Has it really been four years since The A.V. Club last wandered hopefully into a dollar store, seeking out the cheapest, most delicious foods we could find without actually contracting salmonella? Apparently it has been, and we aren’t sure why. What have we been eating in the interim, actual food? And in this era of recession, unemployment, and ever-widening rich/poor gaps, when everyone’s looking for ways to trim their budgets? Unconscionable. Especially around the holidays, when those dollars have to stretch even further than usual. That’s why, as one of our many, many holiday gifts to you, we finally returned to our local dollar stores, looking for the best, worst, and weirdest buck-a-pop foods we could find. (This year, we even produced an accompanying video version, taking the fine-dining route with some of these very items to see whether a luxurious setting would help squeezable sour-apple-flavored marshmallow gunk go down better.)
Somewhere in this world, there are people who don’t think Funyuns are down-market and nutrition-free enough. And those people had to come up with an even cheaper, even more plastic-y version of the onion-ring-in-a-bag snack. OnYums (so named because they’re yummy, as the packaging reminds us over and over) lack Funyuns’ scary yellow coloration, but that may just mean the makers are too cheap even to spring for yellow food dye. And they’re even lighter and less substantial than Funyuns, giving the impression that purchasers are basically buying onion-flavored air.
Scariest-sounding ingredient: “Disodium inosinate and guanylate.”
Worth the price: Actually, an onion-flavored-air course would probably cost a bundle at a modern molecular-gastronomy restaurant. At a buck a bag, this is a version for a reasonable budget.
Traditional holiday dish it could replace: Do people really eat that green-bean/mushroom-soup casserole stuff for any reason other than to enjoy the crunchy fried onions on top? Skip the slimy casserole and go straight to the good stuff.
Mallow Pals Squeezeable Marshmallow
In the year where we learned about the power of Charlie Sheen’s tiger blood, what snack could possibly appeal to the masses more than some cheap goo they can squirt out of a tiger and directly into their mouths? Granted, actual tiger blood, whether it comes from Charlie Sheen or a real-life tiger, probably isn’t bright green and doesn’t reek of crystallized sugar. (Okay, we aren’t entirely sure about Charlie Sheen’s blood. We didn’t check.) So maybe this isn’t the real stuff. But what it lacks in verisimilitude, it compensates for in toothpaste-like gooeyness. That’s a bonus in squirtable candy, right?
Scariest-sounding ingredient: “Potassium sorbate.”
Worth the price: The gummy stickiness of this marshmallow-in-a-tiger-tube treat (it also comes in gorilla- and panda-shaped tubes, which are blue raspberry and strawberry flavors, respectively) guarantees that the flavor will stick with purchasers for a long time—just as long as the goo sticks to their back teeth. In this budget-conscious age, a snack whose flavor lasts all day could be considered economical. Besides, the tube comes with a few “Tiger Fun Facts” on the back: “Tigers live in Asia. There are no tigers in Africa.” So for a dollar, you get to be smarter, fatter, and stickier.
Could replace: Do people really eat that sweet-potato casserole stuff for any reason other than the gooey baked marshmallow topping? See above. Christmas dinner just got easier and sweeter.
Hannah Montana Concert Candy Sweet & Sour Gummies
It would be fascinating to learn how much money Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus gets for endorsing products like these guitar- and microphone-shaped gummi candies. It would also be interesting to learn whether anyone on her team actually approves these items after cashing the check, because if they do, they probably should’ve caught the fact that both shapes are noticeably phallic. In any case, biting into these mini-wangs was basically impossible: The ones in this bag were so old and gross that our teeth couldn’t penetrate them. Where’s our refund, Disney?
Scariest-sounding ingredient: “Hannah Montana.”
Worth the price: Not unless you have a great decorating idea for them. Perhaps you work at an erotic bakery?
Could replace: Those Starlight Mints peppermint candies that are just for decoration anyway.
Hot-Nuts Chili & Lime
Why the hyphen, Hot-Nuts? Is that your first name or something, like Betty-Jo? In any case, you’re manufactured by a company called Grupo Bimbo, so clearly you’re going for something sexxxy. But your “double crunch peanuts” (that’s where you needed the hyphen, dummy!) were expired by the time we bought them, so they were unable to start the inevitable orgy that usually follows a bag-cracking. Still, they were serviceable, as far as nuts coated in sugar and cornstarch and dyed an incredibly unnatural orange go.
Scariest-sounding ingredient: “Carmine.” That’s a mobster, not an ingredient!
Worth the price: Yeah, but mostly for the “Hot-Nuts” bag.
Could replace: They’re approximately the same shape as peas, but a much cooler color and texture. So let’s go with peas.
Brim’s Old Fashioned Pork Cracklin Dippers
Dollar stores often carry an entire range of variants on “pork cracklins,” or “pork scratchings,” or “fried pork rinds,” or whatever they may be called in a given locale. This is because pork rinds are cheap to make, in the same way flavored sawdust would be pretty cheap to manufacture. What makes this particular variety stand out? The fact that it’s marketed as “fried out pork fat” (fried out of what?) and that the items in the bag are specifically considered “dippers,” with no indication of what consumers are expected to dip them in. Ranch dressing? Chocolate? Have the people at Brim’s actually found a way to make pork rinds even less healthy?
Scariest-sounding ingredient: “Pork Cracklins.” None of the other ingredients (salt, spices, oils, MSG) is nearly as frightening as the overt, shameless acknowledgement that this is a bag of fried pig fat and skin.
Worth the price: These bags come two for a dollar, and they even have a Bible verse on the back. (Psalm 84:11, for the curious. Which is not, by the way, a paean to cracklins.) But no. We all only get one body to last our whole life long. It’s not worth paying money for the privilege of inserting fried pig fat into any orifice of that body. Even if that pig fat is dipped in something first.
Could replace: Spiral-cut hams are expensive and lack crunch and embedded Bible verses. That said… seriously, fried, dippable pigskin? For eating? Really?
Cinnamon Gingerbread Flavored Gourmet Candy Cane
Subtitle: “Traditional Candy Canes Coated in a Rich White Chocolate Flavored Icing Dip with a Dusting of Colored Sugar Crystals.” Santa Claus probably spins in his grave every time a new candy-cane flavor is introduced—he wasn’t executed so people could bastardize his traditions with fruit and other weird flavors. In any case, these weird suckers don’t stand much chance of overthrowing the peppermint majority, mostly because they look and taste like shit. Not actual shit, of course, but the production company put more effort into that description above than it did in making them taste good. And the plastic wrapping around both the box and the canes themselves is weirdly thick.
Scariest-sounding ingredient: “Titanium dioxide.” That should be in our cars, not our candy canes.
Worth the price: That’s the other thing about these: You only get five candy canes for a buck. A hundred might be a bargain.
Could replace: The other candy canes nobody’s going to eat, either, just for some differences in the color palette.
Okay, all together now: What’s the point of sangria? The delicious booze. What makes the booze in sangria particularly festive and tasty? The delicious fruit. So what, exactly, is the point of a sangria-flavored soda which incorporates neither booze nor fruit? It’s like giving someone a pork cracklin and claiming it’s savory ham.
Scariest-sounding ingredient: The ingredients here look like the ingredients on any cola; there’s nothing particularly alarming. But then they’re reproduced in Spanish. For suspicious, xenophobic non-Spanish-speakers, “Agua Purificada Y Carbonatada” might sound mildly scary.
Worth the price: Actually, this stuff isn’t bad at all. It’s a fairly mild sweet soda with just a suggestion of fruitiness. (And top notes of oak and heather, for you insufferably pretentious soda-tasters out there.) At 79 cents a bottle, it’s cheaper than name-brand stuff, and it’s a plausible daytime reminder that there is real alcoholic sangria in the world, just waiting for you to get off work and come find it.
Could replace: Wine at holiday dinners, for teetotalers. Sounds like a really boring holiday dinner, though. At least those sober, dull bastards can entertain themselves by belching a lot, thanks to all the carbonation.
Brown Gravy Mix
This is just your basic gravy mix; it’s mostly notable for being from “Chef Swagger’s Kitchen.” Who exactly swaggers over producing gravy packets for lazy chefs?
Scariest-sounding ingredient: “Not more than 2 percent silicon dioxide added to prevent caking.” There go our plans for a delicious Christmas gravycake.
Worth the price: At three packets for a buck, that’s an awful lot of cheap packaged gravy.
Could replace: All that bright green gravy no one at Christmas is ever really comfortable eating.
ServBest Chocolate Flavor Syrup
There’s a reason honey comes in transparent bear-shaped containers: Bears eat honey. It makes sense. It’s cute. The ServBest Chocolate Flavor Syrup also comes in a bear-shaped container, and let’s be frank here: It looks like something from a minstrel show. (Yes, we realize there are black bears in the world, but they don’t eat chocolate, wear bow ties, and have bright white noses.) It’s hard to imagine that there wasn’t a conversation at some point about whether this bear was racially appropriate to produce and put on shelves, but hey, what are you gonna do when you have a warehouse filled with bear-shaped containers and chocolate syrup, and there’s no honey to be found? Improvise, kid!
Scariest-sounding ingredient: “High fructose rice syrup.” As if adulterating corn wasn’t bad enough. Soon, they will come for all our precious healthy grains and convert them to high-fructose syrup form.
Worth the price: If you aren’t picky about your chocolate-flavored syrup, this bear is half the price of a can of Hershey’s. On the other hand, you’re only saving $1.
Could replace: Does your racist grandpa have any old-school Aunt Jemima syrup around the house? Switch this out and ease the transition into racial harmony.
The Legend Of The Candy Cane
So wait, is the humble candy cane secretly an upside-down J-for-Jesus? Or a symbolic shepherd’s crook meant to symbolize the Messiah’s birth? Do the white and red stripes have something to do with Jesus’ purity and punishment? Not according to Snopes.com, which calmly dismisses the entire concept as recent historical revisionism. Clearly, though, the people at Palmer chocolates didn’t get the debunking memo, judging by this item, with its insipid faux-chocolate candy cane on the inside, and an insipid, caps-heavy poem about candy-cane symbolism (“The stripes are friendship and the nearness of your love/Eternal, Sweet Compassion/A gift from God above.”) on the outside. Eh, anything to move more product around the holidays.
Scariest-sounding ingredient: “U.S. Certified Colors.”
Worth the price: Depends on whether you love Jesus, you heathen. Or whether you love waxy “milk chocolate flavored candy.” Uck.
Could replace: A lengthy, smug prayer over dinner from a visiting aunt. Just let her know that everybody got their religion up front this year, in chocolate candy-cane form.
Seafood Snacks: Kippered
There’s something inherently hilarious about food items that proclaim a generality in big bold shadowed letters (“Seafood Snacks”), but require a jeweler’s loupe if you’re trying to read what specifically you’re getting. (“Boneless herring fillets.”) Seriously, the promise “Provides 1.0g omega-3 fatty acids per serving” is in slightly bigger type on this package than the words that identify what exactly you’re eating. Whatever it is, though, it’s kippered! Mmmm, kippered.
Scariest-sounding ingredient: “Sodium hexametaphosphate.”
Worth the price: Depends on whether you personally are brave enough to eat dollar-store fish, whether in kippered form or otherwise.
Could replace: Boring unkippered holiday appetizers, like nuts and cheese. (Except in those households that like to kipper their nuts and cheese. We’ll just stay out of your way.)
Butterfield Farms White Chicken & Buffalo Style Sauce
Canned chicken and fish are old hat by now. So what better way to spice them up than by literally spicing them up? Why isn’t there more flavored canned meat out there? It seems like a match made in an enterprising, bottom-feeding factory somewhere: Spices and sauces should help disguise the unmistakable, kinda-creepy texture and flavor of potted meatstuffs.
Scariest-sounding ingredient: “Modified food starch,” always a winner in Dining For A Dollar. Back in our day, sonny, we ate our food starch unmodified, like the good Lord intended.
Worth the price: In theory, a buck a can for actual chicken isn’t so bad. In practice, this stuff looks like cat food, and smells like something the cat ate, then violently rejected onto the rug.
Could replace: The candles at your candlelit holiday dinner. This stuff is such a radioactive orange, it practically glows.
Temmy’s Fruity Hoops Bar
Remember when your old friend Temethy used to joke about how his name was a rip-off of “Timothy,” and that someday he would start a company knocking off superior products? Well, check your Facebook friend invitations, because Temmy’s business is taking over dollar-store shelves. His signature product is the Fruity Hoops Fruit Flavored Cereal Bar, which is conveniently manufactured in Egypt, where—as foodies know—the best fruit-flavored hoops are grown. And don’t forget what looks (from the box cover anyway) to be the fresh whipped cream holding these hoops in place. Also: five vitamins and minerals. Five!
Scariest-sounding ingredient: You won’t believe this, but there’s an ingredient called E322, and it’s listed on the box as “E322.” Yes, there’s an ingredient in quotation marks. That’s scary.
Worth the price: Oh God, no. The actual bars couldn’t look much less like the photo on the box, and they’re over-chewy, sickly sweet, and generally just horrible.
Could replace: Did your grandmother make an assortment of fresh fruit pies with real whipped cream around the holiday season? Now that she’s dead, she’d probably be cool with you eating these instead.
Here’s the fun thing about sugar, lard, food coloring, and gelatin: You can mix them all together and mold the results into just about anything, from a reindeer head to a Christmas present to… uh… whatever that blobby thing at the bottom of the kabob is. It’s either another present, or some kind of holiday cake, or… well, who cares. It’s marshmallow coated in sugar, who cares what it looks like?
Scariest-sounding ingredient: “Glucose syrup.”
Worth the price: At a dollar a kabob, these are maybe a little overpriced, given that they’re hard, chewy clumps of tooth-hurting, filling-extracting nastiness. But given the strict holiday theme, just wait a month, and they’ll be half-priced, like the Halloween marshmallow kabobs that were sitting right next to these on the shelf. Fifty cents for stale sugar-coated marshmallows seems far more appropriate.
Could replace: Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Wouldn’t these be a lot more fun to put over a fire? They come with their own marshmallow-toasting stick, and you’d get to watch Santa’s face melt and/or burst into flame.
Double Crisp Coal
How to be the corniest parent imaginable: Tell your kids that if they aren’t good, Santa will bring them coal on Christmas Day instead of presents. Then buy them coal-shaped cheap-ass chocolate candy for their stockings! Ha ha! There’s a joke involved here somewhere, right? Or at least a lame melding of old Christmas myths?
Scariest-sounding ingredient: When we tried to open these, tiny bugs crawled out of the bag. Seriously. TINY LIVE BUGS. Scariest ingredient to date in a Dining For A Dollar item. Is it just remotely possible that getting food from a dollar store isn’t actually the greatest idea in the world?
Worth the price: Can you really place a price on candy with live bugs in it?
Could replace: Beating the children when they act up over the holidays. “Not only did you get coal for being bad this year, it’s coal full of bugs.” That’ll learn the little brats.
Want to see our staff consume their dollar store finds? Watch the video.