When we were very young we were told, "Don't play with your food," and our parents meant it. What would our parents think about the following concoction, the current rage at youngsters' birthday parties?
It is called "Mud." The recipe is simple. Take a clean clay flowerpot and throw in some gummy worms (or gummy spiders or gummy cockroaches or any other member of the ever-growing gummy candy menagerie). Fill the pot with chocolate pudding. Make "dirt" by sprinkling crushed graham crackers on top. Pass out small plastic shovels and let each child dig in!
In the fun category, "Mud" leaves "ants on a log"--the time-honored treat of raisins scattered on peanut butter-filled celery sticks--in the dust.
For today's children, food is toys. If you doubt it, cruise the grocery aisles. You might see Pelican Bay's new I Can Bake Dirt Cake With Mud Frosting, a mix that puts a commercial twist on the "Mud" theme, complete with plastic mixing bucket and shovel. There is a dizzying array of dubious fruit snacks in various cartoon and toy shapes: fighter planes, monsters, bears, alphabet letters, killer sharks, and bare feet.
Fruit Roll-Ups, those sticky sheets that children naturally twist, pinch and poke, now come in "peel-out" shapes. This gives official approval to children's previous maneuverings and actively promotes playing with food. And just in case you missed the point, one peel-out design is a hamburger. The cookie aisle has exploded with Teddy Grahams, cookies in the form of major league baseball players, Dinosaur Grahams and others.
Pasta, whose former flights of whimsy were bow ties and wagon wheels, has been reworked by Mueller's into dinosaurs, jungle animals and space creatures, with fish and musical instruments in the works.
Chef Boyardee and Franco-American market straight at kids' stomachs, with Teddy Os, Sporty Os, Circus Os and Zooroni, as well as tomato-sauced Pac-Man, Smurfs, tick-tack-toe and dinosaur shapes. Who would have guessed that Spaghetti Os, introduced 25 years ago, would be the future of food?
Commercial tie-ins with cartoon figures, as in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Pizza, cement the link between toys and food. It's entirely possible to create a complete fantasy world for children, with toys, clothing, furniture--and now food--that match. For those affluent enough, the purpose of eating has gone beyond nourishment. It's entertainment.
Child-oriented prepared dinners, growing from a standing start two years ago, are now a product category with $77 million in annual sales. The creator of My Own Meals, Mary Anne Jackson, told the Washington Post that the dinners help alleviate busy parents' guilt about not preparing home-cooked meals. One dinner even comes with games, to while away the nanoseconds the food zaps in the microwave.
Beyond increasing profit and reducing guilt, adding levity to food distracts us from its increasingly processed taste. Thoughtful food writers John and Karen Hess, in their 1977 book, "The Taste of America," make a convincing case that the variety and flavor of our diet has been declining steadily since Colonial times. If supermarket food has no taste, some might argue, at least it can be fun.
Michael Stern, who with his wife, Jane, has written several books on American food and the soon-to-be-published "Encyclopedia of Bad Taste," is in favor of playing with food as an antidote to the often solemn ritual of eating. "Food should be fun," he said in an interview. "Relaxing with food lets you develop a friendly, loving relationship with it."
Stern observed that most fun foods are aimed at children, but that adults show great affinity for "sleeves-up" foods, such as barbecue, fried clams, hot dogs and cheese steaks. "Part of the fun is the balancing act you do to keep the food from dripping. That to me is playing with food for adults," he said.
One of the few places where adults are unabashed about playing with their food, Stern notes, is at Lambert's restaurant in Sikeston, Mo. There, servers throw rolls at the customers, then ladle on generous amounts of honey, forcing eaters to lick their fingers. People travel hundreds of miles to eat "throwed rolls" at Lambert's.
Stern says food play is on the increase. "In the '80s, we were all so driven, and the food was so precious. Now people are tired of living button-down, idealized lifestyles. They are ready to let their belts out. I think the '90s are going to be the great slob decade."
Astute marketers might respond with new food toys for grown-ups. Or they might let us practice deception at the checkout lane, where we'll stand with our Dubuque Happy Face Loaf (bologna decorated with eyes, mouth and nose) and Hot Wheels cereal with marshmallow cars.
"They're for my kids," we'll lie.