I thought, “I’ll bet I could give Cracker Jacks to everybody in school.” That huge Cracker Jack box must have had me drooling at the thought of crawling through it to get at the prize and a mighty huge prize it would have been, a baseball glove, a Lincoln Logs set, or maybe even a bicycle. It was probably a newspaper or magazine article about the plant on Chicago’s southwest side, but it might have been a trip somewhere with my father that introduced me to that giant box and the dreams it conjured.
On the rare occasions, I bought a box of Cracker Jacks when I became an adult (your guess is as good as mine about when that might have been), had to have been because I wanted the taste of the sweetened popcorn and peanuts, not because I wanted the prize inside the box. By that time the prizes had become practically worthless, little more than pieces of cardboard with a picture on them. When I was a kid we wanted the Cracker Jacks as much for the popcorn candy as for the prize inside the box, usually miniature trinkets such as tiny cars, guns, horses or dogs. My favorite was a little pocket knife that didn’t cut much, but it was fun to imagine pulling it out of my boot (also imaginary because I didn’t wear boots) so I could surprise the bad guys.
“Mrs. Threadgoode pulled something out of the Cracker Jack box and all of a sudden her eyes lit up. “Oh Evelyn, look! Here’s my prize. It’s a little miniature chicken… just what I like!” and she held it out for her friend to see.” ― Fannie Flagg,
I also treasured the peanuts. I developed ways to better enjoy my favorite sweets. I twisted Oreo cookies apart and ate the cream filling first, then let the chocolate cookies melt in my mouth one at a time. I peeled the chocolate top off a Hostess cupcake, then licked out the cream filling before eating the cake followed by small bites of the saved-for-later chocolate frosting. I carefully peeled off the thickest part of the chocolate coating of most candy bars to enjoy after I’d eaten the rest of the bar. Whenever my mother made a pie I ate the filling first, then enjoyed the crust. When she made a cake I ate the cake first, carefully removing it from the frosting.
After digging out the prize inside the Cracker Jack box I at the popcorn, but separated the peanuts and set them aside. I’d eat them after I’d melted each piece of popcorn in my mouth. I remember trying to dissolve the popcorn coating while leaving the popcorn itself intact. That never worked. All I ever had left were the shell or pericarp of the kernel, those little bits that get caught in your throat or between your teeth. I also never sucked the coating off the peanuts. The coating was just sweet and the peanuts were just peanuts, but together they were marvelous.
Cracker Jack was sold to the Borden Company in 1963 and the plant at 66th and Cicero was closed in 1986. The plant was eventually torn down. A TGI Fridays and a Courtyard Marriott now sit at that location. I wonder what happened to that giant Cracker Jack box, scrap metal probably.
“The More You Eat The More You Want” – Cracker Jacks Slogan
A couple of years ago I opened a box of Cracker Jacks. They tasted about the same, but there weren’t many peanuts and I didn’t set them aside. About the middle of the box, I found the prize. I was expecting a bit of trivia or a little paper puzzle I could fold. It was a puzzle of sorts, a digital computer code, which I threw away. I’m told needed an app to redeem the code, but it still wouldn’t lead to much of a prize.
Writing this has me thinking about that special flavor, but I’m not going to run out to get a bag of Cracker Jacks (yes, they’re now packaged in bags). I’m pretty sure I’ll be disappointed. They’ll still taste about the same, maybe there’ll be fewer peanuts to set aside and the prize won’t be worth bothering with, so maybe I should just pop some corn and make my own.
If you do buy some Cracker Jacks, here’s a little trick you might try. Next time you make caramel corn, just before you stir the popcorn and sticky stuff together toss in a bag’s worth of Cracker Jack’s. I don’t know how it will taste. I’ve never tried it myself, but it sounds like a good idea.