The Weirdly Controversial History of Count Chocula, Franken Berry, and Boo Berry

Mike Mozart via Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Mike Mozart via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

After finding success with their marshmallow-infused Lucky Charms in the late 1960s, the cereal think tank at General Mills believed they had discovered the next great evolution in processed breakfast: Something so rich in chocolate flavor that it would turn a bowl of milk into mud.

The as-yet-unnamed cereal was developed at the same time as a similar marshmallow and grain concept that used a strawberry flavor. The company wanted to debut them at the same time and asked their advertising agency, Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, to come up with a commercial campaign that would personify the products in the same way Tony the Tiger and the Rice Krispies trio had become grocery aisle celebrities.

Mike Mozart via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

“My boss, Tony Jaffe, gave me the assignment,” Laura Levine, a former copywriter for the agency, tells mental_floss. “At the time, Cap’n Crunch was very popular, and Tony wanted something funny.”

It was 1969, and Levine had just been hired by Jaffe. Because there wasn’t yet a free office, she worked at a desk in the secretary’s area, coming up with—and often crossing out—a list of possible duos that could represent both cereals while playing off one another in commercial spots.

Levine doesn’t remember what suggestions she gave Jaffe other than the two he focused on: parodies of Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, which Levine had dubbed Count Chocula and Franken Berry, respectively.

“The whole concept was monsters, but monsters who were scaredy cats,” she says. “They’d act tough, and then they’d be terrified by the sight of a little kitten.”

Jaffe brought the concept to General Mills, which had an enthusiastic response. Since late movies had started appearing on television, the Universal horror film monsters had become familiar to a new generation of fans, who embraced merchandise like Aurora model kits and Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.

Levine, illustrator George Cern, and animators Bill Tollis and Bill Melendez defanged them further, making them look and sound kid friendly. Still, Levine recalls that General Mills took nearly two years to refine her scripts, deliberating on wording and design before the cereals made their debut in March of 1971.

The products were an immediate hit: General Mills added Fruity Yummy Mummy, Boo Berry, and Fruit Brute in short order. But the “Monster Cereals,” as they came to be called, had more problems than their questionable nutrition.

In 1972, the press delighted in reporting some gastronomic difficulties suffered by children who ingested the red dye used in Franken Berry. While harmless, it had a tendency to turn their stool pink or red, leading anxious parents to believe their child might be suffering internal bleeding.

In 1972, the journal Pediatrics published a case study that dubbed the condition “Franken Berry stool.” After being hospitalized for four days with suspected rectal hemorrhaging, a boy was found to have been enjoying the cereal in the days prior. Physicians realized it was the culprit.

In 1987, with everyone’s bowels in order, the company came under fire once again when a commemorative cereal box featuring actor Bela Legosi as Dracula was perceived by some to feature the Star of David. Jewish groups protested, offended that a piece of religious iconography was adorning a vampire. General Mills apologized but didn’t recall the 4 million boxes that had been shipped.

medea_material via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

 
Despite the occasional misstep—fans also cried foul when the company briefly made Chocula a live-action character in a vaguely disturbing ad—the cereals have become special attractions for Halloween. Since 2010, a rotation of horror mascots are distributed to stores in the fall, feeding the demand of nostalgic fans. Some even hoard boxes to resell on eBay; a man in Fort Collins, Colorado who made an unauthorized Chocula craft beer nearly emptied out his town’s supply.

Although Levine had moved on to another agency just before the cereals hit shelves, she's happy to be the originator of a character that has been a beloved cereal mascot for 45 years—and she's not the only one. “It comes up often,” she says. “I do the New York Times crossword every day and remember being very excited when Count Chocula was one of the answers.”

But with the cereals both a regional and seasonal affair, she doesn’t often come across them at home. “In Los Angeles, I don’t ever see them.”

Upper Crust: The Story of Pizza Hut's Forgotten Priazzo Pizza

Pizza Hut tried to up their game in 1985 with a high-rise "Italian pie."
Pizza Hut tried to up their game in 1985 with a high-rise "Italian pie."
Presley Ann, Getty Images for Pizza Hut

When Pizza Hut rolled out its newest menu item in the summer of 1985 under the nonexistent Italian word Priazzo, the chain was quick to correct anyone who declared it a new variety of pizza.

The Priazzo was unlike any pizza Americans had ever come across. With two layers of dough, pepperoni, mushroom, onions, spinach, ham, bacon, tomatoes, and one full pound of cheese, Pizza Hut called it a pie; others called it a strange alchemy of pizza, quiche, and lasagna. PepsiCo, which owned the franchise, hoped it would boost revenue by 10 percent.

It did. For a while. But there were problems inherent in a pizza chain that claimed to be serving something other than pizza.

The Priazzo, which spent two years in development, followed the successful 1983 rollout of Pizza Hut's Personal Pan Pizza. That menu item, which was intended to appeal to customers who wanted just a single portion on their lunch break, was a tremendous hit, increasing the company's lunchtime business by 70 percent. With the Priazzo, however, the restaurant went in the opposite direction—super-sizing a dinner option and limiting its availability to after 4 p.m. on weekdays and all day on weekends.

Though the name was nonsensical—it was the invention of Charles Brymer, a marketing consultant who had also named the Pontiac Fiero—Pizza Hut used names of Italian cities for the three variations. There was the Roma, which had a mix of meat (pepperoni, Italian sausage, and pork) along with mozzarella and the very non-Italian cheddar cheese, plus onions and mushrooms; the Milano had all the meat of the Roma plus beef and bacon, mozzarella and cheddar on top, but no mushrooms or onions; and the gut-busting Florentine, which featured spinach, ham, and five different kinds of cheese, including ricotta, mozzarella, parmesan, romano, and cheddar. (A fourth pie, the vegetarian Napoli, was added later.)

All the pies were stuffed with ingredients and then had a layer of dough with tomato sauce and cheese baked on top. A small Priazzo sold for about $8.05, a medium was $10.95, and a large ran around $13.75. For that you got the full Priazzo experience and nothing extra, as customers were not allowed to change or substitute toppings—or, more accurately, stuffing—as the surplus of ingredients was the entire point of the Priazzo. Diners could, however, ask that ingredients be subtracted.

“Most Italian homes have a version of their own,” Arthur Gunther, Pizza Hut's president at the time, told the Chicago Tribune of the idea behind the Priazzo in 1985. “We looked for those that we felt would have application in the United States.” In Italy, such double-crusted pies are known as pizza rusticha, though putting sauce and cheese over the top crust was unique to the Priazzo.

On the strength of a $15 million marketing campaign and a commercial shot in Italy, and accompanied by music from famed Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini, the Priazzo made a splashy debut in June 1985, right around the same time that Pizza Hut and other chains were moving into home delivery. While it was not exactly a deep dish pizza, it promised something of similar gastronomic substance, and Pizza Hut hoped that would entice people who didn’t have access to table-tipping pizzas outside of Chicago.

The Priazzo gained some early devotees who enjoyed the dish's generous and layered presentation. One notable exception was Evelyne Slomon, a cooking instructor and author of 1984's The Pizza Book: Everything There Is To Know About the World's Greatest Pie. She refused an offer to endorse the pizza and noted that actual Italians would rarely put so much meat in their pies. Others observed that pizza is one of the words commonly used for pie in Italian, making Pizza Hut’s insistence that their “Italian pie” was not a pizza rather grating for linguists.

Still, they fulfilled their objective. In early 1986, PepsiCo reported a 12 percent increase in Pizza Hut revenue, aided in part by the Priazzo. But its success would not last. In the fast-casual atmosphere of a pizza chain, consumers wanted their typical fare. After the initial curiosity wore off, not many customers were returning to the Priazzo for pizza nights. Anecdotally, there were also reports of employees finding the thick pies too cumbersome and time-consuming to deal with.

Whatever the case, the Priazzo was disappearing by 1991 and was last mentioned in print by Pizza Hut in 1993. The baton of pizza excess was later picked up by their stuffed crust pizza, which was introduced in 1995 and has remained a perennial favorite. That might be due in some part to the fact that Pizza Hut was content to call it what it was: a pizza.

Why Isn't Fish Considered Meat During Lent?

AlexRaths/iStock via Getty Images
AlexRaths/iStock via Getty Images

For six Fridays each spring, Catholics observing Lent skip sirloin in favor of fish sticks and swap Big Macs for Filet-O-Fish. Why?

Legend has it that centuries ago a medieval pope with connections to Europe's fishing business banned red meat on Fridays to give his buddies' industry a boost. But that story isn't true. Sunday school teachers have a more theological answer: Jesus fasted for 40 days and died on a Friday. Catholics honor both occasions by making a small sacrifice: avoiding animal flesh one day out of the week. That explanation is dandy for a homily, but it doesn't explain why only red meat and poultry are targeted and seafood is fine.

For centuries, the reason evolved with the fast. In the beginning, some worshippers only ate bread. But by the Middle Ages, they were avoiding meat, eggs, and dairy. By the 13th century, the meat-fish divide was firmly established—and Saint Thomas Aquinas gave a lovely answer explaining why: sex, simplicity, and farts.

In Part II of his Summa Theologica, Aquinas wrote:

"Fasting was instituted by the Church in order to bridle the concupiscences of the flesh, which regard pleasures of touch in connection with food and sex. Wherefore the Church forbade those who fast to partake of those foods which both afford most pleasure to the palate, and besides are a very great incentive to lust. Such are the flesh of animals that take their rest on the earth, and of those that breathe the air and their products."

Put differently, Aquinas thought fellow Catholics should abstain from eating land-locked animals because they were too darn tasty. Lent was a time for simplicity, and he suggested that everyone tone it down. It makes sense. In the 1200s, meat was a luxury. Eating something as decadent as beef was no way to celebrate a holiday centered on modesty. But Aquinas had another reason, too: He believed meat made you horny.

"For, since such like animals are more like man in body, they afford greater pleasure as food, and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which when abundant becomes a great incentive to lust. Hence the Church has bidden those who fast to abstain especially from these foods."

There you have it. You can now blame those impure thoughts on a beef patty. (Aquinas might have had it backwards though. According to the American Dietetic Association, red meat doesn't boost "seminal matter." Men trying to increase their sperm count are generally advised to cut back on meat. However, red meat does improve testosterone levels, so it's give-and-take.)

Aquinas gave a third reason to avoid meat: it won't give you gas. "Those who fast," Aquinas wrote, "are forbidden the use of flesh meat rather than of wine or vegetables, which are flatulent foods." Aquinas argued that "flatulent foods" gave your "vital spirit" a quick pick-me-up. Meat, on the other hand, boosts the body's long-lasting, lustful humors—a religious no-no.

But why isn't fish considered meat?

The reason is foggy. Saint Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, for one, has been used to justify fasting rules. Paul wrote, " … There is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fish, and another of birds" (15:39). That distinction was possibly taken from Judaism's own dietary restrictions, which separates fleishig (which includes land-locked mammals and fowl) from pareve (which includes fish). Neither the Torah, Talmud, or New Testament clearly explains the rationale behind the divide.

It's arbitrary, anyway. In the 17th century, the Bishop of Quebec ruled that beavers were fish. In Latin America, it's OK to eat capybara, as the largest living rodent is apparently also a fish on Lenten Fridays. Churchgoers around Detroit can guiltlessly munch on muskrat every Friday. And in 2010, the Archbishop of New Orleans gave alligator the thumbs up when he declared, “Alligator is considered in the fish family."

Thanks to King Henry VIII and Martin Luther, Protestants don't have to worry about their diet. When Henry ruled, fish was one of England's most popular dishes. But when the Church refused to grant the King a divorce, he broke from the Church. Consuming fish became a pro-Catholic political statement. Anglicans and the King's sympathizers made it a point to eat meat on Fridays. Around that same time, Martin Luther declared that fasting was up to the individual, not the Church. Those attitudes hurt England's fishing industry so much that, in 1547, Henry's son King Edward VI—who was just 10 at the time—tried to reinstate the fast to improve the country's fishing economy. Some Anglicans picked the practice back up, but Protestants—who were strongest in Continental Europe—didn't need to take the bait.

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

This story was updated in 2020.

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