Friday, March 03, 2000

crackerjack toys

Got a good imagination for names? This is your chance to use it to win a shopping spree.

Crackerjacks, which sells toys aimed at stimulating children's imagination from its location in Belle Mead, N.J., is looking for a new name. If you come up with the winner, you could win a $500 shopping spree.

The quest for a new name comes after crackerjacks, the toy store, received a letter from Pepsico, which owns Frito Lay, which owns Cracker Jack, a brand of caramel-coated popcorn that gets stuck between your teeth when you eat it.

"They actually sent us a cease-and-desist," said Joanne Farrugia, who owns the chain, which also has stores in Skillman, N.J., and in Pennington, N.J.

I was a little surprised to hear the news myself. The store and the popcorn admittedly have similar names, but that's about where the similarity ends. The two target completely different markets, and the toy store is hardly so big that it poses a threat to a candy manufacturer.

If anything, Cracker Jack poses a bigger threat to the toy store because of it at least puts a free toy in every box. I've never received a single kernel of popcorn whenever I've visited the toy store.

"We don't think that there is an issue," said Ms. Farrugia. "The likelihood of winning a case is pretty good, but they're a multinational company. They're huge."

And that, as they say, is that. Pepsico, which employs 150,000 people and produces the entire line of Pepsi products and several other soft drinks to boot. Compared to a small operation like crackerjacks, its pockets are bottomless -- about $46 billion deep.

"I did agree to change it pretty quickly because it's just not that important," said Ms. Farrugia. "It's not even why we picked that name at all."

The name, in fact, came to Ms. Farrugia in mid-1996 from a thesaurus of all places, just before the store was due to open in Skillman.

"Crackerjack" is a synonym for "intelligent," and can refer to "a person or thing of marked excellence," according to Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition.

"We have since found out that there are several stores called 'Crackerjacks,'" said Ms. Farrugia. "It never even occurred to me, the caramel-coated candy."

By turning the name change into a contest, crackerjacks -- the company writes its current name without a capital C and as one word -- has converted what could have been a setback into a windfall of publicity. Ms. Farrugia told me stories of parents who have run into the store just to enter a suggestion.

The contest will run until April 1, and the store will pick a new name by April 15, 2000. Suggestions are being taken at all three stores, although Ms. Farrugia said they will not use as a name an existing word from the English language such as "Toy chest."

Extant store names such as "Toys 'R' Us" also would be a bad idea.

The address for mail-in suggestions is crackerjacks, 601 Route 206, Belle Mead, N.J. 08876. Of course, given the bulk of my readers live nowhere near Belle Mead, I don't know why I felt obliged to mention that, but there you are.

Now that I have a 4-month-old daughter, I'm tempted to enter something into the contest myself since she would like the toys. My best idea so far might have a little too much panache for the contest, though.

I want them to change their name to "So Sue Us."

Thursday, March 02, 2000

in the kitchen

I frequently claim to be a liberated man of the 1990s, even though it is now the 21st century. I think my work around the house will support my claim to be progressive.

I'm not saying that I do a lot of housecleaning. Actually, I think my mother-in-law did more housecleaning in the week she was here than I have done the entire seven months I've lived in this house.

But I do a fair share of the domestic chores. My father once observed that I run the house. I run the dishwasher, the washing machine, the clothes dryer, the lawnmower and the errands. I also run at the mouth, but that's a specialty of mine in a different field.

Lately, I've discovered that I also enjoy doing the cooking. Wherever I learned that trait, it wasn't from my father, who only helps in the kitchen at holiday time, until my mother finally chases him screaming from the kitchen with the electric carving knife, threatening to give him extensive plastic surgery if he ever comes near the roast again.

No wait, that's what my sister-in-law Tammy does to her husband. My father helps with meals by watching CNN on the television in the family room, then coming out at dinner time and proudly serving the meal as though he has been slaving over the kitchen stove for hours.

Anyway, I only recently have started to come into my own with cooked meals. At the beginning of our marriage, Natasha and I prepared fairly simple meals: baked chicken, tacos, pizza or some pork product; a canned vegetable like corn or peas; and some form of potato, usually french fries. Whenever the food became too routine, Natasha and I went out to eat.

We went out to eat a lot.

Toward the end of the summer, as Natasha's due date steadily approached, we were searching for ways to reduce our living expenses. One of the big ones was to eat out less, which meant someone would have to start preparing meals at home more frequently, which meant one of us would have to start learning some new ways to prepare meals so we wouldn't feel a need to go out as much.

One of the most useful gifts Natasha and I received at our wedding has turned out to be "The Good Housekeeping Step-by-Step Cookbook." For someone who nearly failed Home Economics back in middle school, the book has been a godsend. In its pages I found directions for carving poultry, how to identify slices and parts of meat and even how to slice bread.

Best of all, it has recipes, oodles and oodles of them. I haven't verified it by counting, but the cookbook claims to have more than 1,000 recipes. Slowly but surely, I'm working my way through them, but I have to admit my experiences cooking have been a little unpredictable at times.

This past Monday, I decided to try a new chicken dish and leafed through the cookbook, hoping something would catch my eye. As luck had it, my eyes fell upon a picture on Page 155 of a sumptuous chicken dish coated with a mushroom sauce.

"Country french chicken," I said thoughtfully. "Hm. Country french chicken..." My mouth started to water, and I made up mind. Without another word, I set myself to making dinner.

My troubles began as soon as I opened the package of chicken, which I had transferred to the refrigerator that morning. To say the chicken had not yet thawed would be an understatement. Even Frosty the Snowman would have found this cold.

Things just went downhill from there. The recipe said I had to pound the chicken breast to a thickness of about an eighth of an inch. I tried thawing it with hot water, and began pounding the chicken breast as hard as I could once I felt the cold meat start to warm.

I'm afraid I desecrated the chicken's remains so thoroughly that if the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ever learns of it, they'll want my head for such acts of unnatural barbarity.

The chicken now pounded thin -- mangled might be a better word -- I turned to the cookbook for the next step in the directions. It claimed I was suppose to coat my victim in a mixture of flour, salt and something I had never heard of before.

"Honey, what's a 'tarragon?'" I asked Natasha in the next room. It sounded to me like something from a cheap fantasy novel. (But look! Here comes mighty Tarragon, his bright sword gleaming in the morning light. Had he come to save the beauteous Paprika from the evil nutmeg horde?)

"It's a spice," she said, "but I don't think we have it."

We didn't. We also didn't have a shallot, a pound of assorted mushrooms or a quarter-cup of white dry wine. I decided to make some substitiutions, because we did have a third-pound of miniature Portabella mushrooms, a bell pepper and half an onion. On the bright side, I was able to muster the two tablespoons of olive oil. Natasha convinced me not to substitute orange juice for the white wine.

Whatever we had that night, it was good. But I'm sure it wasn't country french chicken.