Monday, October 31, 2016

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

Rip open 'em trick or treat bags, kiddos ... it's time for The Internet Is In America's annual retrospective on the wackiest, woolliest and weirdest limited-time-only comestibles of the Samhain season!

By: Jimbo X

Each year, we here at The Internet Is In America wrap up our two months (give or take) of Halloween-ish content with an overview of all of the limited-time-only, seasonally-appropriate foods, drinks and hybrid comestibles (think, your werewolf-themed chewing gum) that graced our supermarket and big box store shelves since late August. Beyond being the most fitting way to bid the autumnal season farewell, it's pretty much the only way I can imagine saying farewell to Halloween now. I mean, what truly embodies the spirit of the holiday more than weird-ass stuff you're meant to turn into bile that's only available for about ten weeks out of the year, anyway?

Philosophically, I've always considered Halloween to represent much more than a single holiday. Indeed, it covers an entire quarter of the year, beginning with the last vestiges of summer (usually, when your local Target takes down the patio furniture and puts in the value-priced notebook and mechanical pencil displays) all the way up to Black Friday. It's that wondrous time of year where, oh-so-gradually, the weather transitions from being skin-blistering hot to bone-chillingly frigid. The sun slowly begins setting earlier and earlier each evening, to the point where it's practically pitch-black around 6 p.m. And the local foliage goes from bright green and nuclear yellow to crunchy brown and red ... before completely disintegrating from the trees themselves, leaving behind grey, spindly branches that reach out into the sky like skeletal hands. It's the most aesthetically ethereal time of year, so I suppose it only makes sense that its corresponding, mass marketed foodstuffs would port about the same desperate temporality.

And aye, as the calendar no doubt reminds you, the official Samhain season is just a few hours from ending. Before we bid Halloween 2016 adieu for good, what better way to commemorate the All Hallows' tomfoolery from the last few months than with a lengthy look back at the L-T-O, seasonally-thematic food stuffs that filled our bellies - and hearts - with so many terrific (and sometimes terrifying) memories? Grab a spoon and put on your most wistful rosy shades, folks: it's time to get sentimental through saturated fats ...

Pillsbury's Pumpkin Pie Toaster Strudel Pastries!

Now here is a holdover from last year I totally forgot about. I mean that literally - I found the thing in my freezer in March, apparently forgetting to give it a try back in Halloween-time '15. However, since the product was re-released this year, I suppose it's fair game, pending Pillsbury didn't radically overhaul the formula or anything like that. 

To the layman, these things just come across as wannabe Pop-Tarts. That's actually a gross oversight, since the two products are quite different. Whereas the toaster pastries that sometimes come in Justice League-flavored form are more or less hardened, sugary shells with artificially-flavored gunk in the middle, these offerings from Pillsbury are more like real pastries. As in, the shells are actually soggy and fluffy, and the inner creme is legit creme and not just glorified jelly. So, yeah, it might not exactly be a leap in quality from El Monterrey to Taco Bell, but it's probably comparable to the jump up from Totinos to Freschetta pizza.

And of course, you really can't have a toaster pastry without a shit ton of gooey, goopy, sugary gunk to slur down, and you get two pretty big plastic pouches of saccharine frosting to splash all over your struddle. In case you are wondering, yes, it is vanilla flavored, and also yes, it does look like dual IV drips filled to the brim with sperm. 

As you can no doubt see for yourself, these things are much, much flakier than Kellogg's competing breakfast product. I have a hard time thinking of anything to compare the taste and texture of the exterior shell to, but rest assured it is definitely warm, chewy and a little bit greasy. The inside filling, of course, is piping hot, and it's quite a bit smoother and pulpier than your standard Pop-Tarts innards. Whereas with Pop-Tarts you are basically eating crystallized jam, with Toaster Struddles it's more like you're eating actual paste - it's a tad too runny to be considered legitimate frosting, but it's certainly worlds more advanced than whatever the fuck Kellogg's is screwing around with, that's for sure. 

And for the overall product? Yes, it is good, very good. The weird combination of oily and sugary seems a bit off-putting at first, but by the time the frosting liquefies on the pastry's outer shell, you'll know your wrapping your lips around something very, very special. Now, does it taste like a real pumpkin pie? Of course it doesn't, but it does taste like a really great, really decadent dessert that's almost - almost - real-world bakery quality. Granted, it's still comparative trash when you put it up against the real stuff, but as far as junk food goes? You're definitely chowing down on some high-quality sleaze right here, buck-o. 

Pecan Pie M&Ms!

Pretty much every year, there is some new M&Ms product that vaguely ties into Halloween by attempting to ape a popular seasonal flavor - i.e., pumpkin spice, candy corn, etc. Well, give the guys at M&M Corp. some credit, because they definitely managed to think outside the box with this iteration (which, I have heard, was a L-T-O item released last year, but I didn't see them anywhere in my neck of the woods.) Thinking one holiday ahead, the head honchos at M&Ms decided to give us an offering that tackles one of the less imitated autumnal sweet stuffs - good old fashion pecan pie. 

Now going into this, I was well aware that it was going to be IMPOSSIBLE for the M&Ms to taste anything at all like real pecan pie (which, in my humblest o' opinions, is pretty much the undiluted black tar heroin of Thanksgiving staples, due in part to its ultra-addictive qualities.) That said, they REALLY got the scent down ... as soon as I ripped open the bag and caught a whiff, I could've sworn I was at the dinner table, getting ready to cram 18 pounds of mashed potatoes and turkey gizzards down my throat hole while sitting beside somebody I've seen every late November for the last 14 years, but whose name completely escapes me. 

To be fair, the brown, yellow and white color scheme is a bit on the boring side, and while the candies do indeed smell like a freshly baked pecan pie, the overall product just doesn't do that well of a job mimicking the idiosyncratic flavor it oh so desperately seeks to ape. It's one of the better M&M permutations to hit the aisles in a while, but sadly, I can't really say these suckers blew my proverbial socks metaphorically off. 

...although I GOTS to admit, finding a couple of mutated, Siamese twin M&Ms in the bag definitely made me a happy camper. I mean, what's more Halloween than eating the milk-chocolate-coated equivalent of the monster from Basket Case? That's right, fuckin' nothin'.

Ruffles All Dressed Potato Chips!

Yeah, I guess I am kinda' cheating referring to this as a "Halloween" food, but you know, it nonetheless fits into the whole "autumnal limited-time-only" mold. I mean, the national emblem of Canada is a maple leaf, and we all know those motherfuckers are crispiest when? That's right, fall, and don't pretend it isn't a coincidence (or me desperately grasping for proverbial straws) neither.  

So what does "All Dressed" mean, in Canadian potato chip vernacular? While, it means the chips - concurrently - taste vinegary, sugary and whatever the fuck you call what BBQ chips taste like. Hell, and here I was thinking it was just some marketer's sneaky way of getting around calling the things "Poutine-flavored."

So yeah, aesthetically, there ain't much at all to talk about. They look like your standard potato chips, only slightly more polite, because they are Canadian. And I have to commend their cordiality - I spent a good half hour screaming "Bret screwed Bret!" and "Gordon Lightfoot sucks dick" at the bag, and not once did it ever yell anything back at me. 

All kidding aside, what do the chips ACTUALLY taste like? Well, it's basically what would happen if you chowed down on a salt and vinegar, sour cream and onion and BBQ chip simultaneously. I certainly wouldn't call it a melodious combination of flavors, but all those jumbled tastes weren't at all combative. I wouldn't go as far as to say the multitude of flavors "gelled," but by that same token, it also didn't taste like an absolute clusterfuck of seasonings. In that, I suppose you could say these chips are very much like Canada itself - just sort of OK, but nothing worth going out of your way to experience. 

 Starbucks' Chile Mocha Frappuccino!

Seeing as how Starbucks is pretty much single-handedly responsible for the proliferation of "pumpkin spice" as a ubiquitous, nigh-inescapable fall flavor, you have to give them some credit for trying something wildly different in 2016. Their great "successor" to the PSL, and in turn, quite possibly the next big thing in autumnal, limited-time-only foodstuffs? Why, what else, motherfucking cayenne pepper!

Yeah, I was skeptical at first, too. While this unorthodox medley of cinnamon, nutmeg and lip-tingling pepper is no match for the chain's seasonal heavy hitters (that salt caramel frappe thing is pretty much the goddamn greatest thing I've ever put in my mouth), it's nowhere near as weird-tasting as you'd expect it to be. In fact, it tastes like your usual vanilla milkshake/coffee hybrid, except for the occasional pangs of pain on your tongue that makes you wonder if you are developing herpes. 

So yeah, I'm afraid we'll have to relegate this one to the island of "it sounded good at the time" ideas, where it will no doubt spend its golden years shooting the breeze with Pepsi Paradise Mango and that one Halloween Whopper that had the unadvertised bonus of turning your turds neon teal. 

Pumpkin Spice Cheerios!

Admittedly, it's pretty hard to get too excited about Cheerios, no matter how Halloween-y the gimmick. Yes, even with the pumpkin dressings, we're still dealing with fucking circles, and honestly, just how many words can you right about characteristic-less oval cereal bits?

Well, what I can say is that the pumpkin spice aroma is strong with this one. Indeed, as soon as you open the bag, it smells like a gaggle of early 20-something suburban white girls who would never fuck you despite the fact they are fives out of tens at best have exploded in your kitchen. And yes, that entails just as much syrupy and sticky cinnamon and nutmeg flakes as you'd imagine.

I guess the cereal tastes like pumpkin spice, although by this point, I've eaten so much artificially pumpkin-spiced stuff that I genuinely have no idea what real pumpkin is supposed to taste like anymore. On the whole, I'd chalk this one up is a fairly ho-hum little offering - yes, it's edible and it isn't really unappetizing, but considering you can get a family-sized box of Boo Berry for the same price, what's the point?

Reese's Halloween Printed Cups!

By now, Reese's has pretty much done everything financially feasible to capitalize on the Halloween season. After shaping your marquee product like both chocolate and orange pumpkins, there's really not a lot of holiday-appropriate spherical things left to work with, after all. Alas, the fine folks Reese's Corp. have come up with a pretty clever work around this year. Taking a cue from Nabisco, they decided to imprint All Hallows' Eve iconography on their staple product, and the results, if I may say so myself, are pretty dadgum impressive. 

First off, don't let the above photo fool you. While the wrappers above appear Denver Broncos-colored, the actually packaging is a fairly dark blue. I've no clue what the proprietary wrapping does to light, but every time I fired off a snap shot I kept losing the indigo complexion. So even if the candies themselves are subpar, at least I have the whole "the outer package is kind of a miniature black hole" hook to run with, I suppose. 

Gustatorily, there is nothing at all to talk about here. Regardless of the engravings, the products taste like your run of the mill Reese's Cups, and there's no other wacky gimmick, like orange cookie bits inside the chocolate or any of that kind of noise. what you do get, however, is a nice menagerie of stereotypical Halloween images in edible, chocolate-and-peanut-butter form. The craftsmanship on my candies were very, very good, and I absolutely loved the quasi-squiggly character design. It's a tough call choosing my favorite, but if I had to, I'd narrowly choose the little ghosty guy over the facsimile of a jack-o'-lantern visage ... although, like I said, it's a really, really tough call

 Our Specialty's Sweet Middles Pumpkin Spice Mini Desserts!

Long-time Great American Cookies patrons will no doubt recognize these "pumpkin sweet middles" treats. Sure, they may go by a different namesake and they may not be as big as GAC's proprietary snack, but these suckers are Double Doozies - albeit, significantly scaled down Double Doozies - all the same. 

Like a good 99 percent of the people reading this, I am not exactly familiar with the Our Specialty brand. Some off the clock sleuthing revealed it's a subsidiary of some Buffalo, N.Y. based company called "Rich's Products," and what do you know, their, ahem, "Specialty" is high-end, cream cheese filled sandwich cookies. How they ended up being retailed in a Publix grocery store in Atlanta in late September is beyond me, but all I can say is thank goodness we got our batch down here

These things are just fucking delicious in every possible way you can think of describing a pastry as delicious. The exterior cookies strike the perfect balance between spongy and squishy and crunchy and crumbly, and sweet Jesus, that interior creme is what I imagine heaven tastes like. I know it can often be a hassle navigating your way through the bakery section of your local grocer, but if you see these things anywhere near you, grab them and start eating them right then and there in the aisle. They are THAT good, and probably worth getting arrested for. Well, probably, anyway.

 Caramel Apple Pop-Tarts!

Come on, now. Did you honestly expect to make it through the Halloween season without Kellogg's throwing out some kind of weird, quasi-seasonally appropriate variation of its toaster pastry staple? Well, the 2016 joint is "frosted caramel apple," which means next year, it's almost guaranteed that we'll be celebrating Halloween '17 by eating candy-corn-flavored Tarts.

Keeping with the brand's millennial/hipster marketing battle plan, the back of the packaging contains a number of incredibly not funny cartoons. But at least they don't advocate suicide, as was the case of last spring's watermelon-flavored permutation.

In terms of sheer aesthetics, I really liked the exterior Tart shell. There's just something about that neon green zigzag pattern that reminds me of some of the girls of ill-refute I dated during my man-ho days in college. Honestly, I can't tell you how many hoochies I've seen with toe nails that looked just like the breakfast pastries above. And hell, some of them didn't even paint 'em ... their nails just looked naturally trashy. 

But as soon as you wedge these sumbitches into your toaster oven, something rather queer happens. For whatever reason, the jelly inside the Tart expands while it is being heated, which nearly caused my pastries to explode during the cooking process. As a result, I get a really weird pocket of film right in the middle of my Tart, which - naturally - exploded like a preservative-filled geyser as soon as I punctured the top coat. Maybe it was just an aberration, or maybe - just maybe - the shit inside of this thing is the fuckin' Blob

But taste-wise, I really can't complain. It wasn't as flavorful as, say, the maple bacon variation that hit store shelves earlier this year, but overall, it did have a fairly nice, semi-fruity flavor. Does it taste like a caramel apple? Well, not really, but it does taste like a halfway decent, chocolatey jam, and really, who would ever take offense to something like that?

Mayfield Pumpkin Pie Ice Cream!

Even if the ice cream itself wasn't any good, this thing would get an A plus in my book simply based on the packaging artwork. Most companies just would've painted the bucket orange and maybe toss a Jack O Lantern in the background, but the fine folks at Mayfield took it two steps beyond and put an entire harvesting mural on both sides of the product, complete with an anthropomorphic horse farmer that I find utterly terrifying for reasons I cannot adequately explain.

Probably my favorite thing about the product is its hue. Maybe my rods and cones aren't firing on all cylinders, but I have NO clue how to describe the color of this stuff. It's not really white, but it's not really orange or brown either. Instead, it takes up residence in that weird interphase between all three tones, perhaps making this seasonal dairy treat the first recorded appearance of what I call "whibrorange" in human history. 

By and large, the product is basically (get it?) a Starbucks PSL in a more congealed, less drinkable form. Thankfully, the ice cream does indeed taste more like pumpkin pie than the standard pumpkin spice gyp of cinnamon and nutmeg, and on the whole, I'd consider the overall quality of the product to be at least as good as Dairy Queen's Pumpkin Pie Blizzard ... if not even better, since you don't have shards of pumpkin pie filling that taste and feel like super sharp sunflower seed shells scraping across your mucus membranes. 

Because you just can't market a regular old ice cream anymore, the product does come with a few chunks of pumpkin pie crust. Essentially, they are just fragments of graham crackers that reside somewhere between "super duper crunchy and crispy" and "really soggy and flavorless." Really, it's a crap shoot every time you scoop up a piece - sometimes, you get a sliver of deliciousness and others, you almost want to spit out your spoonful because you have no idea what the hell it is you are running your tongue across

Pumpkin Spice Twinkies!

There's usually at least one seasonally thematic Twinkies variation on store shelves no matter the holiday, and you knew Hostess would be bringing its "A" game come Halloween time. Enter the most obvious thing in the history of anything being obvious, folks - the pumpkin spice Twinkies!

So aesthetically, there ain't much to talk about here. As far as exterior dressings are concerned, these things are virtually indistinguishable from your standard creme-filled sponge cake. Same plastic wrapper, same flaky golden hue, same everything, really. But as soon as you snap these little sumbitches in half, though...

...bam, it's a pumpkin spice latte explosion in your olfactory glands, you motherfucker! Indeed, the inner filling of the product smells incredibly pumpkin-pie-like, which you initially kind of want to write off as some sort of miracle of modern food science pioneering by Hostess, until you remember that one part in Fast Food Nation about that one lab in New Jersey that's already chemically engineered, patented and sold of every kind of artificial flavor and smell you can think of. So yeah, it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if the fine folks at International Flavors & Fragrances were behind the surprisingly authentic pumpkin spice aroma in all of the artificially flavored pumpkin pie delicacies discussed throughout this article. 

OK, so it smells pumpkin spicy, but does it really taste like a PSL wrapped around a spongy snack cake? Well, a little, but it's more of that old "cinnamon and nutmeg" two-fer than it is the quasi-authentic pumpkin pie flavor and mouthfeel you'd get out of something like the Mayfield ice cream discussed a few graphs back. Also, you really can't tell in the photo above, but the creme itself is this weird grey hue. It's just about the most inedible looking color you could paint anything, and though I understand Hostess' decision to dye the proprietary goop a different shade to commemorate the holiday, it's definitely an aesthetic that makes you double think pushing it down your gullet. Tsk, tsk, Hostess ... couldn't you have just made it orange or brown or some other tone that doesn't make us think, you know, lead poisoning?

Starbucks Frappula Frappuccino!

And this year, we definitely save the best for last. Granted, the Frappula (which I always erroneously describe as the "Fappula" whenever I order it) is actually a return L-T-O offering from Halloween '15, but seeing as how it came out so late in the game (seriously, it didn't drop until the week of Oct. 31), we never really had ample time to get pumped for the product. And since it was discontinued just a few days after being introduced, word of mouth, unfortunately, never really circulated about just how fucking awesome this thing is. Needless to say, that same mistake WASN'T to be repeated this Halloween. 

Although the Starbucks marketing brass would never come out and directly state it in their advertising materials, the drink is clearly intended to represent the victim of a particularly nasty vampire attack. The foamy vanilla/marshmallow fluff mixture is obviously a stand-in for a milk-white neck, with the strawberry puree pulp representing copious blood flow from the fatal Dracula wound. (I'm still working it out, but I think the mocha sauce at the very bottom of the cup is supposed to signify the earthen tomb from which the bloodsucking undead have escaped.) I mean, just think about it - Starbucks has actually designed, focus tested and given the green light to a seasonal beverage whose entire "gimmick," so to speak, is that it's a liquefied homicide victim. Try all you goddamn may, it's going to be a LONG time before anybody comes up with a Halloween-themed foodstuff more hardcore than that.

And of course, the whole she-bang is topped off by a big, poofy splotch of whipped cream, which, uh, I guess is kind of like those frilly Austin Powers shirts all the vampires in those fruity Hammer movies used to wear. OK, so it doesn't tie into the whole "drinkable murdered corpse" motif as well as the other ingredients, but hey, whipped cream is still pretty fucking awesome, isn't it?

I honestly can't say enough good things about this beverage. I mean, it's one thing to make a food product with a really kooky Halloween gimmick (why, hello Burger King!), but to make one that also doubles as a kind of a drinkable abstract art is taking it to a whole other level. Just watching all of the colors swirl together is truly a sight to behold - it's like a creamy, chocolaty lava lamp or a recreation of Jupiter's atmosphere with strawberry pulp. More so than any other seasonal tie-in foodstuff I tried over the last couple months, nothing reminds me of that wonderful, wondrous and all-too-brief spell we call Halloween than this ingenuous, semi-morbid and extraordinarily gustatorily satisfying milkshake/iced coffee hybrid tribute to Nosferatu. It's the absolute epitome of everything that makes Halloween so damned great - it's gross, and tacky, and extravagant and excessive and hyper-visual and it just feels so incredibly interconnected with the times. And alike Halloween itself, it ain't going to be around for much longer. Pay heed, folks - if you haven't experienced the Frappula by now, you've still got a couple of hours left to right the autumnal wrongs. And in that, not only is it the perfect way to wrap up the All Hallows' season, in my eyes, it's the ONLY proper way to bid Halloween 2016 adieu



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