Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Round-Up of the Seasonal Foodstuffs of Summer 2016!

A celebration of the limited time only junk foods that made the past three months the most awesome ever for poor diet enthusiasts all over America!

By: Jimbo X

For some people, summer means trips to the beach and sunshine and fireworks and ice cream trucks. But for me, the summer season means one thing, and one thing only: limited time only seasonal foodstuffs

Indeed, the sweltering May through August window represents a primo opportunity for junk food and fast food manufacturers to grace the masses (and their ever-expanding waistlines) with some high-caliber novelty foodstuffs. There is really no need for "subtlety" at this point in the year - it's way too hot for that shit, after all. With everybody sweating out buckets, retailers and mass manufacturers can pretty much push out whatever insane, unhealthy gunk and goop they want and get away with it. Indeed, it's the premier time of year to roll out any and all ideas the PR handlers and market researchers have drummed up, no matter how ludicrous and unlikely to generate a profit - it being the end of the fiscal year for many companies, they pretty much have free rein to dump as much half-baked crap out into the market as they desire, without really having to worry about the financial consequences.

And ... as you will no doubt soon see for yourself ... when it comes to utterly ridiculous special edition novelty foodstuffs, there probably hasn't been - and perhaps, never will be - a crop of gimmicky limited-time online junk food as remarkable as the stuff we nommed over the last three months. Tie on your bibs, raise your trusty sporks and shed a nostalgic tear, if you must ... the following is a heartfelt ode to the crazy, kooky and sometimes crappy LTO foods that made the summer of '16 the downright wackiest ever.    

Burger King's Whopper Dogs!

When Burger King's grilled hot dogs went national last winter, there wasn't a whole lot of fanfare. While some pretentious snobs absolutely savaged the products, I just sort of thought the menu addendums were "OK." Not good, but certainly not bad, either - just kinda' there

The Whopper Dogs - which came out in that weird inter-phase between spring and summer - take the core idea of the grilled hot dogs to their next logical phase. If the standard hot dogs are Charmanders, than the Whopper Dog - of course, dressed up in all the accouterments of the flagship BK product - is the chain's Charmeleon. As Pearl Jam once declared, "it's evolution, baby." 

The amazing thing about the Whopper Dog, to me at least, was just how much it tasted like a standard Whopper burger. Yeah, it was a hot dog, through and through, but the Whopper mouthfeel - it's saltiness, it's gustatory texture, it's general flavor - totally resonated through the product. For years, I thought the smoky beef patty was what made the Whopper the Whopper, but after downing this sumbitch, I've had to change my tune: it really is the toppings (the onions, the lettuce, the pickles) that give the Whopper it's true essence. And - as weird as it may sound - I still got that holistic Whopper feeling, even in wiener form. Considering how poorly received the hot dogs have been, however, it's pretty much a given that the items are on the fast track to being shelved, thus making them something of a Pokemon GO era equivalent of the Arch Deluxe. Trust me, 40 years from now, your grandkids are going to be asking you what that "shitty Whopper hot dog" tasted like the same way kids today keep pestering their elders to know what New Coke was like. And so that future generations will know the truth as she did doth shine - yeah, these things really did taste a lot like a Whopper, somehow.

Ben & Jerry's Empower Mint Ice Cream!

So earlier this year, when 60-year-old men who still have ponytails thought Bernie Sanders actually had a chance at becoming POTUS, Ben & Jerry's co-founder Ben Cohen sold a limited edition non-canonical flavor dedicated to Vermont socialist online, with sales going directly to the senator's destined-to-fail presidential campaign. This nationally retailed, limited time only ice cream is pretty much a re-do of that product, only sans the Sanders-branding. Because if there is one thing high-calorie dessert marketing definitely needs more of, it's fucking partisan politics. 

As you can see by the packaging material, however, the Empower Mint ice cream (get it?) doesn't officially endorse any one candidate. Instead, it's a product that promotes general participation in the representative democracy process, which by now, we all know is a crock of something that most definitely isn't sweetened, congealed milk in partially frozen form. 

Oh, and if the self-congratulatory, auto-fellatio about the morality of voting isn't grating enough, the package also takes a sly dig at the McCutcheon v. FEC Supreme Court ruling. Yeah, you tell everybody about the evils of money influencing politics, guy with a net worth of $150 million who actively campaigned for a presidential candidate who collected $228 million in donations

Oh, and for the product itself? Well, basically, it's just vanilla ice cream with thin mints in it. Except it's nearly twice as expensive as all the other thin mint flavored vanilla ice creams on the market, and you only get about half the serving size as you get from competing ice cream merchants, despite said products retailing for the exact same price. Yeah, it's a pretty forgettable food product, but as a mind-blind example of the worst of consumer capitalism, my goodness, does it ever do a fantastic job of demonstrating everything it piously rails against. 

Doritos Loaded Nacho Cheese ... uh, things!

Now here's a really weird one. It's not so much the idea that there are Doritos-flavored microwaveable cheese-wedge thingies on the market, as it is the marketers forgot to give the fucking things a real name. You can look all over the box, and nowhere does it give you any indication as to what a Doritos Loaded is, exactly. Not "cheese stick,' "not breaded snack," nothing. So I take it we are just supposed to called them Doritos Loadeds, in their plural form? Man, that's all kinds of awkward-sounding. 

Simply put, these babies are your paint-by-numbers frozen breastaurant entree offerings, ultimately no different than all the other dime a dozen jalapeno poppers and fried mushroom bits hanging out next to the Totino's pizzas in your preferred grocer's ice box. The variable, of course, is that they come coated in what appears (and tastes) like mulched up Doritos dust (which, judging by the runaway success of Taco Bell's DLTs, is a far, far more popular flavor than anyone would probably want to consider.) 

Admittedly, these things are pretty tasty. The Doritos taste is there, but the interior molten cheese is clearly the dominant flavor, as it should be the case with any frozen cheese stick permutation worth its salt. They are big, bulky and about a half dozen of them should fill you up unless you really are a gargantuan fatass, so I guess they are a pretty good monetary deal, too. There's also another, non-nacho cheese flavor on store shelves - I think it's pepper jack, but I could be misled - so if you want to get your, uh, Doritos Loaded on, at least you got options. 

Red, White & Blue! Twinkies!

Simply put, Twinkies are about as American as lying on your taxes and hating the ever loving dog shit out of the metric system. So naturally, the only way to make Twinkies even more American, of course, is to trot out some special edition Fourth of July-flavored snack cakes speckled with a whole hell of a lot of red, white, and blue. 

Yeah, it sounds like a winning prospect, but I have to say I am quite disappointed by Hostess' lack of effort on this one. Basically, the product is a standard Twinkie, only with a couple of drops of food coloring on the spongy exterior here and there. And the sad thing is, the blue shows up more green than anything else, effectively making the whole damn thing look like some kind of Christmas fruit cake.

Next to those Hershey bars with chicken pox sores on them, I don't think I have ever encountered a limited time only dessert product that looked this ugly. I mean, basically, the thing looks like a moldy-ass Twinkie - if somebody offered you this at work, there's no way in hell you'd put it in your mouth. Shit, without seeing the carton with your own two eyes, there's no way you would put this in your mouth ANYWHERE, for that matter. 

And for those of you wondering if there is any sort of special "kick" to the LTO, uber-patriotic Twinkie variation, you don't have much to work with. I assure you, despite the green and blue pockmarks all over it, the item tastes just like your standard, gooey, sugary, mushy Twinkie. Which, I suppose isn't necessarily a bad thing - I mean, I guess I'd rather have something that looks like crap but tastes pretty decent than something that looks pretty decent but tastes like crap, wouldn't you? 

Maple Bacon and Watermelon-Flavored Pop-Tarts!

OK, so technically, these are holdovers from Spring 2016, but there ain't no way in hell I'm eating root beer or orange cola flavored Pop-Tarts. Sorry, folks, but there are some co-branded products that are just too out there, even for me. 

Before we even get into the toaster pastries themselves, we've first got to talk about Kellogg's really, really misguided attempt to seem "with it." The back packaging cartoons are just about the cringeist shit you'll see in the breakfast cereal aisle, as they all hinge upon this really crappy, corporate-flavored attempt to nail the absurdist-hipster humor of overrated tripe like Tim and Eric and Bob's Burgers. Sorry guys, but turning Bob Marley into a fucking watermelon-flavored pastry doesn't exactly have me guffawing and going "man, those guys at Kellogg's REALLY get me and my culture." 

As for the toaster pastries themselves. I will give them credit for their aesthetics. The Maple Bacon one - which I am pretty sure has Bacon Bits glued onto it - has a very Duchamp minimalist vibe to it, and the hot pink and neon green watermelon paint job reminds me of the toenail polish worn by really trashy girls with '80s names like Heather and Tiffany. I will never, ever complain about either of those two things. 

And you know what? Taste-wise, these things are pretty good. The Maple Bacon Tart indeed has a nice syrupy interior flavor, which is augmented nicely by the crunchy, crispy faux-pork frosting on the outside shell. Furthermore the Watermelon Tart does indeed taste like a watermelon ... well, watermelon-flavored gum, anyway, which interestingly, makes for a far better toaster pastry taste than any of us probably ever imagined.  

Over the years, I've had some good Tarts and I've had some bad Tarts. Surprisingly, I'd consider both of these LTO offerings to be in the top 20 percentile of all toaster pastries; each had a distinct, atypical and pleasing taste and texture, and perhaps best of all, neither had that all-too-common overly sugary artificial fruit aftertaste that a lot of these toaster pastries tend to have. So yeah, all in all, I'd have to say I am pleased as punch (or, punch flavored Oreos, at the very least) at the unexpectedly high quality of these gimmicky cereal alternatives. And now? To hurry the hell on up and make Dr. Pepper Pop-Tarts a thing, so I can go ahead and check it off my bucket list. 

Burger King's Mac N' Cheetos!

Even if you don't like their menu offerings, you have to give BK some props for at least thinking outside the box. I mean, this is a company who, over the last year, has given us Dr. Pepper milkshakes, a hamburger the same color as Super Mario mushroom and a spooky version of the Whopper that turned your turds turquoise. Hey, if you're going to be a distant second, you might as well be a distant second that does some really, really crazy shit with your product lineup. 

Which is precisely why, as stupid and disgusting as it is, you can't help but smile at the fact that the Mac N' Cheetos exists. You can waltz on in to any Burger King in the continental U.S. and ask for a cardboard box filled with batter-fried macaroni and cheese - I mean, that alone is reason enough to justify American exceptionalism as a legitimate concept. But to top off said batter-fried macaroni and cheese with goddamn junk food seasonings? That, my friends, is why everybody in the world would give their left testicle and/or ovary to migrate to the U.S. of A.

As for the product's taste, texture and tincture? Well, in order, it's a.) very greasy and crispy on the outside, b.) really mushy and creamy on the inside and c.) about the same color as an overcooked cheese stick. Despite the namesake, I didn't really get that much of a cheesy taste from my order, and even weirder, I didn't really get a palpable Cheetos mouthfeel until I had already ground the appetizers into a mulchy, bicuspid-crushed purée neigh close to being digested. I'm not entirely sure how I am supposed to feel about that - or if nature even designed human beings to be able to ponder such - but by golly, I am nonetheless glad I was around to experience it. Hey, it's not everyday that you can say you literally ate "pure postmodern madness" for dinner, after all.

Cold Stone's Shark Week Frenzy!

I've never really thought of "Shark Week" as having that large of a cultural impact (in fact, up until recently, I've routinely confused it with "Lobster Fest" and nobody's felt the need to correct me.) Apparently, the annual Discovery Channel (or is it Animal Planet?) event has made enough of an impression on general society to facilitate its own limited time only tie-in foods, including 7-11 branded doughnuts that bleed crimson frosting on you.  

While Cold Stone Creamery's LTO "Shark Week Frenzy" ice cream ain't quite as awesome as gory pastries, it's nonetheless a pretty cool little offering. Using a chunky, aqua-hued sweet cream as its base (get it, it's supposed to look like the ocean!), the item is topped off with a trifecta of gummy sharks, all of which are hues that I am pretty sure real world sharks typically aren't. Although if there are indeed translucent yellow hammerheads out there, please do feel free to send me some a ZooBook

While the aesthetics are neat, it doesn't take a food Einstein to figure out the product's mechanical engineering shortcoming. Hey, do you know what happens when you put gummy candies on top of extremely cold items, including but not limited to freshly scooped, refrigerated ice cream? That's right, through the magic of reverse convection or some shit, the gummies transform from being soft, pliable and squishy foodstuffs into being virtually inedible clumps of sugar harder to chew than a Pet Rock. But then again, attempting to digest a damn near rock-solid gummy shark with razor sharp fins is guaranteed to make your mouth bleed a little - which, considering the property said dessert is anchored around - has to to be considered at least partially appropriate. 

White Fudge Marshmallow Twinkies!

There is a lot of Ghostbusters-branded limited supply product variations out there, including a special key-lime slime (or is it simply "key slime?") pie iteration of Hostess' flagship product. As fate would have it, however, that's not the only Twinkies tweak on store shelves made in honor of the controversial 'Busters reboot: enter, the White Fudge Marshmallow Twinkies!

As you can no doubt see for yourself, the product takes full advantage of its canonical connection to the original 1984 film, with its box art emblazoned by the smiling visage of the iconic Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. That alone makes it a vast, VAST improvement over the crappy Fourth of July Twinkies we discussed earlier, but just you wait: there is a HUGE surprise in store for fans of old school junk foods lurking right around the corner. 

Yeah, the box may say "Twinkies," but take a look at that unwrapped motherfucker: even though the exterior frosting is vanilla-ish, this thing is unquestionably the unpublicized, unstated relaunch of the long, LONG discontinued Chocodile. A rose by any other name is just as sweet, and if you give me a "Chocodile," I'm going to embrace it, no matter what the hell you decide to call it (and yes, I am aware that Hostess has officially relaunched the official chocolate-version of the Chocodile, too, so don't even bother sending me any emails about it.) 

So, yeah, it is pretty much your standard Twinkie (again, absolutely nothing I have any qualms about), but augmented nicely by a thin marshmallows undercurrent and a yummy, sugary shellacking of vanilla frosting. Tis truly a pity these things ain't going to be around for long; indeed, now may be the time to start raiding your nearest grocer, amigos and amigas. 

El Monterey Egg, Potato, Cheese Sauce & Sausage Breakfast Wraps!

El Monterey's lineup of frozen burritos are such a staple of the American bachelor experience that they seem too commonplace to even talk about. I mean, these things are so ubiquitous that writing about them feels like doing deodorant reviews. I mean, it's just fucking regular Degree - I like it, but I really can't give you any glowing hagiography, either, you know? Alas, the long running microwaveable 'rito brand's expansion into the ever-growing  breakfast wrap market is probably worth a few words, I suppose. 

As you can see by the ingredients list, pretty much everything except bacon is included inside the product. You've got scrambled eggs, you've got potatoes, you've got sausage, and you've got something called "cheese sauce," which makes me naturally suspicious. I mean, just calling it "cheese" would have told consumers enough to make an informed purchase, but that "sauce" qualifier makes me start thinking you fellas might be trying to pull one over on me. Like, instead of it being cheese, it is actually an artificial cheese paste, hence, the nomenclature "cheese sauce" to technically work your way around a potential consumer fraud suit. But since it lists real cheddar cheese as an ingredient - well, fuck, maybe I'm just overly paranoid about most things, folks. 

It's a pretty good sized burrito - about the same size as all of the other El Monterey wrapped goods, it appears. These do seem more prone to the dreaded "iceberg surprise," though: you microwave this thing for a good four minutes, the outer shell is all warm and stuff but as soon as you bite into the tortilla, everything inside is frozen solid. And folks, let me tell you - icy scrambled egg ain't nothing you EVER want to feel inside your mouth. 

Once you get the whole kit and caboodle nuked, though, you will find yourself a decent, if not too rudimentary, little breakfast novelty. The sausage and eggs are OK, but the cheese sauce feels very watered down. And it seems like no matter how long you microwave these motherfuckers, the potatoes never, ever get 100 percent hot all the way around. Despite the inclusion of small green chile and tomato chunks, there isn't much spice to the product, and the tortillas tend to get much musher than the brand's dinner-and-supper-time directed burritos. Still, soggy or not, these things are quite serviceable - for less than four bucks, you easily get enough 'rito to last you two or three mornings. Well, unless you are really, really fat - then I'd say these things ought to hold you for at least one Netflix movie. 

Taco Bell's Triple Double Crunchwrap!

Forget the Doritos Loco Taco, the single greatest advent Taco Bell has trotted out over the last decade has to be its proprietary Crunchwrap. It's such a simple, yet brilliant, menu addendum: it's technically just a grilled burrito, except instead of everything being rolled up in a cylinder, the whole she-bang and is laid out relatively flat in the shape of an easily portable and digestible hexagon. It's a feat of edible engineering that works just as well for sausage, egg and chipotle sauce drenched breakfast 'ritos as it does grilled steak and wild rice packed XXL dinner-time offerings. Which, of course, made the existence of the triple double Crunchwrap downright inevitable. 

The best way to describe the Triple Double Crunchwrap is that it's basically a hard shell tostado with a tortilla wrapped around it. As the name would imply, that means that instead of one circular piece of corn shell, you get a full meat, cheese and sauce coated "sandwich" of sorts inside a huge-assed burrito (well, a burrito variation is probably a more fitting word to use.) So, yeah, it's kinda' like a turducken, only, you know, Mexican-ized.  

As far as the ingredients are concerned, you know what you are getting here. Iceberg lettuce, diced up tomatoes and a whole shit load of sour cream make up the mantle, while the core consists of the usual mound of greasy, seasoned beef that's probably safe for human consumption. Interestingly, Taco Bell gives you the option of ordering a "extra spicy" version of the newfangled product, but all that means is that they squirt some chipotle sauce on it and call it good. If you are looking to add a flavorful, fiery twist to the product, you are better off just slathering the TDCW in a couple of packets of Diablo Sauce - or better yet, burying this sumbitch alive in some real hot sauce provided by a third party. 

Needless to say, this is one of the bulkiest Taco Bell products to come along in quite some time. At about $3.49 an order (although you can get one, plus two extra tacos and drink for $5), it's not too expensive, and it will definitely fill you up unless you are a tremendous fatass with a superhuman calorie threshold (meaning, essentially, you are among the 68.8 percent of the total U.S. adult populace medically defined as "overweight.") Granted, it's not the most interesting product to come down the pipes from Ma (Taco) Bell, but it nonetheless a fairly a tasty offering. It's nothing you haven't already experienced before, but it's still going to leave you grinning in a carbohydrate-induced stupor - and really, what's to complain about there? 

Little Debbie's Emoji Brownies!

And we wrap up our whirlwind tour of limited-time-only, summer 2016 foodstuffs with what has to be the most idiosyncratically "summer 2016" thing that could possibly ever exist in edible form. Practically everything about this product - from the "back to school" chalkboard etching on the far-left hand side to the almost anachronistically quaint "available for a limited time only!" biplane banner next to brand mascot - just screams "ephemeral." The same way Crystal Pepsi pretty much summed up early '90s consumer culture in one haphazardly-marketed gimmick, I assure you people 20 years from now will reflect on these suckers as the mid 2010s-junk food zeitgeist. Scoff if you want, but I guaran-damn-tee you that, one day, these things are going to be in The Smithsonian, right beside a cobwebbed iPad Mini 4 and a faded "I'm with Her" bumper sticker. 

I suppose the brownies don't really need any explaining - after all, these hexagonal beauties are pretty much the same thing as those Jack O' Lantern-shaped treats Little Debbie trots out every Halloween. Of course, what makes the products so interesting isn't what they taste like, but what they represent in sugary, cavity-causing form. Talk about a post-post-post-modern product - mass manufactured baked treats modeled after electronic pictographs meant to stand-in for fully-formed, declarative statements about one's temperament via mobile communications. You just know this shit is going to confuse the fuck out of people studying early 21st century history some day. 

Seeing as how, at last count, there are at least 454 billion emojis available on a standard Apple mobile product, the range of emotive brownies is limited to just four expressive treats: your standard smiley face, a winking face (which, depending on whether or not the icing is smudged, can look either flirty or downright sinister), a love struck six-sided, neon-yellow visage with hearts for eyeballs and, of course, a smirking brownie rocking shades, almost as if to be stating "deal with it," before you promptly chew him up into a fine, mushy paste. The funny thing is that there appears to be far more emojis pictured on the packaging art (including a smooching emoji) that aren't represented in official brownie form. Or maybe some emoji brownies are really, really rare, like exotic Pokemon or something, and are only included in every five boxes. Which, even if that isn't true, I'm simply going to circulate if it was, because by golly, if anything can unify this fragmented sociopolitical quagmire called the United States, it's the unbreakable bonds of trying to find uncommon Little Debbie's snacks. 

And what better way to conclude our limited edition novelty-food-a-rama than under the smiling facade of a frosting-imbued spongy brownie? Ultimately, these schlocky, instantly-dated odes to the contemporary symbolize not only what was fantastic about the season's slate of special edition gimmicky foods, but really, the inherent (if not under-appreciated) value of junk food as cultural commodities altogether. Sure, all this presidential election and police brutality and Black Lives Matter and ISIS stuff is grabbing all the headlines now, but 20 years, do you think any of us will really give that much of a shit about any of those things? In 1993, everybody was abuzz about the Branch Davidians, Lorena Bobbitt, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the Yasser Arafat\Yitzhak Rabin peace accords, but NOBODY brings them up in casual discourse 23 years down the road. Meanwhile, people are still yammering on and on about the first Jurassic Park movie, Mortal Kombat II and Squeezit. The important, newsworthy stuff, as much as we hate to to admit it, has an extremely short shelf-life, but the seemingly irrelevant pop cultural and consumer cultural dressings of the day? Somehow, they manage to gain some sort of transcendent appeal, becoming these relics that are simultaneously of-the-times but also above and beyond their chronological trappings. While most global affairs - the wars and the riots and the political controversies and all that jazz - hardly ever directly impact us, pretty much all of us are going to share the communal bonds of eating and watching the same mass-manufactured and mass-marketed things. And when today's pre-schoolers are out of college, I can pretty much guarantee you that when they reminisce about the "good old days" of 2016, they won't be reflecting on Vladimir Putin or the mass shootings or the aborted Turkish coup or Zika - rather, they're going to rally around the only thing that truly welded them together as a unified culture: emoji brownies and deep fried macaroni and cheese from Burger King. 

Historians like Tacitus and Suetonious ain't got shit on me, folks. Do I have any regrets "squandering" so much time and energy on a round-up of low, low-culture consumer junk? Aye, regrets, I have none - indeed, I consider it an honor and a privilege to chronicle these most important issues, so generations both contemporary and not yet born can reflect on the otherwise forgotten beauty and the glory of what once was


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