In Chocolate We Trust by Peter Kurie

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

In Chocolate We Trust
The Hershey Company Town Unwrapped
by Peter Kurie
University of Pennsylvania Press, 211 pp, cloth $34.95

A more impatient or typical writer than Peter Kurie would have taken the speedy route to writing the story of oft-visited but rarely understood Chocolate Town. A journalist could have plunged in, made a quick tour, surveyed the headlines and corporate tussles that occasionally make Hershey newsworthy, checked out the school, amusement park and hockey team that are legacies of the founder, and written a ‘“tell-all.” That Kurie chose a slower and richer path to explicating this confectionary-focused place is the glory of this important book, and his gift to readers.

Kurie is a California ethnographer who grew up in Hershey. He combines a native’s bone-deep knowledge of the place with a scholar’s training, which includes embedding himself in the community he studies, letting his interview subjects speak their minds, and integrating all his evidence into a coherent whole reasonably interpreted. Kurie’s research is magnificent, his writing deft, and the lessons he gleans eminently sensible, although also original.

At the heart of the work is the unusual nature of candy king/philanthropist Milton S. Hershey’s thoroughly paternalistic vision, concretized in a perpetual trust aimed at fixing his desires for company, town, inhabitants and stakeholders rigidly in place. Kurie explains that this perpetuity is the crux. It mandates commitment to the bequest laid out by Hershey on his death in 1945. But increasingly, the eponymous area and institutions are in an odd relationship with 21st-century realities. From start to finish, Kurie and informants address this singular circumstance of various enterprises acting under the direction of the long-dead tycoon’s still-guiding hand. Among the most persistent spots, where early 20th-century intentions rub in friction against 21st-century expectations, are the changing nature of the Milton Hershey School, founded to educate orphan boys but now serving a diverse population of at-risk or in-need students. Kurie also covers the tensions inherent in maintaining the candy company’s independence and profitability in a globalized supply chain of sweets dominated by multinational corporations constantly merging to grow larger. In terms of history, his most trenchant subject is the way in which the carefully curated legacy of Milton S. Hershey does and does not match up with contemporary mores and habits of assessing the past.

It would do Kurie’s wonderful book a disservice to sum up his findings here. Although rigorous in scholarship, this fast-moving story is fun to read as it explores Hershey’s chocolate-covered myth. The book rests on the best possible foundations: meticulous archival research and impeccable field work. Readers can take Kurie’s version of all things Hershey as trustworthy, as well as fascinating. He never stoops to condescend, even as he problematizes the very notion of the modern-day company town delivering on last century’s promises. There are few places to compare with Hershey, and now it has the book it deserves.

Charles Kupfer
Penn State Harrisburg