Five High

Last Thursday, my brothers and I took an overnight train from Northern California to Northern Oregon as part of an every-other-year reunion. The trip, which would take eleven hours if you drove from San Jose to Portland instead, took twice that long on the Amtrak Coast Starlight. But the meals come with the ride and everyone gets a bed and a hot shower, so it’s a cozy way to watch the world go by. In hindsight, for all the time sitting and staring out the window, we could’ve been stacking M&M’s. Just five of the colorful candies one atop the other would’ve landed my brothers and me in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?  Buy a bag of plain M&M’s (you’ll have zero chance with the peanut variety), count out five, and let the stacking commence.  You’ll get to a tower of two quickly.  You’ll get three one atop the other with time and patience.  But that’s the proverbial end of the line, my friends.  You won’t make it to four.  If you did, you’d join the two co-holders of the former world record.  Last January, Will Cutbill, a twenty-something British engineer, pushed the record to a stack of five.

The “original” M&M’s

The history of M&M’s suggests it’s only appropriate a Brit broke the stacking record.  M&M’s were copied (and somehow uniquely patented) from British-made Smarties, the first candy where a hard-shelled coating protected the chocolate inside from melting.  Here’s another interesting M&M’s factoid.  The first “M” is for Forrest Mars, Sr., the founder of the Mars candy company.  The second “M”?  Bruce Murrie, the son of the president of Hershey’s Chocolate.  No, the companies didn’t join forces to create M&M’s.  During the wartime years of the 1940’s Hershey had a monopoly on rationed chocolate so Mars was forced to use them as their supplier.  Today, M&M’s have evolved to a “fully Mars” product.

It’s safe to say Will Cutbill wouldn’t have broken the M&M’s stacking record without the pandemic.  He was in the middle of the UK’s third lockdown earlier this year when he pondered a lifelong dream of getting into the Guinness book.  He also had a bag of M&M’s in his hand at the time.  Practice led to more practice, and as you’ll see in the video here, the record-breaking moment came as a happy, unexpected surprise.

Marawa Ibrahim – Most hula hoops spun simultaneously

Maybe you’re thinking what I’m thinking.  Why can’t one of us become a world record holder as well?  As I type, I’m munching on Triscuit wheat crackers.  I just built a stack of five on my desk.  What if I went to the store and bought several more boxes, then stacked all those crackers to the ceiling of my double-height living room?  Wouldn’t I and my Triscuits join the Guinness book as well?

Eliud Kipchoge – Fastest marathon

Not so fast, record-setting wannabes.  As you should expect, Guinness has a tried-and-true process, not only to establish world records but to decide if they’re worth pursuing.  You must submit a formal application (even if attempting to break an existing world record).  Your attempt must be deemed ethical (ex. no killing of animals).  Your attempt mustn’t be harmful to the participant (ex. excessive consumption of alcohol).  Your record must be deemed environmentally friendly.  Finally, Guinness must approve the process by which your record will be adjudicated (which in Cutbill’s case included a video instead of an in-person judge). Oh, and unless you’re willing to contribute several thousand dollars to speed things up, plan on a year or more to complete the process.

Mya-Rose Craig – Most northerly climate protest

Now you know why the Guinness book hasn’t grown to a ridiculous number of pages and entries.  The content is regularly reviewed against cultural, societal, and environmental standards.  Records even slightly in question are removed.  For example, Guinness used to list the “largest fish on record” of a given species.  Then people started overfeeding fish just to break the record.  Guinness realized this kind of manipulation was not only cruel but potentially a source of litigation, so they removed the entries.

This quick dive into the pool of Guinness World Records has me thinking my brothers and I made the right choice in not challenging the M&M’s stacking record.  We’d be better off drinking a Guinness than breaking one of their world records (yes, the beer and the book come from the same family).  Besides, how would we stack five M&M’s on a rocking, rolling passenger train anyway?  Nope, not interested in breaking world records today.  But if you don’t mind, I’ll get back to stacking my Triscuits now.

Some content sourced from CNN Business video, “Good luck breaking this deceptively tough world record”, the Guinness World Records website, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Calories of Contentment

The other night – too late for a grocery store run but with few options in the pantry – my wife and I split a box of Kraft Mac & Cheese for dinner. No spicing things up, no healthy side of vegetables to lessen the guilt – just a heaping bowl of the little pasta elbows with powdered cheese. MAN did that taste good. I promptly considered a Hostess Ding Dong for dessert but caught myself just in time. Whoa, boy. Who says there’s no traveling during the pandemic?  I’ve made the journey to the land of comfort foods!

A little context before we explore the calories of contentment.  After the kids moved out of the house several years ago, our diet moved decidedly to the more healthy.  We upped our fruit and vegetable count.  We focused on meals with whole foods and fewer ingredients.  We started shopping in boutique grocery stores, discovering foods and brands we never knew existed.  Dairy and starchy carbs took the back shelf to pure proteins and Mother Nature’s bounty.

Somewhere in the middle of all of this good intention, a box of Kellogg’s Pretzel Cinnamon-Sugar Pop-Tarts dropped casually into my grocery basket.  I’d heard they were pretty good and I’d never tried them before, so… why not?  Then the kids came to town for a long weekend, so we just had to load up on old family favorites like Cap’n Crunch, Good Humor Creamsicles, and Red Baron frozen pizzas.

But here’s the thing.  Our kids eat so responsibly these days, sugary cereals and snack foods no longer appeal to them.  They make flourless banana pancakes and organic food “bowls”.  They nosh on healthy proteins and Boba teas.  They spend most of their time in the kitchen instead of the drive-thru.  Those comfort foods we purchased got no love, so naturally we purchased a couple more (the Kraft Mac & Cheese and Hostess Ding Dongs).  Heck, we even embellished those choices with a countertop bowl of Brach’s caramel “Royals”, and a huge container of Peanut M&M’s in a nearby cupboard.  There’s now a junk-food roadblock in front of every attempt to eat healthy.

What is going on here?  I blame the coronavirus.  Most of our processed-food pals moved into our pantry in the last six months.  All of them were impulse buys (or “moments of weakness”, or whatever else you want to call them).  No surprise though; we’re contributing to a nationwide, if not worldwide trend during this pandemic.  The world’s biggest packaged-foods manufacturers reported sales growth of 4.3% in the first three months of the year (vs. forecasts of 3%).  Canned soup purchases rose 37%, canned meat 60%, and frozen pizza 51%.  Hot Pockets and SpaghettiOs flew off the shelves.

Is one of these YOUR comfort food?

In all seriousness, a turn to comfort foods is a sign of something more complicated below the surface of our psyches.  I wish I could credit nostalgia: the sentimentality for past happier times and places, or emotional eating: the propensity to consume comfort foods in response to positive/negative stimuli.  Instead, I think we’re dealing with declinism – the belief our society is heading towards a prolonged downturn or deterioration.  We’ve been here before America, as in the Depression of the 1930s, the spread of Communism in the 1950s, or the rise of Japan’s economic powerhouse in the 1970s.  In each instance our country soldiered on better than before, but that’s not to say the short-term endurance is any fun.  And that, boys and girls, is why comfort foods maintain a “healthy” presence in grocery stores and in your pantry.

Hilton Hotels rivaled the pandemic headlines when they revealed their Doubletree chocolate-chip cookie recipe to the world last April.  Talk about your classic comfort food.  Doubletree cookies have nestled on hotel pillows since the mid-1980s; a whopping 25,000,000 in less than forty years.  “We know this is an anxious time for everyone”, was Hilton’s excuse for sharing their secret.  I baked a batch as soon as I came across the headline and now I can’t seem to stop.  A heaping bag of Doubletrees now sits in our refrigerator more often than it does not.  I could probably recite the recipe from memory, and I dream about them in my sleep.  Hilton’s got me hooked.

I still haven’t tried those Pretzel Cinnamon-Sugar Pop-Tarts, the preservative-filled pastries responsible for this whole mess.  All are still paired neatly in their foil packets, sitting quietly on the shelf.  The box may even be getting a little dusty.  I figure my willpower remains intact if I leave the tarts alone until their expiration date.  Er, wait – now that I think about it – Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts never expire.  Dang it; that’s a little depressing.  I’d better have a Ding Dong to cheer myself up.

Some content sourced from the 4/24/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “Comfort Foods Make a Comeback in the Coronavirus Age”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

True Colors

In the kitchen cabinet convenient to our countertop coffeemaker (I’m on a roll with the letter C today), we keep a couple of large mugs; souvenirs from the San Diego Zoo. Identical in size and shape, both mugs have images of animals on them. More importantly, one mug is light blue while the other is bright red. For this reason and no other, I place the blue mug at the front of the cabinet and the red mug further back. My preference is the blue one.

If these same mugs were in your kitchen cabinet, which would you choose?  What if I added a green mug and a purple mug – would your choice be just as clear?  It should be, since we all have favorite colors.  Unless we’re colorblind we concur when something is blue, or something is red.  We even agree when something blue is “pretty” (say, the summer sky) or something red is not (say, the heart of a forest fire).  But that’s just preference by association.  Favorite colors are part of our DNA.

I’ll take “green”

As far back as I can remember my favorite color is green.  I also like blue and purple, but if I only get a single Skittles make it green.  With board games, I choose the green pieces. With my wardrobe, I own several green shirts (but no red ones).  My wife and I once owned – one after the other – a green van, followed by a green sedan, followed by a green mini-van; even though the more popular vehicle colors are white, silver, black, and dark grey.  It may be no coincidence the colors of my alma mater are blue, gold… and green.

Hello, Marilyn!

Don’t let the numbers influence your choice but 35% of Americans prefer blue while 16% prefer green, 10% purple, and 9% red.  Orange, yellow, and brown sit together at the back of the bus.  Also, gentlemen may prefer blondes, but gentlemen definitely prefer blondes in red.  To heterosexual men at least, women in red draw more romantic attention than any other color.

Infants show a preference for color as early as twelve weeks old.  That’s hardly an age where you associate colors with material things.  Toddlers show a preference for pink and blue regardless of sex (and cool colors over warm), but choose yellow over both of them – perhaps owing to association with the sun, flowers, and other “happy” things.

Here’s where favorite colors get interesting.  At five years of age you begin to associate colors with more than just “things”.  You associate with feelings and states of mind as well.  Consider the table above.  My preference for green suggests a good/bad combination of traits.  Immodestly I like to think I have good taste.  Unquestionably I put a premium on my health.  Envy?  Sure, every now and then.  Eco-friendly?  Nope, not really.

Red and blue make for better arguments.  The “lust”, “power”, and “speed” associated with red explain why it’s the color of choice for sports cars, and why red uniforms statistically improve performance in certain sports (think Tiger Woods).  All five blue traits explain why the color is so prevalent in the American workplace (and primary in the logos of standard brands like Ford, Facebook, and IBM).  Even the traits of violet/purple make sense: the color most associated with royalty.

The Rose of Temperaments

Our desire to interpret the meaning of favorite colors has been around a long time.  The Rose of Temperaments is a wheel-like image from the late eighteenth century, matching colors to character traits and occupations.  See what your color says about you.  If green goes to my very soul, the rose is strikingly accurate.  I can make a case for every trait in the list of phlegmatic. My tendencies are also more introverted than extroverted.  The rose gives me reasons for envying red, yellow, or blue (and reasons for not), but I can’t deny it: I am literally defined by my favorite color.

Speaking of the basic colors, we also favor color names. Mother Nature’s rainbow just doesn’t do it anymore.  In a recent remodel project my wife and I chose the paint color “Cocoa Whip” over “Havana Coffee” and “Wild Truffle”; when in fact we were simply choosing a shade of brown.  In product tests, participants shown swatches of the same color consistently preferred the one with the most elegant name.

Closing comment on my favorite color green.  You do know what they say about green M&M’s, don’t you? The aphrodisiacal effects (urban legend) are explained by the color’s association with fertility.  However, the better story comes from 1976, when the FDA banned the chemical “red dye #2” and red M&M’s temporarily departed the production line.  Rumor had it the reds were the real aphrodisiacs, employees were pocketing them straight from the line, and the whole red dye #2 story was a cover-up.  Red, green, whatever the color; they all taste good to me.  Even the brown ones, which testers swear taste more like chocolate than any other color.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”, and Snopes.com.