For over ten years Italian confectioner Ferrero has been manufacturing the perfect juvenile object: a foil-wrapped, egg-shaped, egg-sized milk chocolate shell surrounding a plastic 'yolk' that pops open to reveal a toy (assembly required). This sweet-toy-craft project is a year-round favourite in Europe and is gaining popularity across the globe. The range of little toys changes continually, making them highly collectible for both children and adults. Who could fault such clever candy?
Kinder Eggs are contraband in America. The Consumer Product Safety Commission finds fault with the small toy parts and takes exception to an edible object enclosing a non-edible one. The first crime could be mitigated by dire warnings about choking hazards and the need for adult supervision. The second is harder to solve. One imagines a geometric fix, something like a chocolate Möbius strip or Klein bottle, but the toy would fall out. Two halves or a peepshow hole in the egg would destroy its toy-wrapped-in-a-mystery-inside-an-enigma appeal. That children have a weakness for dangerous sweets is evident from Hansel and Gretel (1812) to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). What is it about a well-constructed gingerbread house that invites immediate destruction?
Food and toys seem cosy enough in other formations, such as Cracker Jacks or breakfast cereal. A French tradition of the King Cake, still observed at Mardi Gras in New Orleans, shares the same inside/outside flaw as the Kinder Egg. A type of holiday lottery, the cakes are prepared with a hidden coin or toy baked inside. The poor soul who bites down on the silver or chokes on a plastic figurine is 'king' for the year. The English charm cake likewise contains lucky trinkets. Neither would satisfy the American Safety Commission.
The genius of the Kinder Egg goes beyond mere concealment of a toy, however. It isn't laziness that makes most Kinder surprises DIY, it's for effect. Ferrero deals in high-minded physics: the delight of the toy stems from its scale once it is put together - a model plastic aeroplane, for example, that seems impossibly large in proportion to the egg from whence it came. Taken alone, neither the chocolate nor the toy would hold much attention, but together - in precisely the configuration for which it is banned in the States - the Kinder Egg is a minor miracle.
A miniature scroll is included with the toy. Like an edict from a Lilliputian United Nations, this piece of paper self-indemnifies in 33 languages. Another paper offers a magic code for the Kinder website, while a third contains the building plans for the toy itself in the wordless style of Lego or Ikea. These three documents neatly express the egg's global reach, its technical sophistication and, most importantly, its critical assumption about the intelligence level of the average child. Kinder assumes most kids can read axonometric specifications and will rise to the challenge. Here every child is an architect.
Theologically, eggs have symbolized rebirth, creativity and the cosmos itself, and the Kinder variety only reinforces these associations. There is a world inside each egg. The notion that all this is available for the price of a sweet amazes me, especially as the average chocolate bar shortens the attention span rather than expanding it. That such a small and perfectly formed benefit is lost on the American market is puzzling. The rest of us can enjoy it guiltlessly, knowing that the Kinder Egg is more than the sum of its edible and inedible parts. That is the surprise.