All Hail the King of Toaster Pastries
Why Pop-Tarts are a thing again
By Maria Johnson
As a child of the ’60s and ’70s, I was an advertiser’s dream.
Allowed to roam all three TV channels — four if you counted “educational TV,” which I didn’t — I spent many Saturday mornings glued to the cartoon adventures of Bugs Bunny, Road Runner, the Flintstones, Jonny Quest, the Jetsons, Scooby-Doo, Space Ghost and Fat Albert while making room for real humans in the form of The Monkees.
I use the term “real humans” loosely.
Anyway, consuming so much animation gave me a rich audio and visual catalog. I still hear the whistling of falling anvils when something drops, mutter “ruh-rho” when I make a mistake, and feel like I’m turning to a block of ice then cracking into a million pieces and falling into a pile of shards when I step into water that’s colder than expected.
So, you know, yabba-dabba-doo for imagination.
I also ingested a helluva lot of marketing for sugary convenience foods, which translated — as intended — into me begging my parents to buy them, which translated into a nasty Pop-Tarts habit.
Painted with a hard shellack of frosting.
It hardly mattered.
These highly processed tiles of joy were sold as “toaster pastries,” which was laughable because they were neither real pastries nor toasted. Not much anyway. Not in our house. My brother and I usually snarfed down those perfectly rectangular suckers at room temperature.
They were packaged in twos, suggesting to some people, perhaps, that the contents were meant to be shared. Translated into sibling-speak, however, the meaning was clear: “Two for me. Get your own.”
We did, and we were wary of pretenders, chiefly Toastettes, which were distinguished by deep hash marks around the edges, and Danish Go-Rounds, which were flat tubes of fruit-filled crust curled into spirals.
In due time, of course, I left Pop-Tarts behind, moved onto other unhealthy habits and eventually — as happens to the best of us — became a health-conscious adult.
If I ever bought Pop-Tarts for my own kids, I don’t remember it.
In fact, I tilted the other way, toward whole-grain parenting. Let’s just say there’s a reason my adult sons sometimes tease me with the word “flax,” as in, “Oh, what a shame, Mom. There’s no flax on the menu.”
Or, “What would you call the color of those jeans, Mom? Flax?”
Or, “If only I’d eaten more flax, this wouldn’t be happening.”
To which I can only say, “That’s probably true.”
So, honestly, it was one of the biggest shocks of my life when the boys came home for the holidays recently and we all sat down to watch one of their alma maters, N.C. State, play in a longstanding Florida football contest that was branded, for the first time ever, as the Pop-Tarts Bowl.
My interest was piqued.
I hadn’t thought of them — Pop-Tarts, I mean — in so long. And now, here was the logo, plastered all over the field and the screen. Honestly, I didn’t realize Pop-Tarts were still in production.
Then came halftime, and a bellowing announcer directed everyone’s attention to midfield, where a giant toaster was set up. Music blared and the crowd noise swelled as the official Pop-Tarts mascot — frosted, natch, with sprinkles — rose up on a stage inside one of the slots.
Jets of sparks and smoke spewed as the mascot emerged into full view.
Endowed with golden-brown arms and legs, the Pop-Tart strutted, punched the air and whipped up the crowd with his painted-on smile.
It was a rock star’s entrance. Freddie Mercury had nothing on this cat.
A dam broke inside of me. I was flooded with memories.
Of the smell of Pop-Tarts.
Of the feel of Pop-Tarts in my hands, and how I used to break off the crusty edges and eat them first.
I could taste them again.
I fidgeted in my seat.
“Have y’all ever had a Pop-Tart?” I asked the young heads in the room.
They stared at me.
“Not even in college?”
More blank looks.
“Do you WANT to eat a Pop-Tart?” I asked.
Shoulders shrugged. Then someone said, “No, but I think YOU do.”
It was the truth.
“I’m going to the store,” I said flatly. “Who’s with me?”
My younger son, the one who taunts me most about flaxseed, was ecstatic at seeing me crack.
“I’m in!” he said.
Minutes later, we were back with two boxes: one blueberry and one brown sugar-cinnamon, both frosted. We passed them around.
The packets were wrapped in thin, silver film, not the paper and foil envelope of my youth.
The tarts were smaller and thinner than I remembered.
And they tasted less robust, if that’s possible for a laminated wafer born on a conveyor belt.
But they tickled a long dormant lobe of my brain.
My older son’s partner, who is an outstanding baker, chewed slowly.
“What do you think?” I asked, smiling at her with purple teeth.
Her brow furrowed.
Beside her, my elder son, who’s also a foodie, offered an olive branch: “It’s . . . complicated.”
Kansas State won the game. I couldn’t tell you the score.
But forever seared into my mind is the sight of a Pop-Tart incarnate flitting about the sidelines and the announcer wondering which team was going to have the privilege of eating the mascot at the end of the game.
It was blatant cannibalism.
I was all for it.
At the game’s conclusion, as thousands of fans roared their approval, the mascot sacrificed himself to the humongous toaster, descending on his stage to a fate sealed by the heating elements.
A few seconds later, an oversized, frosted tart — sans arms and legs — slid from the bottom of the toaster. The winning team was invited to come over and break off a piece to celebrate.
It was advertising genius.
I fell for it. Again. As it turned out, I had plenty of company.
The kitschy show went viral.
Pop-Tarts’ brand value jumped 25 percent thanks to the media chatter, such as this post on the social platform X:
“I would actually watch the Super Bowl halftime show if it was the Pop-Tart fighting a Toaster Strudel.”
Enchanted fans snapped up novelty T-shirts commemorating the game.
And my newly exposed sons?
The epicure decided he could do without pastries that resembled postcards.
The other, the anti-flaxxer, was open to a Pop-Tart inclusive life.
Secretly, I was happy.
Days later, when we dropped him off at the airport, I noticed he’d left something behind on the car seat: a silver packet of Pop-Tarts.
“Wait here,” I told my husband. I dashed into the airport, sussed out my son in a security line and pardoned my way through the queue.
“You left this in the car,” I said, breathlessly handing him the shiny packet.
Then I turned and zipped away as fast as . . . well, the Road Runner.
Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry magazine. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.