Reporting from Oxon Hill, Md. — Eight miles south of the White House, a crowd gathered under a giant inflatable yellow chick Thursday to welcome the nation's first emporium devoted to Peeps, a fluffy marshmallow candy that has attained cult-like status.
Most of the store's Peeps-branded products were inedible. So is the candy, critics would say.
"There's something mystical about Peeps," said Matthew Beals, a New York filmmaker who has shot a 45-minute documentary about people obsessed with the spongy bunnies and chicks. "They really inspire a passion. People either love them or hate them."
Fans of the pastel-colored, sugar-coated confections have compiled a "Lord of the Peeps" trilogy, filmed "Star Wars Peeps" and sent them into space on a high-altitude NASA weather balloon.
Scientists, or at least graduate students with too much time, have conducted numerous experiments. One shows what happens if a Peep is submerged in liquid nitrogen, at minus 346 degrees Fahrenheit, and then hit with a hammer. It shatters.
More than 100,000 people belong to a Peeps fan club, and websites and YouTube videos abound.
So do "Peep Off" competitions: The record holder ate 102 in 30 minutes in Sacramento. And nearly 30 newspapers sponsored Peeps diorama contests last Easter.
The Washington Post received 1,100 entries, including such memorable scenes as Peeps prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; John Steinbeck's sad-faced Peeps of Wrath; a flying Mary Peepins; and, most dramatic, a Peeps plane in the Hudson River.
The winner was NightPeeps, a noirish homage to Edward Hopper's brooding 1942 oil painting, "Nighthawks." The box-sized diner even had two working florescent lights to re-create the moody scene.
"One-third of the Peeps we sell, people don't eat," said Kathy Bassininski, vice president at Just Born Inc., the family-owned company that created Peeps in 1954. "They play with them."
Ross J. Born runs the company with his cousin, David Shaffer, in Bethlehem, Pa. Balding and elfin, Born bubbles with the energy one expects from a man who makes and eats candy every day. It goes without saying that he wears a pink Peeps tie.
"I never in my wildest dreams thought Peeps would take off the way they did," he said.
The first Peeps were yellow chicks for Easter baskets, but Just Born now makes Peep bats, cats, snowmen and more. The company claims it produces enough Peeps in a year to circle the Earth twice.
(It also says 8,000 Peeps bunnies, stacked atop one another, would reach the top of the Sears Tower in Chicago. That's also 260,000 calories, if you're wondering.)
The first Peeps & Co. store opened with a gala ribbon cutting in National Harbor, a new mall and convention center along the Potomac River. Hard hit by the recession, the mall boasts more boarded up windows than stores, and most appeared deserted two weeks before Christmas.
But business was booming in the Peeps store. Lights pulsated from the ceiling and inside a huge yellow chick. Music thumped from speakers.
"I love the way they leave your hands different colors," said multimedia artist David Ottogalli, who once built a sculpture using 5,200 Peeps. The store sells a dozen of his smaller Peeps pieces.
And Peeps merchandise flew off the shelves.
"I was hoping to get a Village Peeple T-shirt, but they don't have it yet," Debbie Lidle, a government worker from Potomac, Md., said wistfully. She bought a Peeps rubber-chick bath toy, a Peeps book and other Peeps paraphernalia.
Some customers debated whether Peeps are best consumed fresh or should be left atop the refrigerator for six months to get sufficiently stale. People also argued how Peeps should be eaten -- head first or tail up.
"You have to eat the ears off first if you get the bunny," declared Linda Haught, a homemaker from Alexandria, Va. "That's the rule. Any other Peep, you eat the head first."
Carrie Woods, of Kingstown, Va., seemed surprised that anyone ate Peeps. She only gives them away, like Christmas fruitcakes.
Few would admit to what company officials call a common practice, especially in college dorms: popping Peeps in a microwave, cranking up the juice and watching them explode.
"I plead the 5th," said Air Force Master Sgt. Brenda Cline, who wore her camouflage uniform to the Peeps store, but stood out by the yellow awning and the door with chick-shaped handles. "OK, maybe I've done it."
Debbie All-Temples of Frederick, Md., said she hated to see Peeps suffer that way.
"I have a friend who puts them in the microwave to watch them dance," she said with a wince. "I don't approve."
Beals, the filmmaker, figures Peeps serve as a blank canvas for troubling times.
"They manage to straddle the world between cute and horrible," he said. "You can look into their black beady eyes and see your childhood. Or you can look into their black beady eyes and see the bleakness of the soul."
Not bad for a marshmallow.