At Easter, 400 million Peeps raise their little heads


SAN FRANCISCO -- Biting into one of the 400 million marshmallow Peeps that will be consumed this Easter, Lydia Adkins is gooey with her praise.

"It's pure sugar," she says, delightedly chomping off a neon-yellow head. "I like them a lot. They're obnoxiously sweet."

There you have it, the answer to a question that pops up at this time every year: What's with Peeps? And, more importantly, why would anyone over the age of 10 ever voluntarily eat one?

In case you haven't been to a drugstore lately, Peeps are those cheap, charming marshmallow candies shaped like baby chickens. They have 160 calories per five-chick serving and zero fat grams, and are essentially made of sugar, corn syrup and gelatin, give or take a preservative, a few food dyes and a little carnauba wax.

Mocked by food connoisseurs yet beloved by kids and young-at-heart adults, Peeps have acquired a pop-culture status that baffles even their makers, the Just Born confection company of Bethlehem, Pa., which also produces Mike and Ike, Hot Tamales and another marshmallow Easter specialty called Giant Bunny. But none has provoked the same kind of intense devotion as Peeps, which come in yellow, pink, white and lavender.

"We've gotten letters from people who cook with Peeps, make centerpieces out of them, use them as pizza toppings," says Just Born communications manager Rose Craig, who recently traveled to New York City to provide Rosie O'Donnell with some Peeps for her syndicated talk show.

"She ate one on the air," said Craig. "I just knew she was a Peeps lady."

On the Web, there are several unauthorized sites devoted to Peeps, including one that lists Peeps myths (no, their eyes aren't made of tar) and another devoted to bizarre photos of Peeps in various stages of meltdown.

If Peeps are a kitsch item, it's thanks to baby boomers, who still have fond memories of their childhood Easter baskets.

"We call them an American icon, and I don't think that's an overblown description," said Craig. "I used to get them in my Easter basket, and they still look the same. They still taste the same. When you pick them up, you've got to squish them with your fingers."

But they're not made the same way they used to be in 1954, when Just Born purchased the company that first developed Peeps. Back then, women in white uniforms squeezed them out carefully one at a time with a pastry tube and painted the eyes on by hand -- which occasionally led to some mutant-looking chickens.

Today, 2 million Peeps roll out on conveyor belts each day during heavy production season, eventually winding up boxed in groups of five, 10 or 15. Peeps hit the stores after Valentine's Day, then stick around until just after Easter.

Despite a reputation for food snobbery, the West Coast is prime Peeps territory, according to Just Born Western regional sales manager Gary Logan.

Of course, even the makers of Peeps admit there are two kinds of people in the world: Those who love Peeps and those who just don't get it.

Dan Aquino, 21, sampling them for the first time since middle school, is a fan. "These are pretty good," he said, diving into a five-pack. "I could probably eat two or three. Maybe the whole thing."

But to gourmet food and candy broker Richard Watson of Sausalito, Peeps are the bottom rung of the snack chain.

"They're probably the cheapest possible form of candy to make," Watson said of the sweets, about $1.49 for a pack of 15. "They have no redeeming social value whatsoever. They're charming. They're cute. They're garbage."

Even among aficionados, controversy abounds over whether to eat them when they're soft and mushy or hard and crunchy. Logan says he likes to freeze his and make crispy Peepsicles. Other Peeps eaters have been known to poke holes in the cellophane packaging because they prefer them stale.

Pub Date: 3/29/97

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