I always drank my Ovaltine

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My friend Gary and I were talking a while ago about how much we liked Ovaltine.

I haven’t had it in years, but Gary said he has it all the time, and he’s introduced it to his grandchildren as a flavoring for milk shakes. He said you really have to look hard for Ovaltine in stores. I confess I haven’t tried to find it in many years.

Milk flavorings are certainly not new. When I was a kid, growing up on a dairy farm on Konitzer Road south of Oconto Falls, I obviously drank a lot of milk – unpasteurized and unhomogenized, I must say, what people call “raw milk,” I suppose.

I have to say that I never really liked milk “plain.” So my mom always had Ovaltine, or Nestle’s Quik, or Hershey’s syrup to flavor it for me. I loved chocolate – still do – so all three were great with me. But my favorite was Ovaltine. I liked it hot or cold. I haven’t had it for 40 years, I suppose, but I can still remember Ovaltine’s very distinctive taste.

For me, Ovaltine is a sort of symbol for the innocence, comfort, wholesomeness and safety of childhood. I did a little surfing on the net and found out that the chocolatey beverage was developed by a Swiss doctor named George Wander in 1904, and it was first introduced here in 1910. It still maintains a 10 percent market share among milk flavorings over 100 years later!

Advertising was always Ovaltine’s forte, and one of their greatest successes was the Little Orphan Annie Secret Decoder Ring. During the early 1940s, when I was a little kid, most of my grammar school friends sat in front of cathedral-shaped radios in their living rooms, staring at the speakers so as not to miss a word of that day’s exciting adventures of “Little Orphan Annie.”

And at the end of every broadcast, the announcer would instruct all club members to take out their decoder rings and listen for the secret message. The only way you could decode it was with the official Little Orphan Annie Decoder Ring.

In order to get the ring and the official membership card, you had to send a label from a jar of Ovaltine with 25 cents to the address given by the announcer. Lots of my friends had them, but I never did. We had a big old radio, but I don’t remember listening to “Little Orphan Annie.” It was on at a time of day when farm kids had to be out doing chores, I guess!

There’s a great scene in “A Christmas Story,” my all-time favorite “Christmas” movie – based on the childhood memoirs of humorist Jean Shepherd from his hilarious book “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.” You know the movie, don’t you? It’s the story of Ralphie, played brilliantly by little Peter Billingsly, who is consumed with an aching desire for a Daisy Brand Red Ryder BB gun. Unfortunately, his mother repeatedly crushes his dreams with the familiar harsh mantra: “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

For me, one of the movie’s highlights is a scene in which Ralphie’s Secret Decoder Ring finally arrives – he’s been waiting eagerly for weeks – and he locks himself in the bathroom to decode the secret message, only to find that the message is a reminder to “drink Ovaltine!” Ralphie is so upset by this flagrant bit of specious advertising that he smashes his ring.

Who else remembers Ovaltine? Gary and I do.

Roger VanHaren can be contacted at rjmavh@gmail.com.