In elementary school, Paul A. Weykamp was occasionally ostracized for bringing Nutella, Europe's beloved hazelnut-cocoa spread, in his lunch.
"It was quasi-embarrassing and at the same time it tasted good, so it was not such a big deal," says Weykamp, 41, the principal attorney for his own downtown Baltimore law office.
The Sparks resident grew up with Nutella (pronounced Noo-tella). His parents are from Holland, a brave Nutella world, where the chocolaty wonder leaves peanut butter in the dust. Nutella is similarly cherished throughout Europe and is the No. 1 spread in Italy and Germany.
Nutella has been available in the United States for almost 15 years, and approximately 4.5 million pounds of Nutella are sold here annually. Worldwide, Nutella outsells all peanut butter brands, say representatives of Ferrero, which manufactures Nutella in the United States and abroad.
Here, Nutella is a nichey specialty spread most commonly found in gourmet shops.
Baltimore Nutella-heads can get their fix at such stores as Eddie's, Super Fresh, Giant and Safeway in the bread-spread aisle, where peanut butter resides. But Nutella, which costs around $4 for a 13-ounce jar, often is shoved into an inconspicuous corner.
Peanut-butter prejudice in Europe relegates America's sandwich sweetheart to the same dark recesses that Nutella occupies here, according to Karen Carpino, a Loyola student who became a Nutella junkie during a year in Belgium.
Nutella has not hit the sandwich-spread mainstream in the United States. Yet, those who know and love Nutella are a discerning, savvy subculture. They revel in the smooth texture, subdued sweetness and almost European quirkiness.
"It's become kind of a delicacy," says Carpino, 21.
Those unfamiliar with it are likely to be apprehensive, even hostile toward the curious condiment.
"They're like, 'What are you eating? What is that? What? Chocolate?' I'm like, 'You want to try it?' and they're like, 'No,' " Carpino says.
Now a Nutella loyalist who prefers her Nutella on fresh baked bread and molasses cookies, Carpino nevertheless understands why Americans may be threatened by it.
"The practice of spreading chocolate on bread seemed a little odd to me until I found myself doing it as well," she says.
In Europe, sweets and meals aren't segregated the way they are in the United States. A common snack is pain au chocolat, a chunk of chocolate between two pieces of bread. And according to Weykamp, a traditional Dutch breakfast consists of licorice-flavored anisette powder, chocolate flakes, bread and, of course, Nutella.
Hence, the true glory of Nutella: It is essentially frosting, yet it is also food. Even the jar shows Nutella spread on a piece of bread. But you needn't limit your Nutella experience to bread. Spread it on pretzels, crepes, animal cookies, graham crackers, bananas, matzo or wherever your Nutella adventures may take you.
"It is sweeter than peanut butter, but it's still an acceptable thing to eat," says Suzanne Guy, merchandising director for Eddie's of Roland Park. "People can make that leap without that guilt."
Nutella has spawned numerous knockoffs, including Cadbury's Chocolate Spread and Milky Way chocolate-and-vanilla spread. Nutella's latest gooey challenger is Holland's duo, which is very similar to Milky Way. Marshmallow Fluff and Goober Grape, a peanut butter and jelly hybrid, have a bit of the Nutella quality about them as well.
A devoted Nutellite isn't likely to be seduced by the creamy competition.
"Believe me, people don't walk into the store and say, 'Where's the Milky Way?' " Guy says.
Carpino understands. "Classic Nutella is definitely it."
After all, can Goober Grape boast such a rich history?
In late 1940s Italy, cocoa was scarce and chocolate was limited to the privileged classes. To satisfy the national candy craving, pastry maker Pietro Ferrero combined hazelnuts, cocoa and oil into a spread, which then was called Supercrema Gianduja. Local food stores would sell a "smearing" of it to children for a penny. In 1964, the name was simplified to Nutella, which emphasized the hazelnut accents. To this day, the Ferrero family still takes part in its namesake company.
Nutella neophytes ready to dip into the grand tradition should know a few things before taking the plunge.
Do not refrigerate Nutella. It will harden to the consistency of a trilobite fossil.
"It kind of crystallizes," Guy says.
"Do Not Refrigerate" is written on the label, but if you first encounter Nutella in Europe, such a warning does not help when it is written in Dutch.
Carpino advises Nutella novices to stir before eating to ensure maximum smoothness.
If you feel isolated and misunderstood as a Nutella lover, do not eat an entire jar of Nutella in a single sitting. This is Nutella abuse. It will not solve anything.