For 60 years, Peeps have meant many things to many people
Published: Sunday, March 31, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 28, 2013 at 6:17 p.m.
A freshman at the University of Florida, Anne Hamilton found something new in her basket when she came home for Easter that spring.
Just for Peeps
■Peeps jousting — stick a toothpick into two Peeps and place facing each other on a microwave-safe plate in a microwave oven. Turn on the oven; first toothpick to touch the other Peeps wins. (Both competitors deflate to a marshmallow mess once the appliance is turned off.)
■Watch a Peepsonaut travel to the edge of space — 97,000 feet — aboard the Adler Planetarium's Far Horizons 12-balloon launch in April, 2008 at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ioq54ku0oJw.
■Of all the colors Peeps come in, red is not one of them — except for the Valentine's Day versions. Green is the top-selling color.
■Of the two billion Peeps manufactured each year, more than 400 million of them — nearly a quarter — are used for something other than eating.
■Before the process was automated, it took 27 hours to make Peeps by hand. Since 1954 it's taken only about six minutes.
■It would take more than 70 million chick Peeps laid beak to tail to span the distance between New York and Los Angeles.
■One-time hot dog-eating champion Takeru Kobayashi set a world record for Peeps eating last year, gobbling 25 Peeps in 30 seconds.
■In 1999, scientists at Emory University attempted to destroy Peeps with various substances, including cigarette smoke, alcohol, water, even some forms of acid; none worked. "We discovered that the eyes wouldn't dissolve in anything," one research scientist said.
■In addition to marshmallow treats, Peeps also offers a lip balm line in four flavors: grape, strawberry, vanilla and cotton candy.
Nestled in with her usual sugar egg — the highly decorated kind with a whimsical scene inside it — there was something new — a yellow, sugar-coated marshmallow in the shape of a baby chick.
That was 60 years ago, and the new treat was Peeps. "I've liked them ever since," she said. "It was always a thrill to get them in my Easter basket."
Hamilton, now 78, remains a fan after all these years. In fact, from time to time she dons the official Peeps fan club T-shirt she secured online nearly a decade ago.
She still eats them, too. "I put them in the microwave for about five seconds," she said. "They puff up a bit and come out soft and warm, the way they come off the line. That's the way I like them.
"That's my only recipe for Peeps," Hamilton added.
Actually, that's pretty tame compared with some things people put their Peeps through year in and year out: microwaving, decorating, clothing, jousting, artist medium, video spoofs. Chicago's Adler Planetarium launched a single Peeps (a Peep?) to the edge of space — and filmed the whole thing.
Among recipes are Peepshi (Peeps sushi) and Peepsza (Peeps pizza); the Internet is chock full of yummy ways to serve up the treat. There are hundreds of suggestions on Pinterest, including Peeps s'mores, Peepscorn and Peeps fruit kabobs.
The candy showed up in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade 10 years ago to mark its golden anniversary. Some communities even hold entire festivals built around Peeps — and the things people do with them. One of the biggest is the Peeps Show in Washington every year around Eastertime, where fans display elaborate and intricate diaramas constructed with Peeps.
There are more than 650,000 Peeps-related videos on YouTube, proving among other things that too many of us have way too much time on our hands.
Nowadays, the marshmallowy treat isn't just an Easter thing. There are holiday tree, reindeer and gingerbread Peeps for Christmas; jack-o-lantern Peeps for Halloween; gushy heart-shaped Peeps for Valentine's Day.
"And we're unveiling a new summer Peeps soon," said Ellie Deardoff, a spokeswoman for Just Born, the family-owned confectionary company in Bethlehem, Penn., that makes the Peeps brand.
Just Born expects to produce more than 2 billion Peeps throughout the year; "for Easter, we're producing over 1 billion Peeps for the first time," Deardoff said. "That's up from 800 million last year."
That's roughly enough to circle the globe twice, if we could only get people to leave them alone.
As for all the things we've put the poor little chicks and bunnies and gingerbread men and Christmas trees through, well, Just Born thinks it's just great.
"We have encouraged people's desire to create," she said. "We're thrilled." After all, she added, "nothing else looks like a Peeps. There are very few candies that have a great personality, great vibrant colors."
Among those creating is Washington, D.C., artist David Ottogalli. He works in Peeps, often in a big way. "I just completed a large window display here in Washington using over 4,200 Peeps," he wrote in an email.
"But this has not been my largest project," he added. "The largest work was the Peeps Shrine completed in 2003; I used just over 5,000 Peeps." A gallery of his Peeps art is on his website, www.peepsshow.com.
"Peeps are a fun yet difficult medium to work with," Ottogalli continued. "I've been a fan ever since I was a kid and they appeared in my Easter basket. I started using Peeps as an art medium in the late 1980s/early '90s."
Dale Johnson doesn't so much create with Peeps as she collects them. No less than a score of boxes takes up a kitchen cabinet in her Gainesville home.
"I'm always on the lookout for something new and innovative," she said. "My mother-in-law would buy them at Easter. Well, they're just so sugary and rich, I could never eat them." So she started stashing them away instead.
"It's kind of a fun little thing to collect," she said. One box is easily 10 years old "and it looks perfect."
Right now Johnson has all different colors and shapes. "Whenever I see something new in the grocery I buy it," she added. "Someday when I'm in my 80s, I'll take them to the Antiques Road Show, and that'll be my retirement."
According to its history on the Just Born website, Russian immigrant Sam Born began creating chocolate sprinkles in 1910, and the hard chocolate used to coat ice cream bars. He opened a store in Brooklyn, N.Y., 13 years later and called it Just Born to tout the freshness of his confections.
As the history goes, Just Born bought a small Pennsylvania candymaker, Rodda Candy Co., in 1953, and took over its small sideline of hand-formed marshmallow candies. This was the birth of Peeps.
Though made of sugar and corn syrup, Peeps bill themselves as fat free and gluten free. According to its label, a serving of five Peeps is only 140 calories – but most of those come from the serving's 34 grams of sugar.
Phyllis Marino of Ocala sheepishly admitted she recently ate "a whole box" of Peeps in two days. "I really like them," she said. "I can't wait until Easter comes."
Her treats, she added, are seasonal: "Peeps in the spring, caramel apples in the fall."
As a girl, she wasn't particularly fond of chocolate; instead, she got Peeps in her Easter baskets. "They were so pretty, pink and yellow." Nowadays, she keeps a box or two in the freezer or sometimes leaves them out on the counter "so they get stale;" Marino, you see, prefers them hard to gnaw on.
Yet she's not above popping a few in the microwave, especially when she's entertaining the grandkids. "You put them in for 20 or 30 seconds; they blow up to one great big Peep."
But then they deflate into one big, gooey glop of marshmallow mess.
Debbie Mason, meanwhile, would rather give Peeps to her family, friends and workers rather than nuke the little guys. "I don't get the fanaticism," she said.
"I think they're cute, fun and fluffy," added the president and CEO of United Way of North Central Florida in Gainesville.
And every Easter, Aunt Deb dutifully ships off a boxful of the year's Peeps to her nieces in South Florida. What, they don't have Peeps in Miami? Of course they do, "but they've come to expect that Aunt Deb sends them" — a sort of Easter Aunt, if you will.
But not long ago she discovered a new variation: the chocolate-coated Peeps. "That brings in a whole new meaning," Mason said.
The chocolate-covered ones aside, she still doesn't understand why some folk go crazy for Peeps. Still, as a reward, Mason will often drop a package of Peeps on employee desks.
"If it makes people happy, I'm happy to be an enabler," she said.
Moreover, she added, "It's kind of hard to look at a Peep and not smile, right?"
Contact Rick Allen at email@example.com.