Becca Kinskey is a TV producer who lives and snacks in Los Angeles. She is a reformed Buffalo wing addict and a self-hating 7-11 Nachos lover.
I am in the eighth hour of a ten hour train ride north through California when the Blue M&M presents itself as a discreet object to be considered. Both decks of all twelve train cars have been walked, every menu item in the onboard cafe has been theoretically ordered and actually rejected twice, Central Valley farmland became overabundant hours ago, Central Coast oceans too endless.
I have read the ingredients and manufacturing information on the back of the bag of M&Ms a few times already, so now my options have been reduced to staring at the naked candies themselves. I eat a handful from warmest hues to coldest, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, then brown, the bummer outlier. I shuck the shells with my tongue, leaving the chocolate coating. Bisect a few to reveal their peanut core. Finally, sitting in a seat that isn’t mine, two cars forward and one deck up from whatever the hazy entity of my boyfriend is doing, there’s just a Blue M&M in the palm of my hand and me, in the swaying train.
In this over-experienced moment, I remember–blessedly, something new to consider–like my own life, there was a time before the Blue M&M. When the Blue M&M wasn’t.
The fact of the Blue M&M springing into existence is a recurring realization I have. Recurring? I’ve thought of it…biennially? Relatively recurring. Has anyone else thought of it even twice since it happened, in 1995? Steven Weber, the womanizing pilot on “Wings,” was in one of the commercials welcoming Blue – I worked with him once, I should have asked. BB King did a commercial too, but I never worked with him.
For some reason, my mind reaches back often to when we the people of the United Snacks of America were extended the franchise, from spring to autumn of that mid-90s year, to chose what color M&M might tumble out of our bag next. Our ballots were cast by phone, by dialing on keypads still stuck to our kitchen walls:
I didn’t vote, and perhaps my troubled conscience is what brings this memory to the surface. But even now, twenty years into a more diverse world, my vestigial teen still scoffs–how could anyone care enough to vote on the color of M&Ms?
The world wide web is quiet on how many votes were cast, or how close the race was. Was it a landslide for blue over pink? Was purple the third party candidate that blurred the purer Manichean choice between them? M&M Mars must have gotten whatever they wanted from the campaign, because a Global Color Vote followed in 2002 (aqua, pink and purple, finally clinching). Partisans from the 1995 contest still remember the candidates of their youth–a batch of YouTube comments for the commercial that kicked off the campaign leans Blue, with a minority of Pink supporters recalling – even as they cast their votes in vain–knowing Blue would carry the day.
The dearth of hard numbers on the Color Vote leads me down the shaggy path of anecdotal reportage–when I ask a couple co-workers if they remember the day the earth turned Blue, one of them brightens. Like me, he and his sister couldn’t quite bring themselves to pick up the handset and dial, but he vividly remembers a summertime backseat-of-the-minivan conversation about it. He having laid out the logic of a certain victory for the frontrunner, she grasped his arm, moved by the sudden reality she could see before them. “A world with Blue M&Ms,” she said to him. “Can you imagine that?”
I wonder if what my co-worker’s sister felt is the same tickling thrill–a pubescent, opaque guesstimate about one’s future–that kept me from voting, indeed which kept me at arms’ length thrall to TRL as well. FUN COLOR wasn’t my first rodeo. I wanted my voice heard, but had never picked up the phone–not for Reel Big Fish, not for Less Than Jake, and certainly not for Blue. A similar tingle arose at the idea of ordering Pay Per View or buying something from QVC. The telephone in 1995 was a means to make something that was Not suddenly Become, and I got stuck at the threshold of birthing my unspoken self.
These fears of mine have waned, at least vis-a-vis Pay Per View–the AppleTV has suckled me with its convenience and I live happily among the lotus eaters now. But if I had the chance today to speak up for the world I want to be part of–perhaps a Marsala M&M, or a Minion Yellow one?–would I take it?
The fact is I was extremely partisan, or had every reason to be.
My parents had moved us, when I was four, from Southern Wyoming to Northern California. My dad bought a company that they would run together–M&M Home Medical Supply, with a titular vestige of the alliterative founders. I suppose my parents’ last names were technically also alliterative but it didn’t start with M, so Dad made it company policy to leave bags of M&Ms with each delivery or sales call.
Our family was just like those families that run a restaurant or dry cleaner or corner store together–mom and dad lived at work, so we lived there too. Once our older sister shipped off to UCLA, my brother and I washed ashore most afternoons in the company break room. Cast away with us: a folding table, microwave, water cooler (which could do hot and cold and expanded our culinary repertoire by half), coffee grounds, machine and filters, styrofoam cups, sugar cubes to stack or eat, and endless, overabundant bags of M&Ms.
Rearrange them by color. Rearrange them by defects or bulbous ends. De-shell, split or shoot across the room. Tally on the white board how many of each kind in a few bags. Melt some in hot water. Dissolve some in cold water. Red, orange, yellow, green, brown, tan. Red orange yellow green brown tan. Red orange blue? Orange yellow BLUE? Yellow green brown BLUE. Can you imagine that?
“No wonder I never knew this, I was born the year this voting happened”
–YouTube commenter GenieVillain26
We have established that although the existence of any given M&M may seem constant and even fore-ordained, this isn’t the case. More to this point: while Blue sprang fully formed from the heads of voters in 1995, the Red M&M was yanked from the world for a decade beginning in the late 70s. This was not a grass roots act, but certainly political–the FDA banned Red No. 2 in 1976 amid fears it was carcinogenic.
In the middle of this man-made drought, a young Tennessean found his moment. Paul Hethmon, by his own account bored while away at college, founded The Society for the Restoration & Preservation of Red M&Ms in 1982. It was a pre-internet lark that lit a pre-internet viral spark–he started by selling memberships to friends for a buck and ended by being featured in the Wall Street Journal, getting interviewed by Charles Kuralt, and receiving a letter from Mars, Inc.’s External Affairs Director in 1987, informing him that Red was being re-instated.
He lived the dream that would carry every M&M voter to their dial pad eight years later–Paul Hethmon was heard. Speaking to his local NBC affiliate in 2014, he was modest but proud: “I mean, ‘Red,’ he is the guy. Whenever I see the commercials with the red M&M, it crosses my mind that I had a hand in that.”
I found Paul Hethmon on Facebook, and for about a month I meant to reach out to him every day. I suppose I couldn’t quite imagine what I would ask him, or what he would say. How partial is he to Red? Does Red taste sweeter to him somehow? What does he think of Blue M&Ms? What does he think of the people that voted? Why does he think they cared?
This is what I know now, no longer a scoffing teen, would have been the silence over the transom between Paul Hethmon and I. There would have been no way for him to expect or hear my unspoken question, so I left it untyped: Is it all a big joke, the way it was when he started, or does speaking matter every time we do it, every time we manifest a part of ourselves outside of ourselves?
It’s Blue M&M’s world, I just live in it.