Alex Jaramillo has been a serious Cracker Jack eater since he was 10. He never gets sick from it, and he still loves the taste. "It's a great taste," he says. He eats a box a day. Sometimes two or three. "It can be verified," he says. Before he actually eats the stuff though he pulls out the prize. "Just like every little kid," he says. But most of the time he doesn't open the prize. He doesn't have to.

Some people collect cars. Some people collect stamps. Some people collect tropical fish or tropical diseases. And some simply make collect calls. As the world's leading collector of (someone had to be) Cracker Jack prizes -- after five years and 2,500 prizes -- Alex Jaramillo knows what's inside most every prize envelope beore he opens it. Like yesterday when he pulled out one, scanned the wrapping and said, "To and fro card, the frog on the lily pad." And sure enough it was.

You might ask: What kind of man devotes his life to collecting Cracker Jack prizes? You might ask: Isn't it rather odd for a 29-year-old with a college degree in biology and a job as a researcher with the City of Hope medical center, a wife, a daughter and another child on the way, to carry on this way? You might ask: Why do they put so many peanuts in the box when every one knows that the candied popcorn is where it's at?

Some facts about Cracker Jack: Invented in 1893 by F. W. Rueckheim, a Chicago street vendor; Named in 1896; Packaged with prizes in 1912; Early prizes were toy miniatures of things like watches, trains, spinning tops and soldiers. "If they had to fold it 50 times to get it in the box, they'd fold it 50 times." says Jaramillo; Prizes now are wrapped and diliberately sized "smaller than the diameter of a 3-year-old's esophagus," says Jaramillo; Prizes now are testmarketed on children and reactions are measured on what the boys at Cracker Jack call a "smile scale"; 400 million boxes sold yearly; Largest single user of popcorn in the world. Last year the Cracker Jack people sought to bring together four people with the biggest collections of Cracker Jack prizes, and Alex Jaramillo knew he would be there. "there are others with more old-time prizes than me, but from 1912 till today I've got the most bulk," he says proudly.

In the world of collectibles, his personal pile is said worth $15,000. He estimates the worth of the display of 500 prizes he's carrying with him on this month-long tour (all expenses paid by Cracker Jack) at $5,000. Jaramillo even has a few prizes so rare as not to be included in Cracker Jack's own vault of 10,000 prizes in Chicago. He has spent as much as $175 for a 1930s poster of Sailor Jack and Bingo -- the kid and the dog, the Cracker Jack symbols -- with the product slogan, "The More You Eat, The More You Want." (Which is debatable.)

Jaramillo used to collect other things, like coins and baseball cards and movie star memorabilia and comic books, but since he got stuck on Cracker Jack, there hasn't been much time for anything else. He calls it "an ultimate collection" because it spans so many years and cuts across so many types of collections; Cracker Jack prizes embrace the great collectibles such as post cards, sports cards, minatures. He has his own "collector's room" and three safe deposit boxes for the rarest stuff. He says this about Cracker Jack prizes: They're art. American art. I don't see any difference in collecting them and Rembrandts. I feel they're important. I feel anything from any culture is important. I feel everything's important."

His wife is something of a collector, too. They collect turtles and tortoises. They have 14 live ones and hundreds of ceramic ones. They really like turtles and tortoises. They belong to the Turtle and Tortoise Club, a collecting club. They are native Californians. Jaramillo estimates he spends at least two hours a day on "collecting time," (he distinguishes this from "family time") during which he researches the field of auctions and prizes he might bid on, corresponds with Cracker Jack collectors -- he knows of 35 other big timers -- and regroups his collection.

Most of his friends are collectors of some sort, but he says even those who aren't are sympathetic to what he calls "the thrills of the hunt." He admits that some are skeptical at first. "But after I explain it," he says, "they become fascinated. Probably because Cracker Jack was such a fun thing for them. Everyone respects me for it. You know, people at work -- doctors, nurses -- they'll go out an d buy some Cracker Jack and bring the prizes to me. They'll see how my eyes light up when I get a prize I didn't have before, and then their eyes will light up, too."

He just finished what he calls "a five-year odyssey," looking for the 16th and last post card of a Cracker Jack set issued in 1907, when Cracker Jack didn't pack the prize, but allowed the purchaser to redeem coupons for prizes instead. It is a set of cards fo the "Cracker Jack Bears." The first 15 post cards had the bears traveling to places on the East Coast. Fifteen bear cards. Fifteen different cities. Alex Jaramillo, who thinks collectors, "have a sense of history," paid $35 for the 16th bear, the one that went to Mars.