Thursday, September 3, 2009

Animal Crackers

I remember how much I looked forward to a box of animal crackers. It was one of the simplest, best pleasures of childhood. I didn't have them too frequently growing up, just often enough to think of them as special. I loved the colorful box made to look like a circus wagon, loved how it had the little string attached to the top so that you could dangle it from your wrist like a woman's beaded evening bag, but the animal cracker box was so much better. I imagined the boxes as part of a long caravan, and I was always the circus master, deciding on the next destination. I was kind to the animals, or tried to be—I hated biting off their heads. I'd start with the feet and work my way up. (Really, though, is that any better? Maybe I should've just put them out of their misery, decapitating them after all.) But before getting at the animals, I remember that there was something very intriguing to me about the inner lining of the box as well: the waxy brown paper pouch suggested something nostalgic to me, before I could properly define the word; before I had lived long enough to experience the sensation of nostalgia myself. Something about that parchment, tacked to the inside of the box with glue so that you could never remove it cleanly—something about the way it was crimped at the top, the crisp crinkly sound it made as you worked to tear it open neatly (I liked neatness, even then)—its drab color, not caring to impress you, made me think of a grandmother's modest kitchen. I always hated and loved the moment when that inner bag was ripped: hated the tearing, loved that it meant access to the buttery vanilla cookies. The other thing I remember is that I would pull out all the cookies and lay them on the table in front of me. I'd start grouping them together: how many lions, how many gorillas, how many zebras (I loved the zebras!). I'd start eating the "extras" so that every pile ended up with the same number of cookies, and then I'd start eating the cookies in rotation, taking down the species with even-handed care. If ever there was an OCD process involved in eating animal crackers, it was mine, and I wonder now how good a predictor it is of future personality, how a kid approaches a box of animal crackers. I also remember wondering why there was a striped background on some of the cookies—later I figured out it had to do with stability: the manufacturers smartly decided there'd be less broken limbs if the space between front and back legs was filled in; still not sure why the striped pattern, but I liked that, too. I wondered why something so clearly a cookie was called a cracker. That never made any sense to me. I haven't bought a box for my son in a long time. I make so many homemade cookies that store-bought doesn't happen often. We get all-natural varieties most often, too. Still, sometimes . . . nothing quite satisfies the kiddie-food craving like a single, all-to-yourself box of the traditional, original animal crackers. It's about time I bought some again. And now I'll have to watch my son carefully, see how he eats them. Watch a child's delight in something simple, remember that too, what it felt like. If I'm lucky, my son will even share with me—a zebra for old times' sake. I can hear the ringmaster now: Ladies and gentlemen . . . Enjoy!

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