Posted on February 14th, 2013
One of the saddest things about the end of the world—and I’m not being nearly as sarcastic as you think I am—is that one by one, every manufactured food product you used to love will cease to exist. Forever.
I’m not talking about the eventual extinction of all things good and wholesome: a fell blight on kale, cutworms leveling the last tomato. An ecological catastrophe on this scale would flush us out with the rest of the bathwater. Mercifully.
Because really, who wants to go living in a world without comforting brand-name garbage? Just months ago, nightmare fiction turned horribly real as the final Twinkies vanished from gas stations nationwide. It left me scarred. (You too?) An illusion of permanence, shattered. I didn’t even like Twinkies—but I like the absence of Twinkies less. It casts a cold light on things. What will follow down the dim trail of the snack cake? Cool whip? Cheez whiz? What will we find we never wanted to learn to live without?
Food isn’t sound, or color, or shaped stone. Unlike our other cultural achievements we cannot preserve it. Maybe for a time, in an oxygen-free environment, temperature-controlled. But not forever. Sooner or later mold creeps in, or moisture creeps out, or flavor compounds break down, or sugars ferment into some marriage of vinegar and embalming fluid. Ask anyone who’s tasted ancient wine from a shipwreck. (I haven’t.) Even the Twinkie doesn’t (didn’t?) keep forever. And if it did, we still would have gobbled up the final specimens before forever rolled around.
This means that the great foods of the past really are gone forever. We stand a better chance of recovering the works of Sappho from the back of a pastry shop than we do of recovering any actual pastries, even if the pâtissier whose ghost haunts the kitchen was one of the world’s great artists.
I have my own pet nightmare. It settles into my dreams every year as the first nip of fall stains the air. (Only in spring do I have the critical distance necessary to write about it.) After willfully and happily ignoring the product’s existence for all of my adult life and the latter half of my childhood, I was afflicted not long ago by a sudden and acute craving for Boo Berry cereal. Admit it: you know what I’m talking about. Crunchy wads of purplish corn shaped like malformed ghosts. Flavorless marshmallows that achieve the texture of fish eggs the moment they touch milk. It tastes of nothing and tints your insides green, and after twenty years I needed a fix.
Boo Berry and its brethren, Franken Berry and Count Chocula, are rare examples of endangered food products. Usually your favorite horrors go like the Twinkie: quietly, in the night. The General Mills Monster Cereals, on the other hand, are readily available, but only in season. (I think you know which season. It isn’t Valentine’s Day.) I can imagine a year in which they simply don’t return. September, October—then November, and no more hope. Scour the back shelves of the Circle K. Root through your neighbors’ garages. All in vain.
It has happened before.
Three Monster Cereals survive today, but what a stroll through the grocery store won’t tell you is that there were once two others. A deranged cartoon werewolf advertised Fruit Brute, an unlikely afterbirth of the disco era. Its flavor, ostensibly, was “fruit,” and its marshmallows tasted of lime. The combination, a sort of tie-dye for the tongue, didn’t survive the cultural pressures of the ’80s, and Fruit Brute disappeared forever just as Michael Jackson’s Thriller hit the top of the charts. Its successor, Fruity Yummy Mummy, crawled from the tomb in 1987, again “fruit” flavored but now with an ambiguously Jamaican mummy (?) as its avatar, whose song-and-dance routine I recommend you watch immediately. Its success was limited, and Fruity Yummy Mummy left this world around the same time as Kurt Cobain (with whom I intend no comparison).
Boo, Franken, and the Count remain, but who knows for how long. They have enough of a cult following that the final sealed boxes will draw hefty sums on eBay long after General Mills pulls the plug on their rusted assembly line. There will come a day with no Count Chocula, a day when the final boxes, rat-gnawed and oxidized, are tossed aside by some fastidious looter in the wake of uranium, zombies, or smallpox. It won’t be the greatest of our worries, but it might not be the least.
So this Valentine’s Day, take a moment to relish the tooth-breaking mis-struck message hearts, the strawberry crème flavored dipped marshmallow chicks, the Cadbury Cream Eggs announcing springtime. Think on a world without them, and be glad it isn’t this one—yet.
(But still, best not to eat any.)