Cracker Jack: America’s original junk food

Move over, tootsie: Cracker Jack brought together caramel corn and peanuts even before Tootsie Rolls and Popsicles came into existence. The legacy of Cracker Jack lives on with this homemade treat. Rich Orris
Move over, tootsie: Cracker Jack brought together caramel corn and peanuts even before Tootsie Rolls and Popsicles came into existence. The legacy of Cracker Jack lives on with this homemade treat. Rich Orris

Back in the late 1890s, two brothers came up with a genius plan. They mixed popcorn, molasses and peanuts into one very crunchy, highly addictive snack, which soon became known as Cracker Jack. After a successful run at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, Frederick and Louis Rueckheim's invention garnered nationwide fame.

Cracker Jack predates the Tootsie Roll and Popsicles. As America warmed to the idea of mass-produced treats, these clusters of popcorn and caramel became a ballpark staple. Andrew F. Smith declared Cracker Jack America's first junk food in his 2011 Encyclopedia of Junk Food and Fast Food. The treats paved the way for America's love affair with sugary snacks.

Cracker Jack, which is now produced by Frito-Lay, recently got a makeover. A line of modern flavors, now with the moniker Cracker Jack'd, include berry yogurt and buffalo ranch. Original Cracker Jacks are still in production, but there's no reason to rely on Frito-Lay to keep the tradition alive. For this month's column, we created a homemade version of this intoxicating mix of caramel corn and molasses.

The first step is simple: make popcorn. Microwave popcorn will do, but popping it in the pan is worth the extra few minutes. Then make caramel, much like you would for caramel apples, add a little molasses and the peanuts. Pour the caramel mixture over the popcorn, spread it on a cookie sheet and put it in the oven. It sounds a little complicated, but going the extra mile makes it taste even better.

If you're a diehard Cracker Jack originalist, sketch your own drawing of Sailor Jack and his dog Bingo, first trademarked in the early 20th century. Add a prize, like a temporary tattoo or tiny figurine, but just be sure not to eat it by mistake.

Ingredients:

1/4 cup unpopped popcorn
1 tbs or 1 tsp of vegetable oil (see below)
6 tbsp butter (3/4 stick)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tbsp molasses
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp salt
1/8 tsp baking soda
1/2 cups shelled peanuts

Directions: 
Preheat oven to 250 degrees (or as low as possible if your oven doesn't go that low).

Pop the popcorn: If using stovetop combine 1 tbsp vegetable oil and popcorn in a large saucepan. Shake pan to coat popcorn. Cook over medium heat until popping slows shaking regularly.

If using microwave, combine 1 tsp vegetable oil and popcorn in bowl. Pour mixture into a regular brown paper lunch bag. Fold the top of the bag over and staple shut. Microwave on full power for 2 1/2 to 3 minutes until popping slows.

Melt butter in saucepan over medium heat. Add sugar and stir continuously until mixture boils and then another 3 minutes.

Remove butter mixture from heat. Add molasses, vanilla extract, salt and baking soda and continue stirring until mixture thickens.

Add peanuts to the butter mixture.

Pour mixture over popped popcorn and stir until all the kernels are coated.

Spread popcorn on lined or greased cookie sheet.

Bake for 45 minutes stirring mixture several times to avoid clumps (although it’s important to have some clusters for crunch).

Cool and enjoy!

Yield: about 5 cups

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