Consumed: 7 Tales of Snack Obsession
Much of the time, the staff at Thrillist is powered by a dangerous mix of Pringles, pectin, and Cocaine, the energy drink we wrote about that one time. (Just kidding, that stuff'll rot your insides.) In other words, we're a snack-loving bunch that finds joy in diving way too deep down the snack rabbit hole and then returning to tell you all about it. With Consumed, we're bringing you more tales of snack-centric obsession, in the form of seven essays by some of our favorite writers.
Illustrator: Franziska Barczyk
Writers: Hanif Abdurraqib, Claire Carusillo, Jason Diamond, Soleil Ho, Elaheh Nozari, Josh Scherer, and Himanshu Suri
You cannot call a food addictive until you’ve knowingly put your future in jeopardy because of it.
Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos are addictive.
Any idiot can probably eat 24-servings of chips from the comfort of their very sad couch; but I managed to consume 2,000 nutritionless calories of Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos 15 minutes before one of the biggest athletic competitions of my life, during my senior year of high school at the biggest home track meet of the year. More than 100 schools came to compete, and they gave out monogrammed backpacks (!) to all the winners. College coaches came to scout fast or pudgy teens who could throw stuff far. I was one of the latter.
I had been in scholarship talks with a few schools, and one of my maybe future coaches was going to be there to watch me maybe throw a 12-pound metal ball a long distance. Fast forward a few hours; I did not throw that ball far. I did not win the competition. The coach was not impressed. My legs fought unsuccessfully against the crushing weight of a food coma. My hands were so greasy from the Doritos that I had to cover myself in lifting chalk just to get a grip on the shot put. Still, I regret nothing.
I want to think that there’s a philosophical, abstract reason that Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos are so objectively delicious. Something about how there’s no real-food analogue, and that when you eat Nacho Cheese Doritos, you’re always going to compare them to actual nacho cheese, and the very fact that you’ve established a baseline of expectation is going to lead to disappointment. But I’m pretty sure you can credit their addictiveness to... science.
Since humans used to hunt prehistoric squirrels and scrounge for berries and whatnot, your stupid lizard-brain is still wired to crave massive quantities of salt, sugar, and fat to store up calories and minerals for the harsh winter. Your body also instinctively craves monosodium glutamate (MSG) because it’s most often found in protein-rich foods, and also because your body knows that MSG is the best and you should eat it all the time.
Let me just list four of the five most prevalent ingredients in Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos (clears throat): oil, salt, sugar, and MSG. There is no other chip that throws shame and corporate responsibility in the garbage right where they belong quite like Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos. Screw your whole-wheat Sun Chips, screw your unsalted popcorn, screw your questionably foam-like snap pea crisp snack -- Frito Lay is going to force feed you your own learned evolutionary behavior and you are going to love every second of it.
If you really think about it, I was the victim here. I was powerless. I popped open the party-sized bag, ate a single chip, got drop-kicked in the tonsils by science flavor, then proceeded to astral project out of my body and watch my dumb caveman hand move from mouth to corn triangle over and over and over until the bottom of the bag came rushing up. To this day, I will not buy Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos unless I am prepared to eat the whole bag, because I know I couldn’t stop myself if I tried.
(I ended up getting that scholarship, by the way, so it all worked out.)
I am far too young to be thinking about death this often.
And yet, I find myself often in the aisles of grocery stores where walls of frozen pints are behind doors frosted by a gentle gloss of ice. I hover around the sorbet section now, because I had a doctor’s appointment not long ago where a doctor used the words “a man of your age” for the first time and so I am now a man of my age, and not a man of an age where eating a half gallon of ice cream in one sitting could not only be survived, but celebrated. So I have rationalized a shift from ice cream to sorbet, as if sorbet is a beacon of health, or as if that switch is what will push my back against the door of aging in a manner that a doctor might advise against. Still, I imagine it as a question of the illusions we force on ourselves in the name of our vices. The only deceptions left worth chasing.
Strawberry season in Maine is both wonderful and unpredictable. People come from all over to pick strawberries in the early parts of summer, but unpredictable root problems and growing problems make it so that the haul of strawberries is, at times, uneven.
This is something that ordinarily wouldn’t impact my life, but for Gelato Fiasco’s rare strawberry balsamic sorbet. I found the flavor in a New Haven, Connecticut market, where it was the only sorbet flavor left in the freezer on a weekend after Yale came back into session and all of the undergrads had stormed the marketplace, leaving us old people to pick through their ruins. I would imagine that the promise of a balsamic flavor perhaps turned them off, as it might have for me in my younger days.
I am thankful every day for those foolish students who left behind a literal mountain of the best sorbet flavor ever made. The strawberry and balsamic exists in a perfect harmony -- like when you go to hold someone’s hand and your fingers interlock in perfect time, but also there’s none of the weird sweaty in-between fingers thing happening on either end. When a friend tried it, she told me, “This tastes more like strawberries than strawberries do,” which is true. It is possible that we must imagine strawberries being frauds this entire time.
But back to Maine. Because of the instability of their strawberry season, the flavor is a hard find. Gelato Fiasco will pump out pints for a while, and then abruptly stop for months. Sometimes even in the middle of strawberry season. Shortly after pints began to vanish from the New Haven market, I moved back home to Columbus, Ohio, where Gelato Fiasco’s sorbet isn’t often found. I went to their website every week, hoping that I could order the strawberry balsamic sorbet to be shipped to me across several states, but found no luck. Finally, fed up with strawberries and a landscape that wouldn’t allow them to thrive long enough to serve my needs, I tweeted at Gelato Fiasco.
“How can I get the strawberry balsamic sorbet,” I asked. “Money is no object.” (Money was definitely an object but I had to show how passionate I was.) They replied, almost a week later, in a tweet and then a DM: “We were waiting to make sure we could get our strawberries in. We’re making a special batch.” They then sent me a link to order the pints, which could only be ordered in a pack of six, sent in a box of dry ice, which I burned my hand on in excitement upon opening the package when it arrived at my apartment one week after ordering.
I think I’m saying that the things I love are likely going to be the death of me regardless of what they are. This is more of a function of the way I love as opposed to the things I love. I spent nearly $100 to have six pints of sorbet shipped to me because I didn’t know the next time I could get it. There is still a pint, unopened, in my freezer – months after I got the shipment. I am afraid that my opening of it signals the end of something that I know I’ll see again, but I’m not sure when. Maybe I’ll keep it, unopened, for a whole two seasons and hope for a bounty of strawberries in the spring and summer. There’s something thrilling about setting a distance between yourself and the unknown promise of a dream that was fulfilled once and will be fulfilled again at some point that is not this point. Anything that keeps you wanting to stay alive a little bit longer will do. Anything that briefly stops you from beckoning the end of the world, tempting as it may be.
When I think about Chinese sausage, or lạp xưởng in Vietnamese, my thoughts wander to my ideal way of waking up in the morning: the greasy-sweet smell of rendering pork fat filling up the kitchen, then the living room, then creeping under bedroom doors like a savory plume of smoke. I imagine the sausage being spooned onto a paper-lined plate, and beaten eggs being added to the pan to cook in the traces of leftover fat. Then sliced scallions and the crisped sausage are added, baguettes are toasted and buttered, and my constant saucy companions, Maggi and Sriracha, are placed on the table. D’Angelo croons on the radio, fingers snapping. Chinese sausage makes me feel romantic like that.
The flavor of Chinese sausage is intense, the soy sauce flavors crystallized by the air-drying process. It’s fatty, salty, and not just a little sweet -- the sugar content has actually caused me to burn quite a few batches, though that never stopped me from suffering through the char anyway. Accordingly, the sausage is always in a supporting role, backing up ingredients that occupy the blander, bitterer, and creamier spokes of the flavor wheel.
That quality speaks to the necessity of thrift in Vietnamese food, which often makes use of meat as a seasoning or garnish rather than a main course in order to stretch precious resources to their limit. Though Chinese sausage isn’t native to Vietnam, it’s integrated itself fully into the local cuisine, often thrown into the steamer with sticky rice and dried shrimp or chopped up and fried with jasmine rice.
While I attended college in small-town Iowa, I tended to nestle a few packs into my carry-on luggage when returning from breaks (along with some fancy cheeses that melted into a gross mass). My floormates were not filling the halls with pork smoke as I was, unfortunately, so I took to cooking fried rice late at night with a box fan shooting the smell out into the quad. My reputation took a small hit, but it was totally worth it. The idea of living without Chinese sausage was more ridiculous to me than having to cook surreptitiously to avoid annoying my classmates.
Luckily, I can find my favorite brand at most Asian grocery stores -- even at the one in the Mexican town where I currently live. Kam Yen Jan’s sausage is what I, and a lot of Vietnamese Americans, grew up eating. It’s made in the US, at a factory in Washington state and sold in shrink-wrapped packages. They also manufacture sausages flavored with more piquant spices, rose wine, pork liver, and chicken, though I’ve never really ventured beyond the gold standard.
That’s why, even though I’ve moved around a lot, I’ve always managed to keep a pack of sausage in my refrigerators. It’s the first thing on my shopping list every time I settle in. I like to think that the smell of sliced sausage frying is what truly breaks in a kitchen, like a fresh coat of paint. It makes me feel like I’m home, wherever I am.
If I was forced to pick two things I hate the most in New York City, I’d probably go with summer and standing in a line.
While I do love warm weather, hanging out in the park, and those rare, beautiful swans that are friends with backyards who grill, day-to-day life in any city where you have to do a lot of walking and standing next to strangers on trains during the hot months is tough. As for lines, I’ve just never quite understood waiting more than 10 minutes in the same spot for anything. I mean, in theory I get it, but I’m honestly befuddled by any person that would willingly combine the two things, even if it’s for something like a stellar cone of ice cream.
I think about that often as I walk past the line that usually stretches out the door of the Ample Hills Creamery, a popular ice cream shop located a few blocks from my Brooklyn apartment. If you’re just picking up the pre-scooped pints they keep in the cooler, then you usually can skip ahead. But I usually stop in for something else entirely: root beer. Once a week, usually during the busiest time of the night, I walk past dozens of people just so I can get a bottle of soda.
But this isn't just any soda. Ample Hills is one of the few places I know around me that carries Sprecher’s root beer – my favorite root beer in the world. It's a root beer that I love so much, I’ve been known to smuggle it across several state lines.
I can’t tell you exactly the first time I tried Sprecher’s root beer; maybe it was when I went to Wisconsin Dells with one friend’s family when I was 8, or maybe it was when we docked another friend’s dad’s boat somewhere near the Badger State’s border with Illinois on the Fox River when I was 10. Whenever it was, it was love at first sip. After that first time, on the rare occasions I could find that brown bottle with the crow on it, I grabbed it. Today, it still tastes like Midwestern summertime, and those memories are always just warm enough. They’re memories of youth, innocence, and fun. They’re comforting. I like that a bottle of root beer can do that.
I know that sounds like a pitch Don Draper would give to win an account, but it’s true. Soda, for the most part, tastes like garbage to me. My carbonated drink of choice is almost always seltzer and for the most part, I go out of my way to not drink anything carbonated out of a plastic bottle. Except for root beer.
Sprecher’s take on the classic soda goes off the beaten root beer path, much to the chagrin of some connoisseurs. I know we’re living in a time when high fructose corn syrup is finally getting its comeuppance for being a questionable product that has caused many American bodies to break in various ways. But in moderation and in the way Sprecher’s applies it to mix, I don’t think it’s that bad. And, I'm sure it would taste quite the same without it.
But that is not the only reason Sprecher's is controversial among root beer snobs (yes, there are root beer snobs). The soda also contains honey, a rarity in the root beer world. Add in the pure vanilla and various aromatics, you’ve got a soda that has a subtle scent and floral aftertaste. It’s that wonderful surprise where you let something mellow in your mouth for a second, and you realize that there’s nuance, there’s real flavor. And, of course, there are all those warm feelings that come rushing through me when I take my first sip. That’s the kind of thing I would maybe even stand in line on a hot day for.
When I get home from work, school, Sephora, breakfast, lunch, dinner, the zoo, or wherever it is I’ve been spending away from my refrigerator, I am shaky-legged. If I don’t have protein every 35 minutes or so, my personality changes from “agreeable, modest young visionary” to “terror freak.”
There’s always a lot of ingredients in the fridge due to my apartment’s proximity to Manhattan’s most elegant Whole Foods location, but none of it actually works together. If I’m hungry I just end up combining foods and praying for the best.
Quinoa and deli turkey roll-ups?
Wheat Thins dipped in balsamic?
¼ of an avocado blended with butter and cocoa powder?
Triple Sec and water cocktail?
I would google them after eating to figure out if they were in fact real dishes or not. Online, you can search for anything and someone will already have thought of it. This is true of porn, podcasts, and recipes. Turns out that people had already tried those combinations -- often with successful results. But for me, they never quite worked out. So I've started turning to Siggi's Icelandic Style Skyr 0% Milkfat yogurt in "plain," the only thing I really need in my fridge.
Talking about calories is stupid, but honestly, have you ever encountered another yogurt, Icelandic or otherwise, that’s only 100 calories but packs 17 grams of protein? Don’t lie to me.
Plain Siggi’s is so utilitarian that it’s a neutral. It’s thick and sour, but it pairs with things easily enough that it works with something sweet or savory, as well as perfectly blank on its own. You can sprinkle some Maldon sea salt on it and use Plain Siggi’s as a sour cream on any starch product, because it’s fiscally irresponsible to keep sour cream in the house when you use it maybe once a month. You can pour some lemon, garlic, and Worcestershire sauce in there and make it into a Caesar dressing. You can blend it in a smoothie and the taste disappears. You can eat it with granola and fruit. You can even slather it all over your body to treat a sunburn. (Just make sure to do this in the shower or else your bed will smell like curdled milk until you change your sheets two months from now.)
Recently, Siggi’s starting retailing Gogurt-style tubes of its flavored yogurts. Ostensibly, these are marketed towards children, as there is a manga-style (presumably Icelandic) cartoon figure on the front, holding a tube of yogurt under his arm like a skateboard. But I am an adult with 1/2 of a creative writing degree, and so I’ve written to the Siggi’s corporation, lobbying to get these tubes in “plain” for grown women. I’d love to keep a plain yogurt tube in my backpack to prevent my shaky legs in the first place. As of today, still no response. Even so, I still shovel Siggi’s into my mouth, proud to be fed by versatile Icelandic ingenuity.
Let me tell you: it's no fun being an anxious six-year-old in suburbia.
The first five years of my life were a blissful period defined by watered-down apple juice, back-to-back episodes of Arthur, and skipping kindergarten to play with American Girl dolls. I became the anxiety-ridden person I am today on the first day of first grade, when I was introduced to the the horrifying consequences of leaving my mother all day.
School made no sense to me -- Why would I want to play tag with kids my own age when I could go to antique stores with my mom? -- but worse than that, it was a place where every activity was prone to end in calamity. What if I got stuck under the parachute in gym class and suffocated to death? What If I fell off the risers in chorus and got a concussion? What if I got stuck in the bathroom stall during a fire drill and no one thought to save me? What if I never learned cursive?
My mom tried a variety of tactics to acclimate me to the idea of school, or at least of being a functioning kid without her by my literal side. Sometimes I’d hold onto something from her purse until she came to pick me up at the end of the day. I remember once gripping a purple pen she dug up from her bag. Other times, we’d stop at our neighborhood market in the morning and I’d pick out a box of Barnum’s Animal Crackers. I’d carry it around all day as if it were a purse that held something far more valuable than circus animal-shaped cookies.
There was something so secure about the small, rectangular box with its cotton string and the crinkly wax paper bag. I used to equate my mom dropping me off at school with her abandoning me forever, and those cookies occupied me enough to take my mind off a scenario so illogical. Though I was scared of losing people and things (and still am), this box kept things safe and close. The cookies lasted a long time, too -- I could bite into one every hour and still have some left by the end of the day.
My Barnum’s crutch came up again some months ago, when my anxiety and its old friend depression took a turn for the worse. These feelings of dread weren’t new to me -- I had been experiencing them in varying degrees since elementary school. I went to buy the animal crackers, but now they came in plastic snack bags, like any average chip. No red cardboard box, no thread for a handle. They were good because they’re processed sugar cookies, but they didn't lessen the extremity of my illness like they used to. Though they failed in replicating ataraxia, there was a familiar comfort in recalling the age that my mom would hand me a fresh box and suddenly my anxiety was elsewhere and I was filled with the courage to face the day. And I guess that’s the point of snacks; we eat them to distract us from our impending futures -- whether it’s our appetite and the promise of a large meal, or the relief of being picked up from first grade.
My first experiences behind a stove were making tea about five times a day for my parents as a child. While the tea was boiling, I would lay out Parle-G biscuits along the border of a small Corningware saucer. The cookies are said to be the most popular in India and is certainly one of the most recognizable brands there. They’re also extremely affordable: During a recent trip to one of my neighborhood’s many Indian grocery stores, I came across packs of Parle-G biscuits priced at eight packs for just a dollar.
The “Parle-G baby” -- or the small child pictured on the label -- has also become a type of cult figure in Indian branding. A comparable figure in American pop culture would be the Gerber Baby or the baby on the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind. People have long wondered who the child was and have guessed it is everyone from Humphrey Bogart to Jane Seymour. I was convinced for the longest time that it was my sister after seeing a childhood photo of her but the timing doesn’t add up. After message boards and publications began to claim the baby was this person or that person, a marketing representative from Parle-G cleared up the mystery by announcing the depiction is an illustration made by a creative at Everest Brand Solutions.
The kid on the label might have been made up, but the cookie's influence on my life is not. In 2011, while recording Das Racist’s debut album Relax, I was concurrently working on my first solo project, the Nehru Jackets mixtape. While proud of the work Das Racist was putting out, as someone with Indian roots, I was often frustrated with looking out at a crowd that consisted mostly of white people. I couldn’t understand why they were into this music, often made at their expense. But I was content with the idea of turning white guilt into green dollars for brown people.
At the same time, I wanted to make work that was accessible to my community. So I set out to record a record that incorporated the genres I grew up around: boom-bap rap, Bollywood, and dancehall reggae. I thought of the sounds at a red light in Queens, New York when the cars stopped and the songs escaped from their windows blending into a cacophony that didn’t make sense on the surface but somehow felt just right. I also thought of the mixtapes I grew up with, where Indian wedding DJs mashed-up Bollywood, bhangra, rap, R&B, dancehall reggae, dem bow, and more to distribute to small music shops in Flushing and Jackson Heights.
When it came time to create the art for my solo project I thought again about the small stores in Queens, and the visual signifiers of the community that shopped there. You’d be hard pressed to find an Indian grocer that didn’t sell Parle-G biscuits, or an Indian for whom the image on the label didn’t evoke nostalgia for memories set in the diaspora and travels back to India. While I might cringe when others reduce Indian culture to Bollywood, Hinduism, and cuisine, I’m guilty of the same as an American. But Parle-G felt like an inside joke. Using the image felt like nodding your head at a brown stranger in the form of an album cover.
In trying to navigate the experience of being a first generation Indian-American, there wasn’t a lot of overlap between Indian and American culture. The films we watched, and the food we consumed, and the way we prayed, and the way we danced, never felt American. But capitalism certainly did. Like the golden arches of McDonald's, to this young child, Parle-G felt more like a logo, a brand, a way of life that was familiar, not foreign.