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.)
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.