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The Clucking Sweet History of a Candy Bar Called Chicken Dinner

The history of candy bars is a graveyard of odd and outlandish ideas. For every Milky Way and Hershey bar that found lasting success, there are hundreds if not thousands of Fat Emmas, Baby Lobsters, Coffee Dans, Dipsy Doodles, Prairie Schooners, and Choco’Lites. The short-lived Sal-le-Dande bar was named after a stripper, while the Vegetable Sandwich bar was an unfortunate combination of celery, peppers, and dried cabbage coated in chocolate. Candy historian Ray Broekel estimates that between the first and second World Wars alone, more than 30,000 candy bars came out. As with the film industry and the lottery, many have tried, and very few succeed.

All of which makes the success of Chicken Dinner quite remarkable. Yes, you read that right: a candy bar called Chicken Dinner. Introduced in 1923 by the Sperry Candy Company of Milwaukee, the oddly named bar sold for 10 cents and featured a roasted chicken on each package. “An expensive, high-grade candy” was how a 1924 Sperry ad described Chicken Dinner, giving it a puzzling air of exclusivity considering it didn’t contain any actual chicken (it was filled with nuts instead, and was coated in chocolate), and kids were the target market. Customers may have been tempted to simply stare at the succulent image of the roasted chicken rather than fork over the 10 cents.

But Chicken Dinner’s popularity was all about marketing. By naming its bar after a meal, Sperry was one-upping other manufacturers who had linked their candy bars with wholesome ingredients. Ads for Milky Way, which came out the same year as Chicken Dinner, drew a comparison with malted milk drinks, while ads for Mounds and Almond Joy showed the bars spilling out of a coconut. Sperry also seemed to understand the value of standing out in a crowded marketplace. While other candy bars adopted sweet and silly names (Jujubes, Peanut Chews), Chicken Dinner went the counter-intuitive route with a name was pretty out-of-left-field, even by 1920s standards. Sperry embraced the product’s oddness with marketing copy that touted the bar as “Distinctly Different.”

And yet, there was also something comforting about a chicken dinner at that time in U.S. history. Released six years before the Great Depression struck (numerous sources have incorrectly linked its release with the Republican Party’s 1928 campaign pledge to provide “a chicken in every pot”), Chicken Dinner seemed to promise value for cash-strapped Americans. As Broekel wrote in The Great American Candy Bar Book:

“In the years following World War I, the economy made many families feel fortunate if they had one good meal a day on the dinner table. A whole roasted chicken on a candy bar wrapper symbolized something substantial in terms of food value.”

Sperry helped sales along by aggressively marketing Chicken Dinner with billboards, magazine ads and, most notably, a fleet of trucks decorated to look like chickens. After Sperry dropped the price of the bar to five cents, the decked-out chicken-mobiles canvassed the U.S. Apparently the trucks’ horns would cackle and crow when pressed.

Production of Chicken Dinner bars ceased in 1962 after Pearson’s, the makers of Bit-O-Honey, bought Sperry. All told, Chicken Dinner spent an impressive 40 years on shelves. Although it’s often referenced as one of the more outlandish relics of candy’s colorful history, Chicken Dinner was ahead of its time as a cleverly advertised, out-of-the-ordinary product. It’s not too farfetched to imagine it in the candy section of Trader Joe’s today. Case in point: In its recent rundown of the 13 most influential candy bars, Time put Chicken Dinner at number six, calling it a nutrition bar that paved the way for contemporary energy and meal replacement bars like Power Bar, Clif, and Luna. Winner, winner!

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Odd Jobs
Dream Job Alert: Cadbury Is Looking for Professional Chocolate Tasters
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Can you taste the difference between semisweet and bittersweet chocolate? Do you have strong opinions on what makes a perfect cup of cocoa? If so, Cadbury wants to hear from you. As Insider reports, the candy brand’s parent company Mondelez International is hiring taste testers to aid in the development of their chocolate products.

The corporation, which also owns the chocolate bar brand Milka, is seeking applicants to fill four positions: three chocolate tasters and one chocolate and cocoa beverage taster. According to the job listings, Mondelez will train the new employees in sharpening their taste buds and broadening their flavor vocabulary, so no experience is necessary. The qualities they are looking for include a communicative personality, eagerness to try new products, honesty and objectivity, and a passion for all things sweet. Candidates must also be fluent in English and available to work in Reading, England, about 40 miles west of London.

Each job pays £9 ($12.44) an hour, with employees spending about eight hours a week working with other panelists in sensory booths and discussion rooms. The maximum 10 free chocolate samples they get to eat a day are a bonus.

Prospective employees have until February 16 to submit their resumes, but they should act fast: When Mondelez put out a call for taste-testers last year, they were flooded with thousands of applications.

[h/t Insider]

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Big Questions
What Makes Pop Rocks Pop?
Noshin R, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Noshin R, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Eating most candy isn’t complicated: You take a bite, enjoy a sugar-fueled dopamine rush, and repeat until you have a stomach ache. Chemist William A. Mitchell added another step to the process when he developed Pop Rocks. When the sweet, hard candy bits hit your mouth, they act up before breaking down, creating a crackling, hissing noise that would be alarming coming from any other food product. But when it happens to Pop Rocks, you know you’re getting what you paid for. So what exactly is it about the candy that makes it just as much of a science experiment as a sweet snack?

The answer lies in carbon dioxide. It’s the same gas that gives cola, beer, and champagne their effervescence, but it’s not a common ingredient in solid foods. In the late 1950s, Mitchell wondered if it was possible to create an instant soda tablet by baking CO2 into candy. Even though his idea didn’t take off, the experiments laid the basis for Pop Rocks.

Like other hard candies, Pop Rocks are made by mixing sugar, lactose, corn syrup, and flavorings. Once those ingredients are melted together and boiled, highly-pressurized CO2 is added. When the candy mixture hardens, it traps bubbles of gas exerting pressure at 600 pounds per square inch (psi). For reference, the pressure inside a champagne bottle measures in at 90 psi.

It’s impossible to detect the special component in Pop Rocks unless you taste them. Magical things happen when the candy meets up with your mouth: As your saliva dissolves the sugar, those powerful air pockets begin to burst like miniature firecrackers on your tongue. The 600 psi carbon dioxide collides with the 15 psi pressure of the atmosphere, resulting in a crack you can feel and hear. That’s why Pop Rocks are so noisy, whether you’re eating them or standing next to someone who is.

And if you’re worried that all that pressure will do some serious damage to your body, you can rest easy. Contrary to the hysteria from kids and parents, there’s never been a known case of death by Pop Rocks. That includes when it's mixed with Coke (sorry Mikey truthers).

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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