This blog covers everything except sports and gardening, unless we find a really good link about using dead professional bowlers for mulch. The author is a StarTribune columnist, has been passing off fiction and hyperbole as insight since 1997, has run his own website since the Jurassic era of AOL, and was online when today’s college sophomores were a year away from being born. So get off his lawn.

Posts about Food and drink

The Sad Song of Skippy

Posted by: James Lileks Updated: October 21, 2013 - 12:41 PM

The story of breakfast cereal is a lively and fascinating tale - the origins couldn’t be farther away from the demon Boo Berry, and the endless post-war variations are a fine lesson in marketing and design. Isn’t that enough? No. Digg teases the story thus:


How Cereal Transformed American Culture

Hijacked, eh? Diverted from its true course by (dah-dah-DUM) CAPITALISM? Meaning, someone saw an opportunity to profit, which ruined everything. The Mental Floss article has this summary:

More than a century ago, Christian fundamentalists invented cereal to promote a healthy lifestyle free of sin. Little did they know, their creation would eventually be used to promote everything from radio and cartoons to Mr. T and tooth decay.

No cereal ever promoted tooth decay, except in the sense used by Trident gum in the ads. Let’s go to the article:

During the early 19th century, most Americans subsisted on a diet of pork, whiskey, and coffee. It was hell on the bowels, and to many Christian fundamentalists, hell on the soul, too. They believed that constipation was God's punishment for eating meat. The diet was also blamed for fueling lust and laziness. To rid America of these vices, religious zealots spearheaded the country's first vegetarian movement. In 1863, one member of this group, Dr. James Jackson, invented Granula, America's first ready-to-eat, grain-based breakfast product. Better known as cereal, Jackson's rock-hard breakfast bricks offered consumers a sin-free meat alternative that aimed to clear both conscience and bowels.

It’s almost as if the author’s smug modern stance makes you doubt the veracity of his characterizations, doesn’t it? Then there’s this, later in the piece - a discussion on the rise of mascot marketing.

But a radical shift in demographics came in 1936, thanks to a boy named Skippy.

A Dennis the Menace type who frequently interrupted his adventures to extol the virtues of Wheaties, Skippy was the first cereal character directly marketed to children. As it turned out, kids ate him up, and cereal producers learned an important lesson: Children are suckers.

Skippy wasn’t a cereal character. Skippy was a creation of Percy Crosby, and he was popular before his use as a cereal mascot. Here the story gets interesting, although you wouldn’t know it from the article. Skippy is the real story. From’s bio of Crosby:

Although he made a profound impression with millions of Americans, primarily through Skippy, the loveable and mischievous cartoon character who became a household word, Percy Crosby was unable to prevent retaliation by those who coveted control of Skippy for their commercial gain, and wanted him silenced.

What? Retaliation by people who wanted control of a cartoon character? Read on:

Percy Crosby was falsely imprisoned in a New York mental hospital for the last 16 years of his life, following years of harassment by the IRS. He referred to this period of his life as a "political witch hunt". During this time, Crosby's famous Skippy trademark and its valuable goodwill was pirated by a bankrupt peanut butter company, which later merged with a Fortune 500 company, making a fortune in illicit sales under the Skippy brand name.

WHAT? This is like learning that Jif ordered a hit on Peter Pan. Well, that's what the page put up by the pro-Crosby camp say; it details the long-going legal battles.  Let’s go to Wikipedia:

"Skippy" was first used as a trademark for peanut butter by the Rosefield Packing Co., Ltd., of Alameda, California, in 1933. Percy Crosby, creator of the "Skippy" comic strip, had the trademark invalidated in 1934, but Rosefield persisted after Crosby was committed to an insane asylum, and its successor companies, most recently Unilever and Hormel, have been granted rights to the trademark over the objection of Crosby's heirs. There has been much litigation on this point over the decades, some of which has continued into the 2000s.

Skippy comes in many different sizes, including a 4-pound jar, known as the "Family Jar".

Classic irrelevant pedantry, wiki-style. The  Wikipedia entry on Crosby says the IRS did indeed come after him, and he thought it was because of his political writings. Then it got worse:

The previous year, Crosby had begun drinking again, and his behavior became increasingly erratic. His marriage suffered, and after a violent episode in February 1939, Crosby left for Florida for two weeks. When he returned, repentant, his family had decamped, and his wife had filed for divorce. He never again saw his children, then aged five to nine. A devastated Crosby moved back to Manhattan and eventually entered Presbyterian Hospital for an extended stay for exhaustion and an infection.

The man who created one of his era’s most beloved child characters ever saw his children again. It’s like the real Dennis the Menace story.

The biography says he was declared a paranoid schizophrenic in ’49. He continued to write and draw, but nothing was ever published.

But we were talking about cereal. Turns out kids like sugar and cereal companies made money living up to the market’s expectation for sweet crunchy things, and so the original intent of cereal was HIJACKED and America was “transformed” and there were ads on TV that appealed to kids. Horrors. Here’s some more from the Mental Floss article:

Burnett was one of the earliest believers in motivational psychology and understood that colors appealed to kids and moms subliminally. When color TV became a reality, he persuaded Kellogg to use anthropomorphized cartoon animals as mascots. He thought animation would make for better, more colorful commercials. The first mascot they produced was Tony the Tiger, whose meteoric success was followed by hundreds of other cartoon icons.

In 1964, about three percent of US households had a color set. Here’s a Tony ad from 1956:

Tony was created in 1951. So if someone at lunch today says “you know, Tony the Tiger was invented because they wanted a mascot for color TV,” you’ll know they’ve been reading highly-compressed histories.

If you’re not properly horrified about the hijacking and the transforming, wander over to Mr. Breakfast and peruse the astonishing variety of cereal box art, and think back to your own childhood cereal experience. You thought you were enjoying that stuff. Hah! You were manipulated into thinking you were.

By the way, here's something you may not have known about the real-life Dennis the Menace:

The real-life Dennis was 12 in 1959 when his mother died of a drug overdose. . . . Dennis Ketcham served in Vietnam, suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and had little contact with his father.


DASH CAM FOLLIES They’re calling him “Russia’s Drunkest Driver,” which is a category all by itself.

Afternoon Time-Waster

Posted by: James Lileks Updated: April 19, 2010 - 2:51 PM

Here is a blog devoted to bad cakes.  with a bounteous crop of crappy Mickey Mice. My afternoon is complete, you say. Happy to help. You'll note that some of these cakes were professionally made, and you will also note that modern commercial bakeries have every tool at their disposal except spell-check.


But before you go, consider this: it is not surprising that there's a website devoted to bad cakes. It's not even surprising that they exist entirely on reader's contributions to supply pictures of bad cakes.What amazes me is this: every day, someone looks at a bad cake, and thinks: I have to send a picture to the people who run the bad-cake website. Somehow they know. Somehow the intersection of people who get a bad cake and the number of people who know about the bad-cake site is large enough to support a website that pays its writers.


So A) if you can't make money on the internet, you're just not thinking, and B) Makes you wonder what else is out there, doesn't it? In the realm of things that won't get you fired from work, that is. That stuff, you can guess.

Coffee, black

Posted by: James Lileks Updated: February 8, 2010 - 3:36 PM

 Coffee has the best nicknames: Jake. Joe. Java. What does Tea have? Tea. That's it. You feel good 'n' manly when you offer someone a slug o' joe or a cup o' jake. What's the preferred dose of Tea? A Spot Of. I like tea, but it just doesn't have the same simple virtue of a fine cup of American coffee, preferably served in a diner mug. (Whatever magic when into their design made it possible to sip impossibly hot coffee as soon as it's poured.) I think everyone starts out taking it with sugar and cream, and works their way towards Coffee, Black. But even if you prefer it with cow-juice and sweeteners, you may balk at the horrible things done to coffee at this site, Putting Things in Coffee. 

It answers the question, for example, about what coffee with bleu cheese tastes like. (Like you'd expect; have a bucket handy,) 

Zantigo's is back!

Posted by: James Lileks Updated: January 19, 2010 - 12:01 PM

First the father of the Quarter-Pounder leaves this vale of tears, then the inventor of Spaghetti-os, now this: the founder of Taco Bell has died. We’re so used to the ubiquity of Taco Bell that the name long ceased to seem strange; it’s like Burger Carillon or Kentucky Fried Chicken Xylophone. Twin Citizens who were awake in the 80s recall how Taco Bell came late to the party here - we had Zantigo’s, which was much better than that chain crap! Except that it was a chain, owned by KFC. Pepsi bought it 1986. As Wikipedia sagely notes:


In many cases, the existing Zantigo assets were in better locations or in better physical condition than nearby Taco Bell locations. Thus, most Zantigo locations continued to remain in business as Taco Bells, with the nearby Taco Bell locations being closed. This led indirectly to the Taco Bell chain as a whole adopting many of the distinctive architectural details of the old Zantigo restaurant.


That’s true, at least the part about “architecturally distinctive” buildings. I can still spot a Zans from blocks away. (They looked like this.) At the time we worried about the loss of the Chilito, but Taco Bell scientists, realizing the difficulty of duplicating the item’s zesty melange of pepper, pepper, salt, meat-type substances and melted vinyl, wisely chose to keep the item around. I say this with honest respect: I loved those things, and the Taco Bell version isn’t quite the same.


Well, imagine my surprise when googling turned up . . . this. Some local restauranteurs have resurrected the Zantigo’s name and the menu. Six locations so far, and yes: they have the Chilito, in hot AND mild. I will have one this weekend and report back. Now if we could just get back Tonto’s Taco Shoppe, and its famous chunky green-chili burrito, we’d be complete. I’m sweating just thinking about it.


Posted by: James Lileks Updated: January 14, 2010 - 1:10 PM

One by one, the giants fall. The inventor of the Quarter Pounder died earlier this year, his contribution to American cuisine surpassed only by the effect he had on language: for many years anything that weighed close to a pound was described as a POUNDER. It never spread beyond that; no ever described a cup of yogurt as a THREE OUNCER, for example.


Now the inventor of Spaghetti-Os has left us. He was also responsible for Campbell’s Chunky Soup, another great innovation that seems so obvious, so simple in retrospect. Soup is not enough; it needs chunks. No one ever seemed to wonder: chunks of what? No mother ever put the bowl down and said “now eat your chunks.” But we lapped it up nonetheless. Soup’s all the better for being chunkier, I guess.


Spaghetti-Os were another thing, and my view may be colored by my early attempts to feed them to my child, just to provide variety from Mac & Cheese. She was excited to try them, thanks to the colorful graphics and “Fun Shapes” promised on the label. Her expression after one spoonful said she will never eat Spaghetti-Os for the rest of her life. Not if I pureed them and made them into a poultice to be absorbed through the skin. If you don’t eat them as a kid, you’ll never eat them. The sauce - well, it’s just wrong. The Os are mushy; the meatballs seemed to be made of some strange combination of beef bouillon-soaked cardboard and Elmer’s Glue. But they were loved by millions, I presume.


As was the ad campaign: Uh Oh, Spaghetti-Os.


In retrospect, it seems like they were honestly trying to warn you.



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