Monday, February 07, 2011

David Foster Wallace Speaks About Mike & Ike Italian Ice

So, I’ve reserved the conference room in our office all day today in order to conduct a solo taste test of Mike & Ike Italian Ice, a chewy candy from the Just Born corporation. Typically, an employee may only reserve our conference room for two hours. So, to get around this, I went around to numerous employees and vending machine restockers claiming the conference room sign-up sheet was actually a civil union petition for my home state of Illinois. Surprisingly, the people in my office are not quite as open-minded on this matter as those resupplying us with Butterfingers and Sprite.

I received from a friend of a friend employed by the Nabisco Corporation marketing department sample instructions from a taste test recently completed in San Diego for a new type of cracker and I’m applying these rules to the taste test. They are as follows: (1)

1)Don’t take a test if you’re sick. I am feeling well today.

2)Don’t eat or drink anything strong before the test. No garlic or coffee because those tastes linger. (2)

3)Do not smoke before testing. Smoking deadens your taste buds. It interferes with your nasal epithelium, which affects your sense of smell, which is linked to taste. Nicotine, when it enters the brain, can tie up nerve centers typically involved with taste, thereby reducing the brainpower you have to devote to tasting Mike & Ike Italian Ice. Very important.

4)Avoid strong perfumes or fragrances. I hope showering with soap doesn’t count.

5)Avoid talking during the evaluation. I am alone and will try very hard not to talk to myself.

6)Please turn off your phone. I left it at home.

First of all, Mike and Ike(3) is a chewy, fruit flavored candy with five flavors to each box. The different flavor themes are Original Fruits, Tangy Twister, Tropical Typhoon, Berry Blast, Italian Ice, Redrageous!, Lemonade Blends, Jolly Joes and Mike and Ike Zours, which is a sour-infused blend. The Italian Ice flavor is a relatively new addition to the Mike and Ike family and capitalizes on what is historically a cool summertime street dessert sold from wheeled carts. The candy version is not served cold, but at room temperature and just in case you’ve hastily purchased the candy for the first time and been wooed by the cool, icy-colored box into thinking it belongs in the freezer, there is a kind warning reading “To enjoy this Italian Ice, you do not need to freeze this product.” I would have capitalized the word ‘THIS’ just for clarity’s sake, but Just Born clearly knows its customers more intimately than I do.

The flavors are Lemon, Orange, Cherry, Blue Raspberry and Watermelon and I’ve poured out the entire box on the large conference table to accurately judge the color against the dark Formica. Atypical with the Italian Ice flavor is that they are actually inside a small, antiseptic white bag whereas most Mike and Ike candies just rest comfortably in a rectangular box board case with a convenient (though impossible to perforate without a Bowie knife) finger-sized dispensing slot. When opening this opaque bag, there is a powerful synthetic fruit fragrance to the candy, triggering flashbacks to former olfactory addictions to glue and turpentine. The pastels of the candies, shaped like inflated child's Tylenol, seem ripped from an Easter Sunday coloring book and my first taste is the lemon. Lemon is one of the most common frozen Italian Ice flavors and the Mike and Ike captures the modesty of the flavor quite well, to the point that you barely remember which flavor you just consumed. Most consumer lemonades should take a hint from this candy, in my opinion, and take it down a notch.

I decide to engage the watermelon next and it instantly calls to mind Big League Chew, which, having never played baseball as a child, I don’t have much experience with. Again, the taste comes and goes like a drive-by shooting. The cherry tastes quite like that artificial cherry flavoring found in most cough drops but not in actual cherries and I realize I’m only twenty minutes into this taste test. How I am going to fill the next seven hours is a slow-growing tumor metastasizing on the conference table next to my pool of Mike and Ike candies. I decide to smell the bag again and it has surprisingly lost none of its original scent. I inhale deeply, letting the fumes of the candy seep deep into the bronchial branches of my lungs, where hopefully they won’t rot away my ability to breathe like the candies will my teeth's ability to grind peanuts.

Mike and Ike prides itself on being both ‘naturally and artificially flavored’, yet it’s unclear which flavors are flavored naturally (and what that means) and which ones are flavored artificially (process also unclear). The ingredients list confoundingly includes pear juice from concentrate yet there is no pear-flavored candy. There is not even a relative of the pear within this flavor assortment.(4) I picture crates and crates of unsold pears day after day watching their apple, orange and banana brethren fly off in trucks to school lunches, grocery stores and sandwich shops when just before they begin to rot, the JustBorn team arrives in blue, embroidered vests to whisk them away to be squeezed down into juice concentrate and then inseminated along with magnesium hydroxide and Red #40 into a line of candies that doesn’t even claim pear as a flavor. Perhaps JustBorn should consider Pearnado! as a potential flavor for us Midwesterners sick and tired of seeing apples and bananas walk away with all the gold medals. We used to have a pear tree in our front yard that annually bore fruit, which the garbage men plucked and ate and left half-eaten in our yard. Pears are clearly second-class fruits. Apples are immortalized in the idiom ‘American as apple pie’ and cherries remain an omnipresent cocktail garnish while bananas provide the rare potassium in our diets and countless opportunities for phallic jokes, leaving the pear unknowable and unrecognized. It’s patently offensive to the pear to include it in the ingredients list.

Mike and Ike also boasts itself as a gluten and fat-free candy, though including ostensible selling points for healthy eating habits on a box of sweets seems to portray a candy in the clinical stage of denial.

1 - It is not clear if these rules are listed in random order or in order of importance.

2 - Since I am a coffee drinker and beginning this taste test in the morning, this is most regrettable as I might either fall asleep or grade every chewy Italian Ice flavored Mike and Ike with the bitterness and anger of a man denied his morning cup of Joe.

3 - Mike and Ike, despite being a box of dozens of individual candies, seems to be both a singular and plural noun, in the same category as deer, fish, squid and sheep.

4 - I consider an apple to be cousin of the pear. The closest relative to a pear in Mike and Ike Italian Ice is probably the cherry, but I’d label them no closer than second cousins once-removed at best.

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