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Childhood Food Rituals

Though every American family has its own food and cooking customs, certain childhood food rituals are common to most Americans.

But what is a food ritual? For these purposes, it is something more than just the memory of a particular food from childhood. Most Americans remember eating, or even making, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as children, but a ritual takes more than just familiarity with a dish; it requires some kind of action, doing something (other than cooking) that sticks in the memory, that serves as an icon for childhood. Here are a few:

  • Searching for the Cracker Jacks prize. F.W. Reuckheim introduced Cracker Jacks at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Reuckheim developed a method—still a trade secret—of keeping the product’s molasses-coated popcorn and peanuts from sticking together. Toy prizes were added to every box in 1912. Finding the prize is still a thrill, even for adults. A similar experience, though less iconic, is searching for the occasional prize in a box of breakfast cereal.
  • Making sculptures out of Wonder Bread. Elmer Cline invented this feathery-light form of bread in 1921; it has been sold sliced since 1930. Gourmets turn their noses at this whisper weight, nutritionally fortified sandwich mainstay, but few bread varieties have Wonder’s amazing adaptability. What American child hasn’t scrunched up the center of a slice of Wonder Bread, delighting in the medium’s possibility for sculpture, or for manufacturing convenient (and biodegradable) projectiles?
  • Waiting for the ice cream truck. Back in the distant past, ice cream trucks jingled bells to attract neighborhood children. They now usually broadcast pre-recorded music. The result is the same: a quickening of the heartbeat, a scramble for a few dollars, a rush out the door and onto the street for America’s favorite treat.
  • Leaving cookies out for Santa Claus. Santa, it is said, comes down the chimney on Christmas Eve to leave presents for good little girls and boys. It’s hard work, hence even households without chimneys leave a plate of cookies for Santa to enjoy just in case he gets hungry. Santa invariably consumes a cookie or two.
  • Changing the identity of vegetables. Children seem to have a sixth sense that causes them to avoid many vegetables, or any other food that may remotely be defined as “healthy.” What exasperated parent has failed to attempt some ruse—calling the vegetables “energy pills” or making believe the spoonful of goodies is a rocket ship trying to land in the child’s mouth—in order to coax the child into ingesting the item?
  • Accumulating Halloween candy. On Halloween (October 31), American children dress in costumes and go door to door shouting “Trick or Treat;” they are given candies of all kinds (generally mass produced varieties) and the special orange and black Halloween candies shaped like corn kernels called “candy corn.” Most children will receive more candy than they can possibly eat, but keep the candy anyhow.
  • Roasting marshmallows. This is an outdoor activity, associated with camping out and backyard barbecues. Ideally, the child should roast the marshmallows using a stick over an open fire. The act of roasting marshmallows brings the sight and smell of the dripping, burning marshmallow, the crackle of the fire, the delicious silken feel of the molten marshmallow in your mouth, the taste of sugar and fire; in short, all the senses, the kind of experience American children store somewhere deep inside and take into adulthood.

Of all childhood food experiences, perhaps the one most poignantly recalled is the fond memory of eating to your heart’s content, without thinking about calories, fat or carbohydrate count, preservatives, sodium, genetically modified organisms, hormone treated meats, sulfites, trans-fats, the cost of the food, or any of the myriad issues that currently concern American adults and children alike.