Peeps festival celebrates kitschy candy with Pa. roots

Posted: December 31, 2013

BETHLEHEM - About an hour up the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, there's a Peep show going on that's fun for the whole family, and the only chicks on display are the ones that have beaks.

In its fifth year, PeepsFest is a two-day homage to those dollops of marshmallows with beady eyes that are coated in shades of shimmery sugar.

The festival, which includes Peeps sculptures, Peeps craftmaking, a Peeps disco and a Peeps diorama contest, culminates tonight - New Year's Eve - with the dropping of an 85-pound lighted Peeps chick.

"This is our third year. We treat it like a vacation," said Robin Keppler, 42, who brought her family of four to PeepsFest from Bergen County, N.J. "We are fans of the Peeps."

Keppler wasn't kidding. Her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah, was picked as a "Peeps fan of the week" on Facebook last year, she said. Yesterday, Sarah Keppler was decked out head-to-toe in Peeps gear, including Peeps socks she swore smelled like the candies, although that statement was not vetted for accuracy by this reporter.

"We come mostly for the food," Sarah Keppler said. "They're just so yummy!"

Just Born, the company that makes Peeps, has been located in this old steel town since 1932, when Sam Born moved his candy store from Brooklyn, N.Y. Just Born also makes Mike and Ikes, Hot Tamales and Goldenberg's Peanut Chews.

In 1953, Born purchased Rodda Candy Co. of Lancaster, where "women with tubes were making quirky little marshmallow birds," said Just Born's vice president of trade relations and corporate affairs, Matthew Pye.

Born's brother, Bob, was able to mechanize the Peeps-making process and cut production time of the chicks from 27 hours to six minutes. The Peeps lost their Peep wings in the pursuit of modernity and have been flightless and streamlined ever since.

When Peeps marked their 60th birthday this year, the state Senate adopted a resolution honoring the company that was co-sponsored by 22 senators, proving they can agree on fluff.

Athough Peeps have been a staple of Easter baskets since the 1950s, only in the last couple of decades have they taken their place at the pop-culture lunch counter alongside other kitschy foods like Spam, Jell-O and Twinkies.

Pye credits the rise of Peeps to hundreds of Peeps diorama contests around the world, the best-known of which is held annually by the Washington Post.

According to Pye, one-third of all Peeps sold are purchased not for eating but for playing with, crafting or decorating.

Then there's what Pye calls "the dark side of Peeps," like Peeps-eating contests, Peeps science experiments and Peeps jousting - when two Peeps, each armed with a toothpick, face off in a microwave death battle.

For those who do eat the confections, there is always a ritual. Pye said the most common practice involves consuming the head first, then the tail, then the body.

But Rose Reinhard, 48, of Whitehall, Lehigh County, who brought her teen daughter and 12-year-old twin girls to PeepsFest, does it differently.

"You have to eat the eyes first," she said. "The eyes have to be picked off so they can't see what you're doing to them."

Kathy Pecoraro, 68, of Hunterdon County, N.J., who came with her grandsons to the festival, likes her chicks stale.

"I open the package for one to two hours, let them get crusty and then eat them," she said.

That's nothing compared to Robin Keppler, the Peeps fanatic, who leaves her Peeps open for a month before consuming them.

About 10,000 people are expected to attend PeepsFest over its two-day run from yesterday until 5:15 p.m. today, when the 4 1/2-foot fiberglass Peep is dropped in celebration of the New Year.

Although the festival is only in its fifth year, the dropping of the Peep on New Year's Eve has been a tradition in Bethlehem for the last 12 years, Pye said.

When asked why New Year's is a good time to celebrate a candy typically associated with Easter, Pye proclaimed that Peeps are "great all year round."

The Peeps brand has been pushing beyond the boundaries of Easter since the 1960s, when seasonal Peeps like Christmas trees were introduced. Now there are Valentine's Day Peeps and Halloween Peeps, but the company is looking into creating an every-day, year-round product, Pye said, adding that he's not worried about hurting the "mystique" of Peeps by doing so.

Along with flavors like lemonade and bubblegum, which already exist in the Peep universe, Just Born is preparing to launch grape and cherry Peeps next summer, according to Pye. A hot-cocoa-flavored Peep is under consideration, he said.

But no matter what color or flavor Peeps take next, they all are still made of marshmallow and, like one of the brand's slogans, they remind us that "Inside, we're all the same."


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