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Posted on Sun, Aug. 17, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
People | The beloved jimmy could be lost
A sprinkling of history for a name that's melting away.

Inquirer Columnist

Which came first, the jimmy or the sprinkle?

Evidence suggests the jimmy.

A far more important question for local readers is: Which will endure?

Sadly, the sprinkle.

The jimmy - at least as a piece of slang, an expression of local flavor - is doomed.

"If it's not a dead term, it's a dying term," said Peter Georgas, vice president of Can-Pan Candy, the Toronto-based company that sells a million pounds of sprinkles every month.

"I will rarely, rarely get on the phone with somebody who asks me for a jimmy," he said. "And if someone does ask me for a jimmy, he's an older man."

The fact is that jimmies and sprinkles are the same thing, which is almost nothing, a wisp of sugar, oil, emulsifier (don't ask!) and coloring.

But by any name, the world consumes about 50 million pounds a year, according to an industry expert - about 1.3 trillion sprinkles or jimmies, give or take a few hundred million.

Mostly, they're sprinkled on ice cream. But if laid end to end, they would stretch 2.3 million miles, enough to circle the Earth nearly 100 times.

This region - from Philadelphia to the Jersey Shore - historically has been jimmies territory.

Jimmies - not sprinkles - have been on the menu for 53 years at the Custard Stand on Ridge Avenue in Philadelphia.

"I don't bother people who call them sprinkles," said Vince Joyce, 21, a jimmies loyalist and employee for seven years. "But if you call them shots or dots or ants or black beads, I say something: 'You mean jimmies, right?' "

Right across Ridge Avenue, at rival Dairyland, jimmies have been on the menu since the establishment opened 30 years ago.

The present owner, Michael Kiedaish, 32, grew up with jimmies and says he will never change: "When someone tells you that something's a jimmy, it's a jimmy."

But hints of extinction are everywhere, even in his own store.

"The college people... they're all sprinkles," said Laurie Taylor, 23, who has worked the counter at Dairyland for eight years. "And the yogurt people are sprinkles. And kids all say rainbow sprinkles because it sounds more fun.

"I grew up saying jimmies," she confessed, "but from working here so long, I've started calling them sprinkles."

Sprinkles are encroaching everywhere. Old reliables like Kohr Brothers on the boardwalk in Ocean City are holding firm with jimmies, but upstarts like Ben & Jerry's on Rittenhouse Square? Sprinkles.

At Daddy-O's Dairy Barn in Mount Laurel, owner Rob Cotton grew up in Northeast Philadelphia calling them jimmies, but on his menu he lists them as... sprinkles!

"The distributors all call them sprinkles, so that's what I put on the menu board," he said.

"This is the No. 1 question: Is there a difference? And where does the name come from? I must hear that three or four times a week."

Here is some history:

Back in the 1930s, the Just Born candy company of Bethlehem produced a topping called chocolate grains. The man who ran the machine that made these chocolate grains was named Jimmy Bartholomew.

"Thus, his product became known as jimmies," said Ross Born, the chief executive officer. He was told this story by his grandfather and company founder, Sam Born. Just Born registered jimmies as its trademark, and continued producing jimmies until the mid-1960s - which is why the name was so popular here.

The trademark expired and soon after, Just Born stopped making jimmies.

This account, however, has been disputed.

The Boston Globe investigated the origin of jimmies last winter after a reader inquired about a rumor that the term originally was racist - the idea being that some people refer only to chocolate ones as jimmies, and rainbow ones as sprinkles. Perhaps, the reader surmised, the word descended from Jim Crow.

The Globe found no evidence of this, but did cite a commentary in 1986 on National Public Radio by the late Boston poet John Ciardi, who claimed: "From the time I was able to run to the local ice cream store clutching my first nickel, which must have been around 1922, no ice cream cone was worth having unless it was liberally sprinkled with jimmies."

Ciardi, the Globe said, "dismissed Just Born as claim-jumpers looking to trademark someone else's sweet inspiration." His jimmies had come first.

The truth may never be known.

But what is undeniable, according to industry experts, is that jimmies gradually gave way to sprinkles, a more vivid and appealing name.

For example, a world leader in sprinkles is QA Products outside Chicago. It started making sprinkles 10 years ago - under the brand name Sprinkle King.

When Vince Joyce of the Custard Stand on Ridge Avenue gives his customers jimmies, he gets them from a Sprinkle King box.

For the record, a chocolate sprinkle includes cocoa and offers a faint chocolate taste. But all rainbow colors taste exactly the same, which is to say, have virtually no taste.

This was confirmed by Kasey Dougherty and Kathleen DeMichele of the Dairy Queen in Ocean City. On a rainy day last summer, they conducted a taste test - blindfolded.

Neither could tell pink from yellow from green.

"Nobody gets rainbow sprinkles for the flavor," Dougherty said. "They get them for the colors, and the crunch."


Contact columnist Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639 or mvitez@phillynews.com.
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