My Life in Gum

The First Quarter

I remember my mother standing in the kitchen chatting on the yellow telephone with the long and twisting cord.  She would twirl her short brown hair with her index finger as she chewed a piece of gum.  She used her tongue to fold the gum in half, trapping a small air bubble, then she chomped down to produce a sharp snap when the bubble popped.  When I heard that noise, I knew that there was a package of Dentyne somewhere in the house.

Our 1960s household did not overflow with snacks or candy.  Later, when my mother became a grandmother, she would stuff the huge freezer in the mud-room with popsicles and ice cream, but growing up junk food was sparse.  There were no soft drinks or chips, and if I asked for a snack, my mother would suggest a piece of toast with honey.  She did not bake and the waft of freshly baked cookies never greeted us home from school.  There were few packaged cookies – no rituals of unscrewing Oreos and scraping off the sugary filling.  It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I realized that cookies and milk were a popular combo.  But there was Dentyne gum.

Dentyne was the official chewing gum of our household and along with Smith Brother’s Wild Cherry cough drops, were the rare permitted impulse purchases in the checkout line.  The Smith Brother’s box featured two bearded men who looked like they could be Abe Lincoln’s friends.  The cough drops were nothing more than hard candy entirely similar to Life Savers, but if you coughed discreetly or rubbed your throat, my mother might pop a box into the cart.  Similarly, the health claim of Dentyne (whose name is derived from “dental hygiene”) may also have been its selling point.  There it was right on the package, “Helps Keep Teeth White/Breath Fresh.”  Who wouldn’t want to provide a public service by keeping their breath fresh?  I think that my mother thought that other brands, particularly Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit, were declassé sugar delivery vehicles with no redeeming value.

Dentyne had a distinctive red package with six short chubby pieces of gum lined up side by side. The diminutive size of the pieces was another selling point, since they allowed for classic packagemore discreet chewing compared to the larger sticks of Wrigley’s gum.  My brothers may have enjoyed blowing bubbles with Bazooka gum, but this was a male-dominated activity.  Based on my mother’s example, the only gum suitable for a sophisticated woman was Dentyne.

I rarely saw my father chew gum, except for the fitful occasions when he tried to quit smoking.  But if he did chew gum it was Black Jack.  This puzzled me, since Black Jack was not sold in our grocery store, and my mother didn’t buy it for him.  A driving trip through Wisconsin that took us directly through downtown Milwaukee provided some clues.  I remember looking out and seeing black folks walking the sidewalks and sitting on stoops.  This was a definite novelty for me, since our affluent suburb was the epitome of white homogeneity.  On the other hand my father went into downtown Chicago for work as a salesman for a financial printing company.  His clients were mostly corporate lawyers, but his workplace included the men who operated the printing presses.  He was the only one in our family who had any first hand experience with heterogeneity.

As we glided through Milwaukee sealed in our car, he looked out the window and announced with great authority “Black men like to wear hats on Sunday.  They also like to chew Black Jack gum.”

Even as a ten year old, I realized that this was a sweeping generalization so I spent some time puzzling through these remarks.  For example, regardless of the weather my father always wore a brimmed felt hat with a grosgrain ribbon to work – but he never wore a hat on the weekend.  Perhaps this was the basis of his odd comment.  Black Jack might also have been related to work.  My father always made friends with everyone, and was probably one of the few salesmen who went down to the clanging and sweaty printing presses to see how his jobs were coming.  If he noticed Black Jack gum in the break room, he would have rushed out to buy a few packs so that he could offer some to his co-workers.  I could picture him standing in the elevator with the crew chief and extending a pack of the licorice-flavored Black Jack gum.  “Hey how’s it going down there?  Is it busy?  Want a piece of gum?”

We used to get Christmas cards from his co-workers and they were instantly recognizable.  Cards from local friends came on heavy cardstock with a picture of immaculately dressed families sitting on well-tended lawns.  The most pretentious cards announced that the family had taken some exotic vacation, perhaps with a picture of kids decked out in ski outfits standing in the shadow of the Matterhorn.  The Christmas cards from his co-workers – I remember Scotty and Jerry Girard – always came on flimsy paper showing a Christmas scene embedded with sparkly sprinkles that came off in your hand when you opened them.

The Second Quarter

I stopped living full time at home when I went to boarding school at age 14.  I would sign out of the dorm and walk downtown to get a pack of Dentyne.  One day I was shocked and outraged to discover that Dentyne was no longer a nickel.  Instead of having six pieces of gum now there were only five or you could buy a “value pack” of fifteen pieces, but it didn’t take a genius to figure out that you were gipped.  Here was my vivid and painful introduction to inflation.  I bought up as many of the nickel packages I could find and then vowed I would never chew Dentyne again.  Their price increase was inexcusable for a loyal customer.  My revenge lasted only about a week until I resigned myself to the scourge of inflation.

I carried my Dentyne habit with me as a necessary study aide throughout my academic life until age 29 when I finally finished my medical training.  During medical school I loved reading textbooks, particularly anatomy and pathology that became the focus of my career.  I would go to the sunny library at NorthwesternUniversity and stake out a large desk and line up my tools; the textbook, a brand new yellow highlighter and a value pack of Dentyne.  First I would open the book and run my hands up and down the glossy pages.  I would uncap the highlighter and take an appreciative sniff of the chemical smell.  Finally I would pop a piece of Dentyne into my mouth.  Mentally, I could read a textbook all day, but I needed a tiny bit of physical stimulation to keep from getting jittery.  Chewing gum was just enough to strike the right balance.  As I chewed one piece after another, a mound of used gum would pile up on the desk.  When I had gone through the entire pack, I knew that it was time to pack up and go home.

Once I finished medical school and stopped reading textbooks, the only venue I found for chewing gum was long car rides.  The strategy was the same – the gum served as the minimal physical activity required to keep me focused on the road.  Although I had managed to weather the disappointment of inflation, it was hard to bear the next blow – Dentyne stopped making the classic cinnamon flavor.  Instead they transitioned to various sugar-coated flavors packaged in blister packs.  When Coca Cola tried to retire Classic Coke there was a national uproar, but Dentyne managed to make the transition without a peep.  I could occasionally find some Dentyne Classic at out of the way gas stations, but when that tenuous supply petered out, I stopped chewing gum entirely.  The legacy of my mother came to a sorry end.

The Third Quarter

Over the next decades I would occasionally check to see if Dentyne Classic had staged a comeback.  No luck.  Furthermore Dentyne nixed their simple slogan of Helps Keep Teeth White/Breath Fresh to prey on the insecurities of dating.  Packages advised, “Practice Safepractice safe breath Breath.”  Different flavors were also sold in a “car cup” with the sugar coated pieces of gum rattling inside like pills in a prescription bottle.  On the top it said, “Safe Breath is Date Breath.”  The blister pack came with two sleeves of gum, 8 pieces in each with the label “Split2Fit Your Lifestyle.”  The idea was that when you split the pack, one half would fit discreetly in a pocket, like an emergency pack of condoms.  One side said, “For Pre-Party.”  The other half was labeled “For Post Party,” held in reserve in case you got lucky.  Ads also played up the condom analogy.  One showed a nervous young man buying his Dentyne at a drugstore, while the cashier snickered and winked at him knowingly.

The packages also said “Keeps Breath Fresher for 40 Minutes After Chewing.” The claim is illustrated with a little stopwatch.  This raises interesting questions about the research Dentyne did to validate this claim.  I could imagine a focus group of couples sniffing each other’s breath as the seconds tick away.  “Honey, I think it is about time for another stick of gum,” one woman might say with a dispirited sniff as she realizes her partner needs reinforcement after a scant 20 minutes.  Perhaps the Dentyne legal counsel demanded a more objective test, and the crack engineering team devised an aroma-meter equipped with blinking red lights and an alarm if the odor fell below an arbitrary freshness level.   However, note that Dentyne only claims to make your breath “fresher.”  If you started at noxious level, perhaps after an extended nap, you could still meet Dentyne’s goal of being “fresher” while remaining pretty skanky.  For example, even if you could freshen up the pungency of dog shit, it will still smell like shit.

The Dentyne website includes truly bizarre YouTube videos.  One animated video is simply called “Banana Hammock” and features scantily clad male and female avatars sitting in a sauna.  The woman asks the man why he isn’t sweating profusely.  He claims that he always carries a Split2Fit pack of Dentyne Ice with him.  The woman then asks, “How is this possible, since you are wearing a banana hammock?”  The video then cuts to a tight close-up of the man’s crotch.  It is impossible to imagine that his teeny outfit could accommodate one stick of gum, much less the eight in a Split2Fit pack.

He then responds, “Yes, my Split2Fit pack fits almost anywhere, like in my banana hammock.”

The two then trade additional jargon, with the man contending that his pack of gum will fit into a “plump snuggler,” “sausage sling,” “dong sarong,” and then oddly enough he says that the Split2Fit pack would not fit in a “Man-Berry Pudding Pack.”

Clearly not my mother’s Dentyne anymore.


As part of a reading assignment for my writing class, I read a parody of Ken Burns’ documentaries, where the author substitutes the history of gum for topics such as the Civil War or Baseball.   The parody opens with a hilarious over-the-top imitation of Burns’ signature reverential style:

“It started as an idle pursuit: a way to pass the time, to occupy the slackened jaw of street urchin and steel magnate alike (Hold on various stills of farmlands, factory workers, men in bowler hats.)  Even in its infancy, when America wakened to its unfurling power like a slumbering giant whose nap had been cut short by the ambulance cry of its own withered soul, when gnashing, nattering demons fought for the very plinth of this great land, when the corn was as high as an elephant’s eye – even then it served as a salve to the spirit, a lulling reminder that there would still be a tomorrow, even if tomorrow never came.”

The parody goes on to interview such Burns regulars as the historian Shelby Foote who comments that gum’s enduring flavor is a “metaphor for all that was regenerative in American Life.”  As irreverent as this parody is, gum could actually be a suitable subject for Ken Burns.  Imagine the fascination of tracing the cultural significance of chewing as a pastime or social courtesy, focusing on gum, betel nuts, tobacco, coca leaves, or whatever else humans have used to address their oral fixation.  The documentary could find archeological evidence of gum wads from ancient days or carbon date the gum despoiling the streets of Ephesus or affixed to Jesus’ sandal.  Interviews could include natives of Peru, India, Southeast Asia and baseball players, all of them dedicated gum chewers.  This could take up to twenty episodes.  If Ken Burns wants something quick and simple, I would be glad to give him my life in gum.

The missing words in the following poem are anagrams (i.e. share the same letters like spot, post, stop) and the number of asterisks indicates the number of letters.  Your job is to solve the missing words based on the above rules and the context of the poem.  Scroll down for answers.

The bar is strewn with crushed cigarette butts and half finished **** of beer.

It stinks and the woman says, “There’s no chance I’ll get lucky here.”

She looks around, but every man just makes her want to say ugh.

Then she spots a man in the corner, but he looks a bit ****,

However, his teeth are gleaming and he holds up a pack of Dentyne.

They kiss because she knows that his breath is fresh and his **** are clean.







Mugs, smug, gums



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