Violence, greed, political turmoil and money in quantities reminiscent of another era that is selectively passed out in wads, rolls and tombstones. You're either watching Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese's new HBO series Boardwalk Empire, or getting your late night thrills from the pages of The Sugar King of Havana: The Rise and Fall of Julio Lobo, Cuba's Last Tycoon by John Paul Rathbone or The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind The World's Favorite Soft Drink by Michael Blanding, two recently released non-fiction food titles.
The Sugar King of Havana may not have the eye-catching name recognition — it's hard to compete with Coca-Cola, which in fact is largely Blanding's point throughout the The Coke Machine. But Rathbone's profile of Julio Lobo, a.k.a. the Sugar King, is a very personal tale. Or at least as personal as a reporting book can be about an incredibly powerful man (control sugar, and you control the world) without turning into something else entirely, say a sappy memoir or similar highly fantasized non-fiction.
Rathbone, the Financial Times' Latin American Editor, is connected to Lobo through his mother, who was raised in Cuba. Lobo was the richest man in pre-revolutionary Cuba before Fidel Castro ended his sugar monopoly fifty years ago. The reporter says his mother was a close childhood friend of Lobo's daughter (sounds like a fascinating sleepover chaperon).
At his height, Lobo single-handedly controlled global sugar prices, counted Napoleon's molar teeth among his collectible treasures, and hobnobbed, if not always by choice, with Che Guevera (Lobo politely declined Guevera's offer to become the Minister of Sugar in the new Communist regime). According to Rathbone, that was the end of Lobo, and his riches, which vanished virtually overnight. Such is the way the sugar cookie crumbles.
Which gets us to this month's release of The Coke Machine by another journalist, Blanding, a liquid American-ized version of more or less the same story. But here, there is no single sugar king. It is about democracy at its best and worst, with no chance of a Che Guevera “Brutal Youth” moment of t-shirt idolization. Blanding's goal is to talk about back-door business with the Nazis while the U.S. was at war, depleting already-strained drinking water sources to make soda in India, and corporate-condoned labor union violence at Colombia bottling plants.
They're the sort of books we need more of these days — well-researched journalistic reporting tomes, not those funded by a wealthy or highly connected entertainment or political figure thinly disguised advertorial. And yet even here, it's important to take these books with a grain of sugar. As they are, of course, just one side of the sugar and soda wars story. Perhaps they could be a holiday gift basket idea in the making? The Sugar King and The Coke Machine, tucked side-by-side into a handmade sugarcane basket with a few bottles of Coke, a bag or two of sugar. And of course, that very wide (and very genuine?) global family “We Are the World” holiday gift basket smile.