Published: Sunday, June 27, 1993
The Miami Herald


DAVE BARRY Herald Columnist

The thing I like best about being a journalist, aside from being able to clip my toenails while working, is that sometimes, through hard work and perseverance and opening my mail, I come across a story that can really help you, the consumer, gain a better understanding of how you can be killed by breakfast snack food.

This is just such a time. I have received, from alert reader Richard Rilke, an alarming article from The New Philadelphia (Ohio) Times-Reporter headlined: OVERHEATED POP- TARTS CAUSE DOVER HOUSE FIRE, OFFICIALS SAY. The article states that fire officials investigating a house fire in Dover, Ohio, concluded that "when the toaster failed to eject the Pop- Tarts, they caught fire and set the kitchen ablaze."

According to the article, the investigators reached this conclusion after experimenting with Pop-Tarts and a toaster. They found that "strawberry Pop-Tarts, when left in a toaster that doesn't pop up, will send flames 'like a blowtorch' up to three feet high."

Like most Americans, I have long had a keen scientific interest in combustible breakfast foods, so I called up the Dover Fire Department and spoke to investigator Don Dunfee. He told me that he and some other investigators bought a used toaster, rigged it so it wouldn't pop up, put in some Kellogg's strawberry Pop-Tarts, then observed the results.

"At five minutes and 55 seconds," he said, "we had flames shooting out the top. I mean large flames. We also tried it with an off-brand tart. That one broke into flames in like 3 1/2 minutes, but it wasn't near as impressive as the Kellogg's Pop- Tart."

A quality you will find in top investigative journalists such as Woodward and Bernstein and myself is that before we publish a sensational story, we make every effort to verify the facts, unless this would be boring. So after speaking with Dunfee I proceeded to my local Kmart, where I consulted with an employee in the appliance sector.

ME: What kind of toaster do you recommend for outdoor use?

EMPLOYEE: A cheap toaster.

I got one for $8.96. I already had Kellogg's strawberry Pop-Tarts at home, because these are one of the three major food groups that my son eats, the other two being (1) pizza and (2) pizza with pepperoni.

Having assembled the equipment, I was ready to conduct the experiment.


I conducted the experiment on a Saturday night. Assisting me was my neighbor, Steele Reeder, who is a Customs broker, which I believe is a mentally stressful occupation, because when I mentioned the experiment to Steele he became very excited, ran home, and came back wearing (this is true) a bright-yellow rubber rain suit, an enormous sun hat, and a rope around his waist holding a fire extinguisher on each hip, gunslinger-style. He also carried a first-aid kit containing, among other things, the largest tube of Preparation H I have ever seen.

Also on hand was Steele's wife, Bobette, who pointed out that we had become pathetic old people, inasmuch as our Saturday Night Action now consisted of hoping to see a toaster fire.

Using an extension cord, we set the toaster up a safe distance away from the house. I then inserted two Kellogg's strawberry Pop-Tarts ("With Smucker's Real Fruit") and Steele, wearing thick gloves, held the toaster lever down so it couldn't pop up. After about two minutes the toaster started to make a desperate rattling sound, which is how toasters in the wild signal to the rest of the herd that they are in distress. A minute later the Pop-Tarts started smoking, and at 5 minutes and 50 seconds, scary flames began shooting up 20 to 30 inches out of both toaster slots. It was a dramatic moment, very similar to the one that occurred in the New Mexico desert nearly 50 years ago, when the awestruck atomic scientists of the Manhattan Project witnessed the massive blast that erupted from their first crude experimental snack pastry.

We unplugged the extension cord, extinguished the blaze and determined that the toaster's career as a professional small appliance was over. It was time to draw conclusions. The obvious one involves missile defense. As you are aware, President Clinton has decided to cut way back on "Star Wars" research, so that there will be more money available for pressing domestic needs such as creating jobs and keeping airport runways clear for urgent presidential grooming. But by using currently available electronic and baking technology, we could build giant toasters and place them around the U.S., then load them with enormous Pop-Tarts. When we detected incoming missiles, we'd simply hold the toaster levers down via some method (possibly involving Tom and Roseanne Arnold) and within a few minutes WHOOM the country would be surrounded by a protective wall of flames, and the missiles would either burn up or get knocked off course and detonate harmlessly in some place like New Jersey.

Anyway, that's what I think we should do, and if you think the same thing, then you have inhaled way too many Smucker's fumes.

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