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The Humble Tootsie Roll : Call it the Rodney Dangerfield of the candy world. Even on its 100th birthday, it's being overshadowed.

May 23, 1996|TAMARA JONES | THE WASHINGTON POST

Some things in life have to be loved not because they are worthy or incomparable or even beguiling, but simply because they are constant. This is why June Cleaver never ran off with the UPS guy, why Dorothy preferred Kansas to Oz and why Cal Ripken is a god.

It is also why we must love the Tootsie Roll even if it does look like individually wrapped armadillo droppings.

The humble Tootsie Roll is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, but you wouldn't know it. In typically Tootsiesque fashion, the actual birthday is forgotten, and the company's public-relations machine is either too dim or too honest just to make one up.

Its idea of hype is to place a microscopic logo on every bag of Tootsie Rolls, proclaiming, "100th Anniversary. Low Fat Since 1896."

To appreciate the dignity of the Tootsie Roll, the nobility of this fudgy little "log," you have to understand what it was up against, back in 1896.

The year Austrian immigrant Leo Hirshfield introduced his penny candy was the same year Cracker Jack was born. Cracker Jack was everything Tootsie Roll was not: Cracker Jack had multiple personalities--popcorn, peanuts and molasses all clamoring for attention in a box harder to get into than "Finnegans Wake."

Cracker Jack was a brazen self-promoter, full of braggadocio (and never quite enough peanuts). Cracker Jack stole into a beloved song and insinuated itself forever into a national pastime. Nobody goes to a baseball game and says, "Buy me some peanuts and Tootsie Rolls . . ." even though that would make far more sense. Hey, Cracker Jack has peanuts in it! Why would you want peanuts and Cracker Jack?

Cracker Jack is a rollicking party that lasts all weekend until the cops break it up. Tootsie Rolls are a Saturday night spent reading the Farmer's Almanac in bed. Cracker Jack shamelessly bribed consumers from the get-go, first with coupons redeemable for "over 300 Desirable Articles" in a slick little catalog. Then with free prizes right inside the box--clacking metal snappers, cartoon tattoos, plastic magnifying glasses and, legend has it, a vintage 1930s toy sailor discontinued because of his unfortunate resemblance to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

Tootsie Roll came without bells and whistles--just . . . faith.

Cracker Jack is even cunning about its own birthday, claiming seniority because it was introduced at the first World's Fair, in Chicago in 1893, though it didn't actually become Cracker Jack until 1896.

Cracker Jack was named by a salesman.

Tootsie Roll was named by a doting daddy after his 6-year-old daughter.

Cracker Jack was invented by a German; Tootsie Roll, by an Austrian.

Cracker Jack's motto is about gluttony: "The more you eat, the more you want."

Tootsie Roll embraces restraint: "Lasts a long time."

Both confections brag that they have gone to war with American soldiers, and Tootsie Roll chief operating officer Ellen Gordon tells an odd little anecdote about Tootsie Rolls being airdropped to stranded Marines during the Korean War and using them to keep warm "by putting them in their clothes and under their arms."

Tootsie Rolls are ideal combat companions. Their waxy little brown wrappers slip off noiselessly, and the candy can be popped into the mouth whole and chewed in silence. Plus, taking Tootsie Rolls along while, say, invading Normandy would offer the added protection of an instant natural soldering material should a raft spring a leak.

Cracker Jack, in the same dangerous circumstances, might have changed the course of history. The Nazis could have heard the pick-pick-picking at Cracker Jack's paper, followed by the frustrated clawing open of the cardboard box top, the infernal rattle of popcorn and peanuts shifting all around as anxious fingers dug for the prize, and then the inevitable cries of delight or despair over the treasure inside.

Tootsie Rolls can solve crimes. They hold a fingerprint.

Both companies claim their recipes are secret, and though both companies have toyed with variations over the decades--butter-toffee Cracker Jack, fruit-flavored Tootsie Rolls--the originals have hung on.

Tootsie Roll is more enigmatic. So plain, so true, so Jane Eyre. What is it inside? Not just chocolate, not quite fudge. More like a mix of brownie batter and window caulk. Endearing nonetheless.

Cracker Jack is easily described. Just popcorn, caramel and peanuts (but not enough of them).

And in this sweet land of liberty, confronted with agonizing choices and tormented values, it is maddening to realize that when you take an unassuming little Tootsie Roll, and you take a sticky fistful of Cracker Jack, lo these 100 years after they were born together but of tellingly different parentage, you can put the Tootsie Roll in your mouth, and you can put the Cracker Jack in your mouth, and you will instantly discover that the Cracker Jack tastes . . . it tastes. . . .

Way better.

The humble Tootsie Roll is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, but you wouldn't know it. In typically Tootsiesque fashion, the actual birthday is forgotten, and the company's public-relations machine is either too dim or too honest just to make one up.

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