Signs of spring are everywhere here in Washington. Trees are budding, flowers are blooming and store shelves are stocked with Peeps.
The marshmallow candies — shaped like baby chicks and bunnies — have been an Easter holiday favorite among children for more than half a century. Now adults are now among the candy's biggest fans.
Peeps inspire artists
"It all started when I was a kid," says David Ottogalli. "I had Peeps in my Easter basket every Easter and it was one of my favorite candies." Now 45, Ottogalli calls himself a "marshmallow Peeps artist."
He has been making art out of Peeps for about a decade. "I was really fascinated by their shape and their color and their texture. It's such a unique candy. Part of that is you could only get it once a year at Easter time and that is what made it special."
For more than 50 years, Peeps have been made by Just Born, a family-owned company in Pennsylvania. And these days, the sugar-coated marshmallow treats are available year round in other shapes and colors: green trees, white snowmen and chocolate reindeer for Christmas, pink hearts and chocolate teddy bears for Valentine's Day, and orange pumpkins and white ghosts for Halloween.
Ottogalli incorporates those different candies into holiday-themed art work. For Easter, he is creating a piece called "Bunny Chaos," gluing pink, blue, yellow and green marshmallow bunnies on a large canvas that has been painted black. He "meshes" the candies together at different angles, so they fit almost like a jigsaw puzzle.
Other budding artists have been inspired to work with Peeps. Every spring, for the past four years, creative Washingtonians have submitted dioramas featuring the marshmallow chicks or bunnies to the Washington Post's Peeps Show contest. Last year's contest drew more than 1,100 submissions.
Ottogalli entered the contest once, but didn't make the final cut. His "Peeps Shrine," made from more than 5,000 marshmallow chicks, was featured in a 2003 exhibition in California called "Sweet Tooth."
New Peeps store
Ottogalli has sold more than 10 smaller works since he was invited to display them at Peeps and Company, the first retail store devoted to Peeps and other candies made by Just Born.
"Although the other brands have a huge following and awareness, and they are iconic in their own right, Peeps is the American hero," says Karen Simonet, general manager of the store, which opened its doors on December 10 at National Harbor, 16 kilometers south of Washington.
The store carries much more than just candy. There are glass-blown paper weights shaped like Peeps, giant plush toy Peeps, notepads, pens, key chains, tote bags, sportswear, coffee mugs, even fine china decorated with Peeps' iconic yellow chick.
One customer with a bag full of candy and a couple of bright yellow Peep-shaped mouse pads said her mom got her started on Peeps when she was a girl. "I guess it's just the marshmallow and the sugar. They just taste so good. I love them."
Another woman, although not a big fan of sugar said she had to buy some. "They are just adorable and it means Easter."
According to Just Born, there are many more customers like the two women. They say the number of Peeps sold in the weeks before Easter alone could more than circle the equator.