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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 25, 2002

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Real Chocolate

When I lived in Brazil back in the early 70s, one of the greatest pleasures was the chocolate.

It really was chocolate. I had never tasted it before, because all I'd had was American candy.

Even the Brazilian equivalent of M&Ms was better -- full of flavor, richer. And the local candy store chain, "Chocolate Copenhagen," was so addictively good I almost didn't want to go home when my time in Brazil was up.

It took me a year after I got home to even begin enjoying American candy again. Why? Because American chocolate bars are designed for shelf life. I don't know what it is that makes our candy so eternal that it will likely outlast glass in our archaeological record, but the result is a waxy texture and flavor that is almost unpleasant after you've had the real thing.

Of course, I got over this aversion and found myself able to consume huge bags of American candy by myself, to the great detriment of my waistline.

It's not as though America doesn't have great candies. Fannie May, for instance, has buttercreams to die for. If you don't get online and order Fannie May Easter eggs (big beautiful buttercreams) it won't be because I didn't tell you about it.

And if you get out west to where See's Chocolates are sold, try the bordeaux -- my family's favorite -- though practically anything else they make will be a hedonistic experience of the first order.

And -- just in case you were wondering -- I should probably tell you the results of my scientific survey about the favorite candy bar of the children of Greensboro. This Halloween, instead of passing out candy, I put a mix of small candy bars into a basket and let the children choose.

The candy bar that disappeared most quickly was Twix.

They hunted through the basket to find more of them, that's how popular it was.

Still, neither See's nor Fannie May nor Twix can erase the memory of what real chocolate tastes like. In every case, while the chocolate is adequate, it's the mix of flavors in the filling that makes them so good.

And for those who are eager to tell me how wonderful European chocolates are, I'll spare you the effort. Yes, many European chocolates are better than their American equivalents. The real shock is that England has the finest commercial candy bars in the world.

You've no doubt tried the Cadbury Caramello bar here in the states. It's one of my favorites in America -- but the version we get here is Americanized, because it has to survive the same endless shelf life as Snickers and M&Ms.

In England, Cadbury's sweets are at their best, and, almost unbelievably, they have competitors who are even better. It's hard to believe that England, the home of the worst cooking in western Europe, actually produces things that taste so good.

But America is not without hope. "Newman's Own" has been branching out. Under the leadership of Nell Newman, Paul Newman's daughter, this non-profit, high quality food company has started producing "Newman's Own Organics," and among their products are, you guessed it, candy bars.

It was at a little organic foodstore in Naples FL that Kristine and I first found and sampled the milk chocolate and crispy rice milk chocolate bars.

For the first time, an American product in which one actually gets the flavor and feel of chocolate.

In fact, to my taste they are just a touch too intense -- I like a slightly milder milk chocolate. But Kristine had no such reservations, and the fact is, I was as eager as she was for a second candy bar (a desire which we indulged on the spot).

I haven't had a chance to find out whether this candy bar is available anywhere in Greensboro, but I suspect that if it isn't, it soon will be. It's well worth looking for, if only to give you a hint of what we Americans are missing.

*

Chain Restaurants

People complain about how chain restaurants spread everywhere, so that no matter where you go, there's always a McDonald's, a Wendy's, a Subway -- or a T.G.I.Friday's, an Outback, a Lone Star.

I personally think this is wonderful. When I'm traveling, with or without my family, how can I possibly know which restaurants in a new town are going to give us a meal, and which will give us indigestion?

Most of the chains are good enough at maintaining quality that we can be certain of getting at least a minimum meal, anywhere in America.

But there are a few chains that transcend this level and manage, somehow, to deliver, not just the minimum, but real excellence wherever you find them.

Unfortunately, they haven't come to Greensboro yet.

But they will, eventually. And if you're traveling, you can look for them.

P.F. Chang's. This California-based Chinese restaurant offers variations on many traditional Chinese dishes -- but prepares them so well that few old-style Chinese restaurants can compete. Kristine's favorites are the crispy honey shrimp and the dumplings; I can't get out of the restaurant without having the red-sauce wontons and the dan-dan noodles.

There is a P.F. Chang's in Raleigh, and one in Charlotte. Don't bother driving all that way on a Friday or Saturday night. Even at six p.m. they're packed. But on a Tuesday night it's worth the drive and you can usually get seated immediately.

As for why Raleigh and Charlotte have a Chang's when Greensboro doesn't -- well, isn't that just the way North Carolina works? Outsiders always believe Raleigh's and Charlotte's hype and think that they're real cities, when, as everyone in Guilford County knows, they're just puffed up one-industry towns.

Greensboro can certainly support another excellent (and relatively inexpensive) chain restaurant.

La Madeleine. One would hardly expect a first-rate French bakery restaurant to originate in Texas, but this one did. I've eaten most often at La Madeleine in Reston VA, but the chain is spreading -- too slowly.

This is not "haute cuisine" French. You move along a line and order salads and sandwiches, which are made to order from fresh, perfect ingredients. You can also choose hot dishes -- excellent quiches, potato galettes (more like hash browns than the real Bretonne potato pancake, but really good anyway), and soup.

Ah, the soup. There is no better tomato soup on earth than the tomato basil soup at La Madeleine. Fortunately, you can buy it by the jar and take it home.

The crowning touch, though, is the bread. This is the only place in America where I've found real brioche, which is the best bread in the world. (The closest we come in Greensboro is the challah bread at Fresh Market.)

*

Right after giving up on the execrable Franzen novel, I listened to the David Warner reading of Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House." Now that is good writing. Every word advances the story, but she puts more flair into each paragraph than Franzen manages in five chapters.

And on the drive home from Florida, Kristine and I listened in complete delight to Carl Hiaasen's own reading of "Basket Case." This mystery about a trouble-making reporter trying to find the truth about a rock musician's untimely death is smart and funny all the way through.


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