We’re all running a day late and a ten-spot short these days, but one thing’s certain. If you can’t do your Halloween candy shopping ’til 7 p.m. on All Hallows’ Eve, even though every other candy display has been stripped bare, you’ll still find racks of Circus Peanuts, a Halloween treat that ranks alongside sticking your hand into the Jack-o’-lantern and pulling out pumpkin guts.
Candy should be a simple joy. But Circus Peanuts are a confectionary metaphor for annoyance and disappointment. Is there any candy as despised as Circus Peanuts? Or as mysterious? What were Willy Wonka and his tiny sweatshop slaves thinking when they created these things? Ponder the decision to cover the surface with yummy pockmarks, or the intriguing attempt to use “Circus” as a mouthwatering descriptor for food. It’s wrong to call them Circus Peanuts. They don’t taste like peanuts. Nor like anything sold at the circus. Circus Peanuts taste like something made from a worn-out sponge. With their dubiously food-like appearance—dimpled orange blobs approximating giant peanuts in the shell—they could be the bloated, dismembered carcass of Planters Peanut spokeslegume Mr. Peanut. They look as if poor misguided Mr. Peanut had a difference of opinion with the Mob (maybe a beef over a shipment of candy cigarettes, maybe roughing up some Ho Hos) and his torso, sans limbs, top hat, and monocle, washed up on a barren stretch of shoreline, becoming Exhibit A in an episode of CSI: Candyland. I can see the scene in the morgue where the battle-hardened coroner pulls back the sheet covering the swollen, carrot-colored remains, staggers back a step and gasps, “Good God!”
Here’s a depressing fact: Circus Peanuts have been around since the nineteenth century. I knew our ancestors lived on a dreary diet of slaughterhouse sweepings and porridge, but this broke my heart. The precise story of Circus Peanuts is lost in the fog of history, probably because nobody was willing to take the rap for developing it. Even in today’s cutthroat candy marketplace, companies are not battling to lay claim to this wretched delicacy. There’s no trademark symbol stamped protectively next to the name, no attempt to turn it into a brand, no court battles over distribution rights. Hershey, Kraft, Mars, and Nestlé want nothing to do with it. The leading manufacturer is Melster Candies Inc. of Cambridge, Wisconsin. Understandably, they keep a low profile. Circus Peanuts generally retail for 99 cents, but at the better dollar stores you can find them marked down to a quarter. Open the bag and out wafts the cloying aroma of a strip-mall tanning salon tinged with banana oil. Once the woozy feeling of morning sickness passes, dig in, if you dare ignore the visual warning of their nauseating off-salmon color. Like Cheetos, Nacho Cheese Doritos, and Tang, Circus Peanuts are an anxiety-inducing shade of orange that is surely nature’s warning of elevated threat. Fresh out of the bag, they have the consistency of the foam earplugs I use to muffle the jets dive-bombing my South Minneapolis home en route to the Hubert H. Humphrey Terminal. I think the earplugs are almost as tasty.
Neither solid nor foamy, Circus Peanuts are chewy, gritty, and gummy all at once, a taste-bud explosion of displeasure. Most of us can recall trips to Grandma’s house, when we took Circus Peanuts from her candy dish and battled boredom by molding them into snakes, footballs, and (for me) glamorous grown-up-lady press-on nails. The late John Holahan, a vice-president of General Mills, must have been in a similarly artistic mood one fateful day in 1963 when he shaved slivers of Circus Peanuts over his Cheerios and shouted “Eureka!” According to company lore, an ad firm suggested marketing his discovery by linking it to the trendy accessory of the day, the charm bracelet, and Lucky Charms were born. It’s a cute story, but what else did Holahan shred on top of his family’s cereal before the big breakthrough? Atomic Fireballs? Pez? Wax Lips? Breakfast at the Holahans must have been a tense experience.
In their defense, Circus Peanuts could be a good candy for Weight Watchers. Dieting is easy when you’ve got treats like this to discourage you from eating. And if it’s your Halloween candy of last resort, the little goblins probably won’t devour your whole supply. When they see what you’re handing out, they’ll turn on their heels, and you’ll have next year’s trick-or-treat candy, too. And as a bonus, you’ll have a wealth of toilet paper in your trees.