June 29, 2007

The Vending Machine: Friend or Foe?

Two days ago, on June 27, the Automated Teller Machine celebrated its 40th anniversary, prompting consideration of other machines that stand on streets, sit in halls and nestle in the corners of public buildings in order to make modern life a little easier and a lot more enjoyable. In the world of food, that means it's time to give the vending machine some thought.

Vending machines come in many different shapes and sizes. There is the soda machine, which now includes different variations covered in glass or large pictures of cola cans. There is the infamous vending machine with a series of small doors that lead to compartments arranged around a spinning wheel. This variation usually holds microwaveable "food" such as cheeseburgers and chicken sandwiches. There is, of course, the famous snack vending machine, which holds everything from Pringles to Polar Ice gum to Pop Tarts. It is this snack vending machine which merits the most discussion.

The contraption is reviled by the health-conscious, practically worshiped by the college student and passed with indifference by millions of travelers hurrying worriedly to the bathroom in rest stops. What is the vending machine? Is it the work of Satan, inflating the young's waistlines and sending Americans to the graveyard early? Is it the savior of the hotel guest who wakes at 2 a.m. with a deadly hunger? Or is it the aggravating temptress who takes a dollar but fails to properly dispense a back of M&M's, leaving the buyer 100 pennies poorer and angrily watching their purchase dangle from the end of a silver metal spiral?

The machine can be the handyist of contraptions in many circumstances. When it is late at night, and there is no convenience store open to satisfy your craving for chips, it seems like a wonderful invention. It can serve you when there would be no way you could drop in on a store. Shops couldn't sit in the break rooms of America's businesses, ready to serve hungry employees, but vending machines can. And, depending on the machine, there can be a pretty solid variety of food available. Everything from cookies to candy bars can be in a vending machine, and while you can't compare it to the selection at Sheetz, it is better than that stale pack of crackers that has been in the glove compartment of your car for two years.

Of course, the machine has many downsides, the aforementioned affinity for stealing dollars and failing to dispense food being only one. Machines' stinginess toward certain dollar bills is also an aggravating problem. This has gotten better in recent years, but failing to accept wrinkled Washingtons amounts to age discrimination toward older Georges. Another big issue is with the frequency workers stock certain machines. Nobody likes to stare at rows of empty slots while their blood sugar drops.

But the biggest problem with the vending machine might be health related. This might seem like a bit of a dead horse, but the food in those things is really terrible for you. Everyone knows that, of course. It might even seem a little odd to denounce something for it's negative impact on health in a forum devoted to fast food restaurants.

The real problem is the low ratio of enjoyment to negative health impact in vending machine food. In all honesty, how many times have you gobbled down a snack to find yourself still hungry and maybe even a little uncomfortable? The food from these things doesn't usually quench hunger, although it often tastes pretty good in the mouth. Once it's in the stomach, it sits like a giant lump of Splenda, impossible to digest and (possibly) terrible for your kidneys.

Of course, the caloric value of this food is higher than most realize. Everyone knows it is bad, but I recently ate a vending machine honey bun that was 587 calories and tasted like it was mostly made of air. I wasn't satisfied, and I felt all that trans-fat go right to my hips.

In the end, the vending machine purchase usually isn't worth it. The dollar is gone from your wallet, and your stomach feels just as hungry as before. Worse, it often feels a little upset, as if it is screaming at you for feeding it such cheap garbage. These machines will do in a pinch, but no one in their right mind would choose a packet of Twinkies over a McDonald's cheeseburger. At least the cheeseburger is hot and fills your stomach a little before you feel sick.

June 10, 2007

Taco Bell: Driving Beef into Quesadillas

The Quesadilla is a tremendous concept. Toss assorted cheeses in a soft tortilla and add some meat if it suits your fancy. After a few minutes on a hot metal surface you have a gooey, cheesy source of taste-bud pleasure. Taco Bell has been advertising a new Extreme Cheese and Beef Quesadilla, so I swung through the drive-thru of my local franchise in hopes of tickling their fancy.

The Quesadilla itself is as sloppy and tasty as you would expect from Taco Bell's latest invention. The beef is the messy variety that can be found in every beef taco, gordita, and nacho salad at The Bell. There is a slew of cheeses -- I thought I detected some of The Bell's standard shredded yellow cheese along with some of the creamy Velveeta-style, although it was all melted together in an indistinguishable colloid-like mass.

This concoction is pretty large, and dirt cheap -- $1.29 to be exact. Every item on the Taco Bell value menu is a great deal, but the addition of this much beef and cheese slushed together for this low price is something special. Rest assured, although I compared the price to dirt, the actual meal did nothing to invoke thoughts of Taco Bell's recent flirtations with violations of the health code. I didn't see any evidence of chives or e.coli. In fact, the flavors blend well, and I was spared the stomach-ache that I always anticipate as penance for eating at The Bell.

There are a few drawbacks to this particular Quesadilla. The aforementioned melted cheese mixes with ground beef to become a virtual torrent of mess. Even though I ordered at the drive-thru window, I chose to wait until I arrived home to unwrap my meal. If I had tried to eat while driving, I probably would have ended up shampooing the carpet of my car all weekend in order to keep myself from thinking of the annoying Taco Bell jingle every time I stepped into my car and caught the scent of the cheese/beef mixture that would have splashed everywhere. Eat this at a table. It is not automobile food.

Actually, my entire drive-thru experience seemed determined to persuade me that Taco Bell and cars do not mix. I pulled into a line that was several cars long at 9:10 p.m. on a Friday night, just after I finished work. I pulled out of the drive-thru window with two items at 9:23.

That is quite a bit of time to spend sitting in line. The cars ahead of me had substantially larger orders than my own, but I was under the distinct impression that the staff at The Bell was in no rush to prepare my meal in a timely fashion. While I waited, my car idled, wasting both time and gas.

I don't typically use the drive-thru because going into the restaurant is just as fast, if not faster. Burning $3-a-gallon gas and playing "guess-what-this-is-doing-to-the-Ford-F-15o-sitting-in-front-of-me" did not hold my attention for long. I was left to wonder if I was so lazy that I did not mind effectively increasing the price of a Quesadilla by burning gas while I waited for my order to be filled.

That kind of thought doesn't sit well on an empty stomach, especially when you realize the meal you are ordering is too sloppy to eat in the car, thereby extending the amount of time you have to wait before eating. I ended up swearing off drive-thrus while swearing at myself for wasting time and money. It really hurt a very solid Quesadilla.

And solid is a good way to describe the Extreme Cheese and Beef Quesidilla. Solid use of cheese and solid use of beef makes for nothing less than a solid flavor combination. Taco Bell's nomenclature of "Extreme Cheese and Beef Quesidalla" had me geared up for something a little more colorful, but I ended up finding familiar ingredients mixed in a slightly unfamiliar way. The meal's lack of originality and inherent messiness are its weakest points, but those get outweighed by good taste and a splendid price. It earned four sporks out of five, so I recommend trying one next time you want to eat at The Bell.

Just do yourself a favor, and skip the drive-thru.