Culture is Like a Box of Chocolates

We’re hosting a French exchange student, who arrived from Paris yesterday. Tonight was our first dinner together, and for dessert, we put out what we had at and hand: some Mint Milano cookies, and some Hershey’s Halloween chocolates:

After dinner, our little student (he’s ten years old) presented us with a small fortune in gifts: a coffee table book, two coffee mugs, books and t-shirts for our kids, and a nice box of chocolates from Le Nôtre, a French chocolatier.

Now, one could speculate all night about the motives. The family loves to shop. The family is generous. This is a traditional thing to do, when you board your child with someone else. Or, it’s like tipping a valet when you first drop the car off with him, so that he’ll treat it well. Actually, it’s kind of a French cultural tradition. But whatever. That’s not the point.

What I find interesting is how easy it is to generalize on the basis of the chocolate.

We almost never have Hershey’s in the house (I think it tastes like a mixture of wax and granulated sugar), but at US supermarkets, you can literally buy bags of the stuff. In other words, it a symbol of the American approach to food: cheap, mass-produced and low quality. Dump it in a bowl, and it’s all you can eat.

On the other hand, here’s a photo of some Le Nôtre chocolates:

Notice anything? What I see is that they’re small, elegant, expensive — not the kind of chocolate you dump into a bowl on the coffee table. Both the Americans and French make chocolate but they take opposite approaches. Where the US mass produce for mass consumption, the French make chocolate something better: more expensive, meant to be enjoyed in small portions, and appreciated.

(Yes, this is generalizing a bit, as I’m sure I could find crummy chocolate in Paris, and there are great chocolatiers in the US. But look at the food that France exports, such as wine and cheese. It’s almost always high quality. The well-known US exports are things like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Hershey bars.)

I think France gets this one right.

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4 thoughts on “Culture is Like a Box of Chocolates

  1. I’m like every other woman on the face of the planet. I love chocolate, but your right. Chocolate, along with virtually everything else we mass produce here, is of low quality, and we eat it up. Why? Because we live in a now, now, NOW society, and quality takes time. Most people would rather sacrifice quality if it means they get it faster. That’s why huge chains with underpaid and overworked employees are blowing up and spreading like wildfire while the mom and pop places stay just that, or even worse, go under because they can’t compete with the McDonalds that just moved in next door.

    But I’m done ranting. Good luck with that whole foreign exchange student thing, it sounds like its going to be an interesting adventure. Just out of curiosity, does your exchange student speak English?

  2. He hardly speaks a word of English. When my French fails me (about once every 15 minutes), I lean on Google Translate. And now I know that “pickle” in French is cornichon. Now if I could just quickly learn another 10,000 words, I’d be all set.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly. In fact, almost everything at the grocery store is mass produced, cheap, and unhealthy. Our materialism is actually hurting our health because we sacrifice quality foods for cheaper crap so that we have money to buy other things. Rather absurd when you think about it.

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