I didn’t care what was on Mom’s grocery list in 1976. As soon as she said I could visit the candy aisle, I ran all the way to the M&Ms.
I tore open a pack, poured my palm full of candy, reached down to eat a red one first—but something was wrong. Where were all the red ones?
I dumped out the whole bag. There weren’t any in there. No red M&Ms. Not a single one. I frantically stuffed M&Ms in my mouth. Maybe they turned red after you spit on them?
I spit M&Ms back out on my palm. They were faded and gross and they did melt in my hand, but they still weren’t red. They weren’t even pink. I studied my slime-covered M&M palm. How could this be?
“Mom!” I yelled, running back to her cart. “I need you to check the M&Ms! I got a bum pack. All the reds were missing.”
“They’re not using red dye anymore,” she told me. “They say it’s bad for us.”
“Who says it’s bad?”
“Oh for heaven’s sake,” she said, exasperated, “the Americans or the Russians or somebody else who lives on this planet said that red dye is causing cancer.”
“So!” I blurted, aghast at the age of 8. “I want my red M&Ms back! Can’t you do something?”
“Stop complaining about your candy, and help me find your baloney,” she told me. Never mind the irony. It was 1976.
I could have been mad at the FDA for doing a lousy study of Red Dye No. 2. I could have gone off on the media for feeding the public a fear of dangerous dye like it was candy. I could have gotten miffed at Mars for pulling its red spokescolor right out of our mouths.
But instead, I chose to rail at the Russians. No wonder they were called the Reds. They took away our perfectly good communist-colored candy. It was the Cold War of candy, and we were losing.
Sure, Mars tried to make it up to us. They added an orange M&M as bright as a Tennessee Vol’s jersey, but Americans were stuck with rations. Concession lines were filled with faces like those in the soup lines of the Great Depression. It took ten browns in the mouth for every green in the hand.
Unbeknown to me back then, a University of Tennessee student—and later alum—helped return red M&Ms to the mouths of capitalists. Paul Hethmon’s attempt to create a junk mail parody—The Society for the Restoration and Preservation of Red M&Ms—was taken by his friends as serious business. Backed by a growing membership that paid dues of up to $2.97, the society finally snail-mailed their way to candy freedom.
In December 1985, I trudged behind my mother through the grocery store. “What should we get for the holidays?” she asked. “How about a fruitcake? Your grandmother loves it.”
“Oh God, not fruitcake,” I objected. “Please anything but fruitcake. How about something that everyone will eat?”
That’s when I saw the cardboard cutout of the red M&M. His grinning face beckoned me toward the candy aisle. I couldn’t help it. I broke out in a run, snatched a pack off the shelf, poured my palm full of candy, and I ate a red one right away. It tasted just like all the others—but it brought perestroika to my 17-year-old American heart.
Want to know more about the rescue of the red M&M? Check out “The Restoration of the Red M&M” at torchbearer.utk.edu.
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