December 7, 2022by Jon Kramer

The Jolly Green Giant

Kramer Kulinary, Part 1 or so

The Jolly Green Giant
Fresh peas on a road trip west
Copyright 12-6-22  /  1,801 words by Jon Kramer

 

Nonfiction.  These events took place in the 1970s.

Being the righteous omnivores that humans generally are, we all feel secure in our own culinary domicile.  Let’s face it, most people don’t stray far afield in their preferred gobbling-downs.  But there are times when flavors and circumstances conspire to upend all your expectations in the essence of a certain food or restaurant dish and your tastebuds are taken by complete surprise and blown off course.  Sometimes, as a result, all preconceptions and well-laid plans go cattywampus.  So it has been many times in the Kramer Klan Kulinary history.  And you – being the lucky recipient of yet another Kracken diatribe – are fortunate enough to have a peak at some of them in this new irregular series Kramer Kulinary.

 As you probably already know, road trips were – and still are – a Kramer family way of life.  Seems like our family was on the road most of the time.  I, for one, cannot recall spending more than a few months at home before another road trip ensued.  That is the case even in my own lifestyle today and I must say I am happy it is so.  I get antsy being in one place for too long.  While I have never wished for much, being comfortable is not one of them.  I am constantly on the go –  seeking and learning.  Learning is high adventure and there’s a lot of learning on the road – some planned, most not.

The family summer vacation was always the road trip highlight of the year.  From DC, we crossed the continent in an overloaded station wagon, often towing a trailer full of our accessories, usually rocks.  We visited San Antonio, where our mother and father met, and motored down to the Texas coast to camp at South Padre Island.  We pitched tents in the hills of the Ozarks, digging up quartz crystals in rusty red clay seams.  We spent weeks in the Ocala National Forest, sometimes taking road trips from the road trip to dig agatized coral in a remote river in Georgia.  If we weren’t engaged in a multiweek canoe trip in the BWCA, we were going further west: camping in the Badlands and exploring for ancient fossil bones.  We camped amidst buffalo in the Black Hills, and saddled up a horse pack trip into the Tetons.  Our family did road trips like you never saw.

We were perennially poor and always on a budget.  Our family of 6 could ill afford eating at restaurants or staying at motels.  On our trips we camped and cooked our own meals.  This sometimes got very creative. On more than one occasion we packaged up a pork roast or chicken with butter, spices and potatoes, wrapped in several layers of aluminum foil and placed it on top of the station wagon engine where it cooked en route to the next evening’s camp.  At gas stops we’d turn the packages over so they cooked evenly.  It was quite ingenious.  Believe it or not, Engine Block Chicken was quite tasty.

This mode of travel encouraged buying local produce on the fly – stopping at roadside stands and famer’s markets along the way.  When we stopped for the night, the Coleman cook stove was fired up on the tailgate and dinner was served using our camp mess kits.

One particular summer we were driving through Le Sueur County, Minnesota on the way to the Badlands.  It so happened that many of the fields were planted in peas.  You could smell the sweet aroma as we motored through the valley.  Suddenly, beside the road – Rt 169 – we saw the famous billboard and huge figure:  Welcome to the Valley of the Jolly Green Giant!

For some reason – likely related to the endless hours spent cooped up together in the family car – the lime green billboard character struck us kids as hilarious.  We started passing around wise-cracks and jokes about Mr. Jolly Snot-Green and his ridiculous side-kick Pee Sprout.   In short order we had worked ourselves up into a riotous Jolly Green lather.

About this time Dad pulled over at a farm stand to buy some fresh green peas.  While our parents were negotiating with the farmer, all the kids were crashing around the tables, yelling out Ho-Ho-Ho!  Ho-Ho-Ho! in a third-degree juvenile uprising centered on the Jolly Green Giant.  He’s Jolly!  He’s Green!  He’s the Snot-green Giant! we screamed, Ho-Ho-Ho! Ho-Ho-Ho! while we overran the place in a general havoc, terrorizing would-be patrons.    

 When the purchase was finally consummated, the farmer, who by this time had had his fill of misbehaving kids, declared “Listen here kids:  There ain’t nothin Ho-Ho-Ho about these here peas.  Your Jolly Green buddy don’t own this farm and ain’t never been here.  So give an old farmer a little respect!”

Mom was mortified.  That put something of a damper on the kid’s festivities and we rode off a bit subdued.  The Kramer Klan carried on down the road about 40 miles and pulled over to camp for the night.  During the evening meal, we shucked the peas and steamed them on the camp stove.  They were incredibly delicious.  Even I, who was not fond of peas at the time, agreed they we scrumptious.  Dad was especially impressed.  “These are the greatest peas I’ve ever had!” he announced.

The next morning, as we piled back into the car, Dad said, Man, I had dreams about those peas!  So it came as no surprise to anyone when he turned the car around and headed right back to the same farm stand, even though it added 80 miles to the day.  To Dad, a couple hours of detour for the greatest peas on the planet was a fair deal by any measure.

When we pulled up to the farm stand again, there came a look of consternation on the farmer’s face.  Oh no! he must have thought, Here’s trouble again!   But this time Dad told us to stay put inside the car.  We watched as Dad approached the fellow and praised the deliciousness of his peas.  He declared them the best in the entire world and bought 20 pounds.   It was a great joy to see the despair melt away from the farmer’s face, replaced with a look of beaming pride.

He followed Dad back to the car.  Well, kids, there still ain’t no Ho-Ho-Ho, but this ought to make the trip a little jollier, he said as he gave us each a stick of candy.  Stop on back this way sometime.

The brand “Green Giant Great Big Tender Peas” was coined by the Minnesota Valley Canning company in the mid 1920s as a result of the discovery of a new variety of pea called the “Prince of Wales”.  Reviewers, however, reported the new variety as anything but Princely. The peas were “oblong, wrinkled, and huge!”  Curiously, these same critics didn’t even mention the taste, which was exceptionally delicious.  Despite their size and weird appearance, the Prince of Wales was tender, with a flavor and sweetness that far surpassed all others.

Minnesota Valley Canning (MVC) – over twenty years old at that point – was primarily a canning company, not a grower.  So, they went to their growers with the new Prince of Wales discovery, certain the farmers would jump all over it.  The response was underwhelming – there was a complete lack of interest.  The radical difference between tried-and-true traditional small peas and these huge new giants was viewed as too risky from a sales point of view, a caution based wholly on perception.  Incredibly, taste never figured into the equation, even though everyone agreed they were delectable.  Oddly, neither did yield, despite the fact the Prince of Wales promised to be a much more abundant crop.  Of course, doubling your yield is of little use if you cannot sell the harvest, and this was the fear.  Not a single farmer was willing to take the chance of planting the new variety.

Dismayed at the response, MVC decided to try growing and selling the new strain under its own label.  Rather than apologize for the size of the peas, they doubled-down on it, calling their peas “Green Giant” and creating a marketing campaign to promote it.  “Green Giant Great Big Tender Peas” was born.  The cumbersome title was first thought up and introduced in 1925.  A couple years later they added a mascot which did the opposite of what it should.

While the company was determined to make lemonade out of the new pea lemons, the ad copy drafted to promote it was remarkably uninspired.  The original “giant” was a scowling, ugly, caveman wearing a one-piece bearskin.  Nothing of the character encourage one to think of peas, or eating peas, or buying peas.  Sales went nowhere as a result of the mascot.  Then, in 1935, a young copywriter, Leo Burnett, convinced the management to revamp the face of the brand: he traded the bearskin for a leafy suit, and gave the Giant a gentle smile.  He also added the word “Jolly” to his name.  This softened the giant’s image and made it appealing to the masses.

Sales took off.  In 1950 the company renamed itself the Green Giant Company and continued to evolve the brand.  The booming “Ho, ho, ho!” became the Giant’s signature tagline in 1961.  In 1964, the music band “The Kingsmen” scored a hit with “The Jolly Green Giant”, a novelty tune about the Giant’s love life.  It went all the way up to #4 on the Billboard Hot 100.  In 1972 the giant acquired a young apprentice, the Little Green Sprout.  By that time, the Jolly Green Giant was the most recognized food brand in the country.

In 2015 the brand was sold by General Mills for $765 million in cash.  That’s a lot of peas.

AFTER WORDS

That road trip was the turning point for me and peas.  I realized how tasty they were in real life – that is, NOT from a can!  Ever after I have had peas as one of my favorite staples.

In my final year of college, I attended the University of Minnesota, Duluth  for my final credits in Geology at University of Maryland.  The first week of school I went a farmers market and encountered a fellow whose family had a farm in Le Sueur.  Amongst other produce, he was of course, selling peas.  I bought some and took them home to try.  They brought me right back to that family road trip.  The next week I bought all the peas he had!