GUESTWORDS: Peanut M&M’s Random Count

By Bruce Buschel

    Something always needs tweaking or tightening at the restaurant, so I am a regular at True Value and Riverhead Building Supply, Thayer’s Hardware, Herrick Hardware, Kmart, and Lowe’s. Greeting you in most stores is a multi-headed monster that dispenses candy and jawbreakers and gumballs. Even at 3 or 4 in the afternoon, when I am flagging and could use a pick-me-up or a lay-me-down, I can resist most caloric temptations.
    Not Peanut M&M’s. They stop me in my tracks. They trigger salivation glands and cause mild palpitations.
    I love Peanut M&M’s. Green, purple, yellow, dark brown, tan, orange, or blue. It doesn’t matter. Even the red ones, colored with a dye so dangerous — FD&C Red #40, E129 — that it is banned in eight Eurozone countries. I don’t care. I care, but I can’t help myself. FD&C Blue Dye No. 1? Nasty stuff that miraculously helped white rats with spinal cord injuries to walk again. The only noticeable side effect was that it turned their white ears, nose, and/or feet a lovely turquoise. The rats didn’t seem to mind.
    “Your nose is so blue, Charles.”
    “That’s okay, Sadie. Last month I couldn’t walk.”
    “What did they give you?”
    “A steady diet of blue M&M’s.”
    “You look good, Charles.”
    “Thank you, Sadie.”
    “But if your nose stays blue for more than four hours, shouldn’t you call a doctor?”
    “It’s been blue for two weeks, babe.”
    “Hey, where you are going, Sadie? Don’t run away.”
    It was love at first sound for me. Whose first word was not some variation of “Mom”? Or “Mommy”? (M&M&M.) And for men of a certain age, our first hero was Mickey Mouse, a rodent who could sing like Sinatra, dance like Astaire, and capture Minnie Mouse like Valentino with a velvet mousetrap. And then came Mickey Mantle, that inexorable force of Americana that became even greater when teamed up with Roger Maris, dubbed the M&M Boys, the greatest power duo of all time.
    At the same time, another force of nature was hitting long balls in Hollywood. Marilyn Monroe. Just saying her name was a sensual experience. Her initials had the same luxurious curves as her bodacious physique. So those two simple letters, M and M, represented an exciting melange of motherhood and celebrity and sexuality and dominance and drama and a rodent icon fronting an international entertainment empire.
    M&M candies originally had nothing to do with athletes or actresses. They were named for two businessmen, Forrest Mars, of Mars, Inc., and Bill Murrie, president of Hershey’s Chocolate. Their last names wouldn’t fit on a small button, so they reduced them to two lower-case m’s in 1941, and 13 years later stuck peanuts inside those m&m’s and sealed my fate.
    When receiving only four Peanut M&M’s for two bits, I used to feel emotionally shortchanged, singled out for a skimpy return; the last thing you need in the middle of an ordinary day is a painful reminder in a hardware store of all the exchanges that left you feeling empty and cheated. Candy can be so cruel. Back in the day, you would find a big bowl of snacks sitting on the counter of these same stores, and you would help yourself. They trusted you. You trusted them. You were neighbors. It didn’t matter if they displayed undistributed Halloween leftovers or stale Kisses — the candy was there, and you enjoyed it all the more because it was free. You even put a few in your pocket (when no one was looking).
    That was then. Vending machines are now. And they are usually made in Ontario, Canada, by a company named Beaver. Atop each globe is the name in bas-relief and a metal rendering of the cute, semi-aquatic, large-tailed rodent. (I know, there are more rodents in this article than Peanut M&M’s.) Fact is, you never know how many Peanut M&M’s will come tumbling out of the beaver’s mouth, or get stuck somewhere in the back of his throat; one or two usually end up on the floor. It took me years to get over the frustration of so few colorful, delicious, imperfect spheres landing in my hand. Then I realized it was like a quick and inexpensive trip to a casino. The fewer Peanut M&M’s that came rolling out of that beaver’s maw, the luckier I was. Less fat, fewer calories. Four Peanut M&M’s? Better than five. And five was twice as good as 10 in this new anti-supersized Bloom­bergian America.
    Less is more. Small is largess.
    Old-fashioned chocolate M&M’s have one-third the calories of Peanut M&M’s, and less than half the carbs. Saturated fat? A serving of Peanut M&M’s has over 5 grams of fat, 12 grams of carbs, and 10 grams of sugar in every serving. A serving, as defined by the M&M people, is 10 pieces. Ten pieces? Ha! If you get 10 Peanut M&M’s from a vending machine, you’ve hit the jackpot, dude, and should expect bells and whistles, flashing lights, loose women, and a free room somewhere in Montauk with a fresh fish dinner served by Carl Safina.
    But why does each vending machine upchuck different amounts? I called the Beaver Machine Corporation in Ontario, Canada. I spoke to Jacqui. Jacqui wouldn’t give me her last name or title. She must field a lot of calls from south of her border. I asked Jacqui how many Peanut M&M’s should slide out of the beaver’s mouth for an American quarter. After a brief disquisition on the stability of the Canadian currency, Jacqui explained that Beaver, Inc., always lets the store set the amount.
    “It’s an O.D.,” said Jacqui.
    “O.D.?” I echoed. “Sounds ominous.”
    “Operator decision,” Jacqui said. “We set each machine to the middle level and then show each store how to readjust, up or down. We relinquish all control over that number.”
    I asked Jacqui what she thought a fair number would be.
    “I have no idea. I have never eaten anything from a vending machine.”
    “You don’t have any vending machines at Beaver headquarters?” I asked.
    “Oh, we sure do,” said Jacqui. “We have lots of them, but we know too much about them to eat anything that comes out of them. You think anyone who works at McDonald’s would ever eat a Chicken McNugget? No way.

    Bruce Buschel owns Southfork Kitchen in Bridgehampton and is a freelance writer, director, producer, snacker.