A Literary History of Chocolate: Part 3

Louis MacNeice Chocolate Truffles

In our last post, Nico introduced us to the idea that the industrial advances of the nineteenth century led to a revolution in the production and consumption of chocolate. From a hot drink for the elite, it had become a solid bar bought by the masses. The fashionable lord consuming a luxurious drink in the chocolate-house had passed into legend. And we can see this clearly in novels by Charles Dickens. In Bleak House (1853), for example, the elderly, impoverished and confused Miss Flite reveals her outdated aristocratic pretensions by referring to the habit of drinking chocolate. And in A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Dickens refers to chocolate only to satirise the French Aristocracy of the late eighteenth century:

Monseigneur was about to take his chocolate. Monseigneur could swallow a great many things with ease, and was by some few sullen minds supposed to be rather rapidly swallowing France; but, his morning’s chocolate could not so much as get into the throat of Monseigneur, without the aid of four strong men besides the Cook.  

[…] It was impossible for Monseigneur to dispense with one of these attendants on the chocolate and hold his high place under the admiring Heavens. Deep would have been the blot upon his escutcheon if his chocolate had been ignobly waited on by only three men; he must have died of two.  

Chocolate in this novel is associated with the idleness and selfishness of a corrupt nobility. The consumption of chocolate has lost the connotations of political sedition which so worried King Charles II of England – instead, in this passage, chocolate is drunk by those who wish to maintain the trappings and privileges of the aristocracy.

By this time chocolate was beginning to be available to most members of society. And by the more democratic beginnings of the twentieth century (in western Europe at least), it was neatly packaged and arranged on the shelves of corner shops.

This brings us to James Joyce’s epic masterpiece, Ulysses (1922), in which the central character Leopold Bloom is seen with this new form of chocolate. The following extracts are taken from the ‘Circe’ section of the novel, which is written in the form of a playscript and set in Dublin’s ‘Nighttown’ in 1904:

Snakes of river fog creep slowly. From drains, clefts, cesspools, middens arise on all sides stagnant fumes. A glow leaps in the south beyond the seaward reaches of the river. The navvy, staggering forward, cleaves the crowd and lurches towards the tramsiding on the farther side under the railway bridge bloom appears, flushed, panting, cramming bread and chocolate into a sidepocket. 

Chocolate is now as affordable and banal as bread. However, it does retain the connotations of licentiousness of the eighteenth century. Finding himself in a brothel, Bloom takes the chocolate from his pocket and offers it around the room:

ZOE: (Tears open the silverfoil) Fingers was made before forks. (She breaks off and nibbles a piece gives a piece to Kitty Ricketts and then turns kittenishly to Lynch)  

[…] 

(A male cough and tread are heard passing through the mist outside. Bloom’s features relax. He places a hand in his waistcoat, posing calmly. Zoe offers him chocolate.)  

Behind this apparently innocuous bar of chocolate is a long history of colonial exploitation. The foods referred to in Ulysses allow the reader to map out the geographical expanse of the British Empire and to reveal Britain’s economic power over – and reliance on – their dominions. Alongside the traditional Irish foods of bread and stew, Joyce mentions tea, ginger, sugar, olives, orange, saffron, and chocolate. Even potatoes – apparently a quintessentially Irish food – were effectively imported as they were brought from South America in the sixteenth century. The chocolate Bloom stuffs in his pocket is the product of an English company – it is made by J.S. Fry and Sons, a Bristol-based company that was founded in the eighteenth century. So we return to the Restoration chocolate-houses with which we began this literary history of chocolate.

The Belfast-born poet Louis MacNeice didn’t seem to like this new form of chocolate. During the nineteen thirties, he worked at Birmingham University and recorded the pungent smell of Britain’s most famous chocolate factory drifting over the city:

To-night is so coarse with chocolate  
The wind blowing from Bournville 
That I hanker for the Atlantic.

MacNeice’s speaker longs to escape the ugly industrialism of this modern city, with its connotations of capitalism. He wishes instead to experience the freedom and emptiness of the Atlantic Ocean which he knew so well from visits to the west coast of Ireland. As in many of his other poems, there is a feeling that industrialism is contributing to a loss of imagination and stimulating variation in society.

Of course, the foil-wrapped chocolate bar made its way across the globe during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. And we will look now at one of the more controversial brands – Hershey’s. When I tried this type of chocolate in New York as a child, I was so disgusted that I couldn’t finish it. It’s not just me. The Guardian reports that British migrants to America describe Hershey’s as ‘smell[ing] like stinky feet’ and tasting of ‘plastic’.

On the other side of this chocolate war are the characters of Jack Kerouac’s novel, The Dharma Bums (1958). Here is the narrator’s enraptured celebration of the Hershey bar:

The last two miles of the hill were terrible and I said “Japhy there’s one thing I would like right now more than anything in the world – more than anything I’ve ever wanted all my life.” Cold dusk winds were blowing, we hurried bent with our packs on the endless trail. 

“What?” 

“A nice big Hershey bar or even a little one. For some reason or other, a Hershey bar would save my soul right now.” 

“There’s your Buddhism, a Hershey bar. How about moonlight in an orange grove and a vanilla ice-cream cone?” 

“Too cold. What I need, want, pray for, dying for, right now, is a Hershey bar…with nuts.” We were very tired and kept trudging along home talking like two children. I kept repeating and repeating about my good old Hershey bar. I really meant it. I needed the energy anyway, I was a little woozy and needed sugar, but to think of chocolate and peanuts all melting in my mouth in that cold wind, it was too much. 

I am not convinced that Hershey’s has any links with the divine. This is a long way from the carefully-prepared, expertly-flavoured drink of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In our next post Nico will pursue this theme, taking us full circle back to South America with Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude… 

Truffles

Chocolate Truffle Recipe

Ingredients
200ml double cream
200g dark chocolate
Flavourings (e.g. 1tsp vanilla)
Toppings (e.g. cocoa powder, crushed biscuits)
Method
Break up the chocolate into small pieces and place in a bowl with the flavourings.
Heat the cream in a small pan until just simmering.
Pour the cream over the chocolate and stir until combined.
Refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
Roll the chocolate mixture into small balls.
Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
Roll the balls in the toppings and serve.

References

Charles Dickens, Bleak House (London: Penguin, 2003)
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (London: Penguin, 2007)
Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums (London: Penguin, 2000)
James Joyce, Ulysses (Oxford: OUP, 1993)
Louis MacNeice, Collected Poems (London: Faber, 2007)
Lynn Bongiovanni, ‘James Joyce and the Consumption of Empire‘ (September 5, 2011)
The Rise and Fall of Fry’s‘, The Bristol Post (November 19, 2013),
Mark McSherry, ‘Hershey’s Lawsuit Sparks British Revolt for “Superior” Cadbury’s Chocolate‘ (January 27, 2015)

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