EASTER BASKET CASES
Eating Marshmallow Peeps seems crazy enough. But if you knew what some people do with these things ...
(FORTUNE Magazine) – THE MOST POLARIZING TIME of year is upon us: Easter. In places of worship, homes, and schools, debate rages over a fundamental question: Are Marshmallow Peeps good or evil?
Marshmallow Peeps--those yellow confections in the shape of chicks--are possibly the most divisive item in our pantheon of foods, even more polarizing than licorice or dark chocolate. Many adults hate their gelatinous, spongy flesh and exuberantly artificial colors. Their table-sugar taste may have the Proustian effect of recalling Easters past, but Peeps don't have an ounce of the nuance of a madeleine. And Peeps' waxy brown eyes can generate self-loathing when you bite off their heads.
Nevertheless, legions of grownups continue to be infatuated with them, spending roughly $80 million on 1.2 billion Peeps per year. A third of all Peeps are bought not for eating but to be used in science experiments, arts and crafts, dioramas, and rituals. In the mid-1990s, web pages and local papers began recording Peep-eating contests, including an annual Peep Off in Sacramento. In the late 1990s, the Associated Press and CNN picked up the story of two Emory University science professors who experimented on the (fairly indestructible) creatures and reported their results. On April Fool's Day 2000, NASA launched five Peeps in a balloon from the Marshall Space Flight Center; they went missing when the balloon ruptured. The Internet teems with sites devoted to Peeps discussion groups, recipes, jewelry, games, and even faux Peep pornography. Perhaps the definitive piece on Peepmania was a 2000 Salon.com article that noted, "Never underestimate the power of personality--or squishiness--to capture the American imagination."
The average American consumes 2.3 Peeps every spring. Because any number of Americans wouldn't dream of eating a Peep, this means that "heavy users," as they are called by Peeps' makers, are riding quite a sugar high. It could be that Peeps devotees are drawn to the consistency of the iconic, unadorned form and simple flavor, untainted by newfangled tastes and technology. The same family-owned company, Just Born (founded by Sam Born and based, fittingly, in Bethlehem, Pa.), has produced virtually identical phalanxes of the confection for the past 51 years. They are a seasonal item: Pumpkin-shaped marshmallows are available at Halloween, and heart-shaped ones at Valentine's Day, but traditional chicks and bunnies, which generate more than 70% of Peep sales, are available only from mid-February through Easter.
Is it scarcity, then, that drives the nation's obsession with Peeps? No. This issue is way weirder than that. To understand the sociocultural drivers behind it, FORTUNE consulted experts in psychology, art, and the history of candy. Some hypotheses:
It's all about the eyes. People dress Peeps in costumes and post their pictures on the Internet, telling the stories of of everything from Lord of the Peep to the Blair Peep Project to Elvis Peepsly. They take Peeps on trips to photograph in exotic places. In other words, they treat Peeps like a favorite stuffed animal. "Its eyes give it personality," explains Ross Born, Just Born's co-CEO and grandson of the founder. "Without them it would be just a blob, just like a snowman without eyes is just a pile of snow." This presumption of personality fits into Americans' tendency to anthropomorphize pets and food, according to Linda Carucci, the Julia Child Curator of Food Arts at Copia, a nonprofit center named for the goddess of abundance and dedicated to the study and culture of food. Carucci says that this may indicate arrogance: "Painting a face on food could speak to an increasing concern with ourselves." In contrast, Carucci notes that Arabic tradition forbids creating food in any natural shape, restricting designs, such as those on Moroccan b'steeya (a kind of meat pie), to geometric patterns.
Some people don't get out much. "Adults rarely admit eating an Oreo cookie in a funny way," Born explains. "People feel that they can't have fun with any food, except for Peeps." Besides NASA engineers, there are the librarians at Milliken University who created a website called "Peep Research: A study of small fluffy creatures and library usage." They posted three dozen photographs of Peeps seeming to perform academic research. At Emory, James Zimring, an assistant pathology professor, and Gary Falcon, a computer scientist, found that the only liquid that would dissolve Peeps was an industrial-strength, protein-dissolving chemical solution. Zimring notes that closing a Peep in a microwave incited a fear response: "The Peep expanded, just like a scared cat sticking out its fur, and its eyes dilated." When they put a Peep with a lit cigarette in its beak into a container of alcohol, the results were striking. Says Zimring: "As a physician, one is acutely aware of the deleterious effects of consuming alcohol and smoking. Though separately neither seemed to bother Peeps much, together the two had a synergistic reaction resulting in a burned ball of goo."
Peeps help release pent-up aggression.The latest Peep torture to circulate on the web is Peep jousting, in which Peeps armed with toothpicks face each other in a microwave oven. As they expand from the radiation, their lances move closer; the first to strike a blow wins.
It's common for children to act out aggression on candy that's molded into the shape of animals, says Sidney Mintz, a professor at Johns Hopkins and author of Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. "Children delight in eating foods that parents are--or make believe that they are--shocked by," he chuckles.
Whether adults subject Peeps to microwaves or swaddle them in costumes may be contingent on their childhood memories. Beth Kimmerle, author of Candy: The Sweet History, says relationships with candy are forged from associations with holidays or the parent who introduced the confection. And candy can conjure up deep emotions because of its central role in American childhood. "Candy is the first thing that kids buy for themselves. It's the first thing they steal or share with their friends," Kimmerle explains. "It has a huge childhood currency."
Peep-o-holics need love and sex. "Of all tastes, sweetness is privileged--there is a built-in predisposition to want it because mother's milk is sweet," Mintz explains. People often substitute sweets for love because eating and sex are among the few arenas in which people act on animal instincts, according to Dr. Judi Hollis, a psychologist and author who specializes in food addiction and obsession. "Most people feed the hungry heart with candy," Hollis says. "One bite is too many, a thousand is never enough, because they're using the wrong substance to treat the problem." Hollis says that those who create art from Peeps instead of eating them exhibit an anorexic tendency to avoid the pleasures of the flesh. "Anorexics love to play with their food because it gives them the power of passing food on to others," she says.
Peeps imitate life. Sarah Tanguy, a candy-art expert, works with 100 food artists and curated "Sweet Tooth," an exhibition of images of sweets or art made from them. She explains why some serious artists call Peeps their muse. "Candy is a living material, so it's going to change over time, unlike a painting or a sculpture," says Tanguy. "Artists working with it are building something that addresses life itself." The familiar medium of sugar also allows artists to address heavy topics. For "Sweet Tooth," Peeps artist David Ottogalli of Washington, D.C., created an eight-foot-tall shrine made of more than 5,000 Peeps. "We worship candy a little too much," says Ottogalli. "I wanted people to feel like they were actually worshipping this altar of Peeps." Ottogalli's work often sparks controversy. An American flag made of Peeps incited anger. "Offended people said Peeps should only be yellow and that my flag represented the problem with America," he says. Animal-rights activists plastered another display of his--Peeps crammed behind chicken wire--with stickers protesting animal abuse.
Peepmania in all its incarnations, creepy or lighthearted, is a gold mine for Just Born. Company executives are understandably conflicted about some of the nontraditional uses of their product. "There's a bad connotation the word 'peep' can take," says Matt Pye, Peeps' marketing director. "Faux pornography is the extreme.... There are some sites that do deserve a warning."
But CEO Born takes a broader view: "If people spent more time playing with Peeps and less time arguing with each other and making trouble, we'd be a whole lot better off." ■