Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Ode to Packaged Foods of Yore

By Jessica English

FEBRUARY 9, 1998:  Forget new wave music, leg warmers, jelly shoes and all the one-hit wonders that now play on the radio with nauseating frequency. For me (and probably many of you), the '80s were all about candy. Sugar, sugar, sugar (and Chinese jump rope). Life was sugar, pure refined sugar: sugar-coated corn puffs, flavored sugar powder you'd pour straight down your gullet, wads of sugar chewing gum, sugar-glazed oats and flakes. And in the '70s, though the era had a bit of culture actually worth recycling, my life revolved around that beautiful chemical compound C12H22O11 (OK, maybe my Big Wheel and "Lidsville," too).

Every Saturday morning during these two decades, my sisters and I were up and dressed, hoofing it to Circle K with our quarters. Sticky-faced and sugar-pumped, we would settle in front of the TV to watch "Scooby Doo" with big bowls of sugar cereal, picking the dehydrated marshmallow shapes out one by one and finally slurping down the slimy sugar milk from the bottom of the bowl. Ah, sucrose--the chemical that allowed me to claim my place among the ranks of the millions of fat Americans.

But most of the sugar-packed delights that defined us on the playground throughout our childhood are gone the way of Hubba Bubba. Just gone, the packaged sweet stuff we remember has been replaced by bubble beepers and liquid suckers in toothpaste tubes. What does still exist is bottom-shelf candy at Walgreens and Allsups. Luckily, if you can't find it there or at the Circle K, you'll more than likely find it on the Web.

Candy cigarrettes are the obvious candy-no-more. It's not PC for seven-year-olds to pretend to smoke anymore (now they can just buy a pack of chalk if they really want to--same effect, similar flavor). All that aside, candy cigarette manufacturers saw their impending doom when politicians proposed raising the price of a pack of candy cigarettes by $1.50 over a two-year period. Too bad.

The best confection to ever grace my spindly 3-foot frame was the Abba Zabba: a pure white salt-water taffy candy bar filled with rich, creamy, real peanut butter. Taffy as you know, is unpredictable in the package; it's either gummy and chewy or hard as a rock. The trick was to leave it set on the dashboard for about an hour and--voila!--pliable taffy, flowing greasy peanut butter. The best part was when you yanked off a piece of Abba Zabba with your teeth, the peanut butter oozed into your mouth and usually down your chin. After I ate the whole thing, which took about an hour with all the unsticking from the roof of my mouth, I'd bounce up and down in the backseat of the car belting out monkey noises and making up jingles, "Abba Zabba, Zabba, Zabba, Zabba, said the monkey to the chimp ... " I've learned in my pursuit for this chewy piece of my childhood memories that Abba Zabba was a regional phenomenon. You can still find them in a few stores in California. Fortunately, you can also order them by the case from the California Candy Company at (415) 344-6300 or print an order form from their Web site (www.spectrumnet.com/cacandy) and mail or fax it in.

Going way, way back to my earliest cognizant memory of the drive-in theater, I have searched far and wide for the chocolate candies we bought each time at the snack bar. Flicks, the name at least I've finally discovered, were giant chocolate chips (like Hershey's kisses) available in dark or milk chocolate. What made Flicks special was the presentation: Several of these jumbo chips were packaged in a tube not unlike a toilet paper roll and covered with blue or green foil wrappers. Sadly, Flicks followed the drive-in to extinction.

As part of my research for this piece, I used my Alibi co-workers as test subjects in the Great Necco Experiment. To discover the popularity of the wafer candy among a sample of sugar-loving adult-children from my own generation, I placed a dishful of the snack-size rolls with the distinctive wax-paper wrappers on top of the highly trafficked M&M vending machine. The data showed that 46 percent of the subjects grabbed two rolls and said: "Neccos! I loved these when I was a kid. Where did you find them?" Only 2 percent would not participate, and the other 52 percent cautiously grabbed one roll and ate three or four Neccos. Then upon tasting a pink wafer--which have a remarkably similar taste to Pepto Bismal--the subjects would surrender the roll to me to finish, remarking: "Blech. These taste like chalky wafers." I prefer to think of Necco wafers as sweet communion, sweeter still now that I've found rolls at Walgreens which contain only chocolate wafers.

The most exciting candies of youth were those which, when introduced to saliva, produced an explosive or foaming chemical reaction. Pop Rocks and Zotz both became regular amusement for kids about the same time as WHAM! became popular. (Coincidence? Probably, the candy is still around.) Pop Rocks, of which there is no shortage still, have become of great interest to the same adults who, as kids, roller skated in circles amid the disco lights and fake smoke with the explosive candy in their mouths. Apparently, as one matures, Pop Rocks become a fascinating subject for chemical analysis as well as an inexpensive sexual aide (use your imagination). And you thought it was dangerous to drink soda with a mouthful of Pop Rocks, a mix that was purported on playgrounds to induce the death-defying fool who tried it to spontaneously explode.

Zotz, although not as easy to find, still give me a thrill. The hard-candy is filled with a powder center that foams ferociously in your mouth, tickling your tastebuds and even your nose hairs. Zotz were available in just grape, cherry, orange and lime, until, glory of glories, Power Zotz were made available. Power Zotz didn't mess with the candy shell; it was pure Zotz powder in a pouch like Big League chew. The candy wasn't available for long--perhaps because this candy actually did cause small children to explode--but while it did, my fifth-grade classmates and I spent every recess on the lower soccer field taking turns foaming at the mouth.

Garbage Pail Kids did not become a rampant fad for the single piece of hard, powdery gum inside the package. No, it was the cards, silly--to be the first kid on the block to own Up Chuck, to trade your second Guillotina for some kid's Bruised Lee. Or, like me, to trade your Ashley to Ashes and Dustin to Dust cards for as many Juicy Jessicas as you could get. Same goes for all the sugar-coated cereals we so loved in our youth. There were several incarnations of the same cereals on the market--just with different names, different boxes. But it was the cartoon faces that graced them--and the toy prizes inside--that made us beg our moms for our favorite cereals.

You'll scarcely find a box with a surprise these days; now you've got to save umpteen dozen UPC symbols and send in for a toy. When we were kids, we all wanted Freakies and pestered our parents until we got them. Why? Because of the goofy little collectible figurines inside and the creepy yet cute jingle: "We live under the Freakies tree ... ." With every box of Pink Panther Flakes, you got an official spy kit and the added bonus of thick pink sugar milk at the bottom of the bowl. Quisp, Quaker's vanished version of Corn Pops, had mail-in offers then--for a Quisp playmate (the alien guy with a spinner on his head) or a Quisp playmate bank--for 50 cents. You could order the Quake character's cavern helmet or the muscle-bound beefcake Quake playmate from Quaker as well, although he wasn't nearly as fun. The kangaroo on Quangaroo cereal promised a Quang-a-Rang boomerang in every box. Baron Von Redberry and Baron Von Grapeberry, the "vitamin-charged" fruit-flavored oats and marshmallows cereals, offered airplane gliders like their Snoopy-esque planes. Their later cousins and my favorite foursome--Count Chocula, Boo Berry, Franken Berry and Fruit Brute--came with monsters, masks and glow-in-the-dark stickers. Only at Halloween are these monster cereals available now, all but Fruit Brute. Sadly, they don't come with the cool toys, just lame video rebate mail-in offers.

Hell, we even ate unsugared cereal when the hotshots marketed them right. When C3POs came out in 1984 we gobbled them up--even though they were just basically another name for Cheerios--because every box came with a collectible cut-out mask of a different Star Wars character. There was one I never went for even though they tried like the devil to get kids to want it: King Vitaman, which had the creepiest mascot and most horrible-sounding name ever, not to mention a bland brown and tan box. That creepy old man in the crown that grinned on every box front inspired nightmares for a good deal of my childhood. King Vitaman would have been better off with a name like Sugar King and a wide-eyed, white, crystalline cartoon mascot. I would have eaten it maybe--if there were a collectible figurine inside every box.


To check out cereals of yore and going prices for boxes and box cover reproductions, visit the Flake Shop on the Web at www.flake.com/index.html#row1.


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