The surest sign of spring in our neighborhood isn’t the excited twitter of birds outside the bedroom window or the budding tulips on Park Avenue but the arrival of the marshmallow peeps at the Treat Boutique on 86th Street between Second and Third avenues. My brother James and I compete to spot them first.
“They’re here,” one of us will tell the other over the phone without any need to spell out what “they” are.
I’m not talking about the mass-produced peeps that come in boxes, taste like cardboard and can be purchased at virtually any supermarket or Rite Aid store. The sunny yellow peeps I mean are a far more sophisticated confection. They’re stored in penny candy jars, sold by the pound, and when purchased at their freshest-at the very start of the Easter candy season-are of such delicate consistency that one feels they’re less food than meteorological phenomenon-a sugar-coated cloud.
Unfortunately, when my brother called a few days ago, he was not bearing the joyous peep tidings I was hoping to receive. He had bad news. He’d phoned the Treat Boutique and been told the peeps weren’t coming this year.
“What are you talking about?” I demanded in disbelief.
“The guy I spoke with said he can’t find them anywhere.”
I dropped whatever it was I was doing and rushed over to the store hoping my brother was wrong. There were boxed peeps in profusion by the front door, as well as marshmallow rabbits. But there wasn’t an authentic fluffy peep in sight.
The guy behind the counter didn’t share my concern. He was almost rude.
“I can’t tell you when it’s arriving,” he said dismissively. “We have a month.”
“A month?” I muttered. I didn’t want them to decorate my Easter basket. I wanted them to eat. Immediately. Were my brother and I the only customers who had expressed concern?
“Some people did ask,” he admitted.
“Have you ever tried them?” I wondered out loud. I couldn’t imagine that a true peep lover would be this blasé about the possibility of springtime without the little birds.
“I haven’t tried it, and I’m not willing to try it,” he snorted. “I can tell by the aroma what they’d taste like, and it doesn’t do anything for me.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he added. “I eat chocolate, halvah, fruit slices.”
He turned me down flat when I asked for the name of his supplier. I wasn’t trying to go behind his back and buy them wholesale.
It’s just that if they were dead I wanted to know so that I could make other arrangements. Lately, I’ve had success making both béarnaise and butterscotch sauces from scratch. How difficult could it be to whip up a batch of marshmallow and dip it in yellow colored sugar? If nothing else, I could get on with the grieving process.
I confessed that in addition to being a peep lover I was also a reporter. I thought Jack-he wouldn’t divulge his last name-might be more forthcoming if he knew he might get free publicity out of the deal.
“I wouldn’t give it to you anyway,” he sniffed.
“Why not?” I pleaded.
“That’s the way it is. We don’t give such information out.”
I tried another tack. What if the candies suddenly showed up, I asked? How was I going to find out?
“Give me a call,” he suggested. “Any day after 3.”
“Why after 3?” I wondered.
I was visiting the Treat Boutique around noon and the place was dead. What prevented him from taking my call earlier in the day? Was he trading stocks on his computer? Or consuming large quantities of halvah in the back of the store?
“The deliveries usually come around that time,” he explained sensibly.
I wasn’t thinking clearly. A world without soft little peeps sold in bulk was too brutish to contemplate. What was next? Jelly beans? The plastic grass you use to line your Easter basket? God forbid, chocolate bunnies?
On my way home, I decided to drop by the Elk Candy Company around the corner. It was a dumb move. It only stoked my desperation. While they were well stocked for Easter-carrying not only a festive array of tinfoil-wrapped bunnies but also extremely rare semisweet chocolate rabbits-there wasn’t a mallowpeep in sight.
At least Nick, the salesman on duty, was more sympathetic to my plight than Jack at the Treat Boutique had been.
“They’re kind of hard to make,” he explained gently. “We make only marzipan chicks.”
He was being modest. In addition to chicks, they also sold marzipan hens, marzipan rabbits, marzipan spuds, carrots, strawberries, eggs-even flesh-colored marzipan pigs in four sizes. Elk Candy was a virtual resort destination for the marzipan aficionado.
On the way home, and a lugubrious journey it was, I ran into Roger Rowe trying to hail a cab on the corner of 82nd Street and Third Avenue. Our daughters go to school together.
I explained to Roger that instead of being at work trying to support my family, I was wandering the streets in search of marshmallow chicks. He understood completely. Turns out he’s a peep connoisseur too. “There’s also the orange peanut,” he volunteered.
I’d never put two and two together before but he was absolutely right. Come fall some better stores sell a harvest variation on the peep; it’s of the same divine consistency but shaped like a peanut and coated in red and brown sugar.
“Do you remember Campfire marshmallows?” I said. “Not the ones in the bag, the ones in the box?”
During my childhood, one could purchase marshmallows by the box. The boxes were small, jewel-like and wrapped in cellophane. They had two layers with a piece of wax paper separating them. When you finished the top layer and removed the wax paper to reach the bottom layer, the effect was almost magical. But the most important thing was that they tasted utterly different and vastly superior to marshmallows in a bag.
“They tasted really great,” Roger agreed. “They tasted fresh.”
He had to go pick up his daughter, but he seemed concerned about leaving me in my present state. “If you can’t have mallowpeeps, what would be the substitute?” he asked.
That’s just it. There is no substitute. Nothing else comes close. And I don’t think I have it in me to wait until fall for the marshmallow peanut crop. Besides, if corporate America has stopped making peeps, what makes peanuts inviolate?
Fortunately, spring break is right around the corner. We’re going away and I’m not going to think about this. I’m just going to assume that by the time I return, the peeps will have arrived.