"You're not going to eat it, are you?" the eBay seller asked, after we had completed our purchase. "People have been asking me if they can eat it, and that's probably not a good idea."
The item in question was the Isiah Bar, 2.25 ounces of "Peanuts & Caramel SLAM DUNKED in Milk Chocolate." It went on sale, in limited numbers and only in Detroit, on Feb. 6, 1992. Since then, according to its eBay listing, it has remained in "a cool, dry place," unopened, a curio of a time when tons of star (and not-so-star) athletes received their own candy bars. At 21 years old, old enough to drink, the Isiah Bar is a collector's item only, and not fit for human consumption.
"Not going to eat it," we reassured the seller. "Who would eat 20-year-old chocolate?"
Within days we had our Isiah bar along with five other athlete chocolate bars of the late '80s through the mid-'90s. We ate them all.
* * *
The oldest bar is the Ken Griffey Jr. Bar, released in May of 1989, when the teenaged Griffey had just a month of major-league service under his belt. But he had been named AL player of the month, and Griffeymania was raging, and a small trading-card company in Edmonds, Wash., released a thin bar of pure milk chocolate. Sold for 95 cents, it was meant to look like a baseball card, with a photo embossed on the face, and a simulacrum of statistics on the back.
Griffey himself wasn't a huge fan: "I do like candy bars," he told a reporter, "but if I have more than a couple of them I break out." The fact that Griffey and the Mariners each received a slice of the profits made it more palatable.
The recipe for the "Isiah" Bar (why the scare quotes?) was supposedly created by Thomas himself. Initially meant just to support local fundraisers, it was a runaway success—750,000 bars were sold in the first two months, and 2.5 million by the end of the year.
Perhaps it was the quote on the back. Every wrapper read, "Don't miss your shot...An education is an important resource—stay in school!"
Scottie Pippen would come out with his own chocolate the following year, and though outside observers noted it was identical to the Isiah Bar, Pippen maintained that his was clearly superior.
The Reggie! Bar was the ur-athlete candy when it was released in 1978. (The Baby Ruth, according to legend, isn't named after Babe Ruth but for Grover Cleveland's daughter. This probably isn't true, but was the official story so the company could avoid paying royalties.) It may not have been the first, but is clearly the spiritual ancestor of every athlete candy bar to follow. eBay was unable to come through for us on an original Reggie! Bar, so we settled for the 1993 re-release timed to coincide with Reggie Jackson's Hall of Fame induction. It's the same formula—a chocolate-coated puck of caramel and peanuts.
That year also saw the release of the Mark Price Bar, and go back and read the first half of this sentence because yes there was a Mark Price Bar. It's "a 3-point play of caramel, pecans and chocolate," and everything about it is wonderful.
Take the wrapper. The back features the wisdom of Price in a quote: "With discipline and determination you can overcome any obstacle."
The front has a photo of a doofy-looking Price staring disconcertingly off-camera. He is poised as if to take a free throw, but he's holding the ball all wrong. He wears a generic blue jersey, his mouth droops open. He must not realize he is being photographed, yet this could only have been taken at a photo shoot.
The Boston Herald reported the following hearsay upon the Mark Price Bar's launch.
During the [press conference], Price was photographed eating one of the bars, smiling as he did — a 3-point shot of delight.
The next day, however, his demeanor changed. Though no medical cause and effect has been confirmed, it must be reported that Price missed practice because of a stomach virus.
The Kirby Puckett Bar came out in 1994, and is not merely caramel and rice coated in milk chocolate. It is, as the wrapper boasts, "a bundle of energy." (The bar has 302 calories and 40 percent of the recommended daily value of saturated fat.) On the back, an exhortation for sugar-addled Twins fans to pursue their dreams. "Get into the swing of things. Stay in school."
The youngest bar in our collection is the Chipper Bar, released before the 1997 season and made available only in the Atlanta market. Manager Bobby Cox wasn't sold by the photo of a smiling Chipper Jones on the wrapper. "You're kidding me," he said. "I don't know if it's any good or not. If it tastes good, I'll buy one. If it doesn't, I won't."
Jones, not a big chocolate fan, said it would taste similar to a Nestle Crunch bar. Sixteen years in the future, we can confirm that's true.
* * *
It's a quest born of curiosity—there was a time, when we were of chocolate-lusting age, that seemingly every athlete had his own chocolate bar. But they were regional things, and unless you lived in Minnesota, you probably weren't going to ever get to try Kirby Puckett's bundle of energy.
Yes, we're old now. But thanks to eBay (the cheapest was the Griffey Bar at $3.97, the Chipper Bar the most expensive at $14.99), there's no reason we couldn't finally satisfy our childhood curiosity. One reason perhaps: the questionable advisability of eating decades-old chocolate.
We got in touch with Dr. Ingolf U. Gruen, an associate professor of food chemistry in the food science program at the University of Missouri. We asked a simple question: "Will this kill us?" Dr. Gruen's less than reassuring response was, essentially, "It depends."
"It totally depends on how the chocolate has been stored," Gruen wrote in an email. "First of all, let's assume is has remained in its wrapper—if you remove the wrapper and set it out 'into the elements' all bets are off."
"The water activity of chocolate is very low," Gruen continued, "which means microorganisms cannot grow in chocolate. So unless the chocolate was contaminated with microorganisms to begin with there should be no issue with microbial spoilage, even after 20 years. However, if the wrapper is removed and it sits in humid or moist conditions, all kinds of stuff can eventually grow on the surface.
"If the chocolate was stored in a cool dry place, let's say above freezing but below about 50 Fahrenheit (like in a cool basement), I would have no problem trying the chocolate."
(All of our eBay sellers assured us the bars had been preserved in cool and dry places. This is the faith we cling to.)
If the chocolate had gone bad, we asked Gruen, what form would it take? Would we be able to recognize it before we bit in?
"The most likely spoilage that will happen over time is that the fat in the chocolate goes rancid," Gruen wrote. "The cocoa butter, which is the fat in chocolate is quite stable and does not oxidize easily, but ALL fats can oxidize. So if you store the chocolate close to (but still BELOW) the melting point of these fats, they will go rancid and I would not touch that chocolate since after 20 years it will be rancid enough to make you gag.
"If the chocolate has undergone temperature fluctuations a lot over the 20 years, some of which may have reached melting temperature, then the fat crystal structure of the chocolate will have changed and the chocolate looks as if it is moldy (but it is NOT mold), and it is brittle—the moldy look is because the type of crystal that the fat is in does not reflect the light the same way the correct fat crystals do. I would not eat that chocolate, since besides being probably rancid, it now will also taste stale."
We thanked Gruen for his advice, failing to point out that we wouldn't be worried about how stale our rancid chocolate bars were. Then we ate our chocolate.
* * *
They went down fine. They just wouldn't go down quietly. None of these antique chocolate bars—save one—was so overwhelmingly wretched that it had to be spat into a pre-positioned trash can before we could swallow. They weren't good, but first contact only filled our mouths with a variety of tastes that were dully bitter, grudgingly bearable, and ultimately nonlethal.
It wasn't until after the ancient chocolate had been consumed that the real punishment arrived. Acrid tastes with musty and sour hints clung stubbornly to the backs of our tongues, forcing us to cough and gesticulate and wish for a magical spackling knife that could scrape away the layer of ruined taste buds. But these candy bars had already survived a very long time, growing ever more noxious with age. Their foulness wasn't about to be erased by some saliva.
Here are our detailed notes on how each chocolate bar tasted.
Reggie! Bar: This was by far the most aesthetically presentable of the group. There were no immediate signs of spoil or deterioration, and the chocolate had retained a smooth, dark brown color. If someone had handed this to us and told us that it was a fresh, unwrapped candy bar, we would have bitten into it greedily. It didn't smell great, however, a condition that we immediately attributed to the presence of aged peanuts.
We took a decent-sized bite and were struck at how tasteless, how empty the chocolate itself was. It took a few seconds of chewing to get it out of the way and start crunching through the peanuts, which created a musty patina that lingered stubbornly in our mouths. These peanuts tasted like they had been left to soak in swamp water and then left to ferment in a bowl of sawdust. Still, we did not throw up or pass out, and now we knew what old peanuts tasted like.
Kirby Puckett Bar: This one did not look nearly as appetizing as the Reggie! Bar. It looked like a dried-up piece of human feces. Just a dessicated shit log sliding ominously out of a wrapper featuring Puckett's coy and not-at-all-reassuring smile. We were starting to grow less enthusiastic.
We were once again taken aback by how tamely the first bite assaulted our palate. Perhaps this was due to the presence of rice in place of peanuts, but the inclusion of caramel had given us reason to expect the worst. Rancid caramel was pretty much our worst nightmare going in. But there we were, chewing through the mostly tasteless concoction and nodding at the growing group of onlookers, furrowing brows, and offering a nonchalant, "Huh, this one's not that bad!"
Then it happened. The switch from benign to malignant came more swiftly and completely than with the Reggie! Bar. It felt as if someone had jammed a sour, sweaty foot into our mouths. We gulped down a lot of water, unsuccessfully trying to wash the bitterness from our tongues. Things were starting to get real.
Mark Price Bar: This is where everything went horribly wrong. We knew that something was amiss when we realized that this candy bar was coated in a greasy sheen. Slid across the table, it left an oily slug trail in its wake.
The caramel and chocolate were repugnant, but the presence of pecans added an extra layer of horror. After just a few tiny bites, we were lunging for the waste basket, spitting and hacking the masticated concoction out of our mouths. Spectators wanted us to try a second helping. "Nope. Nuh uh. No. Fuck me. Nope!"
Up until this point we were confident that we would complete our journey without vomiting. Now, we weren't so sure. Our stomachs began to turn, and our tongues began to feel irrevocably ruined. Not for the first time, we wondered if eating decades-old chocolate wasn't such a good idea.
Isiah Bar: This one looked just as unappetizing as the Mark Price Bar, but for different reasons. It was withered and dry and had been bleached of its original chocolatey color. We broke it in half and shuddered at the streak of hardened caramel and foul-smelling peanuts. It was the same old peanut smell that had come with the Reggie! Bar. Hello, old friend.
We chewed quickly, hoping to get this one over with, and were relieved to find that our distaste for the Mark Price Bar would not be matched. This one tasted almost exactly like the Reggie! Bar, musty and familiar. It was a stay of execution. We drank more water.
Ken Griffey Jr. Bar: Here we encountered our first candy bar that was made entirely of milk chocolate. We were encouraged, as the nauseating nature of the previous ones seemed to have been brought on by the presence of various kinds of nuts or caramel, whereas the chocolate itself had grown rather tasteless in its old age.
Worryingly, the face of the Griffey bar had grown discolored over time and now sported white streaks. Was this the bleaching that our food scientist had warned us about, a sure sign that the fat in the milk chocolate had gone rancid? We bit in.
The bar immediately became chalky, crumbling in our mouths and soaking up our saliva. As we swallowed, the taste of rancid milk hit us like a freight train. The absence of nuts and caramel would not save us, after all. As it turns out, old milk chocolate tastes a lot like old milk.
It suddenly dawned on us that the chocolate present in the bars we had previously eaten was not as innocent and tasteless as we had perceived. The taste of spoiled milk had always been there, even as it was overpowered by coagulated caramel and pre-internet-era nuts. It was all bad. Everything was bad.
The Chipper Jones Bar: This one tasted exactly like a slightly faded Nestle Crunch bar. It was delightful. God bless you, Chipper Jones.
The remaining portions of edible nostalgia were dropped into a Ziplock bag and disposed of. The oil slick left behind by the Mark Price Bar was Windexed out of existence. All that remained was a dull stink, which hovered over the table on which the chocolate bars had been presented.
We did not throw up. Waves of nausea would continue to rise within our stomachs throughout the afternoon, but we steeled ourselves and focused on other things and shoveled Spicy Buffalo Wheat Thins into our mouths to cover the taste. It covered it like spicy buffalo sawdust strewn atop vomit, but it momentarily pushed away the stench. We made it home and ate dinner and went to bed and woke up the next morning feeling victorious. Like we had cheated death, and done science, and grown a little closer to our childhood idols. Or something. We should have listened to that guy who said not to eat the chocolate.
Video by Kate Bennert and Tim Burke. Art by Jim Cooke.