Meridian Star


February 5, 2014

Food characters

MERIDIAN — A slice of pizza waved at me yesterday. My family and I were driving down the road and a guy dressed up as a slice of pepperoni pizza holding a sign about discount pizza by the slice waved at us. Earlier this year, at the National Restaurant Association trade show, I met a guy dressed as a piece of cheesecake.

    We personalize food. We also attach personalities and personality traits to food.

    Over the course of my life I have made friends with a lot of food characters. One of the earliest food characters I can remember is the Planter's peanut guy. You know the one with the top hat and the monocle. I think his name was Mr. Peanut. He hung out in my house all through my youth.

    Elsie the Cow and I were tight. She and I had the most significant relationship of all of the food characters of my youth. My brother and I drank a gallon of milk every day. Elsie was truly my friend.

    One of my all-time favorites is Aunt Jemima. I love that woman. When you paired her with Elsie the cow it was magic-- pancakes, syrup, and milk make for breakfast perfection. I never cared much for Mrs. Butterworth. I tried some once but felt like I was cheating on a girlfriend. I was a Jemima guy all the way.

    There were jingles that went with many of these characters. I can't remember what song I was listening to on the radio five minutes ago, but-- even though I haven't seen the commercial since 1968-- I could sing the entire Aunt Jemima jingle, word for word, mostly in tune, right now.

    There was a guy they called the Frito Bandito who was in advertisements for Frito's corn chips. He was around when I was in elementary school and, for a while, Fritos put a Frito Bandito eraser in the bag of chips. I loved those things. They didn't erase worth a damn but they looked pretty cool sitting on top of your pencil in math class.

    When Al Copeland rolled out his chain of spicy fried chicken restaurants, he used Popeye as the brand image. I have no idea what Popeye had to do with fried chicken. To my knowledge the only food I ever saw in a Popeye cartoon was a can of spinach and the hamburgers eaten by that guy named Wimpy-- no chicken. So why did Al choose Popeye? Maybe it was the only cartoon character that was available for licensing. Disney probably had all of their characters registered and protected. Warner Brothers wasn't going to license Foghorn Leghorn for a chicken chain. Betty Boop was probably in Al's price range, but no one wants to eat Betty Boop chicken. Who's left? Popeye.

    There was a Jolly Green Giant, but I don't see him around much anymore. Sprout, was a little guy that always had an awkward view looking up towards the Jolly Green Giant's loincloth. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall of the Madison Avenue office that created the Jolly Green Giant.

    "Fred, we've got to sell these peas, what can we do?

    "I hear Popeye is available."

    "No way, Popeye makes me think of chicken. How about a giant?"

    "You mean like a Jack-in-the-Beanstalk giant. Wasn't he a villain?"

    "Yeah, I guess you're right. But what if we make our giant all green with a pair of green, pointy ankle boots and a leaf-covered loincloth."

    "Harry, you're a genius."

    I am secure enough in my manhood to admit that, as a kid, I knew the Pillsbury Doughboy intimately. I also had a very close childhood relationship with that little dude in the tropical shirt on Hawaiian Punch cans. I can even remember an old lady who dressed up as Mother Nature and hawked fake butter but she was a real person and not a cartoon.

    Cereal had a plethora of characters and I knew all of them personally-- Cap'n Crunch, the Lucky Charms Leprechaun, and the Dig 'Em frog on the Sugar Smacks box were frequent visitors to the breakfast shelf in our

pantry. Snap, Crackle, and Pop were my buddies, too-- but only if I could dump a half of a pound of sugar on them. I knew Tony the Tiger, the Trix Rabbit, Toucan Sam, and the cuckoo for Coco Puffs bird. My all-time favorite cereal was (and is) Count Chocula. A vampire and chocolate cereal have about as much in common as a sailor and spicy chicken but I still eat them both.

    The Quaker Oats man always looked like what I imagined a character out of Hawthorne's "A Scarlet Letter" would look like. I knew about oatmeal before I ever knew what a Quaker was. Though I somehow knew that Nixon was a Quaker. The fist time I read about Quakers in a junior-high history book, I was surprised to learn that they weren't a group of farmers who grew oats.

    Today I eat more oatmeal and less syrup, but Quaker never had a song, certainly not one I could remember after 40 years: "Aunt Jemima pancakes without the syrup, is like the spring without the fall. There's only one thing worse in this universe. That's no Aunt Jemima at all.

    And the people said, "Amen."

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