June 12th, 2008 18:38 EST
American Junk Food: Cracker Jack
"Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack/I don`t care if I never go back!"
- America, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game"
As any sports fan knows, baseball season is now well under way - and so is Cracker Jack season. Although you can find the caramel snack in stores across America any time of year, it is best enjoyed when root, root, rooting for the home team. Have you had your weekly dose of Cracker Jack?
America got its first taste of Jack at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The masterminds behind the confection were Frederick "Fritz" Rueckheim and his brother Louis, who together produced massive amounts of their new treat for hungry fairgoers. At the time, consumers enjoyed molasses, rather than caramel, on their "Candied Popcorn and Peanuts" - the name by which Cracker Jack was then marketed.
The original mixture was not perfect, however. Molasses grew extremely sticky when exposed to any sort of heat, causing the popcorn to clump together. To remedy this, Fritz Rueckheim began to add a small amount of oil to each batch as it cooked - this gave the treat its modern texture. Shortly after, the jump from molasses to caramel was made, and the Jack was looking and tasting much as it does today.
Clearly, the changes were popular - Cracker Jack was very quickly becoming a genuine piece of Americana. Nothing better displays this than the well-known 1908 anthem, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." Written by Vaudeville performer Jack Norworth while he rode a subway, the song shows that even 100 years ago, Cracker Jack was having a love affair with America`s past time.
Still, there was more in store for Jack lovers. Anyone who has had the pleasure of tearing into a box know that somewhere inside lurks an extra bonus - the famous Cracker Jack toy. In 1912, various toys, including rings and marbles, were introduced to the delicious treat. Today, however, the toys have been replaced by paper prizes, with riddles, trivia, jokes, and optical illusions.
There was only one major change left in Cracker Jack`s long road. In 1918, the iconic Sailor Jack first graced the Jack`s box cover, along with his dog, Bingo. The treat had entered its modern era, and fans everywhere rejoiced.
Considering its long history, it is no surprise that there are Jack collectors out there. In May, a 1915 complete set of 176 baseball cards, in their original Cracker Jack card album, were put up for auction - a similar set had been previously sold for nearly a million dollars. According to Sports Collectors Daily, the cards` original owner "scraped together the requisite 25 cents to mail away for the entire 1915 set of Cracker Jack baseball cards and the additional 10 cents for the "Handsome Album" to keep them in." Not a bad deal, even with inflation.
Today, the snack is as a part of America as any other. Three years ago, the Yankees tried replacing the signature snack with Crunch `n Munch, a rival food. Fans were not happy; the change was short-lived.Cracker Jack is here to stay, and this writer could not be more pleased.
Next time you are at a ball game, buy some Jack. Or, if that is not your style, Cracker Jack Day is next month - July 5th.
Do your patriotic duty. Have a handful.