A Review of Chocolate: A Love Story

My first experience with Max Brenner chocolates occurred this past summer, during the last few hours of our trip to Manhattan. We stopped into the Max Brenner Chocolate Bar in Astor Place, our curiosity piqued by the notion of an entire restaurant devoted to chocolate.  Exhausted from having taken in two full days of the Fancy Food Show, and with a bag containing sixty pounds of cookbooks in tow (long story), we were in no shape to sit down and engage in a full meal – but that’s not to say that we merely browsed and left empty-handed.  It’s CHOCOLATE, folks.  You can’t just look.  It’s illegal to just look.

The store is like a Willy Wonka fantasy for adults. A variety of chocolates were showcased under glass, like jewelry, and it took us quite a few minutes of circling the case before we were able to decide on our selections.  Each square piece of chocolate featured an intricate design and yielded flavors blending the usual suspects – fruit, liqueurs, nuts, cereals – all very good, and beautifully presented.  A box of Max Brenner chocolate pralines is as much a feast for the eyes as for the palate.

With that said, when I was offered the opportunity to review Max Brenner’s cookbook, entitled Chocolate: A Love Story, there was absolutely no hesitation behind my acceptance.  As it turns out, just as his retail shops are no standard confectioneries, Max Brenner’s book is far from your ordinary cookbook.

Max Brenner, in collaboration with the artist Yonatan Factor, has created a compelling work that achieves something that is rare among cookbooks – Chocolate: A Love Story not only inspires me to cook, it also inspires me to write.  Reading this book, you realize that a cookbook that is prepared by a writer can become a very different animal from all of the cookbooks that are mere collections of recipes.

Most of the 65 recipes in this book are introduced by snippets of prose written by Brenner, which all tend to evoke themes of love, romance, chocolate, and nostalgia.  Not content to simply throw recipes at the reader, Brenner seeks to draw his audience into his world, using prose to set a mood for the reader, so that they may experience a fleeting glimpse of some deeply emotional fiction that connects Brenner to the recipe on the page – romance, whimsy, ennui, nostalgia, senses of loss and remorse among them.  Remorse? Are we still talking about a cookbook?  Amazingly, we are.

The recipes are accompanied on the facing pages by Yonatan Factor’s Art Deco poster graphics, which serve to complement Brenner’s prose, and which sometimes threaten to transform the recipe itself into a third wheel.  Thankfully, the majority of the recipes are strong enough to stand on their own, and then some.

Recipe titles like “Control Freak Chocolate Spread” and “Politically Correct Sacher Torte” mingle freely with straightforward declarations like “The Belgian street waffle” – a deceptively simple title which contains no hint of its inclusion of butterscotch chips, roasted pineapple, and a white chocolate and orange maple sauce.  There’s even a recipe that mimics a cheeseburger in its entirety – but using chocolate instead of beef patty, strawberries instead of ketchup, and so forth.  It’s not something that you would expect an average reader to attempt, but Brenner gets credit for the imaginative effort.

Reading the intro to “My lost childhood chocolate birthday cake”, which one would think to be a surefire recipe for happiness, actually made me a little sad. The recipe itself is a very basic yellow cake preparation with a ganache frosting, nothing fancy or overly complex.  The same recipe could appear in a dozen other cookbooks and evoke no emotion whatsoever. Yet, in Brenner’s hands, it’s something else.

In his introduction to the book, Max Brenner says that after ten years of seeking inspiration, he has yet to embark on writing his first novel.  But, flipping through the pages of his book, it’s quite clear to me that he’s already been on his journey as a writer for quite a while now, and maybe he just hasn’t realized it.  All of his ingredients are in place, somewhere in his mind – he just needs to put them all together to create a literary meal.