The tastes of many American snack foods have become a distant memory after five years spent living in New Zealand.
A few familiar American snack brands make it to our remote shores and supermarket shelves, usually via companies with an Australian outpost. We can buy Cheerios and the occasional Fruit Loops, and there are $13 pints of Ben & Jerry’s to be had for the big spenders, but the vast amount of familiar expat snacks are absent from most Kiwi grocery stores
Mostly I don’t mind. My solution has largely been to cook a lot more meals and to eschew snack foods like cookies, chips, and crackers entirely. Why start a fresh snacking habit when I can instead scan down an aisle of unfamiliar cookie packages and not know what a single one of them taste like?
Being oblivious to local brands is a terrific diet.
The one kink in this flawless snack free life is that I sometimes catch myself regaling the kid with one of my distant snack food memories. As she has grown older I’ve realized how many of my stories tie to specific foods, like the routine of buying Twizzlers every time I went to the movies (and how it’s essential to enjoy them when they are fresh) or the excitement of discovering I had a Tastykake Butterscotch Krimpet in my lunch (and the process of rubbing them against your shirt to make sure the frosting wouldn’t get stuck to the plastic).
While I don’t necessarily miss the indulgences I describe to her, I do sometimes regret that I can’t give her the same experiences. I don’t need her to like all of the same snacks as me, but being unable to give her the opportunity to turn her nose up at them makes me feel like I’m missing some essential aspect of the parenting experience.
One snack in particular, has come up again and again in these conversations: Captain Crunch cereal. Yes, I know the actual name is “Cap’n Crunch,” but I’m not typing that repeatedly. It’s undignified for a man of the Captain’s position and tenure.
I explained the mouth-shredding experience of eating Captain Crunch to the kid at least a dozen times over. I’m uncertain why Fruit Loops were able to make the ocean-spanning journey to our shores and stores while the good Captain – himself a seafarer of some renown – could not. New Zealand loves peanut butter!
(E’s theory is that Captain Crunch (actually, a Commander) is obviously modeled on historical colonizers, who aren’t as welcomed as junk food mascots here as they are in the states. My theory is that because Kiwis don’t dip cookies in milk, they simply aren’t interested in more cookie-esque cereals since there’s no built-in allure to eating a bowl full of them.)
(Seriously, they don’t dip cookies in milk here. It’s a whole ‘nother post entirely.)
Occasionally I’ll fall down the internet rabbit hole of looking into buying Captain Crunch by the case. Even in bulk, the cost of having it shipped to New Zealand is prohibitive. Plus, I’d be crushed to find out that customs had incinerated a case of contraband cereal for violating some form of border integrity (which has happened to E before while trying to import spices).
It was these memories (and cravings) for the Captain that found the kid and I staring into the tantalizing maw of US import store in our local shopping center a few weeks ago. It is tucked into an odd corner of the parking lot such that I don’t usually need to walk past it, but a rainy day of household errands had us scurrying from from awning to awning to avoid getting soaked.
There we were, slightly damp and slightly breathless, peering through the window. There was the Captain, his smiling face splayed across a row of familiar red boxes, smiling back at me. It was the first time I had seen him in person in almost five years.
Dear readers, you will not be surprised to learn that I bought us one precious box of Captain Crunch. It was precious not only because of the many memories it evoked, but because of the cost. I won’t reveal exactly how much I paid, but let’s just say it was more than a pint of Ben and Jerry’s.
(Captain Crunch acquisition aside, The US Import store is a weirdly depressing place. It would be impossible to feature every iconic brand from the states, let alone all manner of regional favorites, but the store doesn’t come anywhere close. Its offerings are mostly comprised of four kinds of cereal, an entire wall of Pop Tarts and Hershey’s syrup, and a wide variety of Lipton’s soup and instant pasta. Oh, plus pickles. Many American pickles.)
On the way to the register, I also snagged another oft-mythologized snack (mostly due to Gourmet Makes) – an American Butterfinger bar.
What is it about the United States and peanut buttery snacks?!
The next morning I gave the kid an extensive disclaimer about eating Captain Crunch. You’d think I was handing her a pack of cigarettes for the amount of caveats that came with it. We would not be eating this cereal by the bowlful as if it was a balanced breakfast. We would not be buying it again at that price. It would destroy her gums and cheeks in a way no food had done before.
Finally, my list of warnings complete, she had a petite serving.
She deemed it… fine. No kid is going to turn down an offer of a sugary breakfast cereal, but she didn’t find it any more alluring than her regular addiction to Fruit Loops.
For me… it was everything I remembered in the taste department. Exactly as delightful as I recalled! But, the crunches, they seemed so… small? It’s not like my only memories of eating Captain Crunch are from being a tiny child with a minuscule mouth to cram the Captain’s peanut butter bricks inside. I’ve definitely had it in the past decade! But, those crunchy oat-and-peanut-buttery puffs didn’t seem quite as monolithic as I recalled.
They still tore up my mouth, though! And they were still delicious in a bowl with milk and some frozen strawberries.
I quizzed the kid on the state of her tender mouth parts. Were they scraped? Scratched? Abraded? Much to my surprise, she reported no obvious wear and tear. It was just another sugary snack.
This brings us to our epilogue: the Butterfinger bar.
Here, I was sure I knew what to expect. I’m certain I’ve eaten exponentially more Butterfingers than I have bowls of Captain Crunch. I knew exactly what I was getting into. I’ve had bad, stale Butterfinger before. Butterfingers that had sat too long in a movie theatre concession stand display case, so that it has the ashy taste of stale popcorn smoke. I hoped that this particular chocolate bar had made the trip across the sea in short enough order to avoid such a fate.
I placed the Butterfinger on our tiniest cutting board and sectioned off an inch – only Imperial measurements for my American chocolate bar! I brought the coveted bite up to my mouth.
It tasted… bad. Not ashy bad, like the stale movie theatre Butterfinger. And, not unlike the Butterfingers of my memory, either.
It tasted exactly how I expected it to taste, and that taste wasn’t pleasing in the slightest.
You see, even in my low-snack mode, I’ve had a non-zero quantity of New Zealand chocolate over the course of the past five years. And NZ chocolate is really good. The science of why is another post entirely, but the upshot is that I’ve found most American chocolate candy isn’t worth eating by comparison unless it has a lot more going on for it than the chocolate. Even a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup tastes odd to me now.
Living in New Zealand hasn’t dimmed my fondness for Captain Crunch, but it has rendered my cravings for Butterfingers completely obsolete.
Which brings me back to the happy snack memories of my youth and wanting to share them with my kid. My youth was a long time ago. Not only has my palate changed, but so have many iconic snacks changed owners and recipes. I can’t feed my exact memory of them to the kid. And, even when I can, she’s grown up in a totally different society of sweets than I did. Some of those fondly-recalled favorites are just going to be a Butterfinger of disappointment to her.
I told her that the next time we visited the grocery store, she could have her own budget to buy a native Kiwi snack, and we’d make a memory of eating it together.