They're the hottest chicks around.
In seductively synthetic colors like Day-Glo yellow, blue and pink, the sugar-coated, chick-like blobs known as Marshmallow Peeps have nested in Easter baskets for almost 60 years.
And for the past four years, the campy confections -- made by Bethlehem, Pa.-based candy manufacturer Just Born -- have been one of the top-selling nonchocolate Easter candies in the United States, according to company spokeswoman Rose Craig. To meet demand, Just Born expects to produce more than 600 million Peeps this season during the chick crush from mid-February through Easter, she says.
While Just Born also makes marshmallow bunnies, marshmallow eggs and jelly beans for Easter, the Peep reigns as the true holiday icon. The charmed chicks have hatched innovative Peep recipes, such as PeepS'mores, Peeps/Fruit Ka-Bobs and Chocolate-Covered Marshmallow Peeps, and spread Peep culture through otherworldly Internet sites.
Indeed, Peeps have attained candy-cult status.
But the main purpose of the Peep is to be eaten. And the question remains: Is that such a good idea?
Peeps are relatively low in calories (160 calories per five Peeps) and are fat-free. But that doesn't exactly make them celery.
"All the calories are coming from sugar," says Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian in Baltimore and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "And your body counts every one of them."
But the price of Peeps (about $1.19 for a 15-pack) encourages excess. And so does the packaging.
The uniform puffs of bright barnyard goo come connected in tempting five-Peep chains. To avoid Peep wound -- the white marshmallow gash that occurs when the chicks are pulled apart -- one is inclined to eat an entire row at once. Also, uneaten wounded Peeps harden quickly when exposed to air -- although some Peep freaks actually prefer them that way -- which spurs multiple chick chews.
Instead, nutritionists urge moderation when dealing with these cavity-inducing heralds of spring. They also caution against popping Peeps on an empty stomach.
"If you eat them as a dessert at the end of the meal, the whole meal is digested more slowly, instead of the Peeps rushing into your bloodstream," Pierre says. "You can see them running around: peep, peep, peep, peep."
She advises pairing Peeps with vitamin-rich food, such as sweet potatoes topped with melted Peeps.
Melyssa St. Michael, director of Ultrafit Human Performance, a personal-training corporation in Lutherville, has another option: blending or dipping Peeps in the nonfat yogurt of your choice.
To work off Peeps pounds, St. Michael proposes pumping Peeps: lateral raises with a box of Peeps in each hand and one on your head to maintain balance. Peep chair squats are another possibility: Place a Peep on a chair and squat down just low enough not to squash the Peep. When you have completed 15 squats, you may eat the Peep.
The surreal saccharine taste, retro nostalgia and a kitschy sensibility all contribute to Peep appeal.
"They're magical. They bring out the creativity in people. Cadbury eggs don't do that," says Tracy Bannett, 28, who maintains a Peeps Web page at http://www.critpath.org/(tilde)tracy.html.
Peeps have permeated the Internet. For a conventional online look at Peepdom, go to Just Born's official Peep site http://www.marshmallowpeeps.com, where you can find recipes, facts, history and various uses for Peeps.
The links from Bannett's site include all manner of Peep exotica and experimentation -- from Peepku, Peep-inspired haiku, to Peeps smoking cigarettes to the all-Peep cast of the indie feature-in-progress, "Bad Peeps."
"I don't eat Peeps. I just worship the Peep," says Bannett, a Web-site designer from Philadelphia.
Yet, she fears the eyes of the Peep.
The uneven, haphazardly placed black specks are made of ... carnauba wax. Bannett said she witnessed an experiment where a Peep was immersed in the chemical phenol, and everything dissolved but the carnauba wax eyes.
"How many Peep eyes do you have in your body?" Bannett asks.
Craig, the Just Born spokeswoman, did not want to comment on the wax.
But true Peep zealots tend not to worry about health issues, especially when the post-Easter Peep sales come around and they obsessively hoard dozens of boxes to sustain a year-round sugar-high.
"If you're really fanatical about them, you would want to stay away from the half-price sale," Pierre says. "Exercise control at the point of purchase."
Pierre points out, however, that the composition of the Peep may not be the real issue here, but, rather, the way we as a society relate to the Peep.
"Usually we get high from eating Peeps because we act silly when we're doing it," Pierre says. "We kind of egg each other on."
2 graham cracker squares
1/3 plain small chocolate bar
Toast Marshmallow Peeps. Put Marshmallow Peeps on graham cracker. Place chocolate on Marshmallow Peeps and cover with second graham cracker. (The heat from the Peeps will melt chocolate).