The Patch is the seventh collection of essays by nonfiction master John McPhee, who has published thirty-three books with FSG. The second part of The Patch features an “album quilt,” an artful assortment of nonfiction writings by McPhee that have not previously appeared in any book. This quilt offers a montage of fragments of varying length from pieces done across the years—occasional pieces, memorial pieces, reflections, reminiscences, and short items in various magazines including The New Yorker. The following excerpt offers a few of these fragments and gives us greater access to the fascinating, funny, and insightful world of John McPhee.
Pools and pools and pools of chocolate—fifty-thousand-pound, ninety-thousand-pound, Olympic-length pools of chocolate—in the conching rooms in the chocolate factory in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Big, aromatic rooms. Chocolate, as far as the eye can see. Viscous, undulating, lukewarm chocolate, viscidized, undulated by the slurping friction of granite rollers rolling through the chocolate over crenellated granite beds at the bottoms of the pools. The chocolate moves. It stands up in brown creamy dunes. Chocolate eddies. Chocolate currents. Gulfs of chocolate. Chocolate deeps. Mares’ tails on the deeps. The world record for the fifty-yard free-style would be two hours and ten minutes.
Slip a little spatula in there and see how it tastes. Waxy? Claggy? Gritty? Mild? Taste it soft. That is the way to get the flavor. Conching—granite on granite, deep in the chocolate—ordinarily continues for seventy-two hours, but if Bill Wagner thinks the flavor is not right, he will conch for hours extra, or even an extra day. Milky? Coarse? Astringent? Caramely? For forty-five years, Bill Wagner has been tasting the chocolate. His taste buds magnified a hundred times would probably look like Hershey’s kisses. He is aging now, and is bent slightly forward—a slender man, with gray hair and some white hair. His eyeglasses have metal rims and dark plastic brows. He wears thin white socks and brown shoes, black trousers, a white shirt with the company’s name on it in modest letters. Everyone wears a hat near the chocolate. Most are white paper caps. Wagner’s hat is dapper, white, visored: a chocolate-making supervisor’s linen hat.
For forty-five years, Bill Wagner has been tasting the chocolate. His taste buds magnified a hundred times would probably look like Hershey’s kisses.
A man in a paper hat comes up and asks Wagner, “Are we still running tests on that kiss paste?”
“Yes. You keep testing.”
Wagner began in cocoa, in 1924. The dust was too much for him. After a few weeks, he transferred to conching. He has been conching ever since, working out the taste and texture. Conching is the alchemy of the art, the transmutation of brown paste into liquid Hershey bars. Harsh? Smooth? Fine? Bland? There are viscosimeters and other scientific instruments to aid the pursuit of uniformity, but the ultimate instrument is Wagner. “You do it by feel, and by taste,” he says. “You taste for flavor and for fineness—whether it’s gritty. There’s one area of your tongue you’re more confident in than others. I use the front end of my tongue and the roof of my mouth.” He once ate some Nestlé’s; he can’t remember when. He lays some chocolate on the tip of his tongue and presses it upward. The statement that sends ninety thousand pounds on its way to be eaten is always the same. Wagner’s buds blossom, and he says, “That’s Hershey’s.”
Milton Hershey’s native town was originally called Derry Church, and it was surrounded, as it still is, by rolling milkland. Hershey could not have been born in a better place, for milk is twenty per cent of milk chocolate. Bill Wagner grew up on a farm just south of Derry Church. “It was a rented farm. We didn’t own a farm until 1915. I lived on the farm through the Second World War. I now live in town.” Wagner’s father, just after 1900, had helped Milton Hershey excavate the limestone bedrock under Derry Church to establish the foundations of the chocolate plant. Derry Church is Hershey now, and its main street, Chocolate Avenue, has streetlamps shaped like Hershey’s kisses—tinfoil, tassel, and all. The heart of town is the corner of Chocolate and Cocoa. Other streets (Lagos, Accra, Para) are named for the places the beans come from, arriving in quotidian trains full of beans that are roasted and, in studied ratios, mixed together—base beans, flavor beans, African beans, American beans—and crushed by granite millstones arranged in cascading tiers, from which flow falls of dark cordovan liquor. This thick chocolate liquor is squeezed mechanically in huge cylindrical accordion compressors. Clear cocoa butter rains down out of the compressors. When the butter has drained off, the compressors open, and out fall dry brown disks the size of manhole covers. The disks are broken into powder. The powder is put into cans and sold. It is Hershey’s Cocoa—straight out of the jungle and off to the supermarket, pure as the purest sunflower seed in a whole-earth boutique.
Concentrate fresh milk and make a paste with sugar. To two parts natural chocolate liquor add one part milk-and-sugar paste and one part pure cocoa butter. Conch for three days and three nights. That, more or less, is the recipe for a Hershey bar. (Baking chocolate consists of nothing but pure chocolate liquor allowed to stand and harden in molds. White chocolate is not really chocolate. It is made from milk, sugar, and cocoa butter, but without cocoa.) In the conching rooms, big American flags hang from beams above the chocolate. “Touch this,” Bill Wagner says. The cast-iron walls that hold in the chocolate are a hundred and thirty degrees Fahrenheit. “We have no heat under this. It’s only created heat—created by the friction that the granite rollers produce.”
“What if the rollers stop?”
“The chocolate will freeze.”
When that happens, the result is a brown ice cap, a chocolate-coated Nome. Sometimes fittings break or a worker forgets to shut off a valve and thousands of pounds of chocolate spill over, spread out, and solidify on the floor. Workers have to dig their way out, with adzes, crowbars, shovels, and picks.
“The trend today is people want to push buttons,” Wagner says. “They’ll try to find ways to shortcut. It’s a continual struggle to get people to do their share. There’s no shortcut to making Hershey’s. There have been times when I wished I’d stayed on the farm.” Every day, he works from six in the morning until four-thirty in the afternoon, so he can cover parts of all shifts. He walks to work in twelve minutes from his home, on Para Avenue. “Para is a bean, I think. It’s a bean or a country, I’m not sure which. We have another street called Ceylon. That’s not a bean. It’s a country.” In the conching rooms, Wagner can see subtleties of hue that escape the untrained eye; he can tell where the kiss paste is, and the semisweet, and the chocolate chips, and the bar milk chocolate. Kiss paste has to be a little more dense, so the kisses will sit up. Wagner has grandchildren in Hershey, Colebrook, and Mechanicsburg. When he goes to see them, he slips them kisses.
Within the connoisseurship, there are dearer chocolates, and, God knows, inferior ones, but undeniably there is no chocolate flavor quite like that of a Hershey bar. No one in Hershey can, or will, say exactly why. There is voodoo in the blending of beans, and even more voodoo in the making of the milk-andsugar paste. There is magic in Bill Wagner when he decides that a batch is done. All this, however, does not seem to add up to a satisfactory explanation of the uniqueness of the product. Mystery lingers on. Notice, though, in the conching rooms, what is happening to the granite rollers rolling under the chocolate on the granite beds. Slowly, geologically, the granite is eroding. The granite beds last about thirty years. The granite rollers go somewhat sooner than that. Rolling back and forth, back and forth, they become flat on one side. Over the days, months, years, this wearing down of the granite is uniform, steady, consistent, a little at a time. There seems to be an ingredient that is not listed on the label. Infinitesimal granitic particles have nowhere to go but into the chocolate. A Hershey bar is part granite.
Ask management where the granite comes from. The official answer is “New England.”
“Where in New England?”
“New England. That is all we are saying. Nestlé’s won’t say anything about anything. Mars is the same way. So we don’t say anything, either.”
• • •
At Vassar College, a few decades ago, I read to a gymful of people some passages from books I had written, and then received questions from the audience. The first person said, “Of all the educational institutions you went to when you were younger, which one had the greatest influence on the work you do now?” The question stopped me for a moment because I had previously thought about the topic only in terms of individual teachers and never in terms of institutions. Across my mind flashed the names of a public-school system K through 12, a New England private school (13), and two universities—one in the United States, one abroad—and in a split second I blurted out, “The children’s camp I went to when I was six years old.”
The response drew general laughter, but, funny or not, it was the simple truth. The camp, called Keewaydin, was at the north end of Lake Dunmore, about eight miles from Middlebury, Vermont. It was a canoeing camp, but in addition to ribs, planking, quarter-thwarts, and open gunwales you learned to identify rocks, ferns, and trees. You played tennis. You backpacked in the Green Mountains on the Long Trail. If I were to make a list of all the varied subjects that have come up in my articles and books, adding a check mark beside interests derived from Keewaydin, most of the entries would be checked. I spent all summer every summer at Keewaydin from age six through fifteen, and later was a counsellor there, leading canoe trips and teaching swimming, for three years while I was in college.
The Kicker was the name of the camp newspaper, and its editor was my first editor, a counsellor named Alfred G. Hare, whose surname translated to the Algonquian as Waboos, a nickname that had been with him from childhood and would ultimately stay with him through his many years as Keewaydin’s director. Waboos was a great editor. He laughed in the right places, cut nothing, and let you read your pieces aloud at campfires.
Waboos was a great editor. He laughed in the right places, cut nothing, and let you read your pieces aloud at campfires.
When I first arrived at Keewaydin as a child (my father was the camp’s physician), the name Eisner was all over the place—on silver trophies and on the year-by-year boards in the dining hall that listed things like Best Swimmer, Best Athlete, Best Singles Canoe. Michael Eisner was not one of those Eisners. When I first arrived at Keewaydin, he was still pushing zero. He had five years to wait before he was born. His father, Lester, was among the storied Eisners, and so were assorted uncles and cousins. Over time, multiple Eisners would follow. In 1949, when Lester Eisner brought Michael to the camp to see if he would like to enroll there, I was in the first of my three years as a counsellor in the oldest of the four age groups into which the camp was divided. In the two summers that followed (the last ones for me), he was in the youngest group and I didn’t know him from Mickey Mouse. I was aware only that another Eisner had come to Keewaydin.
Summer camps have varying specialties and levels of instruction. They differ considerably in character and mission. No one description, positive or negative, can come near fitting all of them or even very many. Keewaydin was not a great experience for just anybody. My beloved publisher—Roger W. Straus Jr., founder of Farrar, Straus and Giroux—went to Keewaydin when he was thirteen years old and hated every minute of it. That amounts to about eighty thousand minutes. Over the years, he has spent at least a hundred thousand minutes making fun of me for loving Keewaydin. The probable cause is Keewaydin’s educational rigor. Gently but firmly, you were led into a range of activity that left you, at the end of the summer, with enhanced physical skills and knowledge of the natural world. You wanted to go back, and back. Mike Eisner went back in 2000 (hardly for the first or last time). He was fifty-eight. Keewaydin was celebrating the career of its eighty-five-year-old emeritus director. Three people spoke at a Saturday-night campfire. Each was introduced only by name, with no mention of any business or profession or affiliation, just, in turn, Peter Hare, Russ MacDonald, Mike Eisner. In his blue jeans and ball cap, walking around the flames with his arms waving, Eisner told three hundred pre-teen and early-teen-aged kids escalating stories of his own days at Keewaydin. They listened closely and laughed often. Few, if any, knew who else he was.
(He was the chairman and C.E.O. of Hollywood’s Walt Disney Company.)
• • •
A professional writer, by definition, is a person clothed in self-denial who each and almost every day will plead with eloquent lamentation that he has a brutal burden on his mind and soul, will summon deep reserves of “discipline” as seriatim antidotes to any domestic chore, and, drawing the long sad face of the pale poet, will rise above his dread of his dreaded working chamber, excuse himself from the idle crowd, go into his writing sanctum, shut the door, shoot the bolt, and in lonely sacrifice turn on the Mets game.
• • •
John McPhee is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of Draft No. 4, Table of Contents, Silk Parachute, and The Survival of the Bark Canoe among many other books. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.