A Valentine's Day Ode to Strawberry Pop-Tarts
Writing about Pop-Tarts is no easy task. My feelings toward the classic (yeah, I said it) breakfast pastry are wrapped up in all sorts of emotions, and parsing through what's real versus what's nostalgically reimagined is a difficult undertaking. What I thought would be a happy-go-lucky trip down memory lane has turned into something more complicated, so at the risk of getting too Freudian, bear with me while I get in deep (relatively speaking) with the PTs.
First off, let me just address the issue of flavor: while I know there are some ardent 'Smores supporters out there, as far as I'm concerned, Frosted Strawberry is the only flavor that matters. Strawberry was the flavor my mother purchased on the one occasion every year she allowed Pop-Tarts in the house, which was on our annual summer vacation in North Carolina. Note that I say "the house," not "our house," because it was a vacation rental for the week, and Tarts were therefore allowed within its walls.
Sure, I snuck the occasional Pop-Tart at sleepovers with laxer mothers, or on the black market snack exchange in the jungle gym. But those North Carolina vacations were the only time my sister and I were freely allowed to indulge in the Tarts, and oh, how sweet they were. I can still smell the biscuitty bottom layer browning in the toaster, still feel the smooth motion of sliding the frosting top off with my teeth. Sometimes the simple pleasures stick the hardest.
The family vacations, and hence the Pop-Tarts, ended when I went off to college and my parents divorced. Their separation coincided with a series of other formative changes, and my life split into distinct before-and-after sections. Two decades later and fully capable of grocery shopping for myself, I never buy Pop-Tarts. It's partially out of grown-up health concerns, partially because it doesn't seem right to make plain what was once so prized, and partially, almost subliminally, to avoid the memories they elicit.
On top of that whole bundle of neuroses, I harbor a niggling fear that Pop-Tarts aren't actually that good. I know that nostalgia is powerful force and that memories have a way of warping over time. I know that my palate as a ten year old wasn't the most advanced, and yes, I know that Pop-Tarts are made of highly processed, low-quality ingredients with names I can't pronounce. Michael Pollan would not approve of Pop-Tarts.
But with an entire holiday dedicated to the ones we love upon us, I knew it was time to reconnect with my old flame. I briefly considered writing about another childhood favorite, Bugles, but I'd be lying to myself and all of you if I pretended to have even half of the emotional attachment to Bugles that I do to Pop-Tarts. So I bought a box and tried, to the best of my ability, to clean my mental slate before tearing in to the foil pouch that hasn't changed in all these years.
I tried not to expect anything. I ate one half 'raw,' straight from the pouch, while I waited for the second half to toast. They looked the same as ever—rainbow sprinkles scattered across a smooth white top, with a light herringbone pattern on the biscuit bottom. The jelly filling has the same uniform, slightly grainy consistency throughout. Taste-wise, they're sweet—really, really sweet, in a most certainly artificial way, without much in the way of a discernible strawberry flavor. The biscuit is a little chalky, and the filling a touch tart. I wouldn't eat one for breakfast, but I might consider it for dessert (toasted—the flavors really come alive when warm). And more importantly, no major emotional meltdowns ensued upon eating said Pop-Tart, so while I probably won't add them to my regular pantry rotation, I don't have to worry that my memory is playing tricks on me.