The worst foods we love
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On Thanksgiving, it’s a tradition to focus on food—and to eat certain hearty, relatively healthy foods, like turkey, potatoes, vegetables, and breads. But the other 364 days a year, we’re surrounded by fast foods, snack foods, and non-foods, packed with empty calories and emptier food-substitute chemicals. Which often doesn’t stop us. What’s the unhealthiest food you love and eat more often than you should?
The Pringles Taste Test reminded me that Pringles exist, so I promptly went and got some and ate them. And with every chip, I thought, “What is the appeal of these things? They’re so clearly potato paste, spice dust, and salt.” It’s probably just as well I forget about them for years on end, because in spite of the complete lack of apparent food content, they’re awfully addictive once you get started. Still, they don’t hold a candle to crunchy Cheetos, which are composed entirely of Styrofoam and cheeze-flavor powder, as far as I can tell. I can only justify buying them for occasional parties, but they’re the most useless foodstuff I’m likely to gravitate toward. Mmmmm, faux-cheeze-flavoring.
I don’t know why you say “faux-cheeze-flavoring” with that slight hint of shame, Tasha, because I will eat just about any foodstuff covered in tasty, oddly colored powder. I pretty much only have parties as an excuse to buy barbecue potato chips and Cool Ranch Doritos, two foods that completely zap the little self-control I do have. Cool Ranch in particular is an imaginary flavor I’ve been trying to harness for years. I still think it would make a good rub for relatively flavorless tilapia filets, and now that this exists, I probably will begin seasoning all my foods with the crunchy, salty, tangy flakes. At least I won’t have to ask why when my untimely death comes around.
In college, I discovered Kraft macaroni and cheese. I was always aware of mac and cheese, but my fancy-ass mom never made the boxed variety. (I believe we were a Stouffer’s family.) But sophomore year, a roommate of mine used to make a box, eat half of it, leave the rest in the kitchen, and wander off. I, like a desperate hyena, would scavenge, and it was there that I developed a taste for the salty, carby treat, the base of which consisted of my very favorite vice (pasta), mixed with one of my other favorite vices (cheese, or at least in the Kraft version, something that resembles it). Other food obsessions have come and gone (Nutri-Grain bars, Quaker chewy granola bars, Pop Tarts) but I still love me some mac and cheese. Most of the time now I eat something quasi-healthy like Amy’s frozen version of the meal, or make my own, but now and then I reach for the blue box, make it, and unlike my old roommate, eat the whole damn thing.
I unabashedly love two things made almost entirely out of chemicals. I blame my mom for letting me eat them constantly as a child. One is Hostess Cupcakes—the chocolate ones, not the not-chocolate ones. Those are made of pure animal fat and some kind of grain that humans shouldn’t eat, but I love them all the same. I’ve had to limit myself to only eating them on very long road trips that I take by myself, meaning I eat them maybe once a year, if that. I’m also “allowed” to eat them if I’m very sick, because then I deserve them. The other chemically processed food I just love is SpaghettiOs. I only like the ones with meatballs (if you can call them that), and I consciously think, every bite I take, about how unabashedly fake they taste and smell, and I love them all the same. Those, I basically have to just not ever buy, because if I own them, I will eat them, and while they’re not incredibly bad for you, they’re certainly not good.
I know it’s not that popular across the rest of the country, but I’m obsessed with anything and everything from Popeye’s, particularly the fried chicken. It dates back to when I lived in New Orleans and the chain was everywhere. But one of my fondest post-Katrina memories is waiting in line for two hours with friends to get Popeye’s when the first location opened after the storm. Of all the lines I waited in, that was the best. And when I moved to Chicago in 2006, the first thing I did was locate my nearest Popeye’s. This year, I’m even ordering their cajun turkey special for our Thanksgiving dinner. That’s how much I love it.
Without a doubt, the No. 1 offender is pepperettes. Maybe pepperoni more generally, but especially as neat little prepackaged pepperette salt sticks. When I was a kid, never much for sweets, I used to put ’em down in pack-a-day doses, driven by Macho Man Randy Savage’s demand that I “SNAP INTO A SLIM JIM, HO YEAAAAAUUUGH!” As an adult, tastes (barely) refined, I buy salted, cured, nitrate-injected meat sticks of all sizes and compositions: pork, turkey, beef, as long as they’re crammed with paprika. Besides being actually the most delicious thing that exists in the world, pepperettes are also insanely addictive. Every time I open my fridge, and they’re there, I’m helpless. And like an actual, defenseless compulsive, I’ve even bothered to develop my own slang around pepperette consumption (“Snappin’ sticks,” “Rockin’ rods,” etc.).
I completely overhauled my diet two years ago, and now eat mainly simply prepared meats, fruits, nuts and vegetables, with little to no grains (meaning rice, corn, oats, and wheat), just a little bit of dairy, and not much sugar beyond what’s naturally occurring in those fruits and vegetables. I’ll still eat a bit of fresh pastry or a handful of tortilla chips every now and then, but I’m more or less out of the junk-food/fast-food business: I avoid fried foods, potato chips, packaged baked goods, and candy (aside from dark chocolate squares, which are allowed). But I cannot stop myself from consuming ice cream. On the scale of bad things I could eat, ice cream isn’t so terrible, I realize. It’s possible to get ice cream made with all-natural ingredients that tastes delicious and is relatively healthful. But it’s also possible to go through a drive-through and get a cup of processed chemicals topped with peanut butter and Oreos, which is what I tend to go for. I’ve finally gotten some measure of control over my ice-cream habit by admitting I’m never going to get over it, and giving myself permission to get one big ice-treat (or two smaller ones) each weekend. It’s my one planned “cheat.”
My favorite food is Kentucky Fried Chicken, or KFC, as the corporate lawyers beg us to call it now, though anything that chain sells that isn’t fried is clearly the work of the devil. (I love that the characters in Killer Joe refer to it as “K-fried-C.” Does anyone know if that’s a Tracy Letts invention, or is it really a snotty colloquialism used by subversive KFC purists? I grew up on this shit, and I can be irrational about it; I remember reading (in Big Mac, Max Boas’ unauthorized biography of Ray Kroc and McDonald’s) the story of how Harland Sanders, one of the great home cooks turned entrepreneurs of his day, developed and perfected his recipe and drove around the country selling his pressure-cooker system; I remember it the way you’re supposed to remember the first time you read about the pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock. Of course, the Colonel got screwed when he sold his likeness and recipe to the big-money bastards, and they’ve watered down his perfect formula: They don’t even cut the breasts right anymore, the sons of bitches. But whenever I look at that red-and-white logo, I feel like I’ve just come home.
I’ve considered tailoring my exercise regimen to whatever would allow me to drink about 20 ounces of Coca-Cola every day without becoming a fat-ass. Yes, I know it’s bad for my teeth, supposedly leeches nutrients from my bones, and doesn’t agree with me on an empty stomach, but I adore it all the same. My friends, family, and co-workers know my devotion to Coke borders on fanatical, as they’ve witnessed me trying not to go Joe Pesci on a waiter who says “Pepsi okay?” after I ask for a Coke. NO, IT’S NOT OKAY, PAL. (If they have Dr Pepper, I’m mollified, as I love that too, but it isn’t common in Chicago.) But I generally avoid those situations, because a restaurant’s beverage setup heavily informs my decision to eat there. A fountain that has a good mix—very important—with free refills occasionally trumps the quality of the food in my mind, which helps explain my patronage of the Subway by the A.V. Club office. Pepsi, off-brand cola, some bullshit “artisan” house-made cola? Please. Give me Coke, or GTFO.
A couple years ago, I got in shape and started eating healthy, so I’ve actually been pretty successful so far (knock on wood) of counteracting a life’s worth of negligent, indiscriminate eating habits. Potato chips and pretzels are still a huge temptation, but even then, I might indulge in a bag of Lay’s maybe once a month. Harder to avoid, though: donuts and pastries—particularly the variety that can be found at coffee shops. As a freelance writer who can’t properly concentrate at home, I wander from café to café here in Denver most days, guzzling black coffee and working on my laptop. Of course, there’s always a mouth-watering array of goodies in the pastry cases of these places, including a couple of coffee shops in town that stock donuts. (Statistically speaking, Denver is one of the healthiest cities in the nation, and one where donuts are not popular or prevalent at all compared to the rest of the country.) But it isn’t just donuts. Fruit danishes? Almond croissants? Scones? At least once a week, I have to indulge—which isn’t that bad a lapse, all things considered. And at least these treats are usually locally made, rather than crapped out of a factory. Not that my conscience really figures into this; the fact that I have a sugar crash and feel like utter shit a few minutes after I eat these things is enough of a deterrent.
I’ve tried to phase the most egregiously unhealthy items out of my diet in recent years, because as I get older, it’s become apparent that dietary choices have consequences. But since rules don’t apply when you’re out of town, or at least dietary rules don’t seem to, I tend to indulge on the (now rare) occasions when I’m on the road. This past weekend, I took my first road trip that didn’t involve chasing many handfuls of Combos with a 20 oz. bottle of Coke, and I’m kind of proud of that. True, the trip began with a trip to Dunkin’ Donuts, but hey, it’s still progress.
I haven’t done the due diligence on this, but it’s probably a good thing I don’t drink Slurpees (or their non-union, non-7-Eleven equivalents) as often as I did during my days as a bored suburban teenager with little more than a driver’s license and a 52-ounce refillable X-Treme Gulp to my name. It can be said without certainty that I dodged a type-2 diabetes bullet by retiring the big red mug—especially after I followed the lead of my college roommate and cut the insulation out of the thing, making certain I could get twice the icy corn syrup for the same low refill charge. When summer temperatures heat up, I’ll still dip into the frozen Coke once or twice, but these days, I opt for a more reasonable serving size—one that can fit in a standard-size cup holder, for starters.
I’m appalled when I think of how much McDonald’s I used to eat during my adolescence and early adulthood, when my metabolism ran at roughly the same capacity as a blast furnace and I thought little of mowing down Value Meals several times a week. With age, I’ve gained some better judgment and a more refined palate (and a couple of inches here and there), but I still haven’t found anything to fill the McDonald’s french fry-shaped hole in my life, so I still allow myself to indulge from time to time. Sure, they may not be the best-quality fries, prone to the whims of whatever bored teenager is manning the fryer and salt-duster that day, and they may only be palatable during the three-minute window between “blisteringly hot and crispy” and “room-temperature wads of salty wet cotton,” but I just can’t shake whatever strange power they have over me. It’s not just the fries’ fatty, carby goodness at play—all french fries have that—but rather the indescribable, un-reproducible flavor afforded to them by the beef-flavored oil they’re cooked in and the secret “natural flavoring” McDonald’s adds. The almost certainly illicit secrecy surrounding McDonald’s fries only adds to the nutritional and societal guilt they induce, but at least I can take comfort in knowing I’m not alone in my vice: French fries are more profitable for McDonald’s than hamburgers, and James Beard and Julia Child purportedly loved the damn things.
This is something that pretty much only people from New Jersey can understand, but if I could eat a Taylor ham, egg, and cheese sandwich on a hard roll for breakfast every day for the rest of my life, I’d be a happy man. For those of you in the other 49 states, let me give you a primer on Taylor ham, or pork roll as it’s known in its more generic form: It’s composed and pressed, cured and salted. Then it’s usually sliced and slapped on a griddle by your friendly neighborhood diner or deli (or by you… it’s available in every supermarket in the state) until it has some nice sear marks on it. Then it’s put on the roll with a fried or scrambled egg and melted American cheese. Salt, pepper, and ketchup are added if you wish. (I usually eat it unadorned.) What does it taste like? Think Spam, but with a sharper, smokier flavor, which increases the longer the slices spend on the flattop. As far as I’m concerned, if the slices are thin and almost crispy, that’s the sweet spot for me. The sandwich is a cardiologist’s nightmare—it’s full of bad fat, loaded with salt, and jammed with cholesterol. It’s all usually made worse by diners and delis that butter the rolls and cook the ham on a flattop that carries the oils of every pork product that came before it that day. But holy shit, is it good eatin’.
When I was a camp counselor in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, Culver’s abounded. It’s a big Midwest thing, so I’d understand if you’d never heard of it (the place mat at Culver’s has all their locations on it, and a good 85 percent are in Wisconsin alone). Basically, it’s a fast-food chain that I consider a cut above the rest. They serve these things called “butter burgers,” which are one part burger, eight parts butter. The buns are fried, and they are delicious. Culver’s also has frozen custard and cheese curds, and lemon ice coolers mixed with fruit. It’s everything a guilty-pleasure summer night was made for. When I used to drive to college from Chicago to St. Louis, there was one Culver’s in the Bloomington-Normal area that was exactly halfway between the two cities. I stopped there every time, and to this day, I insist we stop at one any time I’m within a few dozen miles. Because in New York, they have things like “trans fat laws” and “decency,” and it’s disgusting. Give me Culver’s, or give me death! Sometimes and death from heart failure!
This is a tough one for me, because I almost exclusively eat total crap. For much of the past year I have enjoyed Qdoba’s Mexican Gumbo, which is essentially a mildly classed-up version of the KFC “bowl of sadness” Patton Oswalt reviewed so memorably for us back in the day. It’s a thick, gooey mass of rice and beans and cheese and sour cream and meats. Christ, my arteries are congealing just writing those words, but oh dear, is the Mexican Gumbo ever tasty. I don’t eat it with the frequency I once did, but I’m not ready to quit it any time soon, and yes, Qdoba, I would happily accept all manner of free meals in exchange for this free plug. Thank you for offering.
Having managed to successfully maintain a low-carb lifestyle since April and lose 50-plus pounds in the process, I’ve come to realize a) how many incredibly unhealthy foods were staples of my diet, and b) that losing 50-plus pounds is absolutely no substitute for the brief, transient joy these foods brought into my life. Sure, I’ll probably live longer, but at what cost? Fortunately, I’ve been on this diet long enough and successfully enough that I’m feeling more comfortable about making the occasional questionable choices in my diet, which means that I’ve gone back to eating Chinese food on a more regular basis than I really should. It’s not that I can’t find semi-low-carb items on a buffet or takeout menu, but that pretty much defeats the purpose of eating Chinese. I need the greasy spring rolls, the hot and sour soup, the fried rice, and the sauce-enveloped General Tso’s Chicken, or whatever my meal of choice may be. I know it’s bad for me, but that’s just the way it’s gonna be.
My wife has done a pretty good job of banishing most of the crap from my diet (thanks, honey!) but I still have a weak spot for convenience-store nachos. I can’t even begin to guess why I find the combination of the lowest-quality corn chips available to the public, toxic orange goo, and a heap of pickled jalapenos so appealing, but it is simply irresistible. To make it worse, I always have to buy a Coke to wash the whole mess down, so my I get a nice double gut-bomb. At least I finally broke myself of the habit of eating them for breakfast…
I’ve managed to change my eating habits enough in the past five years that I don’t indulge as regularly as I used to, but every so often, I figure what the hell, and get a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. I have a few flavors I especially like; Stephen Colbert’s AmeriCone Dream is excellent, as is the Strawberry Cheesecake, or the Heath Bar Crunch, and while I can’t think of the name straight off, there was something with marshmallow and chocolate and graham crackers—oh right, S’Mores. I jog regularly, and I try not to eat terrible food every day of the week, but when it comes to B&J, the only real option is to not look at the ingredients, and down the whole thing in a sitting. As a comedian I once saw points out, that makes it basically a heroic act; I’m not a gluttonous sloth, I’m a man with a mission, and that mission is eating too much delicious, delicious ice cream.
I had a tough time trying to think of an answer for this, because I love to eat and I don’t ever really feel ashamed about it. (This is not good for me, I realize.) Thanks to longtime Onion staffer Jun, our office is constantly stocked with candy and nuts, and I go in sprees where I don’t eat any for a few weeks and then eat it all. But I don’t feel bad. I crave—and generally track down and eat—a huge steak every couple of months. Like some of my co-workers, I will indulge in Culver’s burgers and frozen custard on occasion—sometimes, but rarely, on the same trip. (Plus, if you’re in the Milwaukee area already, there’s Kopp’s.) I also love to eat at fancy restaurants, and I won’t turn down the foie gras lollipop at Graham Elliot or candied sweetbreads at Schwa. So I guess my answer to this question is “anything and everything.” P.S.: I just died.
Thanks to Morrissey (via my high-school girlfriend), I’ve been a vegetarian for a very long time, but if I ever fall off the wagon, I already know exactly where I’m headed: Carl’s Jr., for their Western Bacon Cheeseburger. But in the meantime, I have an extremely soft spot for cheesecake, particularly New York style. I was first introduced to this magical dessert at a Jack In The Box in California, but I’ve since moved on to slices that aren’t served in plastic pouches. And it was only two weeks ago, while visiting Brooklyn, that I came into contact with the version that has stolen my sweet tooth: the plain at Junior’s, a place that is apparently insanely famous for its cheesecake but took a while to show up on my radar. My mom just asked me what I want for Thanksgiving dessert, and I’m about to spend 45 bucks to have one shipped out West.
Let’s cook Franco-American (now Campbell’s) spaghetti in a can:
- First, it’s 11:45 p.m., right? It’s not 11:45 p.m.? You have to wait. It’s gotta be 15 minutes before the store closes, so you can go there in a feverish haze and get lectured by security guards because you only need one thing, but not every store carries it anymore.
- Purchase one can of Campbell’s spaghetti in a can. Not Chef Boyardee. Don’t fuck this one up, okay?
- Head back home and assemble your ingredients: spaghetti can, pound of hamburger, diced onions that come in one of those spice-rack canisters, assorted spices, but mostly salt.
- Fry up that meat in your biggest skillet or frying pan. You want it nice and brown. Spatula it up, so it’s in little pieces. Somewhere in the middle of this, dump a bunch of onions in there. Probably season it, too. You’ll be able to see what you’re doing through your tears at some point, so just… do it then.
- You’ll want to open that can with a can opener. Probably now is good.
- Dump that can into the giant, frying pile of meat. Don’t worry about how it’s disgusting to look at, or how the little noodles stick together in a can shape, or how the sauce is properly described as “sauce-flavored.” Just don’t.
- Now fry everything together. Pour more onions in. Pour more seasoning in. Do you have some other stuff lying around? That probably needs to be in there, too.
- Serve it up on two plates: one for yourself, and one for your sweetie. (Helpful hint: When cooking spaghetti in a can (not Chef Boyardee), your sweetie is always yourself.)
- Enjoy! (Both plates!)