Wednesday, January 30, 2013

"Dead Reckoning" News

     I'm happy to announce that my story, "Dead Reckoning" has been nominated for Long and Short Reviews's Book of the Year 2012.  This award is decided by a poll, which runs from February 1st through February 14th.  I would appreciate any votes.  Thanks.
     The link for voting is
     The link for Long and Short Reviews is 

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

47 Bits of Super Bowl Trivia

     I’m nursing a serious case of Super Bowl Fever (just after getting over my bouts of Conference Championship Croup, and that Divisional Playoff Diphtheria), so I thought I’d share some trivia.  As a warning, I’m quite the NFL geek, so many of the things discussed in this article may be more detailed and obscure than most fans may be interested in.  I tried to include some atypical bits of Super Bowl trivia as well.  Also, to save time, I’m going to refer to individual games using regular numbers, and not Roman Numerals.  (And as an aside, as they referenced in a “Simpsons” episode once, isn’t it weird that the only modern things that use Roman Numerals are Super Bowls and movie copyright notations?)  Finally, I got sick of writing “Super Bowl,” so it’s often abbreviated as “SB.” With that in mind, let’s get started.

1)      In these times of ridiculous Super Bowl hype, with 6 hour pregame shows, tickets costing in the thousands of dollars, thirty second television commercials costing over a million dollars, etc., it’s amazing to note that the first ever Super Bowl, in 1967, wasn’t even a sell out.  Not even close, by the way, only 61,946 out of 94,000 seats were sold.

2)      The first tackle in a Super Bowl was made by the immortal Jim Weatherwax, a backup defensive tackle on the Green Bay Packers.

3)      The Super Bowl’s name was supposedly inspired by the Super Ball toy, which was owned by Kansas City Chief owner Lamar Hunt’s daughter.  It took several years for this moniker to become official.  Before that it was known as the long, dull “AFL-NFL World Championship Game.”

4)       End Max McGee was winding down his successful NFL career, and was a reserve on the 1966 Green Bay Packers.  He only caught 4 passes for 91 yards and a touchdown during the regular season.  Therefore, he felt safe in carousing heavily the night before the game.  Alas, starter Boyd Dowler got injured early in Super Bowl 1, meaning McGee was pressed into service.  He responded brilliantly, catching 7 passes for 138 yards and 2 touchdowns, despite dealing with a bad hangover.

5)      Quarterback Joe Namath of the New York Jets was the only Super Bowl MVP at quarterback to not throw a touchdown pass in the game.  (And personally, while Namath played well in his famous “guarantee” game, I would have probably gone with running back Matt Snell for MVP, since he rushed 30 times for 121 yards and a touchdown, and also caught 4 passes for 40 yards.  Cornerback Randy Beverly also had a great game, with two interceptions.)

6)      Super Bowl 6 (after the 1971 season), has the distinction of being the only one where a team didn’t score at least one touchdown.  The Miami Dolphins only managed a field goal in their 24-3 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.  That’s the closest a Super Bowl has come to a shutout.

7)      Only one player has ever been MVP of a Super Bowl when he was on the losing team.  It was linebacker Chuck Howley of the Dallas Cowboys, who intercepted two passes in the turnover-plagued, highly penalized slopfest that was Super Bowl 5.

8)      Only three guys have won Super Bowls as both a player and a head coach.  Mike Ditka was the starting tight end for the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl 6, and coached the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl 20.  Tony Dungy was a reserve defensive back in Super Bowl 13 with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and coached the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl 41.  Tom Flores was a reserve quarterback with the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 4 (although he didn’t actually play in it), and coached the Oakland/L.A. Raiders in Super Bowls 15 and 18.

9)      Five teams have failed to score an offensive touchdown in a Super Bowl.  There’s the Miami Dolphins (who as mentioned earlier, didn’t score one at all) in Super Bowl 6, the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl 7 (only touchdown scored on fumble return), the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl 9 (only touchdown scored on a blocked punt recovery in the end zone), the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl 23 (only touchdown scored on kickoff return), and the New York Giants in Super Bowl 35 (only touchdown scored on kickoff return).

10)  There have been five fumbles recovered for a touchdown in a Super Bowl.  Oddly, four were by Dallas Cowboys.  They were Cowboys Mike Hegman in Super Bowl 13, James Jones and Ken Norton in Super Bowl 27, and James Washington in Super Bowl 28.  Mike Bass was the only non Dallas player, returning a fumble in Super Bowl 7, as referred to above.  Also, if Leon Lett hadn’t hot-dogged it and held the ball out for Bill’s wide receiver Don Beebe to knock out of his hand at the last minute, he would have easily scored a third fumble recovery touchdown in Super Bowl 27.

11)  Linebacker/Defensive End Charles Haley has the distinction of being on the most Super Bowl winners, with five (out of five appearances).  He was on the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowls 23 and 24, and on the Dallas Cowboys of Super Bowls 27, 28 and 30.

12)  For the flip side of the coin, linebacker Cornelius Bennett was the unluckiest, losing all five of the Super Bowls he played in.  He was with the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowls 25-28, and with the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 33.

13)  Pittsburgh Steeler head coach Chuck Noll is still the only man to coach 4 Super Bowl winners, in Super Bowls 9, 10, 13 and 14.

14)  Super Bowl 9 also saw the most pathetic offensive performance by a team.  The Minnesota Vikings only managed 119 total yards, 17 rushing and 102 receiving, against the Steelers.

15)  Only three backup quarterbacks have ever thrown a touchdown pass in a Super Bowl.  They were Minnesota Viking Bob Lee in Super Bowl 11 (versus the Oakland Raiders), the New England Patriot Steve Grogan in Super Bowl 20 (versus the Chicago Bears), and Buffalo Bill Frank Reich in Super Bowl 27 (versus the Dallas Cowboys).

16)  Running back Preston Pearson and linebacker Bill Romanowski played on three different Super Bowl teams.  Pearson was on the Baltimore Colts in SB 3, the Pittsburgh Steelers in SB 9, and the Dallas Cowboys in SB’s 10, 12, and 13.  Romanowski was on the San Francisco 49ers in SB’s 23 and 24, the Denver Broncos in SB’s 32 and 33, and the Oakland Raiders in SB 37.

17)  Officially, the record for sacks in a Super Bowl is 3, by Green Bay Packer Reggie White in SB 31 and Arizona Cardinal Darnell Dockett in SB 43.  However, sacks have only been recognized since 1982 (SB 17).  From my research it appears that Pittsburgh Steeler L.C. Greenwood had 4 in SB 10.

18)  The record for most turnovers committed is held by the Buffalo Bills in SB 27.  They threw 4 interceptions and lost 5 fumbles.

19)  Only three non quarterbacks have thrown touchdown passes in a SB.  Running back Robert Newhouse threw one for the Dallas Cowboys in SB 12 (to Golden Richards),  running back Los Angeles Ram Lawrence McCutcheon threw one to Ron Smith in SB 14, and Pittsburgh Steeler wide receiver Antwaan Randle El tossed one to Hines Ward in SB 40.

20)  The record for most interceptions in a single Super Bowl is 3, by linebacker Rod Martin of the Oakland Raiders, against the Philadelphia Eagles in SB 15.

21) *Baltimore Colt Norm Bulaich compiled the lowest regular season team leading rushing total for a Super Bowl winning team, with his 426 yards for the SB 5 roster.

22)  Only four guys have scored 3 touchdowns in a single SB game.  They were San Francisco 49er Roger Craig in SB 19 (1 rushing, 2 receiving), 49er Jerry Rice, twice, in SB 24 and 29 (all receiving), 49er Ricky Watters in SB 29 (1 rushing, 2 receiving), and Denver Bronco Terrell Davis in SB 32 (all rushing).

23)  Bronco Terrell Davis in SB 32 and New York Giant Ahmad Bradshaw in SB 46 both had the unusual experience of rushing for touchdowns against teams that were letting them score.  In both cases (the Green Bay Packers in SB 32, the New England Patriots in SB 46) it was very late in the fourth quarter, and the teams let them score because their opponents were inside the ten yard line, with presumptive easy field goals at least which would give them the lead, and the Packers and Patriots wanted to have enough time to launch subsequent drives of their own (both failed).  It makes sense, but boy, did it look strange.

24)  Two men who were defensive players scored touchdowns on set offensive plays.  Defensive lineman William “The Refridgerator” Perry rushed for a touchdown for the Chicago Bears in SB 20, and New England Patriot linebacker Mike Vrabel caught two touchdowns, in SB’s 38 and 39.

25)  Also in SB 20, the New England Patriots set the mark for fewest rushing yards in a game—only 7!

26)  Buffalo Bill Thurman Thomas holds the record for most rushing yards in a losing cause, with 135 against the New York Giants in SB 25.

27)  Staying with Super Bowl 25, poor Scott Norwood tried (and missed) the only game ending field goal which meant the difference between winning and losing.  Jim O’Brien kicked one which won SB 5 for the Baltimore Colts, and New England Patriot Adam Vinatieri kicked field goals to win both SB 36 and 38, but in all three of those examples the score was tied, meaning if they missed they wouldn’t immediately lose.  Also, ironically, at the time Norwood was the most accurate field goal kicker in NFL history (since passed).  On the other hand, “Buffalo ‘66” was an entertaining movie, at least.

28)  One more for a Buffalo Bill, Andre Reed hold the record for most receiving yards in a losing cause, with 152 in SB 27 against the Dallas Cowboys.

29)  Only one special teams player has been SB MVP—Green Bay Packer Desmond Howard in SB 31, who returned both punts and kickoffs (one for a key touchdown) in the game against the New England Patriots.

30)  Tampa Bay Buccaneer Dwight Smith is the only player to return two interceptions for a touchdown in the same game (or ever).  He victimized Rich Gannon and the Oakland Raiders in SB 37.

31)  Carolina Panther Muhsin Muhammad holds the record for longest receiving touchdown (from Jake Delhomme) in SB 38—85 yards.

32)  There’s only one type of situation when a penalty directly results in points in the NFL (pass interference committed by a defensive player in their own end zone, for example, obviously results in the offensive team getting possession on the one-yard line, but no direct points).  This occurred in last year’s SB, 46, when New England Patriot Tom Brady committed intentional grounding in his own end zone, resulting in a safety for the New York Giants.  Other penalties, such as an offensive player holding in his own end zone, also result in a safety.

33)  Jerry Rice holds the record for most touchdowns (and total points) scored in SB’s, with 8 (all receiving).  He scored these for the San Francisco 49ers in SB’s 23,24, and 29, and for the Oakland Raiders in SB 37.  Next highest total is 5, (all rushing) by Dallas Cowboy Emmitt Smith.

34)  The first player to score a 2 point conversion in a SB was delightfully obscure—San Diego Charger wide receiver Mark Seay, against the San Francisco 49ers in SB 29.

35)  There has never been a punt returned for a touchdown in SB competition.  A total of 8 kickoffs have been, though.

36)  Speaking of that, the only opening kickoff to be returned for a touchdown was by Chicago Bear Devin Hester, in SB 41.

37)   Denver Bronco John Elway is the only quarterback to catch a pass in a SB, for 23 yards, from Steve Sewell, in SB 22.

38)  Cincinnati Bengal Dan Ross had the most productive game for a tight end in SB play, in SB 16 versus the San Francisco 49ers.  He’s the only tight end to surpass 100 yards receiving (104, on 11 catches), and score 2 touchdowns in one game. (Author's note: 49er tight end Vernon Davis tied Ross's yardage record, with 104 receiving yards in SB 47.)

39)  The record for most rushing yards by a quarterback in a SB game is 64, by Tennessee Titan Steve McNair in SB 34.  Although if 49er Colin Kaepernick has even a semi-decent rushing game this could be shattered, I guess.  (Author's note: He didn't break the record, but he came awfully close in SB 47, with 62 yards.)

40)  Many quarterbacks have tossed 4 interceptions in one SB game, but only one has thrown 5—Rich Gannon of the Oakland Raiders in SB 37.

41)  The three highest passing yard totals in a single SB are all owned by one guy—Kurt Warner.  He threw for 365 for the St. Louis Rams in SB 36 (vs. New England), 377 as an Arizona Cardinal in SB 43 (vs. Pittsburgh) and 414 as a Ram against the Tennessee Titans in SB 34.

42)  San Francisco 49er quarterback Joe Montana is the only man to be SB MVP 3 times—in SB’s 16, 19, and 24.

43)  The only time a Super Bowl MVP award has been shared was in SB 12, when defensive lineman Harvey Martin and Randy White were co-MVP’s for the Dallas Cowboys (vs. Denver Broncos).

44)  On a negative, scandalous note, at least 3 player have been kicked off the team, or arrested the night before a SB.  Cincinnati Bengal running back Stanley Wilson missed SB 23 due to his being high on cocaine .  Since this was his third offense he was banned from the NFL for life.  Sadly, his addiction continued after that, and he was sentenced to 22 years in prison for a 1999 burglary.  Oakland Raider center Barret Robbins missed SB 37 when he was found drunkenly incoherent the night before.  He was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and continued to have legal issues after his playing career, including pleading guilty to attempted murder.  Finally, Atanta Falcon safety Eugene Robinson was a highly respected player on and off the field.  The day before SB 33, a Christian group gave him the Bart Starr Award, presented to NFL players who exhibit "high moral character."  Only hours later, though, he was arrested for soliciting an undercover policewoman.  He played the next day against the Broncos, but badly, perhaps stemming from the stress and lack of sleep from his arrest.  Hopefully the 49ers and Ravens will be better behaved.  (Especially Ray Lewis!)

45)  The record for most Hall of Famers on a SB winning team is, not surprisingly, the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Their SB 9, 10, 13, and 14 winning squads had HOF’s quarterback Terry Bradshaw, running back Franco Harris, wide receivers John Stallworth and Lynn Swann, center Mike Webster, defensive lineman Mean Joe Greene, linebackers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert, and cornerback Mel Blount.  Also named to the Hall was head coach Chuck Noll, and owners/administrators Art and Dan Rooney for a total of 9 players, and 3 nonplayers.  Just behind them was the SB 6 Dallas Cowboys, with 9 players and 2 non players.  Namely, quarterback Roger Staubach, offensive linemen Forrest Gregg and Rayfield Wright, wide receivers Bob Hayes and Lance Alworth, tight end Mike Ditka, defensive lineman Bob Lilly, cornerbacks Herb Adderley and Mel Renfro, head coach Tom Landry, and team president/general manager Tex Schramm.  And finally, the SB 1 Green Bay Packers had 9 players and 1 non player.  They had quarterback Bart Starr, running backs Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor, offensive lineman Forrest Gregg, defensive linemen Willie Davis and Henry Jordan, linebacker Ray Nitschke, defensive backs Herb Adderley and Willie Wood and head coach Vince Lombardi.  (To be technical, Paul Hornung didn’t play in SB 1, Forrest Gregg didn’t play in SB 6, and Jack Ham missed SB 14.)
46)    There have been at least 18 sets of brothers of play in the Super Bowl.  One of them, Glen and Lyle Blackwood, played together on the Miami Dolphins, as they were both starters at safety for SB’s 17 and 19.  The Griffin family produced three SB players.  Archie and Ray were both reserves on the Cincinnati Bengals (Archie at running back, Ray as a defensive back) in SB 16, and Keith was a reserve running back on the Washington Redskins in SB 22.
47)  Finally, and this is my favorite bit of Super Bowl trivia ever, wide receiver Percy Howard’s only catch in the NFL was for a touchdown in a Super Bowl—SB 10 as a Dallas Cowboy.  Howard didn’t even play football in college—he was a basketball player at tiny Austin Peay.  He was a reserve in his only season in the NFL, and only played in the SB due to starter Golden Richard’s late game injury.  The following preseason he injured his knee and never played in a game again.  Also, he almost had a second, game winning touchdown reception on a “Hail Mary” attempt to end the game.

That’s it.  Enjoy the game!  Or enjoy the commercials, and the halftime show, if you’re not much of a football fan.
*  Correction of a mistake I made initially, for #21.  It wasn't Ricky Patton of the 49ers.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Starfruit

     The carambola, better known by its common name, starfruit, is originally a native of Southeast Asia, in India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka.  Due to increasing consumption, it’s now grown in various other areas with tropical climates, like Central and South America, Africa, Australia, and the Southern U.S.  Its alias is easy to figure out—when the fruit is looked at in cross section, it’s star shaped, although the number of points, or ridges, can range from four to eight.  It has a yellowish or greenish color, and a rather waxy skin.
     In the U.S. its current popularity is attributed to an individual, a retired stockbroker named Morris Arkin, who lived in Coral Gables, Florida.  An amateur horticulturist, he took what was formerly a largely ornamental plant and through selective breeding came up with a fruit that was particularly liked.  His variant was sweeter and handled better, so starting in the mid to late 1970’s the starfruit took off.  Reportedly 98% of those grown in Florida are his developed kind.  Arkin wasn’t just about the fruit, either—he’s also credited with helping to popularize the macadamia nut in the States.
     The starfruit is eaten whole, thin skin and all.  It’s high in potassium, vitamin C, and even antioxidants.  Additionally, it can also be enjoyed as a relish, preserves, or just as a juice.  Alas, there are some negative health aspects to it as well.  The presence of oxalic acid makes it dangerous, or even fatal to those with kidney issues.  Also, similar to grapefruit, it can interfere with some other common drugs, such as anti-cholesterol statin medications.
     Unfortunately, I take a statin drug (my love of foods like cheese takes it toll, I suppose), meaning I had to be careful.  As such, I only had a small portion of the starfruit.  I thought it was good—it was juicy and citrusy, and had a pleasing mildly sweet taste.  Its texture was interesting, too, kind of reminiscent of kiwi or an apple.  Therefore, I certainly recommend it to those that can safely consume it, and hopefully I’ll be able to partake sometime in the future.  Its availability may be limited in some areas, but I was able to find in my local supermarket, which has a decent but non-spectacular selection.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Pig's Ears

     When I was working in Delaware recently, I stopped by a flea market, one of those which is only open on weekends.  Unlike many of these markets, though, it’s in a building—a giant structure which has dozens of small stores within it.  Kind of like a flea market mall, I guess.  It’s kind of a strange place.  You could, if you wanted to, buy a puppy, a katana sword, a DVD, and an Amish dessert all under one roof.  Your place for gray market values, I assume, to borrow a “Simpsons’ joke.
     One of the butcher shops had something I’d never seen before on sale, so of course I had to give it a try.  I’ve eaten many parts of the pig (sometimes all mixed together, such as in a sausage or a hot dog), but thus far the ears had eluded me.  According to my brief research, this dish is a part of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Lithuanian, Spanish, Bulgarian, and American soul food cuisines.  I bought a pound, which worked out to be four ears.
     There was one huge problem.  It was a butcher shop, as I said, meaning they weren’t precooked or in a can.  I was going to have to use the stove, which throughout my life I’ve gone years at a stretch without doing.  As with the aloe, in this case I didn’t have a choice, so grudgingly I did so.  Since I was in a hotel at the time, I froze the ears and cooked them a few weeks later.  I consulted several websites for recipes, and used the one I considered the easiest, using the herbs and spices that were available.
     As far as first impressions go, being a child of the suburbs and not farm-raised, I was shocked at how big the ears were.  Each one was about seven inches by six inches, and they reminded the exhumer in me of human scapulas (shoulder blades) in size and appearance.  Let’s put it this way—if someone tries to remake “Reservoir Dogs” using an all pig cast, the Mr. Blonde-torturing-the-cop scene will probably have to take about half an hour all by itself.
     After defrosting the frozen ears in the microwave (a button that I’d never had the need for before), the cooking began.  The first step was an initial partial boiling in a big water-filled pot.  This parboiling was done to clean the ears a bit, to remove any dirt and (this is kind of gross) any remaining hair.  Once this was done the ears went into a second large pot, and covered in water and tablespoons each of cinnamon, marjoram, and onion powder (I wasn’t familiar with “marjoram,” and I still think its name is confusingly similar to “margarine”).  I brought this a boil and then added a tablespoon each of salt and pepper.  This resulting concoction was simmered for three and a half hours.  As for the odor, I thought it was pleasant, while other witnesses weren’t so complimentary, and proclaimed it as “just tolerable.”  And clearly the spices may have affected the smell, for good or bad.
     Once finished, it looked kind of weird.  The skin, which would easily slough off with a fork, was brownish.  The underlying cartilage was white.  Overall the meat was extremely tender.  After a couple of bites I put some spicy mustard on them.
     The taste was good.  It was maybe a little different than other pork cuts, but still had the traditional pig flavor.  But, to address the obvious questions, there are some visual and texture issues.  The ears didn’t look particularly appetizing.  I’m certainly aware than many folks don’t like to eat meat which they can identify as a body part, and obviously this is clearly the case here.  You’re eating an ear—it’s bizarre.  Even Mike Tyson spat out the chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear and didn’t consume it.  The texture is odd, and could be off putting to some (most?).  The underlying cartilage is chewy and firm, especially along the ear ridges and folds, while the skin is very soft.
     But, like I said, I enjoyed them—I ate two happily, the rest being frozen for a rainy day.  I would readily consider having them again, even more enthusiastically if I didn’t have to prepare them.  To sum up, then, to paraphrase the cliché expression, maybe you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but you can make a tasty meal for those that aren’t too squeamish.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Gruit Beer

     Today I’d like to continue my nostalgic bent.  Last week’s post (Pop Rocks) went back to the 1970’s and 80’s, but this one is going back way further, many hundreds of years.
     Currently the overwhelming majority of beer is flavored using hops.  However, for hundreds (thousands?) of years, beer was typically made using herbs as flavoring agents.  These ranged from yarrow, mugwort, ground ivy, horehound, heather, sweet gale, henbane, stinging nettle (!), juniper, caraway, anise, nutmeg, and ginger.  Some of these also have psychotropic or narcotic qualities.  This type of beer is known as gruit, or grut beer.  And to reference another previous post, the Finnish sahti style could also be classified as a specialized, regional grut, since it uses juniper as flavoring.
     Between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries, hops began to slowly take over as the flavoring agent of choice.  Germany gave teeth to this with its Bavarian Purity Law of 1516, which allowed only water, barley, and hops to be in beer (yeast was grandfathered in when it was discovered).  Some European countries, notably England, lagged a little behind, but by the 1800’s almost all beer was made using hops.
     The reasons for this changeover aren’t conclusively known.  One theory holds that it was related to the Reformation, that Protestants started favoring hops since Catholic monasteries held a monopoly of the gruit herbs.  However, since the 1516 Purity Law predates when Martin Luther nailed up the 95 Theses by a year (and there were earlier pro-hop purity laws from the 15th century), this theory is highly questionable.  Another theory is that it’s related to the Puritans.  It was believed at the time that hops were sedating, in contrast to the gruit herbs, which were thought to be aphrodisiacs.  Finally (and this theory seems to be the most credible), it’s thought that the switch might have been a public health measure, since hops were safer and less volatile than the sometimes poisonous/dangerously psychotropic gruit herbs.
     With the explosion of microbreweries, though, several companies have “kicked it old school,” so to speak, and put out some gruit interpretations.  Williams Brothers of Scotland is one of these, and I’ve tried their Kelpie Seaweed Ale and Ebulum Elderberry Black Ale.  I thought the Kelpie was pretty bad.  Maybe it was partly psychological—let’s face it, seaweed doesn’t seem like a good beer additive.  The Ebulum I also disliked--it had a sweet start, but an unpleasant, stoutish finish.  Since I’m not a fan of stout beers, this was a definite minus.
     I am happy to report one winner—Dr. Fritz Briem’s 13th Century Grut Bier, brewed in conjunction with the Doeman’s Institute and Weihenstephan.  It’s made with bay leaves, ginger, caraway, anise, rosemary, and gentian.  It was delicious.  Very spicy, and reminiscent of the best winter seasonal beers.  Really top notch.
     So even though two out of the three gruts I had were bad (three out of four if you want to include sahti), that one was so excellent that I want to give more varieties a chance.  But, for those looking for a hallucinogenic high or an aphrodisiac lift, I can’t say that I noticed an effect from any of these.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Pop Rocks

     I’m getting a little nostalgic in this post.  Pop Rocks were a memorable part of my childhood.  Not so much because of the candy itself, but because of the rumors associated with it.  But more on that later.
     Pop Rocks were actually invented way back in 1956 by a General Foods research chemist named William A. Mitchell.  However, they were not marketed to the public until 1975.  They were very popular for a while, but declining sales caused them to be withdrawn in 1983.  This dormant period didn’t last long, though, and after this they were licensed to a Spanish company, Zeta Especial S.A. a few years later and the candy resumed.  It hasn’t seemed to have rebounded to its late 70’s high in the U.S.—it’s not found in most supermarkets or convenience stores (or at least the ones that I visit) and is instead only found in specialty candy stores.
     The candy gets its pop from carbon dioxide.  After the ingredients (sugar, lactose, corn syrup, and artificial flavors and color) are heated into a syrup, the result is exposed to pressurized carbon dioxide and then allowed to cool.  The solid tiny pieces formed are then filled with carbon dioxide bubbles, which are released to pop as consumers’ saliva breaks down the candy.  Sounds good so far, right?  Nowadays there are several popping candy competitors, such as Peta Zeta, Magic Gum, Fizz Wizz, and the Australian Jelly Popping Candy Beanies (which consist of popping candy, jelly beans, and candy covered chocolate), but for a while Pop Rocks were a fun and unique candy.
     And then the rumor hit, starting in about 1979.  I remember hearing on the school playground that if you ate Pop Rocks and drank soda at the same time, the result would cause your stomach to explode.  Chillingly, the story had been proven by the death of Life Cereal pitchchild Mikey (and I’m guessing that Mikey didn’t like this).  The fact that pretty soon after that we couldn’t find Pop Rocks in the store helped to validate this account.
     Well, it turns out that this was an urban legend.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but Pop Rocks went into full P.R. mode to combat this story in the late 70’s and early 80’s.  They sent out open letters to parents, set up a hotline in Seattle, mailed messages to school principals, and took out many ads in various periodicals, all pointing out that there was no truth to the rumor.  “Mikey” actor John Gilchrist was alive and well, and he and anyone else could not have died in this way.  But, as so often happens, the rumor wasn’t entirely squelched.  Even in the 21st century, the initial episode of “Mythbusters” tested it, by putting the candy and soda in a (removed) pig’s stomach.  Even when they packed pounds of these into the stomach they got no explosion.  The current Pop Rocks website addresses this rumor, too, in the FAQ section.  It also includes the scene where this is lampooned in the 1998 movie, “Urban Legend.”
     Anyway, this year I happened to see them for sale (at The Lost Sea, in Tennessee) and picked up a couple of packs for old time’s sake.  I chose grape flavor, and they tasted okay.  The popping is kind of fun, although very occasionally a pop or two might sting a bit.  They have good stamina, too—I kept them in my mouth, and they continued popping for over a minute.  And I couldn’t resist doing the “fatal” experiment myself, using some Coke.  When I held both in my mouth, it seemed like initially there was an extra resounding pop or two, but then much less than before.  It appeared that the soda actually negated much of the action.  Furthermore, since I’m not dictating this post via Ouija Board, I survived.  I didn’t notice any stomach discomfort, and to be a tad graphic, I didn’t seem to generate much extra gas from either end.  Not surprising, since a packet of the candy produces less carbon dioxide than half a can of soda.
     Sadly, this wasn’t the stupidest urban myth I believed as a child.  Two that come to mind are both related to the band KISS.  The first was that bassist Gene Simmons had had a cow’s tongue grafted to his.  The second was that even the band members’ parents didn’t know what they looked like without makeup.  So evidently Paul, Gene, Ace, and Peter emerged from their mothers’ wombs with their stylized war paint on(!)  Idiotic I know—but give me a break.  I was like six or seven.
     Therefore, I can recommend Pop Rocks to anyone looking for an unusual candy experience, or a trip down memory lane for the middle-aged.  And feel free to wash them down with soda—it’s safe, but you might seem like a bad ass to folks who still believe the urban myth.  They’ve added a few new flavors over the years.  Aside from grape, cherry and strawberry they have watermelon, blue razz, tropical, cotton candy, xtra super sour, green apple, and several seasonals—candy cane, pumpkin patch orange, and chocolate.  Finally, if you want to learn more about them, there’s Dr. Marvin J. Rudolph’s book “Pop Rocks:  The Inside Story of America’s Revolutionary Candy (2008).  It sounds like it would make a fine addition to your shelf of candy histories.

P.S.  For those that care, that “Mikey” Life Cereal commercial was wildly successful.  It ran for an absurdly long twelve years (1972-1984), and won the ad version of the Oscars, the Clio, in 1974.  And Little Mikey himself, John Gilchrist, to date still has a healthy, fully functioning stomach.