What America Tastes Like

Lab Explosions in Your Mouth

America is full of food designed in laboratories. Part of our cultural evolution has been toward “real food” for the elite, and “engineered flavor-nuggets” for those of us who mow our own lawns. Processed powders and potions are cheaper by the metric ton, and since they can be tweaked to over-excite the palate – they are generally preferred by the mainstream.

The biologist Nikolaas Tinbergen might tell us that “supernormal stimuli” is not always good for us. I’m pretty sure he proved that mama birds who “prefer to sit on whatever egg is largest and has the highest color contrast” will choose to sit on a soccer ball – while letting their real babybird-eggs freeze to death. Human beings are making similar choices in food. And I can’t help but think of men who seek “fake breasts” when I read about those deluded soccer-ball mamabirds.

But sometimes oversized lab-flavored “food” is fun.

Friendly’s was an ice-cream chain that turned diner in the 1950’s. She and I drove past plenty of these in the East coast, and finally stopped at one for dinner.

To me, it looked like a good place to “Pick 3 Appetizers.” I’m glad I did, because I like weird food. The first 2 appetizers were mundane, but the third was a hoot.

Cheeseburger Sliders – were fine in a Denny’s sort of way. The burger is not overly processed and the buns have a nice toast to them.

The Fried Pizza Pockets – were on the disappointing side, as the goo inside was mostly uninteresting sauce without even a pretense to pepperoni. The pocket, however, was a fun sort of fried ravioli with a nice crisp outer layer.

But then…

The Buffalo Chicken Strips – hit me with a totally unexpected and bizarre flavor explosion. “What is happening inside my mouth?” said my nose to my brain. This is a deliciously chemical taste, but strangely appealing. And familiar. Where have I tasted this before?

The flavor was savory, it was “extreme,” and it had absolutely nothing to do with “buffalo” or with “chicken.” It had a spice to it, but not a pepper-sauce heat. Instead, this was something I associated strongly with a realm of things you put in your mouth – but not at meals. I chewed, I took another bite. I inhaled this spiced and curious wonder.

“Slim Jims!!!” Ah-hah!

Ooooh-yeeeah! That’s a beefy-spicy-snap right there in my chicken strips!

When chain restaurants get creative with their flavor-chemicals, I tend to enjoy even the disastrous forays into foul territory. Sometimes I’d rather have a cheeseburger-Dorito that tastes like a holographic pickle than eat a real piece of food.

Once a restaurant is large enough, it isn’t a chef that creates the flavors but instead a team of guys in white labcoats with beakers. Specific and unique flavors can be created by ratios of chemicals mixed by the ton, and the result is a “branded” flavor like we associate with McDonald’s fries. (that flavor was designed by a French perfume company)

“More di-ethyl sulfate? Should this sauce taste more… green?” However it came to pass, the Friendly’s flavor scientists were swinging for the “buffalo chicken” fences and somehow hit the ball into left-field. Where it happened to land… exactly in Slim Jim territory.

I busted up laughing. Their ranch dipping sauce has a huge amount of diacetyl in it. Butter-flavored ranch. Those weirdos.

We rocketed down the highway while I dipped my SlimJim Chicken Fingers into Movie Theater Butter Ranch.

94 Elm St
Enfield, Connecticut

“What America Tastes Like” is an exploration of sub-cultures in the US by way of food. Eating is something all people do, and it also happens to be one of the few expressions of “difference and diversity” in culture that just about all people are ready to celebrate. Regardless of our politics and religion and ontologies, we all like to eat food with our mouths.

Food makes family happen.



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