Like many food lovers, I was enthralled by Kim Severson's story on British chocolate bars in the New York Times. Severson tries to explain why British chocolate bars have a different taste from their U.S. counterparts. She concludes that it is a combination of slightly different ingredients and processing techniques. You've heard of terroir, which is, according to Wikipedia, a "French term in wine and coffee used to denote the special characteristics that geography bestowed upon them." Let's call what Severson reported "factoir," or the special characteristics that factories bestow upon chocolate bars.
Even more interesting was the main story's taste-test sidebar, in which Severson concludes that "British chocolate bars do taste better." Not that we don't trust the esteemed writers at the Times, but I wanted to take those British candy bars out for my own test drive. So last evening I went down to Tea & Sympathy in New York City's Greenwich Village and bought two of every candy bar mentioned in the article—and a few others for good measure. I then bought some of their U.S. counterparts and brought them to the office for an official Serious Eaters Societysanctioned taste test.
I tried the two Kit Kat bars first. Although they were "differently bad," as Eric Asimov described them, one was not in the end more delicious than the other. The same was true for the Cadbury Milk and Hershey's Milk Chocolate bars and for every confection I compared.
Here's my conclusion: The romantic feelings for British candy bars that Severson discovered are the same kinds of romantic feelings anyone has about the snacks and soft drinks they grew up with. People in the South love Goo Goo Clusters and Cheerwine soda and swear up and down that they're really better than other candy bars and sodas. Ask the people of Detroit about Vernor's Ginger Ale, and they'll swear up and down it really is much better than other ginger ales. And maybe it is. But that's not the whole story.
Snacks and soft drinks are incredibly resonant lightning rods for people's affection for either their adopted or original hometown. As a New Yorker, I love Joyva Jellies and Marshmallow Twists, and Goldberger's Peanut Chews, the candy of my youth, and I will go to my deathbed proclaiming their inherent superiority and deliciousness. And if I did comparative taste tests for each of them, I would be able to come up with some seemingly objective, clearheaded observations about how and why they are better and different. I might very well come up with the same kinds of winelike descriptors Severson and Asimov came up with: "more pronounced dairy flavor," "smoother in the mouth," and "melting with more tongue-coating indulgence."
In the end, Asimov was right in saying they're "differently bad." But that's not really the point. When it comes down to it, eating an inexpensive chocolate bar or a locally produced soft drink is an incredibly satisfying cheap thrill made even more resonant by some kind of hometown provenance.
I have to go now. I'm craving a Joyva Marshmallow Twist. They really are better, twistier, and more complex.