Rarely has candy provoked as much intrigue as the humble pop rock. You’ve probably heard the rumors; renegade science, corporate machinations, rivers of blood, “New Coke.” A confluence of bizarre circumstance and wild fabulism amounted to a perfect storm whose locus was wherever candy and soda were sold and consumed. The story begins in the halcyon days of 1956, when Elvis Presley’s pompadour was freshly coiffed, and interstate highways were mere twinkles in the eyes of excavator operators across the country.
William A. Mitchell, a research chemist for General Foods, was working in the lab. It may or may not have been late at night and the question of whether lightning blazed and thunder crashed, while unconfirmed, cannot either be disproved. What is certain is that Mitchell created the candy that would later be marketed as Pop Rocks– ingeniously processing average, everyday hard candy ingredients such as sugar, lactose, corn syrup, dyes and flavoring with Carbon dioxide pressurized to 600 pounds per square inch. The result was a candy that fizzled and popped in the mouth like crystallized soda.
Was his invention too rock n’ roll for a public that had barely had the chance to come to grips with the implications of “Tutti Frutti,” or were there other reasons for the product’s nearly twenty year suppression?
In 1975, Pop Rocks hit stores and were snapped up with abandon by hordes of children and adults eager to live a little closer to the edge. They weren’t disappointed and soon the first extreme snack was in such high demand that a distribution crisis ensued. By 1983, the unthinkable occurred when Pop Rocks were pulled from the market, with General Foods citing the widespread sale of expired products by merchants hoping to cash-in on Pop Rocks’ popularity as motive for the recall.
Distraught, imaginative and pop-culturally literate consumers, unwilling to accept such a mundane story made an exhaustive appraisal of the situation and released a counter-claim into the atmosphere. It was no fear of tummy aches or FDA fines that prompted the disappearance of Pop Rocks, but the untimely demise of a beloved public figure.
Young John Gilchrist, the child actor famous for his portrayal of “Little Mikey” in a series of Life Cereal ads throughout the 1970s and alumnus of dozens of other dramatic commercial endorsements had abruptly fallen off the radar in 1979, shortly after the release of Pop Rocks. Where had he gone? “Could there be a connection between the dearth of Gilchrist appearances, that old folktale about how mixing Pop Rocks with Coke can make your stomach explode and the recently abridged run of what had been an enormously profitable product?” wondered America. And they wondered hard, despite thousands of damage control dollars spent by General Foods on informative flyers and national tours by the aging William Mitchell, beseeching us to see reason.
The reformulation of the Coca Cola recipe and release of “New Coke” in 1985 seemed to confirm everyone’s worst fears. And though Coca Cola Classic was reinstituted a few months later, Pop Rocks are again widely available and John Gilchrist has made numerous references to his continued tenure amongst the living, sinister rumors continue to circulate.
While I can’t speak to the original product, I can say definitively that today’s Pop Rocks won’t kill you, regardless of what kind of carbonated beverage you chose to wash them down with. Based on the rumors, I was expecting soda to at least enhance the Pop Rocks– if not necessarily lay me out on the floor– so I was disappointed to find that all the fizzy drinks I sampled with a mouthful of Pop Rocks actually extinguished the popping. The worst thing that can happen is getting a Pop Rock stuck to the roof of your mouth, thinking it’s a dud and having it pop a few seconds later. Surprising, but not enough to run for the defibrillator.
Overall, the Pop Rocks experience is pretty satisfying. The taste, for something that looks basically like dyed, raw sugar isn’t nearly as chemical or oversweet as I expected. I sampled “blue raspberry” since it was the only variety I could find and have to say that Pop Rocks does a nice job handling this widely reviled flavor, downplaying the blue and bringing out what’s most raspberry-ey.
I’m not sure where they fit in the food pyramid, but Pop Rocks are fun and deserve to claim their place as candy that will definitely not kill fully grown humans who consume a third of an ounce or less.