'The Patch' by John McPhee

'The Patch' by John McPhee
AP Photo/Julio Cortez

EDITOR’S NOTE: In this RealClearBooks series, we highlight recent nonfiction books from across the political spectrum. This week’s book is John McPhee's The Patch, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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The Patch is the latest, and perhaps most poetic, collection of writings by the prolific nonfiction author, John McPhee. The book is split in two parts, with the first covering 'The Sporting Scene' in five patient essays ranging from fly fishing in New Hampshire to the links at St. Andrews.  The second part is a patchwork (hence the title) collection of unpublished reflections on the people and places McPhee has encountered over the years. The Patch is a 'covert memoir' from a pure storyteller who has built a legendary career on his genuine curiosity.

The Patch by John McPhee

Reviewed:

National Review: One of McPhee’s talents is noticing something and nudging it toward an essay. Consider the winding, endless line at Radio City Music Hall, “doubling and redoubling upon itself through a maze of sawhorses set up by New York police.” Or the first time McPhee drank. It was whiskey, and he was ten years old, playing sandlot football on a vacant lot at the university. The games had an unlikely spectator: “Walking to work from his house on Mercer Street, Albert Einstein, leonine and sockless, would stop for a while to watch the action.” 

His subjects are eclectic, and his range is impressive: Mensa meetings, Richard Burton, the etymology of the word “notion,” playing basketball with legendary Princeton coach Pete Carril, learning from an altimeter specialist, and a summer spent in Alaska. Dis­cussing the last, he tucks a lament near the end of his book: “To become absorbed in an almost total way with a people and a place and then suddenly to be cut off from those people, except through the mail, is something that could be listed among the liabilities of the writing life.” Read the full review.

The San Francisco Chronicle: "The “Album Quilt” is made up of little time bombs of writing that come from throughout his writing career, but many seemingly from the early years. How else to explain such lines as this one, characterizing Barbra Streisand’s nose: “It starts at the summit of her hive-piled hair and ends where a trombone reaches pedal B flat”? The subject matter can appear out of the blue — “The age of oared ships lasted three thousand years” — or start in midstream: “He was a tall man of swift humor whose generally instant responses reached far into memory and wide for analogy.” The brief biographical pieces have the fine lines of a cameo and highlight some aspect of Peter O’Toole, Mort Sahl, Peter Sellers, Joan Baez, Jenny Lind, Marion Davies and Richard Burton, among others." Read the full review.

Interviewed:

Excerpt:

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.”

Read the full excerpt.

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