The Chocolate Scientist is a (working) title to inspire the imagination, and served that purpose, while not doing justice, to Kay Frydenborg’s recently published Chocolate: Sweet Science & Dark Secrets of the World’s Favorite Treat. Written with tween and teen interests in mind (but delicious for all readers), her work surveys the medical, social, cultural, economic, religious, geographic, scientific, and culinary history of how humanity takes advantage of theobroma cacao (the “chocolate tree”) and its criollo, forastero and trinitario beans.
Kirkus Reviews pronounced the book, “A deliciously informative, engaging and sweeping chronicle…;” and The San Francisco Book Review said, among other nice things, “The writing is lively and the information compelling.”
Frydenborg’s Chocolate takes readers far beyond the simplest engagement with a checkout line candy bar, as it did in many ways for the established writer who claims that before beginning her research into what she thought would just be her next book, “I knew very little about chocolate other than that I liked eating it.”
Taking time from home and work, the occasional whipping up of a quick batch of too-addictive brownies (with 100 percent cacao, butter sugar, vanilla and an egg or two), and her current project, a book exploring the co-evolution of dogs and people, she kindly answered a few questions about Chocolate.
Cupid Alley Chocolatieres: How did the book change from when you first had the idea to where your research led?
Kay Frydenborg: Chocolate began, in my mind, as a very different book from the one it eventually became. I had recently published my first nonfiction young readers’ book for Houghton Mifflin — Wild Horse Scientists — which was part of the venerable “Scientists in the Field” series, and I was thinking of ideas for another book in that series, which is aimed at middle grade readers. I came across a couple of stories — one in the New York Times and another on National Public Radio — about the discovery of some rare cacao growing in a remote location in Peru. This particular variety of cacao had been thought to be extinct. The article mentioned several people who I quickly tracked down, and who became important characters in my book. One was Dan Pearson, the entrepreneur who inadvertently stumbled upon this rare source of chocolate, and another was Lyndel Meinhardt, a senior biologist and cacao expert with the USDA/Agricultural Research Division. Lyndel was based in Beltsville, Md., which is an easy drive from my home in Pennsylvania, so I knew interviewing him there would be uncomplicated in terms of travel. I was intrigued by the idea of scientists hiking through the jungle in the Amazon, hunting for wild chocolate. So my original proposal to my editor was this book, tentatively titled “The Chocolate Scientist.” Turned out my editor and the company’s managing editor quickly envisioned a much bigger book about chocolate, for a somewhat older reader — a stand-alone book rather than one for the SITF series. I knew very little about chocolate other than that I liked eating it, like most people, so I knew this would be a more ambitious project than I’d envisioned. But I loved the challenge of it, and I love research, so I was off. How great that part of my “research” would involve sampling lots of amazing chocolate!
CAC: What was the best chocolate taste you had while writing the book and what were the circumstances?
KF: It’s hard to name just one, but writing the book definitely changed my chocolate-buying and eating habits. Even though I live not far from Hershey, Pa., and wrote a good deal about Milton Hershey in the book (it’s a great American story), I discovered a whole world of fine chocolate that I’d never really known existed. I guess one of my chocolate highlights was receiving some dark Peruvian chocolate from Maranon Chocolate, Dan Pearson’s company, along with some Maranon cacao beans and nibs. Also, the first time I baked my grandmother’s fudge pie recipe with good 100 percent dark chocolate, or brownies with same, the results were amazing.
CAC: What is different about how you think about chocolate as a result of the work you did for the book, and has anything you found out about chocolate worked its way into future projects?
KF: The part of the story that really grabbed me was the social justice aspect of chocolate and its long history. There are many parallels with other products we enjoy every day, and my consciousness was definitely raised about the human cost of some of those beloved products, and about how consumers can sometimes effect change that makes the lives of people in other parts of the world better. The environmental aspect of the story was also important to me. My current project is on a totally different topic — dog evolution — but the history of European conquest of the Americas that I first researched for Chocolate also plays a big part in this next book, so I felt as if I already had my footing on that history, at least more than before researching and writing Chocolate.
CAC: In what ways does your work on this book change how friends and family consume chocolate?
KF: In my own family, we eat more organic dark chocolate than before, and I hope my family and friends who read the book will see that as a good change to make in their chocolate consumption habits, too.
CAC: Why did you decide to include recipes, and which was your favorite?
KF: It just seemed like a natural addition to a book about such a popular food almost everyone eats. I thought it might add another layer of appeal and accessibility to a book that was rather heavy on history and science, because everyone cooks and everyone eats — and many people would rather eat chocolate than almost any other food! I enjoyed experimenting with savory chocolate recipes (there’s one for chocolate chili in the book), but I guess I’d have to say my sentimental favorite is my grandmother’s fudge pie, which I have been making since I was a child.
CAC: Which upcoming projects excite you?
KF: My next book, as I said above, is about dog and human co-evolution, and I’m very excited about it. It will be called A Dog in the Cave: Co-evolution and the Wolves Who Made Us Human,and it’s for about the same age reader as Chocolate, with I hope a lot of adult interest too. I’ve loved dogs all my life (currently have two) and I’m fascinated with paleoanthropology, so it’s a perfect subject for me. Like my other books, this one will be a mix of science and history (plus great dog stories). The scientific discoveries in this area in the last few years have been nothing short of astonishing — it’s a very, very hot field right now, with new discoveries coming out so fast it’s hard to keep my book current even as I write. I’m currently working on revisions, and the book will be out in early 2017. I’ll be writing more about this as publication gets closer — interested readers could check my website and blog, which is linked to the site for news about me and all of my books. I’ll be signing copies of Chocolate at the upcoming Fine Chocolate Industry Association annual event in NYC on June 27.
My Grandma Crowell’s Fudge Pie
(from Chocolate by Kathryn Frydenborg)
Beat until soft ½ cup butter
Add 1 cup sugar gradually; blend until creamy; beat in 2 egg yolks
Melt, cool slightly, beat in 2 ounces unsweetened chocolate (100% cacao)
Beat ½ cup into butter mixture
Add 1 teaspoon vanilla
Whip until stiff; 2 egg whites; ⅛ teaspoon salt
Fold into batter
Bake in a greased 8-9 inch pie plate at 325 degrees about ½ hours
Serve with vanilla ice cream (optional)