Almost every family has a secret they never discuss. Ours is this: We were taste testers for Pop-Tarts.
It was not long after Kellogg’s introduced the toaster pastry in 1964. But for several months one year (none of us can pinpoint the exact date), brown cardboard boxes arrived on our doorstep with an assortment of Pop-Tarts tucked inside. Strawberry. Raspberry. Brown-Sugar Cinnamon. We ate them all. After dinner. Sometimes hot, usually cold. With frosting and without.
Neither I nor any of my seven siblings can recall how we came to be Pop-Tart critics, and my parents aren’t alive to tell us. But I have a theory: My mother was resourceful and, with eight children to feed, she probably saw an appeal for tasters somewhere and thought: “Oh, boy. Free dessert.”
Whatever the reason, we were witnesses to food history. Today, as Kellogg’s prepares to celebrate the 60th birthday of Pop-Tarts next year, they remain a cultural touchstone. Last year, more than two billion were sold, according to the company. They’ve been depicted on art murals, exhibited in museums and parodied on “Saturday Night Live.”
And like Barbie, they even have their own movie: Next year, Jerry Seinfeld plans to release “Unfrosted: The Pop-Tart Story,” a farcical chronicle of the race to win the breakfast-pastry wars, which Post began with its own toaster pastry, Country Squares, six months before Kellogg’s introduced Pop-Tarts.
Mr. Seinfeld, who directs and stars in the Netflix film, based his script on a joke in his stand-up routine, and invited a baker’s dozen of his friends to join him onscreen, including Amy Schumer, Melissa McCarthy and Hugh Grant.
In an interview, he recalled a boyhood trip with his mother to the supermarket, where, upon seeing a box of Pop-Tarts, “I just grabbed it.”
They were a revelation for a kid who ate dry toast. “They seemed very futuristic,” Mr. Seinfeld said.
Even the name — Kellogg’s considered calling them “fruit scones” — was changed to reflect the sensibilities of the ’60s, when Pop Art was ascendant. And they transformed the lowly toaster into more than just an appliance for browning bread.
To me and my siblings, Pop-Tarts were exotic. We were raised in a small agricultural community in the shadow of California’s Santa Cruz Mountains and got most of our food from the farms and dairies that dotted the outskirts of town. Processed food was rare in our house, and store-bought sweets rarer still, as it was cheaper to bake dozens of homemade cookies on a Sunday to be divvied up during the week.
The Pop-Tarts were delivered to our door in a cardboard box about the size of a footstool, with nothing on the outside to indicate flavor, frosting or even that it was from Kellogg’s. The individual packages inside were marked with only a number.
I was barely in kindergarten, as I recall. But I was captivated, like one of the hominids in “2001: A Space Odyssey” — only, instead of staring at a black alien monolith, I was transfixed by a cardboard box. (In his 2020 Netflix special, Mr. Seinfeld echoed a similar sentiment about seeing Pop-Tarts for the first time: “We were just chimps in the dirt playing with sticks.”)
When our family food experiment began, Pop-Tarts were already in stores, but we got unreleased flavors our neighbors and classmates couldn’t buy. And that made us special.
One sister recalls that our father locked the Pop-Tarts in the basement for safekeeping. This makes sense. Food left unattended in a big family tends to disappear quickly, and my parents guarded the Pop-Tarts the way Harry Winston watches over its diamonds on Oscar night.
We didn’t eat Pop-Tarts for breakfast; our mother continued to serve the oatmeal that, if it sat too long, congealed into beige goo. And if you ate one too quickly out of the toaster, you were likely to burn your tongue.
On tasting nights, we would gather around the kitchen table after dinner. Then my father would appear with the box of Pop-Tarts and place it gently on the counter with the same care he laid baby Jesus in the crèche on Christmas Eve. My mother would tear open the bags and dole out one Pop-Tart apiece. She did not toast them (which is kind of the point, isn’t it?), and the flavor was kept secret until the big reveal.
Some of us sniffed and nibbled. Others took sizable bites. My mother would sometimes ask us questions. But mostly, we remember filling out forms and grading the Pop-Tarts for taste and texture. Then the box, and the filled-out forms, would be whisked away and the leftovers rationed until another box arrived with new flavors and frostings to try.
We were good students and took our job seriously, considering our appraisals with the same thoughtfulness as a “Top Chef” judge. In our minds, at least, this was important work. I may be exaggerating here, but if you like Frosted Strawberry or Frosted Brown Sugar Cinnamon — two of Kellogg’s best-selling flavors — you may have our family to thank.
But as revolutionary as Pop-Tarts were, few of us remember being wowed. Our great-grandmother, who had emigrated from the Czech Republic, regularly turned out trays of homemade apricot kolache and fresh apple strudel. Pop-Tarts paled in comparison.
“I did not like them,” said my sister Mary. They didn’t appeal either to my sister Gondie, but gave her bargaining power on the school playground. “You could eat one Pop-Tart and trade the other for a candy bar,” she said of the two-pack. For my part, I would eat them only if my mother cut the edges off, leaving a ravioli-size square of frosted raspberry jam.
Maybe it’s not surprising that none of us eat them now. “But it was a great memory,” said my brother Michael.
I called Kellogg’s to see if it had a record in its archives of my family, or others like ours. A spokeswoman said the company did not keep historical data. I scoured websites that referenced Pop-Tarts and the 1960s, and read the account of a man (whom I couldn’t locate) who said he had worked with Kellogg’s to develop the Pop-Tart and brought them home to his children.
This made me wonder: Would our experience be an anachronism today, in a digital world where everyone seems to be an online food connoisseur?
Now, there are Pop-Tart reviews by the Food Network, blind taste tests on YouTube, communities that rate them on Reddit, online rankings and taste challenges for children. Joey Chestnut, the perennial winner of Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, ate 100 Pop-Tarts in about 30 minutes a few years ago. (His favorite flavor was S’Mores.)
I asked Mr. Seinfeld why he thought people would be interested in a comedy about the dawn of Pop-Tarts.