I confess I am not by nature an early adopter. I still like manual typewriters, stick-shift cars, and simple appliances with on and off buttons instead of confusing symbols. I still do not know how to text. I am, however, very proud that I was in the vanguard when it came to hating the circus. I remember how out of sync I was when, at age nine, my parents took me to the circus at Madison Square Garden. I screamed in horror at the clowns, I was a whining bummer when the ringmaster with a whip made the frightened horses jump through fiery hoops, and I only perked up when the lion tamer stuck his head into the lion’s mouth. I was hoping he would be decapitated.
Now everyone has jumped on the “I hate the circus” bandwagon. It is under attack by animal-rights activists and fire departments and performers unions. The glory days of Barnum and Bailey are long gone. People with compassion no longer want to see elephants paraded down Main Street holding tail in trunk; the dirty-water hot dogs and rancid clouds of ancient cotton candy no longer hold sway with kids of all ages.
There is one tangential remnant of the circus that thrills me to the bone, and that is the low-grade confectionary candy called Circus Peanuts. Circus Peanuts, as far as I can tell, have literally nothing to do with circuses, or even with peanuts. They are usually found on the bottom candy shelf at gas-station convenience marts or at some chain drug stores.
A Circus Peanut is a about two inches long, it is the anemic orange color of the astronauts’ favorite drink, Tang, and it has been machine stamped to vaguely resemble a shelled peanut. The most amazing thing about Circus Peanuts is they are always stale. Not rock-hard but weirdly deflated and tough. It is hard to make a marshmallow go stale. In my kitchen pantry, I have a bag of them that has seen me through four years of holiday yam casseroles, and they are still squishy and fresh. Therefore one can’t blame the problem with Circus Peanuts on the general pillowy constitution of the marshmallow. Maybe even more mysterious then the ubiquitous staleness is that, for no logical reason, Circus Peanuts are banana flavored. Real peanuts are none of these things.
I have a few theories.
Theory 1: Decades back, when the Circus Peanut was invented, no one thought much about lawsuits. Ladders did not warn you that you should not jump from the top of them and people assumed hot coffee was hot. It may well be that the peanut industry was highly litigious and ahead of its time and woe to anyone who dared call something a peanut that wasn’t. Hence orange skin and banana flavoring became a protective shield against potential wrath.
Theory 2: Perhaps someone who lived in, say, Antarctica and had never seen or tasted a peanut invented Circus Peanuts. These are imaginary peanuts, a fantasy.
Theory 3: Around World War II, when the Circus Peanut was invented, the manufacturer was worried about shortages. A big Quonset hut was purchased to warehouse tons of them. The reason they are all stale is that we are still eating the original batch today.
It is very uplifting to know that all Circus Peanuts will taste exactly alike. Unlike M&M’s or Oreos, there have not been a million riffs on the basic formula. So far, I have not seen chocolate-covered ones or pink ones or bizarrely large or small ones.
I wish I had the same sense of tradition about Marshmallow Peeps, those vaguely chicken-shaped candies sold at Easter. Marshmallow Peeps have joined the popular crowd. They now come in every size and every color and are on the supermarket shelves year round. But the flashy new upgrade has not addressed the fact that they all stick to each other, have no flavor at all, and go instantly stale. If they started out stale, like Circus Peanuts, it would not be as noticeable. There is a lesson to be learned here.
Jane Stern is the author of more than forty books, including, most recently, Confessions of a Tarot Reader. With Michael Stern, she coauthored the popular Roadfood guidebook series. The Sterns recently donated forty years of archival materials to the Smithsonian museum, documenting the atmosphere, stories, and history of various restaurants, diners, and regional food events.