And now we reveal the REAL reason why you learned the alphabet in seventh grade: the Ultimate A to Z of Food. We went through letter-by-letter and picked what we felt to be the foodstuffs that most nobly represented all 26, then laid out exactly why. From Gushers, to poutine, to sloppy joes, they're all here -- and if you don't agree with any of the choices, we absolutely want to hear about it in the comments. Even though we're totally right.
A is for Astronaut Ice Cream
The day I discovered astronaut ice cream at the Vanderbilt Planetarium was the day I knew I had a chance. I didn’t have their space suits, or their weightlessness, or their cool names like “Armstrong” or “Buzz” or “Something Russian”. But I had their ice cream. If I was going to be an astronaut, I’d better start eating like one as quickly -- and often -- as possible.
To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a full package of the stuff. Chocolate? Yes. Vanilla? Yes. Strawberry? Luckily, the freeze-dried brick snaps apart pretty easily, so I can give that section to some other kid/stranger in exchange for candy. I knew right from my first encounter that strawberry was only present as a test, to weed out the unambitious posers just looking for something to snack on -- there’s no way John Glenn was eating strawberry anything in that Mercury capsule. Men eat chocolate and vanilla. SPACEmen eat chocolate and vanilla.
I stopped wanting to be an astronaut the day I realized they were also forced to eat packets of liquified peas.
B is for Brisket
Sure, there're more glamorous beef cuts, but hey, I went to a state school where college football was paramount, and that meant tailgating while drinking perfectly rational amounts of beer and chasing it with brisket that's been smoked for 12, 15, even 20hrs. Just go ahead and tell me another food you'd wait that long for. It doesn't matter if you eat it on a po' boy, on a plate next to mashed potatoes, or stuffed inside street tacos -- brisket's the king of B. And you totally thought we were going to say bacon.
C is for Chicken & Waffles
To the dismay of Coney dog and chimichanga enthusiasts, the king of the letter C is the most glorious of all syrup-covered southern comforts, Chicken and Waffles*. No other dish combines sweet and savory in such a beautiful ballet, controversially unites crispy fried batter with its fluffy, ironed cousin in incestuous-but-still-holy matrimony, or dares to walk the tightrope between breakfast, lunch, and dinner with such grace and flavor. For these reasons and many more, be sure to keep your calendar clear and your plate sticky on October 5th, or as it's better known to the initiated, International Chicken and Waffle Day.
*Or Waffles and Chicken, depending on how you feel about causality dilemmas.
D is for Dunkaroos
Remember that time you traded your Dunkaroos for Shark Bites during lunch in 5th grade? Wait, you really do remember? Well then in that case, YOU ARE AN ABSOLUTE SUCKER, SUCKER. Shark Bites weren’t better. Neither were Teddy Grahams or Double Stuffs or Fruit by the Foot. Getting to liberally apply icing to delicious marsupial-shaped cookies at your own discretion? That’s freedom. That’s possibility. That’s a lunch. You were had, my friend. You were had.
E is for Eskimo Pie
The epic tale of the Eskimo Pie begins 5,000yrs ago, when a group of Alaskans mastered the creation of small stone knives for hunting seal and salmon. So that’s why anyone even knows about the Eskimos. A few years later, in 1920, a child at the candy shop of Danish entrepreneur Christian Kent Nelson was unable to decide between a chocolate bar or ice cream. Soon thereafter, Nelson applied for a patent on a chocolate-covered ice cream treat mounted on a wooden stick far too primitive to use to hunt for seal or salmon, but perfect as a handle for an otherwise melty dessert.
If the story of the Eskimo Pie stopped there, it'd be highly unlikely that a vintage branded cooler would fetch $3000 for a lucky Season 2 Storage Warrior. After a split with his chocolate hook-up (Russell Stover!), Nelson sold out to the United States Foil Company and became rich enough to afford all the seal and salmon he could possibly eat.
But the savory meats of the Arctic could not satiate Nelson's desire for ultimate frozen dessert perfection. He soon rejoined the company and served as head of Inuit-themed dessert development until his retirement in 1961. He died 30yrs later at the age of 99, but his chocolate-covered legacy still lives on. There’s no way you knew any of that.
F is for Franch Dressing from Breaking Bad
I recently took a four-day Breaking Bad-themed tour of Albuquerque, NM, where the show was once filmed. Sure, I did the requisite touristy stuff like
give in to Badger wanting to light up visit Walter White's house, but mostly I shoveled obscene amounts of Southwestern cuisine into my gullet like carne adovada, margaritas, and red chile ribs.
That food was delicious, but it was missing Franch. The mixture of French and Ranch dressing that was taste-tested in the show by the German company behind Los Pollos Hermanos may be a made-up fast food condiment, but someone needs to do something about that. PAUL NEWMAN WHERE YOU AT?!? It'd be an edible nod to the show that put the town on the map. "I'll take a taco salad with Franch and also some Franch on the side, please." That sounds about right.
G is for Gushers
I mean, these candies are good, it's just that they're basically gummy candies that... OH MY GOD THEY'RE FILLED WITH SOMETHING?!? WHAT IS IT? IT'S GUSHING EVERYWHERE!!!!!!!!!!
H is for Hashbrowns
The thing about hash browns is that they're delicious in every one of their variations. Those little oblong puck-shaped numbers you get with a fast food breakfast sandwich value meal because you're physically incapable of not getting a value meal? DELICIOUS! Scraped off the griddle into a pile next to an oversized omelette at a diner? DAMN TASTY! Kind of undercooked and pale? TERRIBLE NO NO NO KILL IT WITH FIRE! So here's the other thing: if they aren't brown and crispy, what you have on your hands is something else. Hash whites. Sadness potatoes. Not hash browns. So, the initial thesis stands: all hash browns are delicious.
I is for In-N-Out Burger
Like your girlfriend's deodorant that you've definitely never used because you just coincidentally smell like that naturally, In-N-Out is all about the secret. Secret menus. Secret Bible verses. And most importantly, secret sauce. All of these are reasons for the cultish following behind the mostly West Coast-only fast food burger joint -- especially the animal-style-ness -- and part of the reason their burger is the best thing to ever happen to the letter 'I'.
J is for Jerky
Meat isn't supposed to taste good dry -- dryness renders it chewy and disgusting. But when meat is dried, seasoned, and cut into strip form? Deliciously magical, or whatever that saying is. Whether it's Slim Jims ripped from a Wawa display or grass-fed, organic bison strips, it's still jerky. Reliable and spoil-proof for at least a year or two. It's food that shouldn't be good at all. It defies logic. It’s beautiful. Don’t eat the silicate packet.
K is Krispy Kremes
The magnificence of the Krispy Kreme is unmatched, but few things are as scrumtrilescent as those fresh off the line. The trick, if you happen upon a roadside KK bakery, is to keep an eye on the sexy, raw beauties as they swim through a sea of oil. At some point, the machine will miss flipping one -- that's your guy. Watch it as it gets glazed, then immediately request it. It'll be half overcooked, half dough, all glazed. You will never want to eat another donut again… for about 3mins.
L is for Lobster Rolls
There is no other food that captures a time and a place as accurately or as deliciously as lobster rolls capture summer and the beach in the Northeast. Although people have their favorite style -- the mayo-tinged Maine, the buttery CT -- for me, that matters much less than the fact that it's stuffed with hefty chunks of claw and tail meat (if you're only getting knuckle, you're getting got) and served fresh.
Last summer, I was on Cape Cod. It was my first time out of the city and was meant to be my BIG SUMMER KICKOFF WEEKEND. Then it rained the whole time, we drank inside all day, and it was not my big summer kickoff weekend. On the way home we decided to take a detour to this lobster roll spot off the highway. We got seven massive rolls and skinny fries, and we sat there and ate them all with huge smiles on our faces. Summer had been kicked off.
M is for Mac and Cheese
Before scientific advancements like truffle oil, cast-iron pans, and more than one type of cheese, there was that gloriously gushy Velveeta atop a mountain of starchy shells.
Unlike most kids, I skipped the blue-box Kraft Macaroni & Cheese dinner phase of adolescence altogether because of a strange phobia of foodstuffs that were the same color as the sun. But, once I hit middle school, my mother introduced me to perhaps the boldest flavor I'd ever experienced: a symphony of sauce made from whey, pasteurized part-skim milk, milk protein concentrate, whey protein concentrate, maltodextrin, sodium phosphate, milk, salt, less than 2% canola oil, lactic acid, sodium alginate, sorbic acid as a preservative, artificial color, milkfat, cheese culture, oleoresin paprika, natural flavor, annatto, vitamin A palmitate, and enzymes. Velveeta, just like God intended it.
This silver bullet of scientifically designed savory endured as a staple of my diet until early college, when I stuffed a loaf of French bread full of my beloved Velveeta and ate the whole thing. My stomach quickly rebelled against the experiment and thus forever tainted the love for my hero in a half-shell.
N is for Nachos
When I say nachos are a class of food unto themselves, I mean they're literally a class: there's so much you can learn about flavor profiling just by piling different amounts and styles of meat, cheese, and veggies onto tortilla chips. Chicken, corn, black olives, and Monterrey Jack? Great. Cheddar, steak, jalapenos & beans? Of course. Hell, even vegetarian nachos are good. They're a supposed appetizer that can be a meal unto themselves, something that can’t be said for mozzarella sticks, unless you REALLY like mozzarella sticks.
O is for Oh's
If you can find a box of Honey Graham Oh's cereal in your local supermarket, first off -- congratulations. It's not easy. Secondly, you'll notice two things: 1) the box's style, color (yellow with big red "Oh" letters), and recipes (Snack Time Mix AND Plenty O' Peanuts Snack Bars preferably made in a "jelly roll pan") have never really changed since I was young, and I'm 224 dog years old now, and 2) Oh's cut up your gums like they're made using gigantic Cheerios covered in ground-up shreds of glass, no matter how long you let those things soak up milk.
But somehow, someway, this still makes Oh's the greatest one-off cereal in the history of cereals, with a graham-esque Cap'n Crunch-y taste you can only get from ingredients like "palm kernel oil with TBHQ". And for that reason, Quaker has inexplicably kept producing it long after it gave up on things like Muffets (tagline: "the round shredded wheat") and Cap'n Crunch's Deep Sea Crunch. In fact, I just opened up a box as I'm typing this. Now excuse me while I find my jelly roll pan.
P is for Poutine
America, Jr. has given us many great things, among them Bob & Doug McKenzie, Rush, Pamela Anderson's boobs, and free healthcare that time you broke your leg Montreal. But when some wily Quebecois decided that fries, gravy, and squeaky cheese needed to be together, dammit, he managed to bump Bryan Adams right out of the mix and create the greatest effing thing to come out of the Great White North ever… with respect to Rush. I mean Pam.
Q is for Quesadillas
"It's not even authentic Mexican food!" people will exclaim, many of whom spent the majority of their time in Mexico wading through foam in a Señor Frog's. Who cares? It's a tortilla with a whole mess of cheese inside, all heated up and cut into slices. It's good now at 3a in a crappy Greek diner after a long night, and it was good when Mom made it as an after-school snack, before making you go to sleep at 5:30. Universal versatility is delicious.
R is for Reese's Pieces
Purists might argue that the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup is the ideal delivery device for the combination of the uniquely amazing take on the rich, unctuous sandwich spread, and sweet, creamy chocolate (they were invented by a dairy farmer 50yrs earlier, there's no candy shell to get in the way, etc.), but screw that. Reese's Pieces rule R because they have all the flavor of cups, a colorful coating that keeps 'em from melting all over your hands, and a proven track record of encouraging first contact with extraterrestrial species. Plus you can literally eat like a million of them.
S is for Sloppy Joes
Like anyone who was in middle school when Adam Sandler's comedy album "They're All Gonna Laugh at You!" came out, and listened to "Lunch Lady Land" in my friend Drew's basement on headphones so that his parents didn't hear, Sloppy Joes have a special place amongst the ground beef-clogged arteries of my heart. The history of the sandwich is sweet as well: Sloppy Joe's was a bar in Havana, Cuba, and a favorite of Hemingway, and they used to serve "Ropa Viejas", or braised and shredded flank steak on tortillas, and Hemingway loved them. Or at least ate them, and then tried to fight everyone who looked like Francisco Franco while he was drinking his 70th daiquiri.
Of course, awesome Americans being awesome Americans, when they brought this back to the states, they translated the Viejas as "ground beef and tomato sauce on a hamburger bun", thus inviting the seminal dish of the lunch lady, after hoagies and grinders, navy beans, and that occasional meatloaf sandwich.
T is for Tacos
Whether they're served in a shell somehow constructed out of Cool Ranch Doritos by some giant corporation, street-style with al pastor-style pork on a warm tortilla, or filled with grilled fish like we do it on the West Coast, tacos, like our parents said about us growing up, can literally be anything. Which means that aside from the pesky fact that they're from Mexico, they are the most American of foods. And they’re the clear winner for the letter T, because about a billion other T-foods you can name (tomato, tuna, tri-tip steak, etc.) are in someone's taco, somewhere, right this very second.
U is for Utz
As its distribution is mainly limited to the Northeast, it’s possible you only know of Utz snack products from the Mad Men episode in which Jimmy Barrett likened the wife of the company’s CEO to the Hindenburg. But oh, the humanity... that has enjoyed the Hanover, PA company’s delicious chips for the past 92yrs!
Utz remains forever trapped in that perfect time when chips were delicious, cheap, and didn't even need an alliterative name to sell. The full company d/b/a is “Utz Quality Foods”. The packaging doesn’t look like it’s changed since 1947. You can barely buy a soda in New York anymore, but you can freely purchase two full pounds of Utz cheese balls in a plastic barrel. Their Maryland Crab Chips are covered in “Chesapeake Bay seasoning”, whose lack of the word “Old” may indeed be part of a grander plan to keep costs down by saving on licensing -- bags of Utz are often half the price of those produced by their Big Chip rivals, and arguably better in every flavor category.
And then there’s the Party Mix: a visionary amalgam of knock-off Doritos, Cheetos, and Fritos, plus mini pretzels that inevitably find themselves quite lonely at the bottom of an otherwise finished bag. Under the pretense of actually letting other people share with me, every time I attend a festive gathering, I arrive with a bag of Utz Party Mix, and say, “Hey, it’s not a party without Party Mix, right?!?”
Is that incredibly cheesy? Yes. Luckily, so are the fake Cheetos.
V is for Velveeta Cheese Dip
Nobody really knows what Velveeta is, except Dan Gentile, who wrote the entry for Mac & Cheese above. But either way, that unnaturally orange log of awesome is the tofu of manufactured cheeses -- the stuff absorbs flavor like a gelatinous sponge that makes everything taste better, despite the fact that you're eating a gelatinous sponge. Mix it with pretty much anything -- bacon, veggies, salsa, brisket, cotton candy, MicroMachines -- toss it in the microwave, and you've got the greatest dip ever. 500,000,000 Tex-Mex restaurants can't be wrong. The saying "Don't mess with Tex-Mexmas" exists for a reason.
W is for Wings
The meat so great Paul McCartney named his post-Beatles band after it, and Buffalo was able to become famous for something other than losing a million Super Bowls in a row because of it. In no small part thanks to West New York’s Anchor Bar, the wing went from being a castaway chunk of chicken to perhaps the most loved and versatile bird appendage out there. Fry it, bread it, cover it in hot sauce, pair it with PG-13 nudity, de-bone it, freeze it… who the hell cares? You're eating 30 in one sitting no matter what.
X is for Xanthan Gum
Ice cream! Pies! Pudding! Puddin’, spelled colloquially, like that! Yoo-hoo! French dressing! Ranch dressing! Honey mustard dressing! Ok, basically all dressings! They all contain the thickening agent Xanthan gum. It was dubbed “one of the best discoveries in food science since yeast”, by some blog! It’s a polysaccharide, and you love those!!
Plus, nothing else starts with X.
Y is for Yorkshire Pudding
You know who makes gross food? British people and WASPs. You know the only good food in the British person/WASP wheelhouse? Batter dropped into the meat's dripping pan and baked up until puffy and crispy, and then slathered with butter, and eaten next to said meat. It's been called Yorkshire Pudding since 1747. Before that it was called "Dripping Pudding". That is also gross.
Z is for Zingers
What did you think we were going with, zucchini? Maybe if it was deep fried, and dipped in Zingers. Zebra Gum? That’s actually called Fruit Stripe. No, we're going old school, with the always-under-appreciated Zingers. They're like the Philip Seymour Hoffman of treats, often overshadowed by the flashier Twinkie (um... Tom Cruise?), but almost always better, and somehow in less constant danger of being discontinued forever. This is why gas stations were invented.