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.”

You Can Now Order—and Donate—Girl Scout Cookies Online

It's OK if you decide to ignore the recommended serving size on a box of these beauties.
It's OK if you decide to ignore the recommended serving size on a box of these beauties.
Girl Scouts

Girl Scouts may have temporarily suspended both cookie booths and door-to-door sales to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be deprived of your annual supply of everyone’s favorite boxed baked goods. Instead, you can now order Thin Mints, Tagalongs, and all the other classic cookies online—or donate them to local charities.

When you enter your ZIP code on the “Girl Scouts Cookie Care” page, it’ll take you to a digital order form for the nearest Girl Scouts organization in your area. Then, simply choose your cookies—which cost $5 or $6 per box—and check out with your payment and shipping information. There’s a minimum of four boxes for each order, and shipping fees vary based on quantity.

Below the list of cookies is a “Donate Cookies” option, which doesn’t count toward your own order total and doesn’t cost any extra to ship. You get to choose how many boxes to donate, but the Girl Scouts decide which kinds of cookies to send and where exactly to send them (the charity, organization, or group of people benefiting from your donation is listed on the order form). There’s a pretty wide range of recipients, and some are specific to healthcare workers—especially in regions with particularly large coronavirus outbreaks. The Girl Scouts of Greater New York, for example, are sending donations to NYC Health + Hospitals, while the Girl Scouts of Western Washington have simply listed “COVID-19 Responders” as their recipients.

Taking their cookie business online isn’t the only way the Girl Scouts are adapting to the ‘stay home’ mandates happening across the country. They’ve also launched “Girl Scouts at Home,” a digital platform filled with self-guided activities so Girl Scouts can continue to learn skills and earn badges without venturing farther than their own backyard. Resources are categorized by grade level and include everything from mastering the basics of coding to building a life vest for a Corgi (though the video instructions for that haven’t been posted yet).

“For 108 years, Girl Scouts has been there in times of crisis and turmoil,” Girl Scouts of the USA CEO Sylvia Acevedo said in a press release. “And today we are stepping forward with new initiatives to help girls, their families, and consumers connect, explore, find comfort, and take action.”

You can order cookies here, and explore “Girl Scouts at Home” here.

Can't Find Yeast? Grow Your Own at Home With a Sourdough Starter

Dutodom, iStock via Getty Images
Dutodom, iStock via Getty Images

Baking bread can relieve stress and it requires long stretches of time at home that many of us now have. But shoppers have been panic-buying some surprising items since the start of the COVID-19 crisis. In addition to pantry staples like rice and beans, yeast packets are suddenly hard to find in grocery stores. If you got the idea to make homemade bread at the same time as everyone on your Instagram feed, don't let the yeast shortage stop you. As long as you have flour, water, and time, you can grow your own yeast at home.

While many bread recipes call for either instant yeast or dry active yeast, sourdough bread can be made with ingredients you hopefully already have on hand. The key to sourdough's unique, tangy taste lies in its "wild" yeast. Yeast is a single-celled type of fungus that's abundant in nature—it's so abundant, it's floating around your home right now.

To cultivate wild yeast, you need to make a sourdough starter. This can be done by combining one cup of flour (like whole grain, all-purpose, or a mixture of the two) with a half cup of cool water in a bowl made of nonreactive material (such as glass, stainless steel, or food-grade plastic). Cover it with plastic wrap or a clean towel and let it sit in a fairly warm place (70°F to 75°F) for 24 hours.

Your starter must be fed with one cup of flour and a half cup of water every day for five days before it can be used in baking. Sourdough starter is a living thing, so you should notice is start to bubble and grow in size over time (it also makes a great low-maintenance pet if you're looking for company in quarantine). On the fifth day, you can use your starter to make dough for sourdough bread. Here's a recipe from King Arthur Flour that only calls for starter, flour, salt, and water.

If you just want to get the urge to bake out of your system, you can toss your starter once you're done with it. If you plan on making sourdough again, you can use the same starter indefinitely. Starters have been known to live in people's kitchens for decades. But to avoid using up all your flour, you can store yours in the fridge after the first five days and reduce feedings to once a week.

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