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.