This is a somewhat formal thing I wrote for the Guilfordian Practicum.
Bill Bruford, in this week’s New Yorker, continues his association with obsessive foodies with an article that follows the exploits of chocolate-entrepreneur Fredrick Shilling into the Brazilian rainforest in search of the perfect bean. Bruford, who wrote last year’s best selling book (Heat) about party-animal celebrity chef Mario Malto, approaches his subjects as a novice, taught by the people on the cutting-edge about the changing nature of their obsessions, which is usually food. He often seems to play Sal Paradise to the larger than life personalities he writes about, but his style is deceptive in that it offers subtle insight into the quirks of these Dean Moriarty-like figures. In this article, Buford exposes the contradictions of Shilling’s vision for a purely organic chocolate revolution and leaves the entrepreneur’s decision to sell his company, Dagoba, to Hershey for $17 million up to the reader’s interpretation.
The story of Dagoba goes roughly like this. In 2005 Shilling and his girlfriend Tracy Holderman debuted their products in New York to rave reviews. They started a company, smoked a lot of pot, but didn’t know business so they brought in Shilling’s father to help, and soon business was booming. A few years later Shilling allegedly had an epiphany in the form of a dream that involved a Mayan goddess and a whirlwind tour of the cocoa growing-areas of the world. Soon after, Shilling sold his company to Hershey and now acts as a consultant.
Although chocolatiers may consider Shilling a sell-out, Bruford depicts Shilling as a relentless, although sometimes misguided, visionary. The reader might find Shilling’s personality, like much of his products, somewhat hard to digest. Bruford does a masterful job of amalgamating the personality and the product, combining Shilling’s over-the-top enthusiasm with an honest critique of some of his wares, many of which seem inedible. Shilling is looking for organic serotonin substitutes and antioxidants much of the time, and the results can be brutal on the palate. At one point, after tasting a drinking chocolate, Bruford asks, “Why make a drink that tastes disgusting?”
Bruford’s article is also a rich resource for a 101 guide to the role of chocolate in world history. The research is meticulous but not pedantic. Descriptions of the mystical qualities of chocolate from Montezuma to Pepys provide the reader with a good understanding of why Shilling is so obsessed. The bulk of the article relates a trip Bruford took to the Brazilian rainforest with Shilling, one that saw the men sampling cocoa pulp and spitting out the bitter seeds, the part used to make chocolate. Bruford explains how the plant relies on the bitterness of the seeds to regenerate more plants. Animals and people eat the sweet citrusy pulp but eject the seeds, assuring continues growth. Details like these, interspersed with the personal history of their guide, Badaro, bring Bruford’s journalistic experience into full focus. The trip culminates in the three men immersing themselves in fermenting cacao pulp, sloshing around like pigs in a trough, a bacchanalian if not exactly appetizing image.
Bruford’s subjects may represent the cutting-edge of culinary quests, but in a sense there is a cutting-edge quality to Bruford as well. Rejecting the idea of writing as a seasoned insider, Bruford instead immerses himself from a point of little reference and then gathers as much information from actual experience necessary to write a thorough expose. As Shilling searches for the perfect cacao bean, Bruford also seems to be searching obsessively for something—the nature of the compulsion that drives people to dedicate their existence to a single vision. The reader can be glad for Bruford’s attempts to locate the origin and destination of these visions.