in Hmm Weekly
on July 21, 2021

I WASN’T SURE what exactly a Stewart’s Shops was, but I kept seeing them all up and down between Saratoga Springs and where we had found affordable lodging for our visit to Saratoga Springs, by the railroad tracks in Mechanicville, half a mile away. It looked as if they could be anything between a decent mini-grocery and a terrible convenience store, so we had a look at the nearest one in Mechanicville, for possible breakfast supplies. Maybe the other ones are fancier, further from the railroad tracks, but this one was not an inspiring place to shop for breakfast—there was no yogurt to blend into a smoothie, for instance.

There was, however, an extremely large selection of flavored milks: chocolate, strawberry, various coffee flavors, vanilla, an out-of-season eggnog—and this, a “Limited Edition” flavor: peanut butter chocolate milk. I thought about buying strawberry but I felt the persuasive power of the Limited Edition, possibly my only chance to ever taste peanut butter chocolate milk. So I got it.

It tasted like chocolate milk, and also like peanut butter. From early childhood, I had learned through my television about the magical harmony of chocolate and peanut butter; character after character in the Reese’s ads was shocked and then delighted by the endless series of accidents through which a chocolate bar was accidentally dropped or driven or thrust into a jar of peanut butter: revelation! And the Reese’s products more or less lived up to it.

As an adult, in fact, I developed an entire fundamental theory of snacks based on paying careful attention to the workings of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, especially the smaller ones at Halloween. I will now promulgate this theory to you: The key to a completely successful snack is that it must be slightly yet meaningfully dissatisfying.

A Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, for instance, starts out with a taste of bland and too-sweet milk chocolate; it ends with a taste of stinging and too-salty peanut butter. In between, for a moment, those two flavors exist in ideal balance—after the peanut butter emerges, and before the chocolate melts away. But only for a moment! The only way to get that moment back, therefore, is to eat another one.

Once you recognize this pattern, you taste it everywhere. The dissolving salt fades out from the pistachio just as you really pulverize the heart of the nutmeat. The saltine cracker loses its crunch as the starch starts turning to sugar in earnest. Even before you finish, you need to try again.

This was not at all how the Stewart’s Shops peanut butter chocolate milk worked. It just tasted like the two things. The chocolate milk was in the foreground, maybe because that’s what I was conditioned to expect from a brown sweetened milk, and then the peanut butter flavor was in the background, and neither one added anything to the other. I gave the children some and they agreed: It tasted OK, and they didn’t want more than that taste. Honestly, I realized, I don’t even like chocolate milk anymore.