Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Something of Such Importance That It Demands to be Told

Hey, you read the title. I can't tell you about wish #3 today because I have to tell you something so important that it can't wait.

Today I ate the single grossest thing I've ever tasted. It was foul and funky and completely repulsive; it defies my vocabulary and analogical ability to do justice. I was in a car with some friends when I stuck this thing in my mouth, and at first I thought I hadn't gotten quite a good enough taste, since I had just been stuffing my mouth with some Chex Mix-ish arrangement I'd found in a tupperware in the back seat ("nuts and bolts," they called it). So I quickly put another one or two of these things in my mouth to make sure I could really taste it.

Suddenly I wanted to retch. Often when you eat something gross among friends it's a laughable experience—you say, "Ewww, gross—hey, eat some of this!" and offer it around to perpetuate the joke. But this was beyond being a laughing matter. It wasn't that the thing itself tasted like dirt or like what [we imagine] poo tastes like; this food item was bad because it presumed to taste like something delicious, one of my favorite things, in fact. But rather than merely fail to recreate the desired taste (as orange soda does, with inscrutably delicious results), it made an unholy mockery of it. I immediately stuffed my face with nuts and bolts and thought longingly and urgently of the sharp, cleansing acidity of carbonation, or possibly the straightforward burn of rubbing alcohol.

I want you to realize this is coming from a guy who enjoys eating things he hates. Who says, "I hate olives on pizza," just before smiling widely and cramming an olive-covered slice in his pizza hole. Who has eaten every known variant of kimchi. Who has sampled raw octopus, candied jellyfish, and some sort of sea vegetable that I could never figure out a name for but that was, until today, the single most disgusting thing ever to grace my tongue.

What was this unutterably sickening food?



and Cheese.


I do not want to live in a country that willfully produces such things. I don't want to live in a country that accepts such things as legal imports. I've said it for years and I'll say it again: the man who eats Combos is a man who obviously has little left to live for. They are what hollow-eyed truckers and slump-shouldered fisherman reach for when they don't expect to actually come back this trip, what college bachelors eat only after the freezer-burned chimichangas, the rancid milk, and the couch crumbs have all been devoured. When a person reaches for comfort and finds himself reaching for Combos, their mortal coil has become unwound: Combos are murder, murder most foul in the mouth.

Why, then, did I even eat these Combos in the first place, you ask? It wasn't because I didn't know or didn't believe. It was because I honestly didn't believe they could be that terrible.

A few months ago I was explaining with vitriol my theory to a friend—the same friend whose car this was—who then accused me of prejudice. He claimed that I hadn't had Combos in some time, and that I was probably misremembering how bad they were. I was taken aback—he was right, of course, that I hadn't eaten a Combo in years. Maybe he was right.

I immediately found a CVS and made my way to the snack foods aisle. I found the blasted things huddled together near an endcap; I should've taken it as an omen that their foil bags seemed to have grown brittle and old from their long lonely sojourn under the fluorescents. How many bags of Combos does a CVS sell in a week? How often will a delivery truck bring a fresh supply of this, the most haggard and beggarly snack food? They were almost pitiable, like the off-brand Sno Balls my brother used to buy out of compassion, their pink coconut dusting having faded to a ghostly paleness from long neglect.

I chose Pizzeria Pretzel, thinking that (a) pretzels are good and (b) pizza is good, thus (c) pretzels and pizza together must be better. Herein lies the fundamental flaw of the American snack food ideology, a flaw aptly pointed out by the very name of this flagship item. I paid for the surprisingly weighty bag little buggers (is there any such thing as a small bag of Combos?), walked outside, cracked it open, and tossed a few in my mouth, daring to hope that I had indeed been mistaken. One crunch, nay, one roll of slightly salted pretzel-themed cracker filled with pizza-infused cheese product across my tongue erased all doubt from the world: Combos are worthless.

What's worse, I knew in that moment that I would eat the whole bag anyway. As with all popcorn that isn't part of the first two fistfuls, I would eat it in the simple despair that if I didn't eat it, it would still be there. I would eat it so it wouldn't be there anymore, even though the last place I wanted it to be was inside me.

This is another flaw with our snack food system: the obsession with quantity. We go to parties with and plan guys- and girls-nights-in and -out around the idea that we will gorge ourselves on the very thing we know will make us feel like garbage. "Oh man, I'm going to eat so many buffalo wings Saturday night!" "We're going to have like 40 pizzas!" "I just ate an entire box of Chips Ahoy!"1 I might as well eat a sheet of ketchupéd cardboard and spin in circles until I'm too sick to enjoy anything ever again—it's the same thinking, essentially. We are all familiar with that line of satiety that, once crossed, signals the end of our ability to derive pleasure from an activity, the point at which the diminishing returns are less than the negative consequences. We also all know that once you cross that line—once you've eaten enough Gardetto's to make your tongue tingle disgustedly and make it uncomfortable to do anything but sit very still—the only way to postpone feeling bad is to keep eating, to finish the tub of popcorn so it can no longer torment. (And that's when you get outrageously thirsty, though I don't know what's worse: being outrageously thirsty or soaking 2 pounds of pretzelly cheese product in a gut-busting amount of water?)

And it's not just quantity of product we love, but quantity of taste. Pringles are no longer enough; we need Pringles EXTREME Screamin' Dill Pickle flavored crisps.2 We need our Doritos to have more and more chic adjectives on the label, or, if a new flavor isn't on the docket, we'll just take our chips dusted with twice the flavor powder as normal.3 We want our bacon to taste like maple syrup and our cream cheese to taste like sun-dried tomatoes, and it won't be long before we want our bagels to taste like sun-dried tomato-flavored cream cheese. Just look at the variations on the saltine—Ritz, Wheat Thin, Triscuit, Club, etc.—and the newer, more chemically charged permutations of those variations. We want an explosion of flavor in our mouths. I predict the day when Cheeto dust is sold like Fun Dip and the dregs of the Cinnamon Toast Crunch box becomes the main attraction. That's a world I don't want to live in.

But I digress. The real point here is that although Combos partake in the quantity of product fallacy, by having such big bags, and the quantity of flavor fallacy, by combo-ing crackers and cheese (both of which may be combo-ed, the whole then tossed in a flavored powder, possibly), they fail to do either of these things even passably well. A big bag of Cool Ranch Doritos is still a tasty, if dangerous, thing. Bagel Bites and Taquitos are, though essentially utter failures as food, pretty good for the first hour of that Parcheesi tournament. But Combos are never good. They taste like nothing—not salty, not savory, not spicy, not anything. They look like dog food.

And today they crossed a line that I doubt I'll be able to forgive them for. In attempting to imitate the taste of a bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit they nearly destroyed one of the holy breakfast combinations. It was particularly the egg flavor that was nauseating. I imagine the scientists in a secret underground vault somewhere creating their flavor molecules—the orange soda molecule now an old standard, the newer breed of Italian herb molecules making a splash in the frozen pasta arena of Bertolli and Stouffer's, and the newest compound, fried egg, ready for testing. But times are tough, budgets are being cut, and the suits upstairs are demanding new flavors now. "Sir, it's not ready; it hasn't been tested!"

"Aww, who cares? We'll give it a street test. Throw in a little bacon and send it over to the Combos people. They'll know what to do with it. They have nothing to lose, after all."

I still have things to lose, though. It's been hours since those things were in my mouth—hours including at least a handful of Cheez-its, several Strawberry Newtons, a slice or two Boston Creme Pie Cake (the kind of oddity made only by a local bakery), and a healthy dose of toothpaste—and I can still taste the sickness in my mouth. Someday I'm going to be kissing a beautiful woman or drinking at the fountain of youth and suddenly the memory of this taste will strike, forever combo-ing a perfect moment with the taint of the most repulsive thing I've ever experienced.

That day I will seek my revenge.

Reading Group Discussion Questions:

  1. In this essay, Grover bemoans the current state of the snack food industry. It is unclear whether he means that the producers of snack food are driving American tastes into the gutter or that American taste is creating a demand that suppliers are happy to fill. Which do you think it is, and what should be done about it?
  2. Grover seems to be advocating a return to a responsible snack food morality, but he doesn't say exactly what that should be. What do you think it should be? He invokes the term "quantity" but says nothing about its correlate, "quality." In your opinion, is quality a virtue or a vice when it comes to snack foods?
  3. Is Grover's tone about truckers and fishermen unwarranted or offensive to you? How do you feel about his failure to include women (or at least gender-neutral pronouns and job titles) in his description of those who eat Combos?
  4. You eat Combos, don't you? It's okay; admit it. Then politely excuse yourself from the room and fill out an application as either a trucker or a fisherman (or fisherwoman).

Further Reading
  • Isaac Asimov's short story "Good Taste," about a cooking contest in the distant future where all food is designed in labs and grown in tanks and where gourmets are of a whole new breed. The story can be found in the collection The Winds of Change and Other Stories and probably elsewhere.
  • "Inside the Food Labs," an article from Time several years ago by Jeffrey Kluger. It includes the phrase "pancake matrix."
  • I'm interested in reading Michael Pollan's book In Defense of Food, in which he argues for a return to eating things your grandmother knew how to eat. Not Gogurt.

1 Don't let the exclamation mark fool you—it's part of the spelling of "Chips Ahoy!" not an indication of exclamation. That sentence ought to somehow be punctuated with a comma, a period, an ellipsis, a question mark, and and an open parenthesis since it is invariably uttered with a priceless mix of surprise and dread.
2 Proctor and Gamble was recently successful in convincing a British court that Pringles are not subject to a value-added tax for potato chips because they are less than 50% potato. The company also "insisted that their best-selling product was not similar to potato crisps, because of their 'mouth melt' taste, 'uniform colour' and 'regular shape' which 'is not found in nature.'" Full story here.
3 "Nacho Cheese" is a flavor, yes, but "Nacho Cheesier"? Completely unbelievable list of available Doritos' flavors here.


Dave said...

Publish this immediately. I laughed 16 times. I think you cashed in your third wish and I think it was to write mightily of Combos. Let the Genie rest. He's done his work well.

Jennifer said...

Are you allowed to publish in something you edit? Because you should. I was disgusted in the best way possible.

Joe said...

Sir, thank you for addressing some of the pressing issues of our time. You're timing and acuity are, as ever, golden.

Joe said...

Your. I meant "your." Sorry.

David Grover said...

I've been called a lot of things in my day, but never timing and acuity.

David Grover said...

I typed that comment one handed while the other hand fed my face a grilled-cheese sandwich. I think I hit at least 15 wpm.

This comment too. Delicious!

Gillz said...

I'm trying not comment on each of your blog posts and thus possibly overstep the boundaries of new friendships, but I got to your reading discussion questions and laughed so freely for the first time all day that I had to express gratitude for the hilarious disgusting details of this posting.

The best thing about sausage egg biscuits is the way McDonalds folds the cheese....I don't understand how a crunchy flavored pretzel could even attempt to recreate the McBiscuit experience.

Janssen said...

This was just sheer brilliance.

If scientists can ever figure out a way to let you watch someone's brain process the world for 20 minutes or a day or week, I would totally choose yours. I mean that in a less creepy way than it sounds, I swear.

Drew said...

We have actually had "Doritos X-13D" before. I don't recall what those letters and numbers meant. But, boy do I want to try "Doritos The Quest".