Deborah Langsam Ph.D. '81

Sweet-tooth proprietor
Writer: 
April 1, 2007
Deborah Langsam Ph.D. ’81

Allen Saxe

Deborah Langsam has made a name for herself as co-proprietor of Barking Dog Chocolatiers, based in Charlotte, but she’s no sweet-tooth snob. “I’m a great believer in chocolate desperation,” she says.

If it’s July and the only chocolate around is left over from Halloween, her advice is to eat and enjoy.

Don’t mistake this advice for ignorance or the lack of a discriminating palate. Not only can Langsam create delectable truffles, ganaches, and pastries, but as a former botany professor she can also explain the chemistry behind those tempting tastes. (Were you aware, for example, that chocolate is not a solid, but a non-Newtonian fluid?)

With her husband Joal Fischer, a developmental pediatrician, she has put her chocolate talents to good use. Since 2000, Langsam and Fischer have been delighting customers with fine candies, while channeling the profits into SupportWorks, a nonprofit venture founded by Fischer to offer help to the public in researching medical information and finding or forming support groups for a wide range of issues or interests, from overeating or overspending to home schooling or sick-building syndrome.

Last year, they made and sold enough chocolate to meet SupportWorks’ annual budget of around $10,000. The arrangement keeps SupportWorks focused on its mission rather than on the search for grant money. It also enables Langsam and Fischer to enjoy their chocolate venture and avoid pressures for constant growth in profits.

Deborah Langsam Ph.D. ’81

Phil Wolf

Chocolate was not the only reason Langsam left academe in 2002, after twenty-two years in the botany department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The chocolate business was well under way, but fabric art was the passion that tugged her toward retirement. These days, she alternates fabric art and chocolate with volunteer duty as curator of the fungal collection at a local natural-history museum and as a consultant for educational institutions on ways to document teaching effectiveness—a primary interest of hers during her faculty years.

Langsam was a thoroughly urban New Yorker when she headed south for a summer at the Duke Marine Lab after graduating from Brooklyn College in 1972. She fully intended the course to be a brief rural adventure before returning to New York to complete her master’s in oceanography at City College.

Instead, she says, she “fell in love” with the sunshine and the artful world she discovered through the microscope and applied to Duke’s doctoral program in botany. She arrived in Durham in 1973, where a couple of years in the graduate-student dorms and a couple more as an undergraduate dorm adviser gave her the campus experience she had missed as a commuting student.

In 1980, she joined the faculty at UNC-Charlotte, where she immersed herself in teaching and met and married Fischer. They both loved to travel but disliked being tourists. Early on, their solution was cooking courses.

They were pursuing pastry classes in Paris when they found themselves smitten with chocolate. “One of the things that attracted both of us to chocolate was the science behind it,” Langsam says. “We found a lot of people who had incredible experience with chocolate but couldn’t explain the science. The language we understood—‘the fat chemistry’—helped us tremendously.”

Langsam and Fischer began taking chocolate classes around the world and applying what they learned when they returned home to Charlotte. It was only natural that they began to make more chocolate than they and their friends could devour. Barking Dog Chocolatiers (named for a beloved, now-deceased mutt who barked only when hungry) was the solution to the chocolate surplus.

“Who would have thought that a love affair with microscopic fungal structures would have wrenched me from New York, taken me on my academic journey, and wound up as a passion for color, shape, and texture that now translates into chocolate and fabric art design?” Langsam muses.

It’s a journey that has held more than a few surprises, but clearly one that has taken a very sweet turn.