Fear not, my peanut-sensitive friends, for these faux goobers are but textured marshmallows.
I grew up ingesting just about any variety of candy I encountered. With a preference for chocolate and a fond appreciation of sugary sweetness, there was little that did not meet my approval. I consumed more than my fair share of all the venerable brands, proven classics like Hershey bars, M&M’s, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Nestle Crunch, Butterfinger, Baby Ruth, and that great American add-an-ingredient trio of Three Musketeers, Milky Way, and Snickers. I indulged in Marathon bars and mint chocolate Royals, candy that would charm a generation before mysteriously disappearing forever. And I was a sucker for novelty, accumulating plenty of those plastic coffins containing interlocking bone candy and once savoring a wedge of waffle-shaped gum that came with its own packet of maple syrup.
There was an entirely different class of candy that I ate as well, and it included all of the time-honored confections that had been enjoyed by so many generations that they transcended the names of their many manufacturers. Lemon drops, root beer barrels, cinnamon imperials (commonly branded as Red Hots), licorice, hard candy sticks, wax bottles filled with colored liquid, French burnt peanuts, Boston baked beans – I ate them all and loved it. But then there were circus peanuts, the oversize orange marshmallows with rows of indentations suggesting the texture of a peanut shell. With them my palate encountered a rare displeasure. In fact, I was outright disgusted by them, so much so that seriously contemplating a bag of circus peanuts could trigger a gag reflex. The rest of the candy universe was tolerable, but these were not. Why?
An aversion to any particular food can usually be attributed to one’s preferences in appearance, texture and taste, or occasionally it is caused by a negative association with a prior, unpleasant experience. However, none of these criteria applied to my abhorrence of circus peanuts. Though they certainly look odd, I find nothing objectionable about their shape and color. As for their dense and spongy texture, it is not unlike the consistency of other foods I’ve enjoyed. The synthetic, sweet taste might seem to be the obvious cause of my displeasure, but how different is it from all of the many artificial flavors which have met the approval of my taste buds? Not so different at all, as it turns out. And I cannot lay claim to having had an unpleasant experience (e.g., prolonged vomiting after eating half a pound of circus peanuts), as I hated them the first time I had the misfortune to put one in my mouth. What could it be? What was the source of my anti-circus-peanut bias?
About a year ago, when a casual conversation strayed to the topic of circus peanuts (as I’m sure must happen to everyone at least annually), I was bothered by the fact that I could not back up my disdain for them with anything more substantial than, “I don’t know what it is, but I just don’t like them.” Really, I chided myself, as a thinking, expressive adult, I ought to be able to pinpoint precisely why I do not like any particular thing. Otherwise…gosh, maybe it’s not the circus peanuts after all…maybe it’s me… And with that disturbing thought, coupled with a little too much free time, I was determined to put an end to the mystery. There was only one way to go about it, and that was to do the unthinkable: to buy a bag of circus peanuts.
The most amusing thing about the modern packaging of circus peanuts is the appeal to contemporary nutritional concerns. Spangler Candy, the northwest Ohio company responsible for producing an astonishing 32,000 pounds of circus peanuts each day, adorns their 12-ounce bag with the promise Free of Major Allergens. A note on the back panel clarifies that the product is manufactured on dedicated equipment, and among the list of potential major allergens it does not contain are milk, eggs, soy, wheat, and gluten. Fair enough. But first on the list are peanuts and tree nuts. That’s right, folks. In case you were wondering, there are no nuts in circus peanuts. Nearly as entertaining is the illustration of a clown on the front of the package. The clown is holding a balloon that reads, A FAT FREE CANDY. This is akin to promoting the health benefits of pork fat by printing the words SUGAR FREE on a tub of lard.
As I opened the polyethylene bag for my reintroduction to circus peanuts after an estrangement of many years, I was hit with that strong, synthetic aroma, but I did not find it displeasing. In fact, it seemed vaguely familiar. I pulled an orange marshmallow out of the bag and bit into it, prepared to experience the revulsion that I knew from long ago. To my surprise, the sensation was far from disgusting. I chewed thoughtfully and noted that the flavor was about as pleasant as any other sugary confection I’d had. Could it be? Did I actually like circus peanuts after all? But how?
I stared at the jumbled orange mass in the bag while the aftertaste of my first circus peanut in ages remained fresh to my senses. Suddenly I had a revelation. The marshmallows are orange…but the flavor in my mouth is not orange, not even artificial candy orange…the taste I just experienced is…banana! As though a veil had fallen from my eyes, the truth became apparent to me, and I realized that I was a child victim of the Circus Peanut Paradox. It has everything to do with our expectations when we consume food or drink. You might enjoy milk, and you might enjoy Coca-Cola, for example, but take a swig from a glass of one when you’re expecting the other, and you’ll find yourself surprised and repulsed. Conflicted senses equals unpleasantness.
The Circus Peanut Paradox is a double lie, one obvious and one deviously subtle. The obvious lie is the “peanut” part. They’re called peanuts, they’re shaped and textured like peanuts, but they are quite obviously not peanuts. Still, one might reasonably assume that they might taste like peanuts. But then there’s that orange color, which signals that not only are these not peanuts, they probably don’t taste like peanuts either. Since they’re orange, if they aren’t peanut-flavored, they must taste like…oranges! Or at least the artificial orange we’ve come to expect from allegedly “orange-flavored” products. And that’s where the subtle lie gets you, because your eyes have already overcome the obvious deceit of the whole peanut business, and who would conceive of further misrepresentation? You pop the orange marshmallow into your mouth, expecting some sort of orange-ish delight, and you are gobsmacked with the strong profile of artificial banana. Much like the unpleasantness of getting a mouthful of milk when you’re expecting Coke, anticipating orange and getting banana is sufficiently startling to make your body go into reject mode. Get it out of here! cries the brain, There’s something wrong with it!
So it turns out I like circus peanuts after all. But I wonder, why not avoid all the deception and make this banana-flavored confection yellow? You know, like bananas are yellow? As it happens, Spangler Candy offers a rainbow assortment of circus peanuts. It includes the traditional orange augmented by white, pink, and yellow. The white are vanilla and the pink are cherry. And the yellow? Why, they’re lemon, of course. What else would you expect?