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The Secret Life of Choo-Choo Charlie

The Secret Life of Choo-Choo Charlie

So how does a humble 19th-century candy become the nation’s oldest brand? The answer comes down to two American icons. One is Choo-Choo Charlie, the cartoon engineer whose train pulls dining cars, as he proclaims Good & Plenty “Really rings my bell” in television ads. The other is the real-life engineer Casey Jones.

The Story of Casey Jones

Casey Jones Jonathan Luther “Casey” Jones (March 14, 1863 – April 30, 1900), born in a racially charged nation at the time of the Civil War, reveals the best of America. Jones and Sim Webb, his African American friend, and railroad fireman, were operating a passenger train in 1900. The train collided with a stopped freight car. Apparently, Casey Jones made a heroic effort to save the train and everyone on board. Casey perished in the crash although everyone else survived.

Good & Plenty entered this world around that time – in 1893 – a product of the family-owned Quaker City Confectionery Company of Philadelphia. The sweet may have gone the way of thousands of industrial-revolution era candies were it not for family member Lester Rosskam. In 1946, after serving as a counter-intelligence officer in World War II, Rosskam joined his family’s business. He realized the power of TV marketing and helped launch the Choo-Choo Charlie advertising campaign in 1950, based on a real-life college football player he knew.

Good & Plenty Jingle

But Charlie’s true steam comes from the Good n’ Plenty jingle. It was based on the Ballad of Casey Jones, written by railroad wiper Wallace Saunders shortly after Jones’ death to the tune of a popular song, “Jimmie Jones.” The 1950 version was created by advertising executive and copywriter Russ Alben, of Ogilvy and Mather, whose other brainchildren include the Timex tagline “Takes a licking and keeps on ticking.”Choo Choo Charlie

The lyric has plenty of memorable repetition, a steady rhythm punctuated by the sound of Good & Plenty irresistibly sliding in a box, and the wholesome image of Charlie the engineer, that every kid would love and every parent, trust.

But behind every good ad is an even better archetype. The Casey-Charley connection represented American ingenuity and integrity during the Cold War and the upheavals of Vietnam. It reminded us however subtly that our humble world is full of heroes, even heroes we don’t completely know or understand. Just as important: the ad, much like candy, is ultimately and unflinchingly, about fun. And we can always use a taste of that.

Hot Chocolate and Marshmallow: Thousands of Years and Counting


True treats candy, marshmallow plant, Marshmallow plant historyAlthaea Officinalis From: Wikipedia

In chilly weather, when you find comfort in hot chocolate with an island of marshmallow floating on top, you’re really enjoying two foods that have boosted the body and spirit for thousands of years. The first-ever chocolate drink was made by the Olmecs of Mesoamerica 4,000 years ago – a gritty mixture of pulverized cacao beans with vanilla, chili pepper and other spices. Their decedents, the Maya and Aztecs, revered the cacao bean as a gift from the gods. So valuable was the cacao, the Aztecs used it as currency: drinking chocolate was akin to drinking gold!

Head north and you find European Americans drinking chocolate in the 1700s: they considered it healthy and a delicious political weapon, of sorts: When the British decided to tax tea in 1767 Americans drank chocolate instead….a sign of patriotism and defiance! Officers in the French and Indian War received chocolate as did Revolutionary War soldiers. Theirs included an expensive and health-inspiring product known as cane sugar, as well as spices such as cinnamon and anise for a deliciously complex taste.

While the Mesoamericans were enjoying chocolate drink, ancient Egyptians were cooking up something now considered the Queen of Frivolous Food: marshmallows. “The first marshmallows were made by boiling pieces of the marshmallow root pulp with sugar until it thickened. After it had thickened, the mixture was strained and cooled. As far back as 2000BC, Egyptians combined the marsh mallow root with honey,” according to Krapp & Longe, editors of How Products are Made Volume 3, 1994.

True treats candy, marshmallow plant, Marshmallow plant history

The upside of the plant was its food value; in fact, it was considered medicinal. The downside: it was extremely difficult to use. The problem was solved in 1845 when Peter Cooper, inventor of the steam locomotive, came up with another groundbreaking idea: instant gelatin. At the time, gelatin required that cooks spend grueling hours boiling hooves. The newer version spared them the trouble, although its popularity only spread with Charles Knox’s 1894 version.

Soon, cooks, especially women cooks at home, had a near panacea for making such stubbornly difficult products as marshmallows. Gelatin in: temperamental plant, out! The result was light, fluffy, and cheap to make…hence the regular appearance of marshmallow in another early 20th-century favorite: the candy bar.

Granted, the new version robbed the treat of the health benefit of the plant. And, true, today’s chocolate is only a shadow of its previous esteemed self. But no question, the fluffy mass floating in a sea of ancient brown sweetness is the perfect remedy for a cold winter’s day.

Want to try Making Marshmallow at Home?

Here are a few recipes:

Make Syrup of Marshmallows

Take of decoction of:
marshmallow roots 4 ounces;
water 1 gallon.
Boil down to 4 pints and strain; then add
gum arabic 1/2 a pound;
refined sugar 2 pounds.
Evaporate to an extract; then take from the fire, stir it quickly with:
the whites of 12 eggs previously beaten to a froth;
then add, while stirring.
—The Complete Confectioner, Eleanor Parkinson [Lippincott: Philadelphia] 1864 (p. 23)

Make Marshmallow Water

“A concoction of marshmallow is efficacious in the cure of severe coughs, catarrhs, &c. Cut the roots into thin slices, and pour over them boiling water (about a pint to an ounce of the root), cleansing and peeling off the outer skin before infusion. The water may be flavoured with the squeezed juice and grated rind of an orange, and sweetened with honey or brown sugar-candy. Marshmallow leaves are eaten dressed like lettuce, as a salad. Time, two hours to infuse.”
—Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery with Numerous Illustrations [Cassell, Petter, Galpin: London] (p. 410) 1875

Toasted Marshmallows Recipe

1 tablespoon granulated gelatine
1 cup boiling water
1 cup sugar
whites 3 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Dissolve gelatine in boiling water, add sugar, and a soon as dissolved set bowl containing the mixture in a pan of ice water; then add whites of eggs and vanilla and beat until mixture thickens. Turn into a shallow pan, first dipped in cold water, and let stand until thoroughly chilled. Remove from pan and cut in pieces the size and shape of marshmallows; then roll in macaroons which have been dried and rolled. Serve with sugar and cream.” —Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, Fannie Merritt Farmer [Little Brown: Boston] 1923 (p. 523)