passes through steel rollers. Do you remember those anacondas you were telling me about -- wide enough to swallow a man? Each roller is about as thick as an anaconda. They lie right on top of each other and the chocolate comes through as a powder."
"Like anacondas . . ."
"Then comes conching. This powder goes into a tank that is about as long as . . . as 20 mules and as wide as you can stretch your arms. Cocoa butter, also squeezed from the beans, is now added, and a huge granite roller goes over it again and again for 72 hours -- until the chocolate is as smooth as velvet. Once the inspectors are sure that it's just right -- remember all the bars have to taste the same -- it moves on to be poured into molds by a huge machine from Denmark."
"Denmark? Where is this?"
"In Europe. I'll show you later on a map. Amazing, isn't it? By the time you eat a Hershey bar, you are on nearly every continent. This machine pours the chocolate into Teflon molds."
"What is Teflon?"
"You know, it stops sunny-side eggs from sticking on the pan when you make breakfast -- "
"Sunny-side? How is this?"
"I'll show you tomorrow morning. Anyway, then the bar is cooled and wrapped by another machine. A woman counts and boxes the bars. Then they go down an elevator onto a railway track. A computer guides the boxes automatically into the back of a truck. A truck is loaded in about 2 1/2 minutes."
"A full truck? Like we have here?"
"Three times as big as the ones on the farm."
"In less than three minutes. Impossible! Without men?"
"My God . . ."
A hand rests on my shoulder. "Still with me?" It's my guide.
"Just drifted off for a second," I say. "Sorry."
"You could probably use a rest. You've seen a lot in four hours." He points to the truck being loaded. "It's headed to our warehouse in New Kingstown. Then it'll be sent to a distributor in Maryland. From there it'll be trucked to Washington, D.C." THE AMTRAK LINER PULLS INTO WASH-ington. I walk to the candy stand in Union Station and reach for a Hershey bar. No! You do not really know. You have not really traced every element connected to a Hershey bar to its roots.
Every element? The aluminum wrapper around the bar? The paper wrapper around the aluminum? The color dyes on the paper wrapper? The presses that print the label and the glue that secures the wrapper? The gasoline in the tank of the delivery truck? The vanilla substitute added for flavor? The electronic equipment on the satellites? The Teflon that makes the molds? Governmental regulations on cocoa around the world? The source of the copper stripped from old telephone lines and used to create the fungicide that is sprayed on the trees? And what about herbicides and fertilizers? Marketing strategies? The cane that gives sugar and the machines that refine it? The shipping routes? The steel that is forged into ships? The structure of the futures market, the stock market and currency exchange? The religious history of the Amish farmers whose cows provide the milk? . . .
Impossible. If you truly traced a Hershey bar to its roots, you'd know all there is to know about astronomy, geology, agronomy, ecology, world economy, psychology, biology, chemistry, physics, history, geometry, oceanography, sociology -- in short, everything there is to know about the world. Okay. Relax. You've answered Igino's question. You've earned that Hershey bar.
I put 45 cents on the counter and take a bar. Finally. I peel away the brown and silver wrapper. Close my eyes. I take a bite and smile as the chocolate slides down my throat, down my esophagus and into my stomach. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh . . .
My eyes pop open. I wonder what's happening to it now? ::