On Humor – Part Three
Reflections on All Things Peep
“Fifty-year Old Peeps” from my personal collection
So what is a Peep anyway? Seasonally appearing with the Christian holiday that surrounds the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, they are an iconic phenomenon unto themselves. Position two oblong shapes atop a circle, add three dots and somehow it is perceived as a bunny face. The most I can figure that Peeps have in common with rabbits is the mass numbers in which they are reproduced. These paraplegic hares are more helpless than a Pillsbury Dough Boy and as happy as a Smiley Face without a mouth. They are as Pop as Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup but far more bizarre and much less understood. Peeps have generated a massive international cult following, connecting people of all ages and inclinations who have absolutely nothing else in common. The cause of this cult consciousness can only be atributed to the mysterious manner in which a Peep activates select brain synapses of pleasure in those individuals who possess the appropriate brain receptors for the experience.
Roscoe Rodda, the sugar visionary and titan candy baron, is generally considered the inventor of the original marshmallow Peep (as well as the father of the jelly bean). Rodda was one of the founders of a Zionist faith-healing cult that claimed to have healed his blind daughter, his own tuberculosis and cured his son when he was hit by a streetcar. Many of the congregation were recruited from Rodda’s candy factory. All the members forfeited their material possessions and money to the church. The leaders of the church amassed tremendous personal wealth and many scandals pursued. The original leader died of spinal meningitis due to lack of medical treatment and when the next leader was dying of cancer in 1942, he tearfully admitted to all the funds he had stolen from the church. After that, Rodda pulled out of the cult along with his Zion Candy Company and the church came to an end. Later Rodda’s candy empire was sold to the Just Born candy company which went on to invent chocolate sprinkles, the chocolate-coated ice cream bar and a machine that inserted sticks into lollipops.
The marshmallow we know today was originally a honey-flavored candy from the days of Ancient Egypt, intended to sooth sore throats and reduce coughing. This ancient form of marshmallow was thickened with juice extracted from marsh plant roots which grew at the edge of salt marshes and lakes. By the 1850s, the medicinal intent took a sweeter turn when the marsh root juice was mixed with whipped egg whites and sugar, forming a mushy yet firm type of meringue when air-dried. By the turn of the century, the sweet marsh root concoction was mixed with gelatin and gum arabic providing a more rubbery texture. This gelatinous candy grew in popularity as it was further enhanced with emulsifiers to hold it firm.
The influence of German tradition in American Pop Culture is often credited as the reason for candy taking the form of rabbits and eggs at Easter. This Christian tradition originated from an ancient Teutonic Pagan faith where there was, in fact, a goddess who represented morning and birth and who magically transformed animals into different species. This Pagan goddess’s name was Eastre. The wild hare version of the rabbit was appropriated into Christian faith from this Pagan pantheon of animal symbols as was the simple round, white egg which was used in fertility rituals. In regions like Pennsylvania, the waves of German immigrants who heavily settled there continued their old-world Easter custom of exchanging baskets full of these eggs as a symbol of the day, along with non-edible figurines of the wild hare. With his operations based in the heart of Pennsylvania, Rodda adapted this German Easter custom to his product line.
When Peeps went mainstream in the 1920’s, they were hand-made and it took 27 hours to hatch a batch. In the 1950’s the process was perfected and mechanized on an industrial scale. These days at the Just Born candy factory in Bethlehem, PA, 3.8 million peeps are hatched per day, providing the world with two billion Peeps per year. Every 8 seconds, one human baby is born in the United States and 509 Peeps are created. You would need about 7,000 Peep Bunnies stacked toe to ear to reach the top of the Empire State Building, more than 87 million Peeps to stretch continuously from New York City to Los Angeles, about 430 million Peeps bunnies to circle the moon and about 127 quadrillion Peeps to fill the Grand Canyon. Every year production increases and this year Chocolate Pudding Peeps made their debut along with Peeps Cereal and Peeps Milk (it is not easy to milk a Peep).
Their purpose seems to be for children to eat, yet they are a toxic combination of pure sugar, gelatin, preservatives, carcinogenic car wax and carcinogenic fluorescent dye. They are a natural-food connoisseur’s worst nightmare, contributing to diabetes, feeding both cancer and virus cells, breaking down immunity, rotting teeth, promoting heart/liver/kidney disease, increasing Attention Deficit Disorder, depression, nervousness, and adding to the out-of-control obesity epidemic in our country – but Peeps are gluten free. The original Peep recipe had to be altered early on in 1911 when the Department of Agriculture took Rodda to court for the “adulteration of candy” (also called the “Black Peep Scandal”) when the government discovered that Peeps contained aluminum, iron-silicate, silicone dioxide, magnesium oxide, ash and an unknown substance with “a greasy feel”. With an official shelf life of two years, this remote food-like substance will actually last for centuries (although the fluorescent dyes used to color them are not archival and will fade in a matter of months if exposed to light). The eyes and nose are made of dark wax that will not dissolve if drenched in phenol or soaked in sulphuric acid. It is estimated that 600 million Peeps are eaten per year. During the 1984 summer Olympics, Carl Lewis, Olympic medal winner, lived entirely on a diet of Peeps. Lewis said, “There is no doubt that a half-dozen Peeps in the morning and another half-dozen at noon helped me in all the events, especially the long jump.” The reigning world champion for consuming Peeps broke his own world record at the National Harbor World Peeps Eating Championship by eating 255 Peeps in 5 minutes (that’s 3.75 lbs of sugar, almost 2,000 carbs, and over 7,000 calories). Although the champion did not immediately die from the contest, had he done so, it is interesting to imagine what the autopsy would have looked like.
Prized for their peculiar form of bizarre absurdity, Peeps have always held a special place in my heart. I love them because they make no sense to me and are full of existential contradiction. I’m not alone in these feelings as the cult following for this cultural icon is huge and includes more adults than children. There are several books written on Peeps and you can even find a blog written about them right in front of you. Movies such as Lord of the Peeps and Star Wars have been made with them, they are endlessly tortured in the name of science by mad scientists, poetry is written in homage to them, pinatas are covered and filled with them, wedding cake centerpieces are made of them, they are kept as pets, put in microwave ovens to watch bloat and explode, and used in a plethora of crafts and art. Aside from Peep Mai Tai’s, Pepsi is coming out with a limited edition flavor called Peep Pepsi and the term has officially made it into the English dictionary as slang for “friends”.
I have always thought of a Peep as something from another planet, that try as I may, eluded understanding. The harder I tried to understand what I was looking at, the less I understood. After a lifelong fascination with Peeps, I finally started to explore my own personal symbolism with them in a series of photographic still lifes. It was akin to making visual poems with Peeps as the central metaphor. The more I worked with them, the deeper the metaphor became until an understanding of my relationship to them slowly emerged. The Peeps became a medium of sarcastic, allegorical tableaux, some representing a form of innocence lost, others recognizing the helpless breed of creature they are (devoid of arms, legs or even lips) which played into a metaphor for the helpless nature of man. All sixty of the seductive and sometimes edgy images possessed a spirit of dark humor, reflecting the way in which I see and think.
With the holiday season in hand, let us remember that Peeps are also born in Bethlehem (although the plant is probably closed on Christmas day) and as you might expect, Bethlehem remains the ground zero of Peepdom. On New Year’s Eve, at the same time as the annual ball drops in New York City’s Times Square, the annual Peepsfest includes the midnight descent of an 85-pound, 4½-foot Peep to mark the new year.
Disclaimer: This blog in no way promotes the consumption of Peeps. The position of this blog is solely to acknowledge Peeps as a cultural and aesthetic artifact of unlimited visual pleasure. However if you are so inclined, here is a classic Peep recipe from Martha Stewart’s magazine on good living (which came out before she was sent to prison).
1. Wrap a Peep in a strip of beacon, leaving the head exposed so it looks like a cute baby in a blanket.
2. Thrust a toothpick into the bacon going all the way through the Peeps heart or navel and out its back.
3. Bite the head off, then fully enjoy the succulent flavor of the bacon crepe and don’t forget to remove the toothpick.
Bon appetite et viva les Peeps.