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February 22, 2008

Garbage in, garbage out: the joys of junk food


The following paean to junk food is sure to wreck some of my haute cuisine credibility.  So be it.  Lots of food bloggers, this one included, spill a lot of digital ink waxing poetic about their various culinary exploits.  On occasion, we explore the upside of a "low" food like doughnuts or fish and chips, but we never come clean and admit a fondness for unmitigated crap.  And for good reason.

Over the past forty-odd years, there's been a revolution in the importance North Americans place on food.  We dine at the finest restaurants, demand ethical, local and seasonal ingredients, and spread the message of The Omnivore's Dilemma with almost evangelical zeal.  Mea culpa.  But here's the rub: it's just not cool anymore to confess a love for processed snack foods.

It may come as a shock, but back in my high school I was extremely overweight.  So heavy, in fact, that I failed my first medical examination as a seventeen year old trying to enlist in the naval reserve.  "Lose five pounds in ten days," they said, "and we'll let you join."  And I did.  Actually, I lost ten pounds in ten days, enlisted, then kept the weight off by enduring two basic training courses -- one for junior ranks and one for officers -- in three years.  All those push ups helped me drop a lot of excess pounds, and a serious adjustment in my outlook towards junk food has helped me keep them off for more than fifteen years.

But old passions die hard.  Underneath my devilishly handsome exterior lies the soul of the fat kid I used to be.   And that fat kid loves high fat, overly processed junk food, especially while indulging in other  guilty pleasures like watching reality television or reading John Grisham novels.  Take President's Choice Chocolate Fudge Crackle vanilla ice cream, for example. This was a love at first bite relationship for me, and lo these many years I still eat every bowl the same way: I try to eat my least favourite, but still delicious part first, the actual sweet vanilla cream.  This delicate evolution involves maneuvering my spoon around the shards of fudge crackle, my favourite element, which I try and save till the end.  When successful, my final few spoonfuls are little more than bundles of fudge crackle with melting dollops of ice cream throughout.  I love the exterior crunch and rich interior texture of the frozen fudge.

It comes at a price, however.  A quick glance at the ingredient list reveals that the main ingredient in the fudge -- which is probably more accurately described as "fudge" -- is modified palm oil, a saturated fat that adds taste and contributes to that glorious texture, but not without sacrifice.  Put plainly, this treat is horribly unhealthy, though a little research reveals it to be a paragon of virtue when compared to frozen delights from Haagen-Dazs and the Birkenstocked assassins, Ben and Jerry.

If only my vices stopped there.  A good cookie is a delight almost beyond measure, and few please me as much as chocolate mint Girl Guide cookies.  Frozen of course.  There's nothing like popping three or four of them into your mouth in quick succession, feeling the ice cold disk chill your tongue, then biting down and letting a brisk wave of mint hurtle over the palate.  We tried creating some homemade ones as Christmas gifts last year, but the originals proved to be inimitable.  Much like the "fudge" in my favourite ice cream, these cookies contain an ingredient that only modern food science could love: "chocolatey coating."

The one aspect of my dieting days that I've never been able to shake is a penchant for diet pop, especially Diet Dr. Pepper.  Of my many regrettable food passions, this may be the one that troubles Rachel most.  She shuns diet colas for their chemical taste and drinks very little pop in general.  But I've now become so accustomed to their taste that I find regular, sugar-laden pop cloying in comparison.  Besides, there's nothing like an ice cold cola accompanied by a salty snack like buffalo wing and blue cheese-flavoured potato chips, a recent addition to my trashy food hall of fame. 

I'm not trying to denigrate anyone's eating habits, nor do I disagree with the broader message of writers like Michael Pollan, who insist that we put a little thought into the food we put in our mouths.  I just think that a love el Bulli shouldn't have to preclude trying and loving different kinds of foods.  Foods like my latest accidental discovery at Sanko, my local Japanese food store, and it's sure to be my next junk food addiction: Japanese vanilla bean Kit Kat bars.


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Yeah, the bottom line is not surprising: food is good.

Good food is really good, but bad food is also pretty good. We can probably thank evolution for our getting pleasure from such a wide variety of even pseudo-edible things. Periods of scarcity forced us to get used to foods we may never have tried had we always had a bountiful garden at the ready.

My guilty pleasures are Kraft Deluxe Sharp Macaroni 'N' Cheese, and hot dogs. Not haute dogs. Not sausages (though those are even better), but hot dogs. Not even all beef!


What? No gecko on a stick as junk food? But those looked so tasty!


Great post. I have a fondness for fries slathered in unnaturally orange cheese (or should that be "cheez?") goop.

I cling to the shreds of my foodie cred by pretending that this is the case only because poutine isn't available in my corner of the world.


Rob, something tells me I should share my bounty of japanese snacks with you and Rachel. Those are my vice and I can never tire of them! ;P

(You must try the matcha kit kat (the original kind - limited ed), that's if you can find them (even it you have to put yourself on a wait list or order them from Japan as I do with many good eats).)


I eat my PC fudge crackle ice cream in exactly the same way. Or at least I did when I lived in Canada. Nice post.


Buffalo wing flavored potato chips... that doesn't make any sense. A buffalo wing's a thing, not a flavor...

Anyway, my guiltiest pleasure is probably Ben & Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk. Or Cherry Garcia. Or Chunky Monkey. Or Pistachio Pistachio...


i hear you on the cloying effect of sugared sodas in comparison to their diet counterparts once one gets used to them

i have my fears on artificial sweeteners
it seems that after all they do contribute to cancer-risk

i d love to try some of that matcha kitkat...

the milliner

The only thing better than PC fudge crackle ice cream is the Christmas Candy Cane version (same thing but with bits of candy cane added). Thank god it's only around a few months of the year.


Great post! We really enjoy PC brand's General Tao's Chicken flavoured chips

Dr. Pecker


You think you are being a health junkie by drinking diet soda, dude, think again. Aspartame, and all those other nasty things used in place of sugar actually have a reverse effect and make you hanker for more junk.

You need to try soda made with real cane sugar. You might remember it if you swigged soda pop in the 70's, but shortly thereafter corn syrups became used almost exclusively.

I think some Mexican Coke bottlers still use cane sugar as does a Dr.Pepper bottler somewhere in Texas, I think.


I like how you call soda 'pop'. I'm a transplant from Michigan to Florida and i havn't heard it called that since living in MI ten years ago. It must be a northern thing.


"buffalo wing and blue cheese-flavoured potato chips"

OK, you can steal our football team, but please don't support anything called Buffalo Wing, unless it's a deep-fried chicken wing tossed in a sauce of butter and Frank's Hot Sauce. Thank you! ;-)


The President rules. My secret love is Kraft Dinner with sliced hotdogs cooked under the broiler. And... chef boyardee ravioli (which I can't eat anymore because it upsets my aged stomach *Sigh*). It's nice to know that I am not the only one who likes the junk from time to time.


nice post - every foodie has skeletons in thier closet! I found the book Fast Food Nation mesmerising and since then have developed a fascination for the rise of junk-food merchants and the way thier business empires are run.
Everyone needs a little junk - what would a trip to my beloved Elland Road (Leeds United FC) without a hotdog at half-time?

Kelly Murphy

The underlying assumption: saturated/animal fat is bad for you - this notion was perpetuated by Ancel Keys and subsequently the McGovern committee report but is actually not supported by the research. If you can get into the database (freely available in the US) you can search the study database yourself. If you look up "Fat Head Movie" the arguments have been distilled down to the essentials, and sent me on a fairly long chase to see if I could either refute or confirm the information in the movie. So far, the movie wins and it is processed vegetable oil and refined flour/starch/sugar that are killing us.

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Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
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This article is very usefull for me! I can see that you are putting a lots of efforts into your blog. I will keep watching in your blog, thanks.

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There is nothing wrong with eating junk food unless you do it in a certain level of frequency. If you eat cookies more than 3 times (and 3 boxes) a day, that is when it turns ugly.

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Eating junk food is fun, but if abusing yourself on eating a lot, it's not good in the body. But eventually eating a lot of junk food is fun.

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