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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Today In The Easter Candy Section ...

Last year, I wrote a blog post on the difficulties of locating the ideal sized, solid chocolate bunny for filling Easter baskets. Now I’m embarking on a campaign to get people to turn their backs on another Easter-time staple … the dreaded PEEPS!!

PEEPS are to marshmallow as Taco Bell is to Mexican cuisine. Marshmallow as a candy finds its roots in ancient Egypt and also in the field of medicine. More than 5,000 years ago, Egyptian physicians used the root of the marshmallow plant … Althaea officinalis … to create a confection that was both tasty and a remedy for sore throats. Using either the pithy root or sap, the plant material was mixed with nuts and honey to create a widely-consumed chewy treat.

Many years later … the early 19th century to be exact … French candy makers augmented the recipe by whipping the marshmallow sap and sweetening it, often with rose water. Known as pate de guimauve, the new marshmallow included an egg white meringue to lighten the candy and provide a unique texture. These French confections closely resembled what we today call “marshmallows” … most often a combination of corn syrup, water, softened gelatin, dextrose, flavor extracts, and sometimes coloring agents whipped into fluffy goodness. Further modernization was applied to marshmallow candy in 1948 when Alex Doumak, an American inventor, created an extrusion process that pushed the various ingredients through tubes, cut them into small cylindrical shapes, and finished each piece with a mixture of finely-powdered cornstarch and confectioner’s sugar. Contemporary marshmallows contain ABSOLUTELY NOTHING from the marshmallow plant. Puffed up treats, indeed!!

Now I love marshmallow crème on top of a nice bowl of chocolate ice cream! And I have very happy memories of toasting marshmallows during childhood camping trips. But the perversion of the “white stuff” that PEEPS represent just makes me quiver … I get that feeling like someone is walking on my grave.

The often-overlooked sign of the Apocalypse that we call marshmallow PEEPS truly began in Russia. Sam Born, A Russian-born candy maker, immigrated to the U.S. from France in 1910. Born was an incredibly hardworking and determined man. He worked at his craft and soon gained a reputation for introducing French chocolates to New York City. Born also received great acclaim for inventing a machine that mechanically inserted sticks into lollipops, a procedure previously requiring human workers. In 1923, Born opened a small retail candy shop in Brooklyn. The business promoted that its candies were made daily and passersby were thrilled with the elaborate displays in the storefront’s windows. One marketing slogan prominently displayed was a simple window sign that reminded people that the fresh treats inside were “Just Born.” Soon the Just Born Corporation was created. In fact, the company’s original logo featured a baby resting in a candy measuring scale.

Despite the challenges of being a small business and the economic devastation of the Depression Era, the Just Born Corporation thrived in the Greater New York area. In 1932, the company moved its operations to an empty printing factory in the bustling steel town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Born’s expanded enterprise soon began tapping into new markets. As Just Born grew in popularity and business strength, the company acquired smaller candy companies and their various resources. The first significant acquisition occurred in 1935 with the Maillard Corporation, well known for its hand-decorated chocolates, crystalized fruits (YUM!!), and bridge mix. Sam Born and his organization continued on an upward spiral, launching the fruity, jaw working “Mike and Ike” candies in 1940 and the spicy, cinnamon-flavored “Hot Tamales” in 1950.

But the road to “true evil” was embarked upon by Just Born in 1953 when the company absorbed the Rodda Candy Company in nearby Lancaster, PA. Rodda was well known for its “jelly bean technology,” but Sam Born was more intrigued by the company’s small line of marshmallow products … including chicks. These sticky confections … hand-formed from a yellow-tinted marshmallow recipe … were very popular but labor-intensive to create. In early 1954, Sam’s son, Bob (who had joined the company in 1946), developed special manufacturing equipment that mechanized the “chick forming process” and allowed for mass production of the spongy, bird-shaped confections. And with the flip of a switch on an upgraded conveyor belt, the Just Born Corporation became the largest marshmallow candy company in the world. And its key product was branded as PEEPS Brand Marshmallow Candies. I wonder if people remember where they were the day this tragedy occurred?

PEEPS literally swept the land. And over the next few decades, these creatures of chewiness changed form and further insinuated themselves into American culture. Typically associated with the Easter season, PEEPS assaulted other holidays. In 1958, pumpkin PEEPS attacked the Halloween candy market. Christmas was also a victim … Just Born introduced snowmen and Christmas tree PEEPS in 1960. The ‘60s and early ‘70s seemed to be a time where Just Born and the Born family regrouped, marshaling their forces. Oh, the company marketed some chewy candy variations to keep us interested … like “Root-T-Toots” (root beer-flavored chewy candies) and “Cool Kids” (spearmint chews) and “Jack and Jill” (licorice chews) … but it was just a front, a way of lulling us into lowering our defenses. And then BLAM!! … Just Born attacks an American institution. In 1975, the company introduces football PEEPS just prior to the start of the NFL season. Insidious, I say! Then the attack of 1977. Teddy bear PEEPS … is nothing sacred?! Over the next few decades, Just Born renewed its onslaught on Easter. In 1980, cute little bunny PEEPS were added to the company’s product assortment. In 1995, lavender chick PEEPS were created to provide contrast to the original yellow devil-birds. Blue chicks and green chicks followed respectively in 1998 and 2007. Just before the start of the new millennium, Just Born fired a salvo of multi-targeted ventures. In 1999, the public was tempted with the first-ever flavored PEEPS. The new product promised vanilla crème goodness and many unsuspecting people were swayed. The same year the company decided to use the power of the media on the masses, launching its first-ever national TV advertising campaign and www.marshmallowpeeps.com. The media also helped Just Born that year by reporting on an Emory University study on the “indestructible nature” of PEEPS. And just to confuse us, Just Born entered the sour candy market the same year with “Zours,” a truly delicious combination of blue raspberry, green apple, tangerine, and watermelon flavors. This concentrated effort, I believe, laid the groundwork for what I call the “Devious Decade.” Starting in 2000, the Just Born Corporation systematically enthralled the public with various introductions and product developments disguised as “doing business.” In 2000, Valentine’s Day was subsumed by the introduction of heart-shaped strawberry crème PEEPS. In 2002, the very patriotic nature of our nation and its citizens was trampled with star-shaped PEEPS. In 2003, the company launched a media blitzkrieg for its 50th anniversary. This was followed by PEEPS decorating kits (2004), sexy chick PEEPS enclosed in a chocolate “egg” (2005), sugar-free PEEPS (2007), and letter-shaped PEEPS for writing tasty little messages (2008). Toward the end of this decade, Just Born developed a secondary headquarters for spreading its confectionary ill-will by opening its first retail store … PEEPS & Company … in National Harbor, Maryland. Now the public had access to a plethora of PEEPS products and additional promotional items like T-shirts and other apparel, lunchboxes, sports items, toys, candy dispensers, cosmetics, and much more. And in 2010, PEEPS collided and conquered one of the most sacred elements in the universe … chocolate. This year marked the introduction of chocolate-covered PEEPS! Today I feel like the only soldier fighting against millions of enemy agents. The public is not in my corner, helping in the fight against these overly-chewy, carnauba wax-filled beasts. Every year, the colorful Just Born creations fly off the shelves. “PEEP OFF” events across the country attempt to break records for PEEPS consumption. Artists and photographers … some quite famous … utilize PEEPS in new work. And prominent media outlets like the Seattle Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, and St. Paul Pioneer Press fan the flames with contests to promote PEEPS-loving activities like photo contests and diorama displays. There is some good news ... a friend just told me of an annual "Kill The PEEPS" contest where people attempt to develop more diabolical ways for destroying these Tartarus-tainted treats!

So I’m going to keep fighting, but the odds are definitely against me. The Just Born Corporation has more than 500 dedicated associates in facilities in both Bethlehem and Philadelphia, including three generations of the irascible Born family. Just Born candies are sold in more than 35 countries. And every single day, 4.2 million friggin’ PEEPS march off the assembly line!

POINT OF RANT: When I drop my mini-marshmallows in my cocoa, my eyes see the enemy burning. BURNING!!

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