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Why the French went nuts for Nutella

What one thing in this life is truly worth fighting for? Justice? Freedom? The love of a good man or woman? Or a smal...

Posted: Jan 27, 2018 1:35 PM
Updated: Jan 27, 2018 1:35 PM

What one thing in this life is truly worth fighting for? Justice? Freedom? The love of a good man or woman? Or a small tub of brown gooey paste that tastes kind of like chocolate but also kind of like hazelnuts?

The answer, if you were in a French supermarket this week, was the brown gooey chocolate paste. The grocery chain Intermarch- slashed its price on tubs of Nutella by 70%. Word got around. People got crazy. The result: a run on Nutella and commotion in the aisles.

Reports and online footage circulating from France allege that in the scramble to take advantage of the crazy-low price of -1.40 a jar (about $1.75 -- down from at -4.50: $5.60), young women have had their hair pulled and old women have been punched upside the head. France is not yet in Robespierre-massacring territory. But still. All this violence over a breakfast condiment! How could it be so?

The first thing to say is: oh my God, have you actually tasted Nutella? If you have not, then I suggest you cook yourself a crepe right freaking now and slather it with a half-inch layer of the stuff and roll it up and pig out. Hundreds of millions of metric tons of this brown gold gets eaten around the world every year because people totally enjoy the sensation of angels dancing on their tongues.

It's chocolatey, it's creamy, it's nutty, and because it's nutty that means that it's probably healthy, right?

Well, right-ish. Sure, a glance at the nutritional label shows that it is 56.3% sugar and 10.6% fat -- about the same as a Mars bar. But since it has the word "nut" in the title, and a picture of two hazelnuts on the label, Nutella is implicitly positioned as a food that doesn't just taste good -- it actively nourishes you. True or not, that's pretty much the Platonic ideal of a superfood.

Yet besides the allure of the product itself, the Nutella Riots (as they have, perhaps somewhat hyperbolically been dubbed) remind us of another aspect of human behavior that comes around all too often during this late, hyper-consumerist stage of the capitalist experiment.

This is the phenomenon of people behaving like total asses in supermarkets.

The supermarket is a liminal zone, somewhat like the inside of your car or the Internet, where being much ruder to other human beings than normal feels completely OK. It's a big place, you are relatively unlikely to see anyone you know, and most of the people you do see, you likely won't encounter again. There is an important correlation at work here: as the size of a store increases, so, too, does the degree of anonymity afforded to each shopper.

As studies focused on online behavior have shown, the more anonymity you afford a human being, the bigger potential there is for that person to go buck wild on everyone around.

This is by no means a trait peculiar to the French. Take Black Friday: a secular festival invented in the 1950s to inject a much-needed frisson of grotesque, pointless acquisitiveness to the Thanksgiving holiday. If no one gets a gun pulled on them in an argument over a discounted notebook, it kind of feels as though it hasn't really happened.

So what we have seen in France today merely represents the confluence of two 21st-century themes: super-delicious manufactured foodstuffs and the delirium induced by discounted shopping. Put them together and you have a perfect storm -- or as the French might call it, once they're done whaling on each other for the last tub of Nutella in the supermarch-: une temp-te parfaite.

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