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The sticky, sugary history of Peeps

Just Born Celebrates 50th Anniversary of Marshmallow Peeps Candy Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images
Tanya Pai heads the standards team at Vox, focusing on copy editing, fact-checking, inclusive language and sourcing, and newsroom standards and ethics issues. She’s also a founder of Language, Please, a free resource for journalists and storytellers focused on thoughtful language use.

Easter season is upon us, and if you're like a majority of Americans who celebrate the holiday, you’ll probably purchase some candy for the occasion. And that stash will likely include the neon-sugar-coated hallmark of the season: Peeps.

But while their blobby shapes and bright colors are easily recognizable, their backstory might not be so familiar — or as straightforward as you’d think. Read on to find out more about these squishy harbingers of spring.

Mmm, sugar-coated marshmallows with eyes

Blue sugar pouring into a bin
How the sugar-coated sausage gets made.

In their traditional form, Peeps are shaped like baby chickens and made of a soft marshmallow rolled in colored sugar, with eyes made of edible wax. They are typically sold in packs of five conjoined marshmallows. One serving of Peeps (five pieces) contains 140 calories, no fat, and 34 grams of sugar, which makes sense since their two main ingredients are sugar and corn syrup. Peeps also contain gelatin, which makes them unsuitable for vegans.

Peeps are manufactured by the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-based Just Born candy company, which was founded in 1910 by a Russian immigrant named Sam Born and also manufactures such trick-or-treating offenses as Mike & Ikes and Hot Tamales.

According to Just Born's company history, Born is to thank for several confectionary feats we now take for granted, including producing chocolate sprinkles and that type of chocolate sauce that hardens into a crunchy shell when it hits ice cream; he also invented a machine to put sticks into lollipops, without which our national lollipop game would be sadly deficient.

In 1953, Just Born bought the Rodda candy company, which was based in nearby Lancaster and produced jelly beans as well as a line of handmade, chick-shaped marshmallows. Born's son Bob Born figured out how to mechanize the marshmallow creation process, which shortened the manufacturing time from nearly 27 hours to six minutes. (Bob also ditched the wings that used to be piped onto each Peep, which further streamlined the process.)

Not just for Easter anymore

Ghost Peeps for Halloween
Ghost Peeps for Halloween
Julie Clopper/Shutterstock

Much like that other tooth-achingly sweet seasonal treat candy corn, Peeps have expanded beyond their original limited availability to become a year-round sweet. They come in different colors (blue, pink, lavender), flavors (cotton candy, gingerbread, "lemon delight," chocolate-covered, candy cane), and shapes — Peeps bunnies were introduced in the 1980s, and now the line includes hearts, pumpkins, Minions, and more.

But the original yellow chicks (whose flavor is simply "sugar") are still the most popular, and the candy is still most commonly associated with Easter. The website WalletHub estimates that 1.5 billion Peeps are eaten every Easter.

Still, Peeps are rather divisive. While they have their die-hard fans, many others devote an astonishing amount of energy to railing against them. Take, for instance, the 2012 Guardian article "Sorry, but Peeps are disgusting," or the Facebook groups dedicated to Peep hate. Angela Hill of the Oakland Tribune finds them unsettling:

I dislike them intensely. And they know it, which merely bolsters their resolve. I can see it in their beady little food-colored eyes — their defiance, their sheer pluck. You can't get just one Peep, you know, and that's no accident. They come in packs. One might even say, battalions.

And then there's this vivid description of consuming a Peep, courtesy of the Dallas Observer: "It's like eating a tablespoon of sugar lovingly dusted atop a mouthful of your gramma's cellulite."

Useful as food and fun

A scene from the inaugural Peeps eating world championship.
The Washington Post / Contributor

Peeps are as versatile as their flavor is one-note. If you’re a Peep purist, you can just eat them straight from the package — either fresh or stale and slightly crunchy, as some people prefer. (Matthew Pye, Just Born's VP of trade relations and corporate affairs, told the Huffington Post that 70 to 75 percent of people prefer "fresh" Peeps, which still leaves a sizable portion of Peep eaters who opt to consume them on the crunchier side of the sell-by date.) If you're of legal drinking age, you could pair them with wine or beer.

If you want to get creative, Peeps-centric recipes abound, from the relatively innocuous (Peeps Krispies treats) to the elaborate (a Peeps sunflower cake) to the straight-up revolting ("Peepza" — literally just Peeps on a pizza — and "Peepshi," a Willy Wonka fever dream wherein faux sushi is constructed from Peeps, Nerds, Fruit by the Foot, etc.). Momofuku Milk Bar’s Christina Tosi suggests skewering them to roast over a fire or flattening them and drying them in the oven to make “Peep chips.”

But if you'd rather not eat them at all, you can still experiment with Peeps in the name of science. One time-honored tradition is to put them in the microwave to see what happens. (Spoiler alert: They get big. Like, really big.) This practice has also led to the exotic sport known as Peep jousting:

In 1999, Emory University researchers Gary Falcon and James Zimring performed perhaps the most exhaustive Peeps testing in human history, exploring the candies' durability in the face of a variety of substances. According to the Emory Report:

To test Peep solubility, they began with simple tap water, then moved on to boiling water, then to acetone, sulfuric acid and sodium hydroxide, but were left dumbfounded by Peeps' apparent invulnerability to each.

Then they tried Phenol, a protein-dissolving solvent lethal to humans in amounts as small as a single gram. Peeps proved mortal to such a substance — well, almost. One hour after plunging an unfortunate Peep into its grisly demise, all that remained in the beaker was a pair of brown carnauba wax eyes floating in a purple Phenol soup.

If you're more of a right-brained soul, you might consider using the confections to create an artistic masterpiece. In 2006, the Washington Post launched an annual "Peep Show" diorama contest, asking entrants to create a 3D scene in which all the characters are Peeps. The contest sometimes drew several hundred participants, whose submissions ranged from a Peep van Gogh to a Peepified scene from the movie Up. (You can see past winners of the diorama contest here.) The competition was such a cult favorite that when in 2017 the Post decided to discontinue it, the fine folks at Washington City Paper took it upon themselves to keep the tradition going. (You can see the winners of 2018’s contest online, including an ode to this year’s Best Picture winner titled “The Shape of Sugar.”)

The March on Washington, rendered in Peeps.
Joseph Victor Stefanchik/The Washington Post via Getty Images

But the Post wasn't even the first newspaper to hold a Peeps contest — that honor goes to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, whose staff writer Richard Chin dreamed up the competition in 2004. And the New Yorker argues that the tradition of sugar-based dioramas goes back much further, to the 17th century:

By the early Renaissance, inventive European court confectioners were crafting elaborate sculptures for special meals, often designed to echo or compliment the themes of the musical or theatrical entertainments that would accompany a banquet. These could also be allegorical in nature, depicting religious scenes or commemorating military victories. At the wedding of Maria de Medici to Henri IV, in Florence, in 1600, the groom was not in attendance, but he was represented by an impressive sugar sculpture depicting him on horseback.

In a less, uh, artful contest, in 2016 Maryland’s National Harbor hosted the first World Peeps Eating Championship. The winner, Matt Stonie of San Jose, took home $3,500 for consuming an impressive (or disturbing) 200 Peeps in five minutes.

Sugar and strife

Things have soured a bit for the sugary candy lately. In recent years, Peep-maker Just Born has been mired in a sticky legal battle with its union workforce over the company’s longtime pension plan. This fascinating Washington Post article goes into it in depth (and is worth reading in full if you’ve made it this far into an article about Peeps), but I’ll explain it briefly here.

Just Born has what’s called a multiemployer pension program, which allows employees enrolled in the program to move among participating companies and carry their benefits with them. In 2016, citing rising labor costs, Just Born tried to bar all new employees from joining the pension plan, funneling them to the 401(k) program instead while sidestepping a $60 million fee required by federal law to make the move. The union workers went on strike (adopting the utterly perfect chant “No justice, no Peeps!”); the strike came to a messy end four weeks later after several workers crossed the picket line and the rest eventually went back to work for fear of losing their jobs.

Then the tangled legal bit began. Per the Post:

The pension, which is administered by a group of labor officials and corporate executives from the 200 participating companies, has sued the company, alleging it improperly tried to stop enrolling new employees in the pension without paying the withdrawal fee. The company has sued the union, demanding “monetary damages” and alleging the strike was illegal.

The outcome of the case could have big ramifications for companies with multiemployer pension programs and the nearly 10 million American workers those programs cover. If Just Born manages to get out of that $60 million fee, other companies could follow in its footsteps, putting the benefits payouts for millions of American works in doubt.

Again, the Post article is worth reading in full — but rest assured that despite the company’s legal troubles, you don’t need to start stockpiling Peeps just yet.

Where do Peeps fall in the Easter candy hierarchy?

The website Ranker maintains a fluctuating list of the top Easter candies, which confusingly includes both "chocolate-covered marshmallow Peeps" and "bunny Peeps" as separate items. However, that list also considers the unholy monstrosities known as Jordan almonds and thus must be discounted entirely.

A Food & Wine ranking from 2014 put Peeps in the top spot above all other drugstore Easter candy, though at least one survey has Reese’s mini eggs at No. 1 and Peeps all the way down in fifth place.

But only one Easter candy has the distinction of featuring in the premiere of the controversial Roseanne revival, whose first episode sees main character (and noted Trump supporter) Roseanne Conner chowing down on some Peeps for breakfast. Which, regardless of your politics, seems like a risky move from a nutritional and dental health perspective.

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