Beauty, in a Chocolate Bar

It’s a humid January evening on the outskirts of Hanoi, the power’s out, and I’ve found beauty: Whittaker’s, L & P White Chocolate Block. Creamy, satisfying, a bit cloyingly sweet, and my mouth crackles.

It shouldn’t work. Lemon flavored pop rocks in white chocolate shouldn’t work. But it does. And it’s nothing like any candy I’d ever had, or ever will.

I’ll never taste something like this piece of chocolate again because it’s the taste of sound. This crackling in my mouth, this pop, this snap. Laughter to the right of me. The drip of wax of a candle to my left. The deafening roar of the smile to my front. The flavor sings: sweetness of a foreign tongue, acidity from the pop rocks, umami from fish sauce and soy, herbaceousness from Thai basil and motorcycle fumes and rice paddies and Ho Chi Minh.

The life of this piece of chocolate begins in a small factory in New Zealand. It is delivered by an underpaid midwife, carted down an assembly line before being packaged, wrapped and bundled into a box. It’s set aside, not to be sold, as it had been hoping, but instead given as a gift to a consultant working with Whittaker’s. The bar sizes him up. Blonde hair, slight build, below average height, a scraggly beard, young, affable. He’ll do.

This man takes a trip to Japan: 2 weeks, no plans, a train pass, following nothing but his whims and the recommendations of fellow travelers. A seasoned sojourner, he brings gifts to make friends, primarily chocolate bars, like our friend L & P, obtained through his job.

It’s now the man’s last day in Tokyo before going north to go bathe in a famous onsen. He’s still got a couple of chocolate bars left. He turns to the hostelmates he’s just befriended: a young American couple living abroad in Japan and visiting Tokyo, and me, who just flew in from Korea. He lets us choose, and warns that people either seem to really like or dislike the lemon flavored one. I make the choice. The couple gets the dark chocolate bar, I get our protagonist, the L & P, and its former guardian gets our fleeting friendship and memory.

The bar stows away in my bag. It’s given a cosmopolitan education. After a few more days, it travels to Hong Kong; from there, it goes to Vietnam. There, I’m staying with my friend, and her gracious parents, who don’t speak any English. I’ve brought gifts: Treats from Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Auckland.

It’s my second night in Hanoi. My hosts are going to another family’s house for dinner. They decide to bring a gift: Whittaker’s L & P. I’m invited. I don’t know what to think. It’s a room of over a dozen strangers, out of which only my friend speaks good English.

And then the dinner begins, and I relax. It’s spectacular. On the menu is lẩu, Vietnamese hot pot, and in this case the broth is flavored in the style of Chả Cá Thăng Long, a fish dish famous to Hanoi, fragrant with turmeric and dill. There’s a massive array of vegetables, beef and bún, lime juice and salt for dipping and herbs to munch on. I try chicken ovary for the first time.

But more important than the flavors is the apparatus constructed around the dinner. Everybody pitches in to peel fruit to pass around and eat, and prep ingredients to put into the hot pot, except for me, as I have my knife stolen out of hospitality whenever I try to help. People eat communally sitting on the floor. Uncles play with babies. Aunties tease newlyweds. A Vietnamese news station is on a CRT in the background. I am continually offered food until I’m filled to bursting. People sing and clap. I can’t understand what anybody is saying. I comprehend everything perfectly.

The electricity cuts out. Something wrong with the power grid. Out come the candles. And this being the current day and age, out come smartphone flashlights, with which a room of suddenly minted engineers combine with glasses to form makeshift lamps. The festivities go on without a hitch. Then dessert: fruit, and the denouement, our chocolate bar.

Pieces are passed out. I take a bite. Then my revelation hits. This is beauty. The smiles and laughs of the people around me. The communal togetherness and love. And the complete joyous modern absurdity of the bite of candy in my mouth.

It’s a chocolate bar available only in New Zealand, given as a gift from the manufacturer to a contractor, from which I then obtained the bar as a gift in a hostel in Tokyo, which I took through several days in Hong Kong to Vietnam, where I then gave it as a gift to my host family, who brought it as a gift to their friends, and here I am, enjoying it with 2 families of complete strangers with whom I can’t speak and with whom I just ate chicken ovary. This isn’t even taking into account all the complexities of globalization and agriculture and distribution and manufacturing involving who knows how many people and how many countries to even produce the chocolate. And there are pop rocks in it. Enjoying this piece of chocolate at this moment is patently absurd.

It’s a hit. I smile as the face of the young woman next to me lights up in surprise as the carbonation suddenly sizzles on her tongue. There are more subdued but evident reactions around the circle. I’ve rarely if ever felt more at home than at this moment. Families and friends are full and facile, children are singing, and we just had an incredible communal dinner. I think about the life of our chocolate bar. I think about the bond I feel with the people I just met. Everything about this situation is both foreign yet entirely familiar. Everything feels connected. Everything feels right.

What is beauty? I couldn’t give you any satisfactory answer. What I can tell you, however, is that this moment right here, this incredibly artificial, unhealthy, highly processed confectionary moment, this, this is beautiful.

I mean, it’s got lemon-flavored pop rocks. Come on!