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  They were very popular for a while, but declining sales caused them to be withdrawn in 1983.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.

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