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Sweet lesson

Wheaton alum returns to give talk, tasting on history of French chocolate

Before bringing his lecture, “"Heureux Chocolat: The History of Chocolate in France,” to Wheaton College, Skye Paine ’00 rehearsed the talk at home in front of his two children, ages six and eight. Impressively, the kids listened to the entire hour-long lecture.

Then again, there was a bar of chocolate sitting in front of them the whole time.

Preparing to give the same talk to a room full of adults at Knapton Hall this week, Paine nodded to a table in the front piled with French chocolate bars and told his audience, “I think you will enjoy it at least as much as they did.”

It was a safe assumption.

Paine, who studied art history and French at Wheaton and now works as an assistant professor of French at SUNY-Brockport, was invited to speak at his alma mater by Professor of French Studies Kirk Anderson—the same man who convinced him as a freshman to major in French.

Paine spent a semester of his junior year at Wheaton studying in Paris and wrote his senior honors thesis on French rap group IAM. He won a Fulbright Scholarship to teach English at a French secondary school after college and went on to earn a Ph.D. in French literature from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has been teaching at the State University of New York's Brockport campus since 2010.

“I love it,” Paine said of teaching. “Sometimes people have professions and sometimes they have vocations; a vocation is what you’re called to do. I didn’t really think I’d find a vocation, but when I teach French it feels that way, like I’m genuinely trying to spread the good word of French.”

And one way of spreading that good word is to talk about chocolate.

The idea for the lecture came from a shop owner in Paine’s current hometown of Pittsford, N.Y., who asked Paine if he could come give a talk on French chocolate.

“I just said, ‘Of course,’” he recalled. “She told me the date was maybe five weeks away, and then I went home and said, 'Well, I’d better learn a lot about French chocolate.'”

Although he has near-native fluency in French and has spent considerable time in France, Paine confessed to his Wheaton audience that he is also “incurably American”—the kind of person who might eat Oreos for breakfast or down cheeseburgers on a daily basis. As a Wheaton student, he said, one of his favorite meals was a bowl of Lucky Charms.

Then Paine spent time in France and began to learn about the French approach to food. He recalled dining with a French family and enjoying each dish as it was set before him. When it came time for dessert, Paine knew he was in for a treat. But the hostess just pulled out a chocolate bar and then, instead of giving him the entire bar, unwrapped it and began breaking the bar into pieces, further confusing him.

“I thought, I’m an American, damn it, where’s my chocolate?” he said.

Paine soon discovered just how delicious chocolate could be when tasted carefully and deliberately, and he passed along that lesson during his Wheaton lecture.

Paine’s talk centered on the story of three “tastemakers” who helped bring chocolate to fashion in French society. First, he spoke of aristocrat Madame de Sévigné, a woman who promoted the consumption of chocolate—which in its earliest form was taken as a strong, hot drink—in French salon culture. The second tastemaker he identified was Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, author of “Physiologie du goût” (The Physiology of Taste), who was known for saying, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are" (a phrase Paine said is not the same as “you are what you eat.”) Finally, he talked about tastemaker Robert Linxe, chocolatier and founder of La Maison du Chocolat, who taught people how to taste chocolate “with discernment.”

In between, Paine shared other tidbits about the history of chocolate, such as its ties to colonialism and slavery and the origin of the word—from the Aztec term “xocolatl” meaning “bitter water.” He also shared that not everyone in history was a fan of the treat. King Louis XIV, for one, did not care for it, and once stated that chocolate “fools the hunger and fails to fill the stomach.”

The lecture concluded with a tasting of three chocolate bars created by French chocolatier Francois Pralus and imported through a U.S. company. Each bar was made from a different cacao bean grown in a different part of the world—Indonesia, Cuba and São Tomé. Paine asked audience members to follow three steps in the tasting: First, to consider the scent of the chocolate, particularly at its breaking point; second, to place the chocolate on their tongues and allow it to reach body temperature; and third, to observe more than just the taste—for example, did it feel smooth or grainy? He also encouraged everyone to take notes in a chocolate journal.

“If you have a chocolate journal that means the next time you buy chocolate you’re studying,” he said to laughs from the audience.

Anderson said he was proud to have Paine back to speak at Wheaton and that he thought the topic was a good choice.

“When I asked him to come speak, he just passingly mentioned he had a talk on chocolate. I thought, we’ll never have a more appealing topic for a lecture,” Anderson said. “If we can’t get people to come to a lecture on chocolate, I don’t know what we would do.”

Paine said he hadn’t been back to Wheaton since around 2003, when he returned for help preparing his graduate school application.

“It’s really an honor. I really became a person—not just a man, but I became a person—at Wheaton. So it’s really great to be able to come back here,” Paine said.

“I didn’t know it would be this much fun,” he added. “I thought I’d just be nervous because I have to talk in front of all my old teachers, but it’s been an honor and it’s been really fun.”

Photos by Keith Nordstrom