Take me out to the ball game . . .

When I was quite young, my father, an avid baseball enthusiast, was a driver for the local city bus line. In order to make extra money, during baseball season he would request to drive charters to the home games of our local baseball farm team, the Cats. One of the perks of being a charter driver was that he got free passes to watch the game. Many times he would take my mom and me with him. Other times mom would walk me to the bus stop and put me on his bus so he and I could have a father-son night out.

Even though I enjoyed the ball game and time with my father, the most exciting part of these evenings took place after the game. After we dropped the passengers off and returned to the “yard,” I got to accompany my dad inside the bus company building, affectionately referred to by the drivers as the “Club House.” It was there that my father reconciled his fares—transfer tickets, monies, logs, etc.—and turned them into the cashier. Afterwards he would take me downstairs where there were showers, lockers, and pool tables. I never tired of my visits to  the Club House.  

Needless to say, trips to the ball game always meant a special treat to snack on and a soda to wash it down. It was here that I was introduced to the delicious magic of Cracker Jacks. My dad would usually buy two boxes—one for me, one for himself—but of course, I got both prizes.

Cracker Jack has been around for some 120 years. If all of the Cracker Jack sold during that time were laid end-to-end they would circle the earth more than seventy-one times.

F. W. Rueckheim

The story of Cracker Jack began when twenty-three-year-old Frederick William Rueckheim immigrated from Germany to America in 1869, seeking a new start in life after the Prussian-Austrian war. At first Frederick worked as a farmhand for his uncle who owned land in Washington Heights, a small town south of Chicago that was eventually integrated into the city. For this, he was paid $150 a year. But Frederick sought bigger things in life so after  the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 he moved to the city to help with the removal of debris left by the tragic disaster.

Louis Rueckheim

In the mid nineteenth century, popcorn had become a delicious and affordable American treat. And because the ingredients were plentiful and cheap, making and selling popcorn was a potentially good business opportunity. So in 1971 Frederick took his life savings of $200  and partnered with William Brinkmeyer (whose candy business was destroyed in the Chicago fire) to start a popcorn and confectionary company. They located their company on 113 Fourth Avenue in Chicago, where workers who were rebuilding the city provided them a readymade customer base. By the end of the next year Frederick bought out his partner and sent for his younger brother, Louis Rueckheim to join him in his venture. Together they formed F. W. Rueckheim & Brother with  Frederick being responsible for strategy and marketing, while Louis’ was in overseeing manufacturing.

The Rueckheim bothers business—producing popcorn bricks and other popcorn products— grew rapidly, requiring them to move the business five times over the next ten years. They finally settled down in a rented three-story brick structure on South Clinton street. But in 1887 the building, equipment and inventory were destroyed by fire. However within six months the brothers were able to regroup their business. This time they moved the factory into a new building on Deplanes Avenue with new equipment and a sprinkler system.

Although business was good, Fredrick and Louis wanted to expand their product line so the brothers began experimenting with a new confection that incorporated popcorn peanuts, and molasses. In 1893 their new product was introduced to the public at the World’s Columbia Exposition as “Candied Popcorn and Peanuts.” Unfortunately, although people loved the taste of the new product, they didn’t like how the stickiness of the molasses caused the product to clump together, making it messy and difficult to eat.

As a result of the Exposition feedback, Louis set out to solve the stickiness issue. In 1896 he successfully developed a formula that made the molasses coating dry and crisp—a formula that remains a closely guarded secret of the Cracker Jack Company, even today. In fact, since Louis Rueckheim developed his secret coating, the Cracker Jack formula has changed only  one time. After Borden purchased the company in 1964, they exchanged white sugar for corn syrup.

Deplanes Ave Building

It was also in 1896 when the Rueckheim brother’s popcorn, peanut, and molasses confection received and trademarked the name Cracker Jack. Legend has it that after a salesman (or production manager) tasted the creation, he exclaimed, “That’s a cracker jack!”—a slang term at the time that meant  “something exceptional, splendid, or excellent. Thus the name was born. Later that spring F. W. Rueckheim & Brother began a national promotional campaign, manufacturing and shipping four and a half tons of Cracker Jack a day throughout the United States to backup the campaign.

For the first ten years Cracker Jack was sold from large tubs where store clerks scooped it into a bag or other container.  Then in 1899 Henry Gottlieb Eckstein developed the “waxed sealed package” for the company, the moisture proof package still used today. That packaging allowed Cracker Jack to retain its freshness and be distributed worldwide in its own box. Eckstein’s contribution also resulted in him being made a partner in 1902, and the company name changed to Rueckheim Bros. & Eckstein.

In 1908 songwriter Jack Norworth was on the New York subway when he spotted a sign that  said “Ballgame Today at the Polo Grounds.” That sign began him thinking of baseball lyrics which he jotted down. When he arrived at work he immediately got with his friend Albert Von Tilzer who put the words to music. From this collaboration came the song containing the line that would come to immortalized Cracker Jack, “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack.” And although Frederick was in charge of marketing, he had nothing to do with this, one of the most famous publicity campaigns in the Company’s history.

First performed at the Ziegfeld Follies by Norworth’s wife, soprano Nora Bayes, the song quickly became a standard at every major league baseball park in America, and one of the country’s most widely sung songs, providing Cracker Jack years of free publicty. It is interesting to note that at that time neither Norworth or Tilzer had ever been to a baseball game. It would be 32 and 20 years later respectively before the two songwriters would see their first game.

Another major marketing idea, including prizes in each box of Cracker Jack, was also one that Frederick Rueckheim may have “borrowed” from a rival, the Checkers candy company. While some say that the practice actually started around the turn of the century, the phrase “A prize in every box” was added to the Cracker Jack label in 1912, according to company history.

The first Cracker Jack prizes were paper, and included items like dolls, games, and pictures of movie stars and baseball players. There were also metal prizes produced by the Tootsietoys Company of Chicago. These toys included thimbles, irons, animal figures and tops. Then there were the coupons printed on all Cracker Jack labels that could be redeemed for a wide array of toys, jewelry, books, table linens, and sporting goods. And regardless of what the prizes were, they had to appeal to both boys and girls alike.

The iconic characters, Sailor Jack and his dog Bingo, that appear on all Cracker Jack packaging were first introduced in 1916 in print advertisements. In 1918, it was decided to add Sailor Jack and his dog to the box, a decision that turned out so popular that they still appear on all Cracker Jack packaging, even today. 

In 1922, the company changed its name to The Cracker Jack Company.

One of the most successful Cracker Jack marketing campaigns  of all times took place from May of 1933 to May 1936. The Cracker Jack Mystery Club offered membership by collecting and mailing the company 10 Presidential Coins (later 3, then 5), which could be found inside boxes of the molasses coated popcorn and peanut treat with question marks on the label. The Cracker Jack company would stamp the  back of your coins with “cancelled” and return them with a membership certificate and small gift. There was a total of thirty-one coins (Grover Cleveland’s two non-consecutive terms were stamped on the same coin) beginning with George Washington and ending with Franklin D. Roosevelt. More than 200,000 children join the Mystery Club during those three years.

The Cracker Jack company was purchased by Borden in 1964 after a bidding war with 

Frito-Lay. Then in 1997, Borden sold the brand to PepsiCo, who quickly incorporated it into their Frito-Lay portfolio and production was moved to the Wyandot Snacks plant in Marion, Ohio.

On April 30, 2013, in an effort to reinvigorate waining sales, Frito-Lay announced a slight reformulation of the original Cracker Jack by adding more peanuts and updating prizes to be more relevant to today’s consumer. They also announced expanding the product line with the addition of a new popcorn product called Cracker Jack’D. Distinct form the original, Cracker   Jack’D comes in a number of flavors, including Power Bites a caffeine laced product. Packing for the new line is also distinct, using all black rather than the traditional red and white label and featuring a close-up version of Sailor Jack and Bingo. Cracker Jack’d does not include prizes in its packages.

There you have it, the story of Cracker Jack. So next time you go to a ballgame, why not enjoy it with a box or two of the sport’s favorite candied popcorn and peanut snacks. And be sure to keep the prizes for yourself


Pumpkin Pie: America’s Favorite Holiday Pie

Probably my all-time favorite holiday pie is, and has always been, pumpkin. Home baked, store bought, made with fresh fruit (yes, pumpkin is a fruit) or canned, when someone yells pumpkin pie, I’m there. And while some have been better than others, I can honestly say I’ve never tasted a pumpkin pie I didn’t like. That said, I’m reminded of an amusing side story.

My mom, as I’ve mentioned in several of my writings, was a wonderful cook. She used to bake what our family and friends considered some of the best pumpkin pie we ever put in our mouths. One year while helping her prepare the family’s Thanksgiving meal I asked for her pumpkin pie recipe. She laughed and told me that the pumpkin pies I was so fond of while growing up were actually sweet potato pies, and her “secret recipe” could be found on the label of any can of Libby’s® pumpkin puree. And that, friends, is when I discovered why my pumpkin pies never tasted like hers.

Historians estimate that the pumpkin has been around for more than 9,000 years, originating in Central America. In fact, archaeologists who discovered seeds in the Oaxaca Highlands of Mexico dating back to between 7,500 and 5,500 B.C., believe pumpkin to be one of the world’s first cultivated foodstuffs.

It is thought that French explorer Jacques Cartier brought “pompoms” (a word derived from the Greek word “pepon” meaning large melon) from Central America back to Europe in 1536. From there they were introduced to England, where they were called ”pumpion.” A few decades after English colonists arrived in the New World the English word pumpion became Americanized to “pumpkin,” the name by which it is known today.

America’s first pumpkin pies were certainly nothing at all like those of today. Since settlers to the New World initially had no ovens in which to bake, nor wheat for flour to make pastry, the first pumpkin pies were likely made by hollowing out the shell, filling it with milk, honey, and spices, then baking it in hot ashes until the flesh was soft enough to scrape out and eat. 

In 1653 the French cookbook Le Vrai Cuisinier Francois (The French Cook) was translated and published in England containing what is believed to be the first pumpkin pie recipe that included pastry:

Tourte of Pompom

Boile it with good mix, pass it through straining pan very thick, and mix with sugar, butter, a little salt and if you will, a few stamped almonds, let all be very thin. Put it in your sheet of paste; bake it. After it is baked, besprinkle it with sugar and serve.

Then in 1655 a popular English cookbook The Compleat Cook by William Montague, personal cook to Henrietta Maria Queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland, was published. Pages 14 and 15 of the book revealed his recipe for pumpkin pie.

“Take about halfe a pound of Pumpion & slice it, a handful of Tyme, a little Rosemary, Parsley and sweet Marjoram slipped off the stalks, and chop them small, then take Cinamon Nutmeg, Pepper, and six Cloves, and beat them; take ten Eggs and beat them, then mix them, and beat them altogether, & put in as much Sugar as you think fit, then fry them like a froiz; after it is fryed, let it stand till it be cold, then fill your Pye, take sliced Apples thinne round wayes, and lay a row of the Froiz, and a layer of Apples with Currans betwixt the layer while your Pye is fitted, and put in a good deal of sweet butter before you close it; when the Pye is baked, take six yolks of Eggs, some white-wine or Verjuyce, & make a Caudle of this, but not too thick; cut up the Lid and put it in, stir them well together whilst the Eggs and Pumpions be not perceived, and so serve it up. — W.M.”

In 1670 Hanna Woolley, who has been described as the Martha Stewart of the 17th century, and in all probability the first female ever to make a living authoring books on cookery and household management, published The Queen-like Closet. In part two of Woolley’s book, recipe 131 is for “Pumpion-Pie”:

“Take a Pumpion, pare it, and cut it in thin slices, dip it in beaten Eggs and Herbs shred small, and fry it till it be enough, then lay it into a Pie with Butter, Raisins, Currans, Sugar and Sack, and in the bottom some sharp Apples; when it is baked, butter it and serve it in.”

It is relatively certain that the English colonists brought cookbooks with them to their new home in America, though no one knows if either of these were among them. 

America’s first cookbook, American Cookery, was published in 1796. Written by Amelia Simmons, it featured ingredients indigenous to this country and included not one but two pumpkin puddings baked in a crust very similar to present day pumpkin pies.

“Pompkin Pudding No.1. One quart stewed and strained, 3 pints cream, 9 beaten eggs, sugar, mace, nutmeg and ginger, laid into paste No. 7 or 3, and with a dough spur, cross and checker it, baked in dishes three quarters of an hour.

Pompkin Pudding No. 2. One quart of milk, 1 pint pumpkin, 4 eggs, molasses, allspice and ginger in a crust, bake 1 hour.”

By the early 1800s, all pumpkin pies prepared by American cooks continued to follow and improve on Simmons’ format. The following recipe included in Mary Randolph’s 1824 completely American cookbook, The Virginia Housewife, included the addition of brandy and employed only a bottom crust.

“Stew a fine sweet pumpkin till soft and dry, rub it through a sieve, mix with the pulp six eggs quite light, a quarter of a pound of butter, half a pint of new milk, some pounded ginger and nutmeg, a wine glass of brandy and sugar to your taste. Should it be too liquid, stew it a little dry; put a paste round the edges and in the bottom of a shallow dish or plate, pour in the mixture, cut some thin bits of paste, twist them and  lay them across the top and bake it nicely.”

It wasn’t long before the popularity of pumpkin pie made it an essential part of  every Thanksgiving celebration. By the mid-1800s pumpkin pie songs, ditties, and poems began appearing in newspapers, ladies’ magazines, and children’s books throughout America, a reign that lasted well into the 20th centur

Although the next 90 years brought many trendy flavor combinations to pumpkin pies, the technique used to make them remained essentially the same as described in Amelia Simmons’ recipe—stew the pumpkin for hours, mash it, strain it, add milk, eggs, sugar, and spices, and bake in a pastry crust—things were about to change. 

The turn of the century and a rapidly expanding canning industry brought with it an entirely new innovation—canned pumpkin. American housewives quickly embraced this new product and by the 1920s canned pumpkin became a staple in households throughout the country. Not only was canned pumpkin convenient, it was cheap (3 cans for a quarter in 1911), and much safer than home-canned pumpkin.

Also the early years of the 20th century brought about changes in commercial baking industry—new and better equipment, more efficient ovens. Not only could restaurants, diners, and hotels choose from a huge array of pre-baked goods, including pies, but grocers and other retail outlets made them available to consumers as well.

The early 1960s brought another innovation to the world of pumpkin pies—frozen ready-to-eat pies. A few years later, the frozen pumpkin pie also became   available in a bake-off variety. Hailed as fail-proof these  latest addition brought the freshness, aroma, and flavor of scratch-made pies with time-saving convenience found only in frozen pies. Both of these continue to be popular options today.  

You may be surprised that Americans eat more pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving than turkey. In fact it has been estimated that more than 50-million pumpkin pies a year are consumed in the United States alone each and every Thanksgiving.

In closing, i’d like to leave you with this fact. According to Guinness World Records, largest pumpkin pie ever made was on September 9, 2010 at the New Bremen Festival in Ohio. It measured a staggering 20 feet in diameter and weighed 3,699 pounds. Making this monstrosity took 2,796 eggs, 525 pounds sugar, 1,212 pounds canned pumpkin, 109 gallons evaporated milk, 14 pounds cinnamon, 7 pounds salt, and 440 sheets of dough for the crust. That’s around 40 times the size of a regular pie.

And for you bakers out there, I couldn’t close without sharing  my mom’s “secret” pumpkin pie recipe.

Sugar’s Pumpkin Pie (aka Sweet Potato Pie)

Recipe makes one 9-inch pie; 8-10 servings

  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 can (15 oz.) sweet potatoes, well drained
  • 1 can (12 oz.) evaporated milk
  • 1 unbaked 9-inch (4 cup volume) deep-dish pie shell
  • Whipped cream (optional)

Mix sugar, cinnamon, ginger, salt and cloves in small bowl. Beat eggs in large bowl. Stir in the drained sweet potatoes and sugar-spice mixture. Gradually stir in evaporated milk. Pour into pie shell.

Bake in preheated 425° F oven for 15 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350° F; bake for 40 to 50 minutes or until knife inserted near center comes out clean. Cool on wire rack for 2 hours. Serve immediately or refrigerate. Top with a dollop of whipped cream before serving.

NOTE: This recipe can also be found on the label of LIBBY’S® Pumpkin where it has appeared since 1950.

This story is lovingly dedicated to my mom, Claire Juanita Etchieson-Melugin, December 20, 1922 to March16, 1995