Thursday, March 19, 2009

Annals of Cultural Atrocity: Peeps

Some years ago, I had a vague ambition to be the curator of my own museum. I was going to call it the Museum of Cultural Atrocities, and it would be a repository of memorable failures of taste. There would, for example, have been a wing devoted to Jell-O. Not that I don't sometimes like Jell-O, but it's aesthetically indefensible. In other words, tasteless even as it's tasty.

I am, in fact, fond of any number of things that exhibit a lack of taste. That's what would make me a good choice for curator of the MCA. On the other hand, I have no curatorial skills and a very similar amount of ambition, and those absences would have to be considered minuses. Fortunately, the Museum of Cultural Atrocities is one of those things that's much better in mind than in actuality. It's easy, and fun, to say that something belongs in the MCA, but actually compiling the exhibits for the Donald Trump room could not help but end up being both daunting and dreary. (Donald Trump, as it happens, is one of those tasteless phenomena for which I have no affection. He takes all the fun out of combover and toupee jokes, a feat I would have found unimaginable a few years ago.)

Anyway, the list of things that are simultaneously entertaining and awful is nearly endless. I leave it to others to fill in all the gaps between fuzzy dice and The Real Housewives of Anywhere. I note, however, that there's a special place in my heart (and in hell) for things that display both literal and figurative bad taste, i.e., things that make you cringe both before and after you put them in your mouth. (And you can pull your filthy minds right out of the gutter.) The ne plus ultra of this category, of course, is Peeps.

Decrying the depravity of Peeps is like shooting fish in a barrel. And not fish swimming around in a barrel of water, either: fish lying inert and crammed together in a barrel like those pickled fish that Oskar's mother eats in an especially horrific sequence in The Tin Drum. (I couldn't find that sequence online, but it follows immediately after this only slightly less disturbing scene, which I would not show you, but if you can handle Peeps, you can certainly handle this:

The history of Peeps is an especially ugly one. Peeps came into being in 1947, when a transport ship that had been feared lost during the war showed up in Trenton, New Jersey. Its holds turned out to be filled with large quantities of sugar and smaller amounts of gelatin and, inexplicably, saffron. Wolfgang von Peep, a recent immigrant and confectioner with a shady past that is rumored to have included German heavy water experiments, purchased the ship's cargo (which was considered unsuitable for human consumption by more reputable food merchants) for a token price from the municipal authorities when he promised to employ a large proportion of the local citizenry in the production of marshmallows. His initial results, aside from being wholly inedible, produced a compound that could not easily be molded and ended up as small, rounded blobs of soft, sticky yellowness. Fortunately (for Herr von Peep, though not for anyone else), local toddlers were very taken with the colors of the new candy, and after one of the women from the production line added two black dots to a few of the blobs, children could be convinced that the eponymous Peeps resembled chicks.

Herr von Peep experimented with other forms and colors, and the world was thus introduced to bunnies and other colors that looked appropriate in the context of garish Easter baskets. Huge quantities of the Peeps were produced between 1948 and 1951. Approximately half of the original production remains stockpiled in a warehouse in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (where the von Peeps moved after the Trenton authorities and residents grew, shall we say, disenchanted with them), and no new Peeps have been produced since that time, an annual release of approximately twelve cases being sufficient to restock any Peeps that someone was unfortunate enough to have eaten.

It's likely that Peeps would long since have disappeared in the sands of time were it not for their versatility as objects of decoration and entertainment. In this aspect, they have been assisted (as have so many other objects of evil, by the Washington Post, which sponsors an annual contest in which ordinary people -- not even wearing HazMat suits -- are encouraged to play with Peeps and use them to make dioramas of events of historical or cultural significance. You can see last year's entries here. I have neither the artistic skill nor the ability to handle sticky objects (mind, gutter, out) necessary to enter such a contest, but my daughter's junior high religious education class at church submitted two entries to this year's contest, the entry deadline for which was this past Sunday. The entry that YFU worked on was called "Sarah Palin Peeps at Russia," and it shows a red Peep with a bushy ponytail, spectacles, and a rifle staring across an expanse of water at two Peeps (one in a babushka, the other in a fur hat) standing next to a cutout of St. Basil's. Above the Palin Peep is suspended another Peep which has been colored brown and white, to resemble a bald eagle. Fucking genius. I wish I had a picture of it.

I would never have had the patience. I played with Peeps for about 4.5 minutes this evening to take some pictures for this post, and I was already sick of them. Also, I didn't really have any useful Peep-related ideas. Originally, I thought of a story in which the bunny Peeps had subjugated the chick Peeps, whom they used as beasts of burden until such time as they were ready to consume them. The chick Peeps finally rallied together to overcome the hated bunny Peep overlords, and the results were, well, not pretty. But I abandoned the idea because the results were, well, not pretty. And my hands were sticky just from separating the Peeps into single entities. They come packaged as sets of conjoined quadruplets (bunnies) or quints (chicks).

Now I've got all these Peeps all over my dining room table. I could offer them to my daughters, but they were raised better than to fall for that. I suspect that I'll end up tossing them all in the garbage, but there's no hurry. It's not like they're going to go bad. I suppose in the case of Peeps, it would really be going worse, anyway. If I were the sort of person who hated waste more than I dislike Peeps, I'm sure I could use them in any of a number of ways. Attic insulation, for example. And I have seen people who use them to make a form of s'mores. The directions -- in case you're very, very brave, and not so bright -- are to put a Peep on top of half of a graham cracker, microwave them for about twenty seconds (until the Peep begins to dissolve but doesn't combust, I suppose), then add a square of chocolate and top with the other half of the graham cracker. I have, for obvious reasons, not tested this recipe.

Another untested recipe is to use a Peep in place of the coffee beans in a flaming Sambuca. You take a glass, you pour in a couple ounces of Sambuca (or anything else: just use cheap vodka), float a Peep -- any color! -- on top, and light the alcohol. I actually think this recipe has some potential entertainment value, so maybe I should go make one and photograph it.

Well, that was something less than spectacular, but I suppose one should report even disappointing results.

I wasn't too keen on using any decent glasses, but I figured one of my ramekins should be safe:

I took other precautions as well, including two metal pans, a lid, and the removal to a safe distance of flammable objects.

I thought a blue Peep would work well. Alas, I forgot that one needs to warm one's alcohol before one ignites it, so that while I was able to get the Peep itself to flame, briefly, the cheap vodka just sat there.

Eventually, the Peep got slightly burnt and the vodka got slightly blue, but it was clear I needed to start again.

I washed the ramekin, left it slightly wet, and put it in the microwave until it was hot. Then I added vodka and a purple Peep. This time, it lit magnificently, but, of course, light blue flames don't show up so well on camera. Still, you can tell that it's burning:

The flames show up just fine if you turn the lights off, of course, but I'm not even sure where my tripod is right now, and with no flash, the results are verrrrry blurry:

I also shot a short video, entirely lacking in production values:

Making the video available involved the use of a popular video sharing site, and while I was there, I decided to search for other Peeps burnings, and, lo! they were many. It seems that burning (or otherwise mutilating) Peeps is a fairly common form of ritualized violence. One might go so far as to say that Peeps are the new burnt offerings.

Far be it from me to belittle any activity that allows people to act out their aggressive impulses on marshmallow creatures instead of their fellow human beings, but I can't really get behind Peeps as a valid form of sacrifice. They're not exactly lambs or kid goats, are they? Sacrifices are meant to be objects of great innocence, not objects of great tackiness. (There's no evidence, for example, that Christ ever wore socks with his sandals.) And, really, it's hard to think of Peeps as cute and innocent after you've burned one and seen the bitter darkness of the soul that remains:

On the other hand, so long as you look upon immolating Peeps as a little harmless fun -- rather than a valid spiritual exercise -- I suppose it's a lot better than eating them. And God knows, they deserve death by fire.


  1. I prefer to think of it as serial marshmallowcide or perhaps to think of myself as a Peepinator, but murderer works, too.