Ernst Choukula

There’s been some ruckus about a History class at George Mason University in which students created a hoax about an ‘Edward Owens’, the “Last American Pirate”. They made a blog, put up some YouTube videos, and most annoyingly, created an article on Wikipedia.

I find these hoaxes tiresome. We all know that it’s easy to publish misinformation online; it’s done thousands of times, every day, on small and large scales, and it’s as easy as pressing an ‘Edit’ button. If someone is going to put up misinformation, I’d rather they do it with style and panache, like this brilliant addition to the Count Chocula article on Wikipedia (archived):

Ernst Choukula was born the third child to Estonian landowers in the late autumn of 1873. His parents, Ivan and Brushken Choukula, were well-established traders of Baltic grain who– by the early twentieth century–had established a monopolistic hold on the export markets of Lithuania, Latvia and southern Finland.

A clever child, Ernst advanced quickly through secondary schooling and, at the age of nineteen, was managing one of six Talinn-area farms, along with his father, and older brother, Grinsh. By twenty-four, he appeared in his first “barrelled cereal” endorsement, as the Choukula family debuted “Ernst Choukula’s Golden Wheat Muesli”, a packaged mix that was intended for horses, mules, and the hospital ridden. Belarussian immigrant silo-tenders started cutting the product with vodka, creating a crude mush-paste they called “gruhll” or “gruell,” and would eat the concoction each morning before work. The trend unwittingly spread, with alcohol being replaced by sheep–and then cow’s–milk, and the demand for the Choukula’s “cereal” reached as far south as Poland and as far west as the northern Jutland province of Denmark.

It wasn’t long before the unmistakable image (the original packaging, a three gallon wooden vat which featured a burnt etching of a jubilant, overalled Ernst holding a large dog and grinning broadly) made a pop-cultural splash throughout the entirety of Europe and northern Africa. In fact, Tunisia’s “Carthagian Sand Crunch” was seen as the first imitation of the Choukula form; the aforementioned product was presented in broad leathern bags with the woven insignia of a nude tribesman holding a sword and a bunched stalk of oats. Sadly, this would neither be the first nor the tamest appropriation of Ernst’s iconic visage.

Meanwhile, in the “textile paradise”-region of Schenectady / Elmira New York, General Peter Mills–a celebrated turret gunner in McKinley’s navy–was first beginning to mine America’s seemingly insatiable desire to consume food before high noon. The trend, initially known in the United States as “brekkfest” had first appeared in 1903, with Dominic Eggo’s invention of “wassled” or “waffled” bread, and really picked up steam throughout the teens and twenties, when eating in the morning was no longer deemed a sin by the Anglo-Catholic church.

News of Choukula’s economic domination across the Atlantic fascinated and troubled Mills, who was eager for similar success. In 1927, while vacationing the Iberian peninsula, he first encountered three discarded barrels of “Duke Choukula’s Animal Supplement” (the name and design of the product had undergone several makeovers throughout the previous seven years, the most recent of which featured Ernst dressed in a cape and tiara, reflecting his family’s oft-disputed ties to Eurasian royalty). Immediately intrigued, Mills brought one with him on his boat ride back to the States, and spent the twenty-three day trip obsessively studying the packaging. In the spring of 1929, General Mills’ “Prince Chocula’s Morning Digestive” was picked up for distribution in three dozen pharmacies, grocery stands and agrarian carts throughout New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and northern Maryland.

The public response was confused and angered at the recipe’s savory, clove-like sting; apparently a confusion over the name led many to believe the breakfast was made from chocolate, and by 1931 the formula had been updated to reflect the nation’s collective sweet tooth. In 1932, boxes were labeled simply “Count Chocula’s Chocolate Food” and Peter Mills was named Life Magazine’s “Humanitarian of the Year, 1933”.

Ernst Chocula died in a Ukrainian cabin, penniless and alone, having descended into a type of brain-madness. (via Mefi)

Few would mistake that passage for reality, and indeed, it only lasted for a single day on Wikipedia before it was removed. However, its sheer mad genius makes it a classic of the hoax genre, and I only wish that more hoaxers would put as much energy and humour into their work as the creator of Ernst Choukula did. It’s not always about fooling people, folks – it’s about creating something fun and interesting.

Incidentally, I dislike hoaxes as part of ARGs. I did it once, and it was a mistake. What’s more interesting to me is how you evaluate information on the web. But that’s for another day.

3 Replies to “Ernst Choukula”

  1. I love this. A fine example of satirical craft at work.

    Incidentally, I dislike hoaxes as part of ARGs. I did it once, and it was a mistake.

    . . . Care to enlighten us? Was this Frozen Indigo Angel, mayhap?

  2. I think ‘hoax’ is a strong word. You place a fiction against a real backdrop. You mark the boundary, either explicitly or implicitly. What matters to make it a hoax is a primary intention to mislead deliberately, rather than to be playful. Playing audiences are more sophisticated interpreters of boundary-markers than most broadcasters (say) credit them.

  3. @Trippenbach: It was Frozen Indigo Angel, yes. Briefly, we didn’t really have any marketing budget for the game, so we had to do something that would attract attention, hence the whole ‘I was unfairly fired from the BBC’ stunt.

    It did get a little bit of traction, but the problem is, people are just too smart these days and the amount of effort you need to put in to convincingly fooling people is just disproportionate to the benefits. Plus I now think there are far better ways of getting attention.

    @TS: I think the problem emerges when you try to work out whether someone’s primary intention was to deliberately mislead or not; and whether there is any attempt whatsoever to mark a boundary.

    Interesting you mention broadcasters 🙂 I certainly agree that they do not credit their audiences with the sophistication that they actually have, leading to all sorts of irritating requests like huge blaring popup disclaimers on fictional websites saying ‘BY THE WAY, LONDON HAS NOT ACTUALLY BEEN BLOWN UP BY A NUCLEAR BOMB!’

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