5 Explosive, Fruit-Filled Stories From The History of Pop-Tarts
Food scientists (or marketing executives, whatever) constantly work at developing products. The goal, almost always, is to make the new stuff feel like real food. Milk substitutes made from nuts or deer antlers, meat substitutes made from fungi or evil clones. The future that our ancestors dreamed of, where we all eat pills or powders, never came to pass. We're less desperate and more prosperous than our grandparents could have predicted. We have good taste, and like stuff with good taste.
If you're interested, on the other hand, in a time when food technology really felt like technology -- revolutionary, but also a little alien -- you need to look back at the 20th century. To, say, the dawn of the Pop-Tart. Because ...
Pop-Tarts Began With Theft, And Dog Food
In the '50s and '60s, companies sought new ways to preserve food, making meals ever easier to eat without hours of preparation. They catered to families spending more time working and commuting by freezing food, drying food, and freeze-drying food. And then Post -- the company you know for Cocoa Pebbles, Raisin Bran, and, uh, Hulk cereal -- came up with something amazing. It was a way of preserving semi-moist food using foil so it needed no refrigeration and no canning. They debuted it in 1961, and they called their new product ... not Pop-Tarts, no. They called it Gaines-Burgers. It was a type of dog food.
But as great as it was to carry in your pocket mush that looked like hamburgers, dog food clearly wasn't the most ambitious application for Post's new tech. The same process could make food for people. Post never released any such product made from meat, probably because whatever they tried tasted like ass, which is the flavor dogs like best but that people aren't that keen on. (Puddles? Dead squirrels?) Instead, the company created a type of pastry with moist fruit filling that wouldn't spoil. They released this new product in 1964, and they called it ... again, not Pop-Tarts, no. They called it Country Squares, and would later change the name to Toast'em Pop Ups.
We often mock companies for renaming products to try to sound cool. But in this case, Toast'em Pop Ups was a necessary coolness upgrade from Country Squares -- an upgrade that came too late. For years, Post sold the product under a name that, in '60s lingo, literally meant "uncool hicks." Worse, for months after their soft-launch of the product, Post held back supply so they could needlessly tinker with it. During that time, their competitor Kellogg's said, "Hey, toaster pastry? Let's copy that idea!"
They released their own product, and they called it ... yes, Pop-Tarts. And while Toast'em Pop Ups exists in obscurity even today, and is the superior product according to some, Pop-Tarts set the world on fire.
Pop-Tarts Set The World On Fire (Occasionally)
Pop-Tarts come out of the toaster really, really hot. Weirdly hot, compared to toast, which sits in the same device but cools enough to bite into almost immediately. That's because with toast, a lot of the heat goes into the converting the bread's moisture into steam and into browning the bread -- which is not "like burning the bread, only less so" but more like the opposite of burning. Burning releases heat; browning absorbs heat. It's a
The bready part of a Pop-Tart, however, isn't very moist. It's designed to seal the semi-moist freshness in, so not too much steam is getting out of there. The pastry browns only a little. The sugary innards can undergo chemical reactions, but it would take a lot of heat over a long time -- till then, heat just heats it up. The filling stores a lot of this heat, which means it takes considerably more than two seconds to drop down to mildly warm.
So if you bite into a Pop-Tart too quick, you're going to burn your tongue. That's perfectly fine, according to Pop-Tart marketing, which says that burning your mouth is AWESOME, and if you don't like pastry that maims you, you're WEAK.
Then when you turn your eyes to the prep instructions, a few inches away, the package quickly changes gears and says, "But seriously, please don't burn your mouth."
Look to the really fine print, though, and a mouth burn is the mildest of consequences of an overheated Pop-Tart. Those things might actually catch fire in the toaster:
Every warning has a story, and this one goes back to 1992, when Thomas Nangle of Springfield, Ohio, tried making strawberry Pop-Tarts, and the pastries got stuck in the toaster and caught fire. He successfully sued Kellogg's, and considered calling in as a witness humorist Dave Barry, who'd written articles about Pop-Tart combustion, funnier ones than what you're reading right now. Nangle didn't summon Barry in the end, which is just as well because it wasn't that big of a case. It was over just $2,600 in damages, which is probably less than Kellogg's lawyers charge even to ignore lawsuits.
Similar suits followed. Another 1998 Pop-Tart fire led to a $100,000 legal battle that lasted years, while a New Jersey couple also sued Kellogg's for $100,000 over a fire that hit their home in 2001. Each time, a toaster failed to eject the Pop-Tart, so as long as yours actually pops out, you should be fine. With the boxes' fine print nobly shielding Kellogg's, we can't find any record of these later suits winning.
If you truly want to watch Pop-Tart lawyers flex, though, you should see how they handled a 1994 suit filed by a prisoner who said his pastry had a shard of glass. A judge threw the suit out, not for lack of evidence but because, when you factor in that the inmate's hospital stay was free and he missed out on no wages, his suffering wasn't worth enough for a lawsuit.
Presto Pizza, The Forgotten Pizza Pop-Tart
We're not discussing shitty food today to mock it. We discuss shitty food to celebrate it. Not all of us have the luxury of an "oven," or even a "toaster oven" and we want hot crispy food too, without ordering in, and ready-made toaster pastry lets us have that. A microwave can't do the job because microwaves work by heating water so they never heat anything enough to toast it. Unless something goes drastically wrong because, say, you stuck a foil Pop-Tart wrapper in there.
We need an even greater variety of Pop-Tarts, fulfilling our need for both sweet and salty items, the two basic food groups. In the '70s, Kellogg's produced pizza Pop-Tarts -- though in a baffling bit of market segregation, they refused to call them "Pop-Tarts." They called the product "Presto Pizza."
This was 1971, the same year Hamburger Helper and Cup Noodles debuted -- truly, it was golden age for stuff that claimed to be food. It was also the year of the first Starbucks and the first McDonald's first Quarter Pounder.
Tragically, though other toaster pizzas have come out over the years, Presto Pizza did not last. Why? Was it because it wasn't very good? That's no excuse -- they should have worked harder and improved it till it earned the official Pop-Tart label. A weary world would embrace pizza Pop-Tarts today. Even more so than we welcomed Kellogg's selling pizza at a Times Square Pop-Tart cafe, whose location (i.e. not your kitchen) defeated the whole point of eating Pop-Tarts.
That Time A Kid Got Suspended For Biting A Pop-Tart Into A Gun
Pretty regularly, you'll hear of teachers going nuts punishing kids, because schools are fascist, or because of political correctness run amok, take your pick. Few stories were as perfect as the one of seven-year-old Josh Welch, who bit a Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun in 2013.
Josh wasn't even trying to make a gun, said early reports. He was trying to make a mountain range. And yet his school suspended him, because they ban all guns, even pretend ones. As the pic below shows, a Pop-Tart only needs a couple bites to turn it into a gun; that's how rectangles work. More creative artists have nibbled tarts into more detailed guns, though this kind of just makes the Pop-Tart look like Florida.
Now, if this really was a case of an oversensitive school misapplying their rules, it would be exactly as dumb as it sounds. Zero-tolerance policies are all terrible, and everyone who enforces them should be punished, no exceptions. But when you read these stories where parents complain about evil schools, stay skeptical.
Oh, schools can be awful. (We know this because we ourselves went to school as kids, several times.) It's just that with these stories, nearly always, the outlet interviews the parents (and maybe shows you photos of the happy family and the angelic kid), but you hear only the barest of responses from the school, or no response at all, because that's the school's media policy. If you really want to know if the school did something terrible or if this was just bad reporting, you have to wait for a third party to properly examine it, like the courts maybe, and most stuff never gets that far.
The Pop-Tart case did end up getting that far because the parents sued and appealed for years, not wanting "gun" anywhere on their kid's record. And so the school got to tell their side. They hadn't suspended the kid for just a Pop-Tart. They'd suspended him for a pattern of behavior spanning some 20 incidents, including punching a kid and lifting a desk over his head, incidents that multiple times forced the teacher to clear the classroom. And even the Pop-Tart incident wasn't nothing. Though there was never any danger of shooting anyone, he'd run up to students and said "I made a gun," which isn't a very nice thing to do to a bunch of seven-year-olds just months after Sandy Hook. Multiple judges sided with the school, putting an end to what would surely be the only case of weaponizing Pop-Tarts.
The Military Dropped Pop-Tarts Over Afghanistan
Okay, now that we've got you picturing a jet firing Pop-Tart missiles so they stick in toasters and set the enemy aflame, let's backtrack and tell you what really happened. This airdrop was a goodwill gesture. These were food supplies for a war-torn region.
Though, actually, wasn't that kind of ridiculous too? Oh, to the original American target consumer, a pastry you can put in a toaster was the height of convenience. But to a rural Afghan town living without electricity, a food demanding to be toasted (in a device arbitrarily catering to Western sliced bread) had to be an impossible challenge. And that's not even getting into each package's alternate instructions, mockingly suggesting you put the pastry into a microwave oven.
Okay, now that we've got you picturing angry Afghans crushing Pop-Tarts with their heels and raising fists yelling "death to America," let's backtrack and tell you that, no, this was actually a perfectly fine idea. Pop-Tarts don't need to be toasted. They are a ready-to-eat snack that needs no cooking. That's why they even pop up in the military's own MREs (literally "Meals, Ready-to-Eat"). Though if you really want to, you can probably heat one up just by dropping in on a round metal pan, or you can even stick one in the Afghan snow for a while, since frozen Pop-Tarts are the best Pop-Tarts.
The U.S. also didn't just dump on the landscape a bunch of cartons from Walmart. These were aid packages, each containing a whole day's worth of high-calorie foods that aligned with Islamic dietary laws (like peanut butter and rice) with the Pop-Tart being both a treat and an introduction to American culture. To bring in the packages, transport planes flew in all the way from Germany for a nonstop round trip. These aircraft opened in mid-air (causing the interior to depressurize), then the plane would tip upward. The pallets, each the size of a fridge, dropped out the rear, and then each pallet split apart while still in the air so the individual meal packs could spread out as much as possible.
The packages bore American flags, and messages within said "This is a food gift from the people of the United States of America." So the worst thing you could say -- and some aid agencies did say -- about the program was that it was pro-American propaganda. To which the military would probably reply, "Uh, yeah, of course it's pro-American propaganda. Does anyone have a problem with that?" Propaganda, goodwill gesture ... the only difference is the name, much like Country Squares and Toast'em Pop Ups.
And did the operation succeed? Well, America has announced plans to completely withdraw from Afghanistan by this September, so clearly it did! Uh, all right, maybe the War in Afghanistan lasted longer than expected. But so do Pop-Tarts.
Top image: Arnold Gatilao