December 31, 2008

A year in reviews: The best and worst foods of 2008

As the year draws to a close it's time to glance in the mirror at the tastiest and most abominable foods of 2008. I've selected eight foods I reviewed to make a bottom four worst foods and top four best foods from the year.

Just remember, this isn't supposed to be a commentary on my actual reviews. It's about the food itself, so don't skip my scathingly clever roast of the Christmas ham because you think I'm insulting my own writing.

The bottom foods are headed for the newly created "Put a spork in them" wall of shame. The top foods receive the equally new "Golden Spork Award." Enjoy!

Put a spork in them: The bottom four worst foods reviewed in 2008

4. McDonald's Southern Style Chicken Sandwich A perfect example of asking people to pay too much for a product that fails to deliver. Pickled by its own lack of exceptionalism.

3. Taco Bell's Cheesy Beefy Melt Proof that you can't just package the same three ingredients differently and claim to have a new and better offering. They should have added bacon or something.

2. The Christmas ham The poster child for traditions that need to go the way of the passenger pidgin.

1. Sweet and Salty Caramel Bugles A loud trumpet to product development labs everywhere: Test your food before selling it!

Golden Spork Award winners: The top four best foods reviewed in 2008

4. Reese's Whipps The right way to rethink a classic candy -- make it good.

3. Taco Bell's Bacon Cheddar Gordita Crunch Responsible for the breakthrough in food science proving that yes, bacon can improve Mexican food.

2. Starbuck's Christmas Blend It will make a coffee drinker out of you. Grab some if you can still find it.

1. Taco Bell's Cheesy Double Beef Burrito Simply the best deal in fast food today, and one of the few things that could dull the pain of the loss of my beloved Beef and Potato Burrito from Taco Bell's value menu.

December 30, 2008

Redundancy and the Red Robin Chili Chili Cheeseburger and redundancy

The bigwigs who come up with dishes at chain restaurants have about five words to describe a meal and sell it to an audience. They can choose to be descriptive, like T.G.I. Friday's did with its Cedar-Seared Salmon Pasta. They can choose to be quirky, like Burger King did with its infamous chicken fries. But they rarely choose to be repetitive, like Red Robin did with its Chili Chili Cheeseburger.

Maybe the double "chili" is meant to imply a larger size, the way the "XX" does in extra-extra large clothing. Perhaps it's meant to denote a greater flavor, like in double-chocolate chunk cookies. Or maybe it's there for cadence, as in "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang."

Whatever the reason, I think another adjective could have been swapped in for the first chili. It would have made the menu more descriptive and spared me from coming up with an adequate description of the meal. But after some thought I've managed to decide "heaping or jumbo" would have worked well.

Once you get past the name, the "Heaping" Chili Chili Cheeseburger is pretty tasty. Red Robin takes their typical cheeseburger and dumps a boatload of chili on it, then serves it on a plate next to some parmigiana fries. There's so much chili sitting on the burger that it runs over the sides -- all of them. The top of the bun is served on the side of the burger, and the menu recommends you eat it with a knife and fork.

I recommend taking its advice on this one. The chili has a good consistency that's not too runny, but it's just too bountiful to pick up. Your hands are going to end up looking like you killed someone by the time you finish the burger.

Plus, the knife-and-fork experience isn't too bad, once you get over the insulting fact that you're eating a burger with utensils. The chili itself could use some more spice, or any spice for that matter, to satisfy those of us who like more zing in our food, but it tops off the burger well. Plus, its lack of spice let me eat it at at 9:30 p.m. without suffering any heartburn later in the night.

And those parmigiana fries are absolutely delectable. They aren't choked by a heavy dose of sauce the way Red Robin's garlic fries are, but they still pack plenty of flavor. The plate doesn't pack many of them, though. The number of fries doesn't share the burger name's penchant for redundancy.

The price does. It's $9.99. Too bad the accountants couldn't have tossed in an 8 or 3 somewhere in there just to spice things up.

A lack of spice just sums up the Chili Chili Cheeseburger. No spice in the name. None in the chili. None in the price.

It must all be drizzled on those fries. A solid three sporks out of five.

December 28, 2008

All dressed up: The Bacon Cheddar Gordita Crunch

As you might know, I'm a big fan of the Cheesy Gordita Crunch from Taco Bell. But the chain had virtually pulled them from the menu -- it was no longer listed on the big board, although you could usually get one if you asked for it.

Last night I was delighted to find it back in a prominent place on the menu. There was just one twist. The Cheesy Gordita Crunch listed isn't your father's Cheesy Gordita Crunch.

It was the new Bacon Cheddar Gordita Crunch.

The basic idea is still the same. It's a beef taco wrapped in a gordita with a liberal amount of melted and shredded cheese. But now there are bacon bits between the taco shell and the gordita, and some new cheddar sauce is slathered on top of Taco Bell's ground beef.

The Bell has always served an "Americanized Mexican" food. The old 1/2 Pound Beef and Potato Burrito was a good example of that -- the potato chunks gave it a lot of stateside flavor. But the bacon takes that to a whole new level.

It takes the Cheesy Gordita Crunch to a new level, too. I wasn't expecting the bacon to taste as good as it did since its quality isn't the highest. In fact, it's a little soggy. But those bacon bits managed to blend seamlessly with that cheap beef and salty cheddar.

The combination was so good that I didn't feel too bad spending a whopping $2.49 for a Taco Bell item. Typically there's no reason to stray from the "Why Pay More" value menu, but this is an exception. The regular Cheesy Gordita Crunch was always reason enough to shell out a little more, but the dressed up version is absolutely worth it.

Of course, it would be better off if it was on the value menu. But I guess you can't get a newly renovated item at the prices your father remembers. Four sporks out of five.

December 26, 2008

The quandary of leftover Christmas cookies

I have a confession to make. I've been eating leftover Christmas cookies all day. If I cared about such things, I'm sure I could feel the lipids pooling in my thighs.

Fortunately for me, I don't care about it at this point in my young life. But that doesn't change the fact that many of you out there do. Therefore I've come up with a countdown of the top five ways you can get rid of leftover Christmas cookies.

They all conform to two important principles: The cookies must be gone by New Year's Day because nobody wants to eat food from last year, and you must be involved in the eating of your own cookies. After all, you can't keep your New Year's resolution of losing 15 pounds if those stale sugar cookies keep confronting you when you get home from the gym. And justice dictates you should be stuck with what you bake.

Without further ado, here's the list!

5. Eat them. Slogging through leftovers is more fun with someone else! So sit down with a pal and have a snack. Better yet, invite some friends or family over and have a cookie-eliminating party. You can even disguise it as wanting to see them for the holidays. Even if you don't have anything to say, you can just shove a cookie in your mouth, wash it down with milk, and repeat -- you won't have to speak to the people you've invited. That way, you'll actually get rid of the cookies faster if you don't have anything to say.

4. Eat them. Nobody said you aren't allowed to eat alone. Many of us have the week between Christmas and New Year's off this year. (In my case, I may have longer than that off, depending on how my job hunt goes.) So we'll be around the house eying up the tins of leftover cookies all day. Just give in to temptation whenever it strikes.

3. Eat them. Make sure you have at least two cookies after every meal. Yes, that includes breakfast. Nothing tops off eggs and bacon like a nice chocolate chip cookie! Two cookies after every meal equals six fewer cookies sitting in the tin per day.

2. Eat them. If you ever find yourself tempted to give the cookies to the birds or a next door neighbor, stop immediately. You made the cookies, now you're stuck with them. Your neighbor probably has her own cookies, and the birds don't want to get fat any more than you do. Eat a cookie every time you're tempted to give some away.

1. Eat them. If all else fails, suspend all other snacks and meals and start a cookie-only diet. You're dealing with a short term-deadline here -- Those cookies have to be gone by the new year. Buckle down and motor through those 10 remaining ginger snaps. They have enough calories to count as a lunch, anyway.

Granted, these strategies all look a little similar. They might even leave you wishing you never see another Christmas cookie again, or at least wishing you didn't have quite so much arterial plaque. But I promise they'll whittle down your leftovers in no time flat.

So enjoy! And remember, you mixed the batter for your own grave. Now you have to bake in it.

December 25, 2008

The Christmas ham: Overrated

Having finished a scrumptious turkey dinner earlier this evening, I'm in quite the mood to discuss Christmas meals. And while I'd love to lump praises on sugarplums and figgy pudding, it's important to address the meat of the issue.

The Christmas ham is a sham.

Plenty of different meats can claim to take center stage for dinner on the big night. Christmas isn't like Thanksgiving, when turkey is consensus main course. Instead goose, ham, turkey and even duck shuffle around for space at the table.

All of the fowls are okay. Their meat is succulent enough to merit a feast fit for the holiday. But ham ... Unlike the birds, ham is too foul.

In fact, it's hard to view ham as anything but imperfect pork. It's been cured with too much salt, which overpowers the true flavor of the meat, which isn't all that good anyway. It's hard to find a piece of ham that won't leave you chewing through gristle halfway through.

Those characteristics translate fine to lunch meat. In fact, Italian subs, which have ham in them, are one of my favorites. But you wouldn't serve up a platter of thick-sliced hard salami and expect it to satisfy as a hot dinner at a big family gathering.

So unless you're feeding your relatives cold cuts -- which is perfectly acceptable, and even recommended if you don't want to spend the day in the kitchen while they unwrap presents -- stay away from ham for Christmas dinner. I know it's too late to plan this year's dinner, but keep it in mind for the future.

Pick your favorite between duck, goose and turkey. Because ham is for the birds.

December 24, 2008

An Appeal for Eggnog

Every year I'm shocked at the number of people who recoil in disgust at the mention of eggnog only to admit later they've never tried it. Apparently, the name is enough to cause stomachs to rumble in protest.

True, there are plenty of things people consume with names that make me want to never try them. Chocolate-covered ants and live cockroaches, ala "Survivor," come to mind. But eggnog doesn't even approach the levels on the disgust-o-meter that merit a scrunched up nose at its mere nomenclature.

Sure, it's more like drinking pudding than drinking a beverage. And yes, it is exceedingly rich. But those two traits shouldn't disqualify it from consumption consideration. defines eggnog as "a drink consisting of eggs beaten with sugar, milk or cream, and often alcoholic liquor." I'll be waxing philosophical about the non-alcoholic eggnog because I find it delicious on its own. (Although, if your relatives get too annoying over the holidays, it is a traditional drink that could reinvigorate some missing yuletide cheer.)

What, exactly, is in eggnog that is objectionable? Is it the sugar? The milk? The cream?

I suspect the name eggnog is actually what turns people off to the drink. But the eggs only add to its richness. In reality the beverage just tastes sweet and filling, typically with a strong nutmeg flavor.

Therefore, I'm calling on all of you festive fools to try some eggnog this season! It's one of the few beverages that's only available once a year, and while its name might conjure up images of egg on your head, drinking it is a wonderful experience.

If it makes you feel better about giving eggnog a try, call it puree of white chocolate-covered ants. But do test a sip. If you're too timid to try it, I think you might as well have egg on your face.

December 23, 2008

Desperate for one more last-minute gift?

Most of us have that one present we've yet to buy. It's for Great Aunt Edna or First Cousin Once Removed What's-His-Name. And as much as we'd love to buy it, there's one big problem: We have no idea what to get.

So if you're off to the mall tomorrow to aimlessly wander the stores before grabbing some random "Make Your Own Fruitcake" kit in a last-second the-stores-are-closing panic, let me save you some trouble. Just buy one of those fancy meat-and-cheese gift sets.

I know, I know. Nothing screams "I don't know you well enough to get a gift that's tailored to your interests" like a meat-and-cheese basket. Actually, nothing says "I don't even feel like putting any effort into trying to figure out what you want" like a meat-and-cheese basket.

But take a step back. Almost any gift you get is going to scream "I don't know you." Even if you get lucky and buy your cousin's fanboy boyfriend a Marvel Comics Dictionary, chances are he already has it and publicly consults it every day. And it's more likely that you'll end up getting your step-uncle a Ford belt buckle when he's owned a Chevy truck for 25 years.

Just bite the bullet, own up, and admit you don't know your family. Then you can go ahead and give the gift everyone enjoys -- food.

I would even venture to say that the meat-and-cheese gift basket is unfairly ranked next to fruitcake as a terrible holiday gift. That should not be the case. The basket has a slew of delicious things in it: cured meat, tasty cheese, fancy crackers and, often, nuts. Even if your gift recipient doesn't like something in the basket, the portions aren't that big. Chances are they can find someone to eat it.

If you suspect that I'm covertly lobbying for a meat-and-cheese basket, you're right. I even usually get great gifts -- but I still want one. You just can't beat seasonal food as a present.

December 22, 2008

Hot McChocolate

Before taking you down the culinary journey that is today's food review, I would like to take a not-so-brief paragraph to mention that I've recently finished my undergraduate degree at Syracuse University. Not that I'm bragging, mind you. I only want to point out that in addition to my lifelong love of flavor and everyman eye toward food, I can now add a real-life college education to the list of traits that qualify me as a food critic. So read on, secure in the knowledge that this reviewer has received the stamp of approval from a fully accredited post-secondary institution! (That stamp didn't have anything to do with my food reviews, but we need not mind that.)

I've spent my last two blog posts reviewing coffee. But what about all of you out there whose palates reject java? What about those of you shivering in the bitter cold who just don't like bitter drinks -- those of you who need something sweet, like hot chocolate?

There is a big bad world of hot chocolate out there, and you need guidance. Well, fear not. I'm going to tackle the issue by taking on one of the newest and most perplexing hot chocolates: McDonald's.

And it is perplexing. McDonald's hot chocolate has some sort of a "McCafe" branding. It includes cappuccino, mocha and other fancy coffee-and-milk drinks that you usually buy in Starbucks. Plus it comes in a fancy dressed-up paper cup with a robust lid.

We'll come back to that lid in a bit. First, let's describe the hot chocolate that's inside the cup. It's sweet. Really sweet. So sweet that it leaves you wanting a bottle of water to alternate with sips of the hot cocoa. So sweet that I'm just going to say it again: it's sweet.

On top of that super-sweet hot chocolate is a big layer of whipped cream topped with drizzles of chocolate syrup. And here's where the lid comes in. Why are there chocolate syrup drizzles on a beverage that's served with a lid? The drizzles are used to improve the presentation of a drink or dessert, not to add any real flavor. This drink is already on sweet overload, so they're doubly superfluous.

Plus, there is far too much whipped cream for a lidded drink. The fun of whipped cream on hot chocolate is leaving it on top while you burrow your lips down to sip the beverage, thereby leaving you with a whipped cream mustache. But with a lid, you don't get that chance. It filters out all the whipped cream, leaving you wishing you could look like Santa with a whipped-cream Burt Reynolds-inspired mustache.

On top of those problems, the hot chocolate is apparently only available in medium. At least that's what the worker who waited on me said: "It's only in medium, I guess."

She was staring at her touchscreen looking surprised that there is no large hot chocolate. Just like I'm staring at my computer screen now, perplexed at the thought. Maybe a large cup of hot McChocolate is enough sweetness and sugar to blast you immediately into type II diabetes.

The drink might be sweet, but I'm not sweet on it. One spork out of five. McDonald's hot chocolate isn't big, but it is bad.

December 19, 2008

A doubleshot of coffee

As a follow-up to my recent worship of Starbucks Christmas Blend I thought I'd do a quick rundown of the java at Dunkin' Donuts. It's not a comparison, mind you. While I reviewed a seasonal blend from Starbucks, this is a look at the coffee Dunkin' Donuts brews up every day of the year.

It's a good thing it isn't a comparison, because Dunkin' Donuts coffee falls short in every category where the Starbucks Christmas Blend excels. It starts with a largely bitter flavor and doesn't get much better. The flavor doesn't gain any depth after it hits your tongue, and it finishes with another bitter aftertaste.

Perhaps worse, it's watery throughout the whole drinking experience. It's almost as if someone put an ice cube in it in order to cool it down, diluting the flavor. But I've found the coffee is typically served too hot, so I doubt there were any ice cubes in it.

What's that, you say? Coffee can't be too hot? I beg to differ. Yes, I want some nice, hot coffee to warm me up in the winter months. But I also want to be able to drink it within a half hour of being served. It doesn't do any good if it blisters my lips and tongue every time I try to take a sip.

I don't mean to be too hard on the coffee -- I genuinely like Dunkin' Donuts. I just happen to like the chain for its donuts and cookies instead of its coffee. The chain makes a decent iced coffee, as my loyal blog readers surely remember.

Still, it only gets one spork out of five. Even though I may not claim to know much about coffee, I can still criticize it.

December 17, 2008

Starbucks Christmas Blend: Holiday Magic

Right now you can fill your red Starbucks cup with something pretty special. It doesn't even have foam on the top -- it's just good coffee. So go pick up a cup of the Starbucks Christmas Blend.

Now, I don't pretend to be an expert in coffee. I've been drinking the stuff for just ten months, and then only when I'm cold, tired or have a donut. So you coffee connoisseurs who rely on my expertise in fried food may have to take this post with a grain of salt.

But for those of you who are like me -- those of you who grab a cup from whatever coffee shop is at the rest stop when you're driving through the night, or those of you who order a cup to go along with your pie at the diner -- take this to heart. The Christmas Blend is the perfect seasonal treat for the amateur coffee drinker.

It starts with a relatively mellow taste as the explosion of bitterness that often comes with coffee is smoothed out to a pleasant spark. Then the flavor grows to an astonishingly deep richness and surprising sweet undertone. Every sip leaves the mouth with little bitterness. If anything, those sweet currents are the final flavors that linger on the tongue.

For a coffee that starts out as lightly as this one, there is an incredible depth to the flavor. A tall cup of this Joe gives me that "I've-just-had-too-many-desserts" feeling in my stomach. And most of the time, that's a good thing. It feels as if it's nourishing.

And you don't even need all of that fancy milk foam and froth to get that feeling. That can save a few pennies, too. A tall cup cost me $1.78, which is well below the price for a frappemochacappelattechino. That sounds like four sporks out of five to me.

November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

The scent of turkey is floating through the air, and many of you have probably already gobbled up your Thanksgiving dinner. But I want to take this opportunity to wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving.

It's the perfect holiday: all about food. And while it's not polite or advisable to review your relatives' cooking, remember to take a minute to sit back and actually savor the flavors. I like to balance the meaty tastes of turkey and gravy with the starch of potatoes before moving on to some bittersweet cranberry sauce to lighten things up. Then stuffing can be employed much like salt -- a dash here or there to mix things up.

But if you don't like to alternate bites, if you decimate the mashed potatoes before moving on to the turkey, just don't inhale it. Thanksgiving comes once a year, and all the food somehow tastes better on the holiday itself. Yum.

November 20, 2008

The horrors of Christmas creep

It's time to speak out against Christmas creep on television and in the grocery store. This year the commercial world was starting to shove carols and candy canes down our throats before the Halloween candy had even been sold. Every year, Christmas comes to retail way too early. And it has to stop. It's the 12 days of Christmas, not the 12 months.

I realize that by speaking out against Christmas creep before Black Friday -- the day I believe it becomes OK to get in the Holiday spirit -- I'm contributing to the very phenomenon I've decided to slay. But something has to be done, and I fear no one will care about the dangers if I wait until we pass the point where Christmas-related commerce is obviously acceptable.

We're in danger of losing Thanksgiving this year. The Price Chopper where I shop has a bigger Christmas section than it does Thanksgiving section. Think about that for a minute. Thanksgiving -- the holiday associated with eating, where grocery stores get to sell turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce and potatoes and pie and all sorts of good things, is being consumed by Christmas, which is publicly associated with Santa Claus, presents, decorated trees and toy trains.

Now, you might say that there's plenty of eating at Christmas. Lots of people have a big dinner on Christmas with ham or turkey or goose and trim it with all the things I listed for Thanksgiving. You could even say Santa Claus likes Christmas cookies, so who can blame the grocery stores for hyping up all the Christmas food over the Thanksgiving meal.

But try this test. What is the first image that comes to mind when I say "Thanksgiving?" Turkey. What is the first image that comes to mind when I say "Christmas" or "Holiday Season?" It might be presents, snow or church, but I bet it isn't food.

There's something perverse about a grocery store pushing Christmas more than Thanksgiving. And I'm not anti-Christmas. I love the season as much as anyone -- just after Black Friday. The day after Thanksgiving, I'll be listening to some Christmas carols. I even like to leave the decorations up for months after Dec. 25, and believe taking them down before Boxing Day is akin to treason.

There are some other wonderful holidays and fall seasons we're missing in the rush to deck the halls. Oktoberfest shouldn't be held in front of a fully trimmed tree. Trick-or-treaters shouldn't be approaching houses with inflatable Santas on their porches. And the Thanksgiving table shouldn't be decorated with a Poinsettia.

Call me a Scrooge, but Christmas creep gets a resounding zero sporks out of five. Heck, I'll give it a Thanksgiving-esque two drumsticks down, too.

November 8, 2008

Guest Review: KFC Guitar Hero World Tour Box

The following review was submitted by William Reinier, a good friend of mine and new correspondent to Rick's Food Critique. William, pictured at left, writes from Stillwater, Okla. where he attends Oklahoma State University.

As a big guy, I know a thing or two about food, and after sitting on the couch watching television I saw a commercial for the new Guitar Hero World Tour Box at KFC. And for just $6.99 this seemed like too good of a deal to pass up.

The only logical thing to do was to get in my minivan and drive to my local KFC, as it was near lunchtime and the box seemed like a good idea. There was only one thing that I forgot to realize: While this seemed like a great deal, it was still food from KFC.

It began harmlessly enough. A very cordial man greeted me as I walked in and I could tell that the boredom was overcoming him -- the only other people in the restaurant were an old couple (we're talking AARP-old) and the other employees.

"I'll have the Guitar Hero Box, please."

This is what ensued:

"Would you like BBQ or Original Recipe strips?"

"Would you like a BBQ or Original Recipe Snacker?"

"Would you like a drumstick or a thigh? Original or extra crispy?"

"What two sides would you like?"

"What would you like to drink?"

"Is this for here or to-go?"

"Do you need any sauce?

When I finally got my food, I felt mentally exhausted. But I was ready to dig in.

I sat down and looked in my box, eager to begin. I took out the baked beans (one of my sides) and was very pleasantly surprised by the results. In the South, the ability to prepare baked beans is a commodity, and KFC did not disappoint. I picked up one of my strips and began to eat the bulk of the meal.

As I continued through my potato wedges and the KFC Snacker, I could feel myself starting to wear down. There is a special sauce that goes on the sandwich which is only made worse by old lettuce. It should be no surprise that food never looks as good as the television makes it look, so I wasn't very let down there.

The real disappointment came with the chicken leg. There were a few tip-offs that it was going to be bad. First of all, the server gave me two legs in an obvious attempt to get rid of them, because there was, in my mind, no telling how old they were. At first bite, I thought it was especially juicy, until I realized that it was especially greasy. I was forced to blot my half-eaten chicken with a napkin much like one would blot a pizza. I didn't know how I was going to get through this one, let alone the second. Luckily, I was able to muster enough will to get through.

Finally, it was time for the biscuit. This is easily the most underrated part of any KFC meal, and was maybe the best. I attempted to put some of the prepackaged butter on it when I noticed that it was not butter, but in fact a "Buttery Spread," as labeled on the packet, so I ate it dry. Fortunately, the meal also came with a 32 oz. drink with a game piece to win Guitar Hero prizes.

The food was decent, but KFC continues to dumb down chicken and take away what makes it so good. The only way to do chicken right would be to find a way to cook it fresh. It would also decrease the amount that is thrown out at night or recycled to the next day.

Sadly, I will probably go back and get another Guitar Hero Box.

Using Rick's patented system, I'm going to give it three and a half sporks out of five, based mainly on quantity rather than quality.

October 30, 2008

Candy corn is sweet on Halloween

On the eve of All Hallows Eve, let's discuss the greatest candy to grace the face of the Earth: Candy corn.

There's nothing quite as sweet as the pure-sugar kernels. No candies are quite as colorful. And no seasonal snack tastes quite as good as this end-of-October delicacy.

Candy canes are good, but they require lots of licking and don't have the instantaneous gratification of a handful of candy corn. Marshmellow Peeps are great, but they can leave your hands yellow and sticky. And Valentine's Day candy just doesn't taste as sweet in those times when you have no one to buy it for you.

But candy corn is as good as it gets -- and it comes in variety. Hand over the extra buck for a name brand like Brach's and enjoy the taste of a delicious touch of honey. Opt for candy pumpkins and watch your blood sugar skyrocket to levels unseen since you were four years old after trick-or-treat. Or, if you're in the mood for a challenge, sit down with a bag of the harvest mix and try to guess whether you're eating a scarecrow or some other strange character stamped into a colored blob of glucose.

The only possible downside to candy corn is the possibility of addiction. I went through two bags in two weeks earlier this month and had to pull back to stripes of orange, yellow and white appearing on my skin. Now I'm waiting for post-Halloween candy sales.

And those sales always come. Drug stores usually manage to overstock bags of candy corn, which is like overstocking on diamonds -- everyone wants some. But after Halloween, the prices plummet, and you can get bags upon bags for peanuts ... kernels.

So hold out a few more days, candy lovers. Soon you can go on an enormous candy corn binge and save some cash. And it will be wondrous.

October 4, 2008

Apple of my eye

Here's a quick suggestion: Head to the nearest apple orchard as soon as possible.

That crisply fall feeling is in the air. You can still pick some delicious apples from the trees. And you can get fresh apple products from orchards and farms.

Apple cider is my personal favorite -- it's perfectly sweet and crisp this time of year. You can get the stuff all year round, but it doesn't taste nearly as clean as it does in the fall.

If you like your apples fresh, you can pick them right of the tree, too. There are plenty of orchards and farms willing to overcharge customers for a bag and the privilege of picking apples.

I say overcharge only because you'd pay a lot less for the produce in the grocery store. Still, there's nothing quite like pulling the fruit right off the tree. Just be careful, though, because there are usually plenty of apples lying at the feet of the trees, and they can be a nasty slipping hazard. On the positive side, those discarded apples can fill the entire orchard with a cidery smell.

So head out and enjoy the fruit of the harvest before it's all rotting on the ground or frozen in some grocery store's freezer. There's always something to be said for fresh fruit.

September 26, 2008

Erupting in mediocrity

It's got a pink taco shell! That means it has to be spicy! ... Right?

... Well ... no.

The pink taco shell, of course, adorns Taco Bell's latest cheap creation, the Volcano Taco. And it certainly makes the taco stand out from the crowd. You don't see many pink tacos.

At least you didn't see many pink tacos a few months ago. Now you can see a bunch when you head to a food court at the mall or take a peek in the window of your neighborhood Taco Bell.

That's not because the volcano tacos are particularly spicy. It's probably because they're cheap -- 89 cents to be exact. And when you don't have to pay a premium for a novelty taco shell, it's bound to be a good deal.

Aside from the peculiar pigment, the only real difference between a Volcano Taco and a regular Taco Bell taco is what Taco Bell calls "cheesy lava sauce." If we're talking flavor, it's neither cheesy nor lava-like. If we're talking cool factor, then the lava sauce is most definately cheesy. Lava sauce on a Volcano Taco -- just throw in some "basaltic vinaigrette" for an explosive good time.

But the taco isn't necessarily bad. That cheesy sauce might have a corny name, but it does add a nice texture and moisture to the snack. Taco Bell tacos typically provide a tasty set of mouthfuls for a low price, and this one is no different.

It's just not spicy. And for something that's called a "Volcano Taco," that can be a sizable fault.

Three sporks out of five.

September 2, 2008

More fare from the fair

The 2008 New York State Fair ended yesterday, leaving a nice aftertaste in my mouth. I made a second trip to the fairgrounds in Syracuse to try a few more foods. So if you're finding yourself getting indigestion from fair fare withdrawal, check out these review snippets.

$1 baked potato
5/5 sporks

Snuggled in the back corner of the horticulture building is one of the true gems of the fair: a stand selling $1 baked potatoes. You choose which toppings garnish your spud, making a delicious tater that matches your taste. I went with butter, sour cream and shredded cheese. My potato was piping hot and baked to perfection -- soft but not dried out.

Roasted corn on the cob
4/5 sporks
These ears are roasted while still in their husks, keeping in all sorts of moisture and sweetcorn flavor. These $3 ears are peeled and can be dunked in a vat of melted butter before they're handed to you. The only downside to corn on the cob is that it can get caught in your teeth.

Beer battered chicken sandwich
3/5 sporks
Plenty of crispy golden battering is sandwiched between two hearty pieces of bun, a nice piece of lettuce and an absolutely monstrous slice of tomato. Unfortunately, there isn't much chicken sandwiched between that breading. The $5 item still tastes good, but it could be called a "beer batter sandwich" just as easily.

All the fair food was pretty good. Just thinking about it has my heart burning for some more. But the smorgasbord of vendors won't be back for another year. That's probably a good thing -- my bank account needs the time to climb back up, and my cholesterol needs the time to fall back down.

August 27, 2008

Foods of the 2008 New York State Fair

We're smack in the middle of Central New York's fried food fest -- the New York State Fair.

They'll dip anything in hot grease. You may remember two years ago when I sampled the interesting flavors and textures of a fried snickers. After a year away from the fair, I'm pleased to report that I visited last night and can bring you reviews of some properly fattening fair fare.

Loaded fries
4/5 sporks
French fries shine when you need a fork to eat them. Slather on obscene amounts of gooey cheese and cool sour cream, then top it off with crumbled bacon and a generous helping of jalapeno pepper slices, and you've got a real treat. They're a kind of successful cross between a baked potato and nachos. And while nothing at the fair is cheap, you'll get a reasonable amount of food for your $5.50.

Gator bites
3/5 sporks
Supposedly these deep fried bits of alligator taste like chicken, but the experience is more like biting into heavily seasoned breaded chicken that tastes like a scallop. Seafood lovers will be ecstatic at all the ocean-fresh flavor without the chewiness, but those who are more tentative will only want to try a bite for $1.00. Even if you don't like the taste, you'll be able to say you've eaten alligator.

Deep fried Oreos
4/5 sporks

These are a much more successful deep-fried dessert than the Snickers of two years ago. There's no need to freeze the cookies or put them on a stick, so biting into them is completely unhindered. It just tastes like you're downing some chocolate flavored fried dough. But at $4.00 for 6 cookies, it's an expensive "yum."

Wine slushie
3/5 sporks
It's not as bad as it sounds. I can't pretend to be in love with the things, but there's an interesting change in flavor that comes from slushifying wine. Each straw sip is exceedingly sweet when it first hits the tongue, but is quickly followed by a nearly-breathtaking red-wine flavor. It works out to a more complex and satisfying alternative to a regular slushie. Depending on the vinyard and size of your wine you'll pay various amounts, but there are 10 oz. cups for $3.00 if you look around. It's a pretty good drink deal at the fair.

3.5/5 sporks
I actually visited on "beef day," but this was the closest I came to eating any cow. The dog itself is thinner than a hot dog, but it's much longer too. That adds up to a lengthier eating experience, which is always good. Plus there's good old hot dog flavor for $3.00.

I wouldn't recommend eating all of these items in one night. Your wallet will hate you, and your stomach will be even more resentful the following morning. The next time you step on a scale, you'll despise yourself, too.

But go with the right attitude. It's okay to try a fattening food or two in the name of science -- and what says science like fried Oreos? Enjoy the fair! There are plenty of sporks to be had.

August 24, 2008

The long wait: Part III of When good food goes bad

Things can go wrong when you're eating in a restaurant. Then you're left spitting an undercooked burger into a trash can or waiting in a 20-minute line when you're already late for work. It's time to take a look at the dark side of the food industry.

The words "so near and yet so far" are pretty painful when you're hungry. Especially if you're in a fast food restaurant and it's past lunchtime. And somehow, at 2:30, those words always seem to fit.

Sometimes the store is empty and you expect to get your burger quickly. Since there are no other orders. yours can be rushed to the counter, right?

Um ... no. The person running the fry machine left for a smoke break but decided to run to Wal-Mart since no customers ever come in the middle of the afternoon. Now you have to wait for an 18-year-old to get back from buying another pack of Malboros before your fries can be cooked.

Other times the place is full and there isn't enough staff to handle the crowd. That happened to me Thursday. I stopped in at a McDonald's next to the interstate to grab a couple of late McChicken sandwiches. Construction had snarled traffic and left me running behind and my stomach running on empty. Judging from the size of the line at the register, it left at least 10 carloads of people in the same position.

In both situations a manager always seems to be out to try to solve the problem. A sweaty guy in a polo shirt usually pops up in McDonald's telling customers to "Have a nice day" while he orders his staff to make that double cheeseburger cook faster. A washed-up hippie saunters through Taco Bell, telling the new hires that you have to turn on the Quasadilla machine.

And it would be a pretty good spectacle if you weren't so hungry. Can the staff feed all the hungry people before time expires and they leave? Will they find someone who knows how to work the milkshake machine?

But you are hungry, so it isn't a spectacle. It's a debacle. And while good things usually come to those who wait, you're more likely to be thinking "there's no time like the present."

August 15, 2008

Overpaying: Part II of when good food goes bad

Things can go wrong when you're eating in a restaurant. Then you're left spitting an undercooked burger into a trash can or waiting in a 20-minute line when you're already late for work. It's time to take a look at the dark side of the food industry.

One of the nicest things about fast food restaurants is the fact that their prices are displayed on giant billboards behind servers' heads. It gives a pretty good idea of how much you're paying.

But what happens when the person serving you can't seem to read those giant prices? What happens when you order a $6.95 burrito and the kid behind the cash register asks you for eleven bucks?

There are only two options: Point out that you're being overcharge and explain that you know the worker's job better than he or she does, or grit your teeth and part with the extra cash to avoid the trouble.

When there are four people waiting behind you in line, impatiently shuffling their feet, nobody wants to be that person who asks to see the manager. Nobody wants to hold up the line and deal with the disapproving stares and sighs of exasperation from fellow customers.

Giving the person behind the counter a hard time isn't easy, either. Most of the time it's some teenager who's probably doing their first job. Even if they're unmotivated and mumble like they came straight from a morphine-filled dentist visit, it just doesn't feel right. None of us want someone to give us a hard time at work, so we don't want to ruin anyone
else's day --especially some kid who should be off drinking Red Bull and playing Nintendo in a dark basement.

Match that against the feeling of Mr. Washington in your pants. He certainly knows how to whisper sweet nothings. Breaking up with him is hard to do, especially when you're being asked to pay more than you should.

So it's a no win situation. Point out the price
discrepancy, and there's a big fuss that leaves you feeling sour. Cough up the extra cash, and you're annoyed you get ripped off.

It's the easiest way to ruin a meal before even seeing the food. Maybe it would be nicer if we didn't know the prices before we ordered.

August 9, 2008

Food poisoning: Part I of when good food goes bad

Things can go wrong when you're eating in a restaurant. Then you're left spitting an undercooked burger into a trash can or waiting in a 20-minute line when you're already late for work. It's time to take a look at the dark side of the food industry.

Getting sick of food isn't a big deal. Just eat something else. But getting sick from food can leave you with a permanent sour taste in your mouth.

Now, there are different varieties of food poisoning. Some of them are more severe than others. Last week I think I picked up one of the less-serious types.

But it's hard to be sure if you really have food poisoning, or even if you're sick. So I'm going to conceal the establishment that I believe passed me a little stomach-borne bug. I wouldn't want to unfairly ruin their reputation.

I picked up a tuna-sub at the unnamed establishment and began chowing down. Before I started I was pretty hungry for tuna. By the time I finished, I really didn't want to taste tuna for the rest of my life. That probably should have been a warning to stop eating.

Yet I continued to eat like some sort of little old lady swallowing a fly. I don't know why I did it, but I paid for it later.

Fortunately nothing came back up the hatch. My stomach just twisted itself into knots and rejected any notion of food. The next day was the killer, though. When I woke up in the morning, every muscle in my body ached and I couldn't shake that exhausted feeling. It was similar to dehydration or the sensation you get from a low-grade fever. Only the aches were worse and I drank plenty of water to rehydrate. Plus, I had a normal temperature.

It took a day before I started to feel better. That's a trademark of food poisoning: It doesn't last much more than 24 hours but makes you feel terrible.

Looking back, I can't be sure it was food poisoning. But it doesn't matter. I don't trust the tuna from this unnamed establishment anymore. And that's where the good food really went bad. I can no longer eat a meal I like because of a bad experience.

Let that be a lesson to you. When your tuna tastes fishy, throw it back. If you don't you could be up the creek without a paddle.

July 27, 2008

Chicken going South

McDonald's has a pretty good chicken thing going -- The McChicken. It isn't the tastiest bird meat you can get in a fast food joint, but it's the best feathered food you'll get for $1.

Too bad the Southern Style Chicken Sandwich doesn't stick to the formula that makes the McChicken so good. In other words, too bad it isn't cheap.

McDonald's took a slightly larger, higher quality piece of white meat and gave it some extra-fatty breading. As a result, biting into the Southern Style Chicken Sandwich is more like sinking your teeth into deep fried butter than eating any meat. It's just plain yummy.

Pickle lovers won't agree. A good Southern Style Chicken Sandwich should have some perfect pickles, and McDonald's doesn't oblige. There are two floppy thin wafers posing as pickles, and they aren't even crinkle cuts.

Even so it's a pretty good eat until you look at the receipt and go into sticker shock. Just buying the sandwich takes up the better part of three bucks! That's not counting any drink or fries.

You can buy three whole McChickens for that many greenbacks. Sure, a McChicken is a glorified chicken patty with more fat and some limpid shreds of lettuce. But it's cheap food, which is what McDonald's does best. Paying more than a buck for chicken at the golden arches ... it's just foul.

July 14, 2008

Pitting up with Cherry M&M's

I think the people at M&M's got their letters flipped with the new "Wild Cherry M&M's."

No, I'm not going to claim that some of my candies said "W" instead of "M" on them. For some reason that always happens, whether or not they're the new cherry variety.

But they shouldn't be "Wild Cherry" -- they should be "Mild Cherry."

Aside from their dark red wrapper, Wild Cherry M&M's are different from their original brethren in several ways. They're larger, they only come in two colors -- red and maroon -- and they smell like cherry candy.

Occasionally they also taste like cherry candy, too. But most of the time they just taste like bigger M&M's stuffed with creamier chocolate. There is no actual cherry at the center of Wild Cherry M&M's, and for the most part there's no actually cherry flavor, either.

Yet in every bag, a few M&M's do taste like cherries. Here's what it's like to eat them:

You tear open the packet and a strong, obviously fake cherry scent fills the room. Then you start eating, and five pieces in you don't taste any cherry. You just smell it. Suddenly you pop one piece into your mouth and it almost tastes like you bit into a chocolate-covered cherry. And then the next six or seven M&M's won't have any of the flavor.

I got several packs to confirm the phenomenon. Either the batch of M&M's in the vending machine was defective, my tongue is damaged, or these M&M's are only intermittently cherryish.

Perhaps the fact that there are only two or three highly cherry M&M's in the pack is what makes them wild. Or maybe my tongue really is broken. Neither would surprise me, but it isn't a bad eating experience. The mild candies have a very tasty, creamier chocolate than regular M&M's.

But they're still a bit more mild than wild. And no matter how good something is, if it's misnamed, it can't get a great score. Three sporks out of five.

July 6, 2008

Special spuds

It's the end of a holiday weekend, so let's make this quick. Everyone's been out stuffing themselves with hot dogs, hamburgers and apple pie for the last three days and can't think about food for too long.

My favorite French fry vendor was touting their taters Saturday at the Carlisle Summerfair craft show in my hometown. Bricker's Famous French Fries sells the best sticks of fried potatoes I've had in any of my moderate travels.

If you don't happen to live in Pennsylvania, fear not. You can usually get a similarly good fry from other food vendors at fairs. Here's what you should look for: A light golden color, a little bit of skin on each end and piping hot innards.

I don't know whether they use fresh potatoes or a special oil, but something about the booths that peddle their fries at festivals gives them the capability to make one amazing snack food. We'll leave the ratings on vacation -- just buy some fresh french fries whenever you're at a fair. You'll be glad you did.

June 29, 2008

A Better Burrito

Don't panic, but Taco Bell changed the value menu.

Well, a few seconds of panic might be allowed. The value menu was just about divine, after all. But take a moment to study the new value menu, and that intense pressure sitting on your lungs will evaporate. There are only nine items on it, and they're priced at 79 cents, 89 cents or 99 cents. It's cheap and simple.

Feel free to grumble about sacrificing the larger variety and better name of the old "Big Bell" value menu for the fake excitement of the newly named "Why Pay More!" offering. But there is one gem that makes the change worthwhile: The 89 Cent Cheesy Double Beef Burrito.

Normally Taco Bell beef is cause for an abundance of stomach cramps. For whatever reason, the double beef burrito is immune to the problem. Maybe the slathering of Velveeta cheese coats the abrasive molecules in the beef and passes them safely through the small intestine.

And it tastes great. There is just enough zest in the beef, cheese and seasoned rice that it doesn't taste like a ground-up cheeseburger. And it's not so much that you think it's been drizzled in hot sauce, either.

At 89 cents, these beg to be bought in pairs or even sets of three. One burrito makes a good cheap snack and two or three can be an economical and filling dinner.

There is one piece of beef where the beef is concerned, however. While the burrito has a pretty good amount of meat in it, I don't know that there is enough to justify a "double" designation. Double means two hamburger patties in one bun. Double means so much caffeine you can barely handle your espresso. This burrito is long and skinny. It's more of a "Cheesy Extra Beef Burrito" than a double.

It's still worth swinging by The Bell to try out the new menu. The 89 Cent Double Beef Burrito gets four sporks out of five -- just don't panic if you have to wait in line.

June 22, 2008

Triscuit Trouble

Just like the moon, my snacking has phases. I'll be enamored by muenster cheese for six months then switch to Town House crackers. After a few weeks of those, I'll only want something with chocolate.

There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to these phases. It's kind of like pregnancy cravings, only they last six months and I never feel like chewing on dirt. For all I know, they could be dictated by the moon.

Fortunately I'm not planning on deciphering the science of cravings today. Instead I'll be tackling an equally challenging question: Why do Reduced Fat Triscuits exist?

Actually, to be more accurate, the question of the day is why regular Triscuits exist. The two versions of the classic cracker have identical flavors.

It's not as if anyone goes to the store saying, "I'll only buy shredded wheat snacks if they've been drizzled in extra fat." If they do, those people expect to taste that extra fat. Yet the only way to notice the difference between a regular Triscuit and a reduced fat one is to sit them on a paper towel for 20 minutes. The cracker with the bigger grease stain is the regular one.

The nutritional information on the boxes points out a significant difference, though. Regular Triscuits have 4.5 grams of fat and 0.5 grams of saturated fat per 28 gram serving, while Reduced Fat Triscuits only have 3 grams of fat and are completely free of the saturated stuff, according to

Granted, those numbers don't seem to stand for much. What, exactly, do 28 grams of Triscuits look like? Unless you're planning on getting out your postal scale when you snack, you'll never know.

It all seems to boil down to this: I can choose to slowly choke my aorta with Reduced Fat Triscuits, or I can choose to choke my aorta a little more quickly with the regular ones. Either way, I have that delightfully crisp crunch and deep salty flavor Triscuits provide.

So I'll be lying awake tonight trying to figure out why Nabisco makes Reduced Fat Triscuits. Maybe it's to attract health nuts. Maybe it's so they can negotiate more shelf space in supermarkets.

Maybe it's because some people actually crave 1.5 more grams of fat in their snacks from time to time. Perhaps when the moon lines up with the Big Dipper, people just aren't satisfied with healthier shredded wheat.

Too bad I can't get pregnant. If I were with child, I might get a quick craving for regular Triscuits and be able to understand it all.

June 14, 2008


People don't just like Chick-fil-A. They don't just love Chick fil-A. They're crazy about Chick fil-A.

Today was the first time I ate there, and before stepping in the door I didn't understand the fuss. What's the big deal about a fast-food joint that only serves chicken entrees? If variety is the spice of life, Chick-fil-A looked like a bland trip to meat-and-potatoes-ville.

But now I get it. The beauty of Chick-fil-A is that it doesn't try to do too much. It just does what it does extremely well.

A char grilled chicken club sandwich and waffle fries made up my order. The sandwich was as close to fresh as I've ever seen in a fast food joint. The bun was wheat, which is always a plus, and it was fairly hearty. Provolone cheese was draped over the chicken, which is a nice break from the mundane normality of cheddar and American cheeses in most fast food eateries.

Grease wasn't dripping off the sandwich either. The chicken was juicy and flavorful without being deep-fried, and even the bacon was tasty without throwing off too much fat.

Yet the waffle fries really won me over. Novelty fries are less of a novelty than they are an important way to prepare a potato. Arby's gets bonus points for its curly fries, and Chick-fil-A becomes a great place to eat because of it's waffle fries. They're prepared just right -- they have enough grease and salt without going overboard.

Plus, they're easier to eat than the usual stick French fries. No more grabbing a fistful to cram into you mouth while they poke the inside of your cheeks at odd angles. Pick up a single, chip-sized waffle fry and take a bite. It's marvelous.

So Chick-fil-A is just what it looks like it is: A meat and potatoes place. But it's also a meat and potatoes place that knows how to make good meat and serve it with potatoes that are to die for.

The restaurant doesn't baffle me anymore. Call me crazy, but I like it.

May 16, 2008

Iced CofFree

Dunkin' Donuts touted yesterday as "Free Iced Coffee Day." Stop in from 10 AM to 10 PM and get a free iced coffee. (Limit one per customer)

Iced coffee is a funny drink. Not funny like a shaken bottle of Sprite, where the carbonation bubbles up to your sinuses and makes you snort. Funny as in odd, -- peculiar.

It's marketed as something to drink on hot days, and is essentially a way for coffee-selling businesses to stay open during the warm summer months. And it does have refreshing qualities. Yet coffee is a diuretic, which generally causes a net loss of water because it forces more frequent runs to the lavatory.

So how can something that causes dehydration be refreshing in the middle of a sunny afternoon, when sweat runs thick and people need transfusions of H2O? Iced teas faces this same problem. When it's hot, people need to be putting more water into their bodies, not forcing it out.

Paradox is the only way to describe it. So let's accept that and move on to investigate the nuances of the drink.

First, it tastes much better with cream than skim milk. Sorry weight watchers, but a drink with an almost-caramel color needs to have some thickness to it. Milkshake consistency isn't required, but skim just doesn't give enough oomph.

Second, don't go overboard on the sugar. The beauty of coffee is its bitterness wrapped around rich tones. Pouring in sweetness only ravages the taste and makes it more common. If you want to drink something sugary, just go buy a Sprite. Maybe you can shake it up to simulate iced coffee's funniness.

Three-and-a-half sporks out of five for the paradoxical cup of joe. If it's free iced coffee day, make it a full four sporks. Just don't go back for too many free cups. You might dehydrate.

May 13, 2008

Food Fit for a Lincoln

Five. Five Dollar. Five Dollar Footloooong.

Something about the jingle is enticing, making for one of the best food advertisements on television in recent memory. Forced sunniness, ala McDonald's ads, isn't there. Neither is the in-your-face excitement of Taco Bell's spots, which is growing long in the tooth.

Personally, I still prefer The King in Burger King commercials, but he's been criticized as "creepy." Due to his lack of universal appeal and dearth of musical accompaniment, The King might have to take a back throne to the $5 footlong song.

A police officer, a weather-lady and an airplane stewardess all get in on the fun. And who could forget Godzilla making the "footlong" motion as he rumbles through skyscrapers?

Oh, and the deal is a pretty good one, too. Five bucks for a foot of Subway tastiness isn't the greatest thing since sliced hoagie rolls, but it's great to have a nice round number to pay. No need to worry about pesky quarters or pennies jingling around, just hand over a fiver! Ham, turkey, beef, tuna -- it's all five bucks!

The only thing that's missing is Jared making the "footlong" symbol with his hands in the ad. Maybe a whole footlong would be against his mantra of healthy eating. But the song is so catchy he could surely dance off some of those extra calories.

Maybe he's in the next "five dollar footlong" ad. We can only hope.

May 2, 2008

Cold Candy?

Buy a chocolate bar at the corner store, and it's going to be room temperature. It can quickly become soft and gooey, enabling the sweetness to come through.

Punch the buttons on a vending machine, though, and it might just be refrigerated. Sometimes you can find cold candy in a friend's icebox. The sugar is muted, enabling other flavors to shine.

Each temperature has its advantages. But my completely unscientific survey, also known as personal experience, has found room temperature candy much more common. So let's spend a few words on the phenomenon of cold candy.

Most noticeable is the increased hardness of cold candy. Like any matter, chocolate is more pliable when warm. Put it on ice and it becomes brittle. Instead of conforming to your teeth when you bite, it splinters along several lines of cleavage.

Consequently, cold candy doesn't blanket your mouth in flavor. If you can get over missing the initial sweet shock, more understated flavors take center stage, however. A brief sweetness gives way to the richness of the chocolate. It's almost like moving your chocolate bar a few pegs down the darkness scale. Milk chocolate tastes more like dark chocolate, while dark chocolate ... well, it tastes even more like itself.

The flavor change isn't just limited to cocoa products. If you're eating a peanut butter cup, nuttier flavors take precedence over Reese's normal glucose blast. Milky Ways showcase a thicker caramel that completely alters the texture of the bar. Twix Bars have a more satisfying crunch, provided they aren't over-chilled.

Coldness is probably best applied to simple candies, since it enhances the complexity of flavors. Add too much complexity, and your mid-afternoon snack starts resembling an oral jigsaw puzzle. Consequently, stick to Hershey bars or peanut butter cups. But make sure to avoid the Crunch bar. Even though it seems like a simple candy that would be enhanced by coldness, it's fools gold. Whatever chocolate Nestle uses shatters at the first bite, leaving you licking at unsatisfying tiny slivers.

Cold candy can either be a spork above or below its room-temperature counterpart. When used responsibly, it's a rewarding journey.

April 19, 2008

A Complete Compliment

Complimentary continental breakfasts have consistently been available at hotel chains for a considerable time. Aside from the plethora of hard "c" sounds these complimentary continentals provide, they offer a good way to start the morning with some coffee and toast. You never have to leave your room or unfold a wallet. Whether you're vacationing or on a business trip, it's nice to not have to worry about where to grab the "most important meal of the day."

But what about a complimentary breakfast with more punch? If a light breakfast is good, logic would indicate a more comprehensive one would be better. At Holiday Inns, the complimentary breakfast is comprehensive, and the complementary breakfast is better.

The hotel I visited was well-stocked. Fluffy egg patties folded over melted cheese, sticky buns, sausage, and biscuits and gravy were all basking under heat lamps. For the hotel breakfast traditionalist, bagels, toast and yogurt were farther down the counter.

Don't expect the highest quality from the food, and it will make your morning. It's not room service at the Mayflower Hotel, but it's substantial. The only complaint of any consequence I had was that my eggs got cool quickly. If the good people at Holiday Inn had ratcheted up the heat lamp or if I had eaten them first, there wouldn't have been any problem.

Take one piece of advice: Have some biscuits and gravy. While not the most healthy combination, it makes an amazing taste that should be enjoyed when traveling. Count calories at home, come to complimentary breakfast ready to eat.

This is a credible hot breakfast that earns four sporks out of five. Holiday Inn got it almost completely correct, and receives my compliments.

April 9, 2008

Melted Morphology

"Misnomer ... Noun ... A use of a wrong or inappropriate name."

That's what Merriam-Webster says on It's also a good definition of Taco Bell's new Cheesy Beefy Melt.

It might seem impossible to mislabel something with two adjectives in its name. Taco Bell's latest addition to the menu might as well be a blueprint on how to do just that.

Start by stressing the fact that your food item is cheesy, but don't make it much cheesier than other items on the menu. Despite the fact that the commercials for this thing may set an American record for the amount of stringy cheese hanging out of peoples' mouths within a 30-second time slot, the melt doesn't taste any cheesier than, say, a Cheesy Gordita Crunch or Cheesy Fiesta Potatoes. In fact, the latter two items probably have a more predominantly cheesy flavor.

Next, feature "beef" in the name, but allow that beef to be overpowered by the taste of your seasoned rice. It rhymes true that rice is nice, but the grain should not be the dominant texture and flavor in a Cheesy Beefy Melt.

Finally, don't bother to differentiate this "melt" from any other food on the menu involving cheese. It wasn't served any warmer than some of The Bell's other tepid offerings, and the cheese just blended in with the other ingredients like normal Taco Bell fare. There was no unique interaction of tastes -- no cheese playing off beef, no special seasonings, nothing. The word "melt" seems to have been used because the marketing mongols needed a word that sounded different from the other ones on the drive-through board.

And aside from the price, the Cheesy Beefy Melt does only sound different from any of Taco Bell's other offerings. It's even wrapped in one of their basic flour tortillas. There is virtually no taste difference, but you will spork out just over three bucks for one.

If I'm going to spend that much cash on one item at Taco Bell, I at least want to eat something that's named accurately. Two out of five sporks.

March 26, 2008

Jellybean Justice

Easter Sunday has come and gone. The brightly-colored candies that were painstakingly stocked and restocked in the candy aisle just a few days ago are now heaped in a pile marked "50% Off." Perhaps you've eaten enough Marshmallow Peeps and Cadbury Cream Eggs to satisfy your reincarnated hunger. More likely, you're pouring over the discount candy like the rest of us, hoping to find a cheap peanut butter egg.

A word of caution: Do not fall into the gourmet jellybean trap during the Easter season. Read this advice now, but heed it when buying candy before the holiday next year. It might just save you a few bucks.

I speak, of course, of Jelly Belly Jellybeans. Renowned for their unfathomable variety of flavors and steep price, they have become the first thought in many minds at the word "Jellybean." They deserve their acclaim, and are often worth their steep price.

But during the Easter season, why not pick up a couple of bags of nondescript, off-brand jellybeans? It is the only time of year you can readily find them, and they are much cheaper than their upmarket cousins. More importantly, it is the only time of year you can derive as much enjoyment from the pure-sugar taste of the bright green, blue, red, orange and white beans as you can from the plethora of flavors in every box of Jelly Bellies. Only during Easter can you bite into a red jellybean that tastes just like a green one and still truly enjoy the candy. It doesn't matter what the flavor is, these are jellybeans!

Go to the spot-on A&W Root Beers and buttered popcorns of Jelly-Bellies any other time of year. But take advantage of your Easter Jellybean loophole while it lasts. For a few weeks, you're allowed to be a kid who doesn't care about any flavor in candy except sweet. Make the most of them.

March 19, 2008

Horning in on the Sweet and Salty Craze

Ah, Bugles. Few snack foods can match their salt, satisfying crunch or instrumental allusion. For all intensive purposes, they are vegetarian pork rinds with a regal shape. I don't know about you, but I've never thought to drizzle caramel on my pork rinds. Fortunately, the people at General Mills came up with that idea with their Sweet and Salty Caramel Bugles.

Sweet and salty is a pretty big deal right now in snack food. There are at least 2 million different types of sweet and salty granola bars lining the shelves of most supermarkets, some of which are more satisfying than others. But though those flavors can successfully work in tandem when they're coming from salty peanuts glazed with a little sugar, it's a lot harder to imagine them in harmony on the craggy surface of Little Boy Blue's favorite snack.

Often, strange combinations work. Things that sound disgusting in concept end up tasting delicious. But I won't be trumpeting that as the case here. It isn't that the little caramel bugles taste bad, they just don't taste good. Instead, the flavors and textures mix in a horribly fascinating discord. Eating these things is like watching an episode of Deal or No Deal. You want to stop, but somehow you just can't do it, and pretty soon you've wasted an hour of your life. Well, with Caramel Bugles, you haven't wasted an hour of life, you've wasted a day's caloric intake.

The initial flavor is just odd. It is definitely overwhelmingly caramel, but a misplaced fatty aftertaste lingers. You get that feeling that you've just bitten into a paper towel that was used to dab the grease off bacon -- the one familiar from normal Bugles. Yet a sticky caramel residue lingers on the molars, as if you're chewing a Werther's Original.

On one final sour note, these little snacks don't sit well in the stomach. After eating a bag from a vending machine, I felt like I'd actually swallowed that paper towel soaked in bacon grease. The Bugles were down there playing taps as my appetite for the remainder of the day was laid to rest.

A perversely interesting taste combination manages to snag 2 sporks out of five and keep Caramel Bugles from receiving a one-spork requiem. In the end, this misguided snack doesn't deserve much fanfare.

March 11, 2008

Shameless St. Patrick's Day Tie-In

That's right, folks. It's March, and that means two forces are making companies everywhere see green. One is college basketball, the other, more appropriately, is Saint Patrick's Day.

It is Saint Patrick's day that must be addressed today, because Ireland has many foods associated with it. Corned beef and cabbage, soda bread potatoes are probably the first that come to mind. None of these are peddled by big corporations though. Turn to McDonald's Shamrock Shakes, though, and you've found the fast food industry's preeminent Irish promotion.

Now, it could be argued that the Shamrock Shake is actually a nice tribute to the Emerald Isle. It is green, after all, and McDonald's was founded by Dick and Mac McDonald, who had Irish heritage.

Really, though, what does a mint-flavored milkshake have to do with Ireland? The Irish aren't particularly well known for milkshakes, unless I'm mistaken, and the flavor isn't particularly associated with the isle, unless you count the mint sauce that helps make lamb so tasty. From the outside, the whole promotion seems like a cheap way to make a buck.

Even so, the Shamrock Shake is hard to put down. Say what you will about McDonald's line of triple-thick shakes being made from a powdered mix rather than some fresh milk product, this just tastes good. The mint isn't too strong, in fact it might even be overpowered by a strong sweetness. The combination works, and works well.

In fact, once you've taken one sip of the shake, you might as well forget about putting it down until it is finished. This leads to one of the Shamrock Shake's biggest drawbacks: it will probably give you a cold rush headache. Chasing it with some aspirin would be a good idea, except drinking it so fast will probably cause your stomach to sit in a clenched ball for a few hours.

The Shamrock Shake is a tough cookie ... um ... shake to rate, because it has so many mixed factors going for and against it. On one hand, nobody likes a brazen scheme to capitalize on heritage to make money. On the other, few things should make you want to see leprechauns and sing limerick's like an Americanized tribute to the Irish -- a green shake. And it might make you feel sick afterward, but boy does it feel good going down.

Mixed reviews come out to average rankings. And while I might rank it higher had I not just had a Shamrock Shake and was not trying to get over the stomach cramps, right now it sounds like three sporks out of five. Oh, what the heck. Make them three O'Sporks out of five or something.

February 8, 2008

Keeping with Candy

Yes, your favorite food critic is back stateside. Yes, you'll actually be able to buy the products I'm reviewing again. After four months of reading about foods from across the pond and about two months of not reading about food at all, you can enjoy the full experience of reading my reviews of food right here in the United States.

These changes can be jarring, so let's start where we left off: with candy.

The big trend in American candy right now is to release new versions of classic candy bars. It's behind a slew of products, from the Butterfinger Crunch to the Kit Kat "Big Kat."

Reese's is mixing it up too. Their "Reese's Whipps" join the slew of other Reese's-themed candy like the divine "Fast Break" and the forgettable "Crispy Crunchy Bar." And with 40% less fat, what could possibly be wrong with the new(est)comer?

Not much, actually. The bar is a piece of peanut-butter flavored nougat, coated in the wonderful creamy peanut butter candy in the "Fast Break," coated in a thin layer of chocolate. It's a whole lot of sweet peanut butter flavor, and a whole lot of fun.

This thing fills your mouth with sugary Reese's peanut butter. Unlike the peanut butter cup, which only has limited peanut butter flavor, the nougat seems to expand on your mouth and militantly take charge of all your taste buds.

Sadly, it doesn't expand in your stomach. It's also very light and full of a good amount of air, so the bar won't fill you if your tummy is telling you it's time for a snack. The claim of less fat is also a little misleading, considering one not-so-filling bar still has 9 grams of the stuff.

Still, it's a great effort to make a Reese's product a little less damaging to your health while coming up with a new take on an old flavor -- worth 4 sporks out of 5. Think of it as a lighter Fast Break with more peanut butter, and use it as such. If you're hungry, eat a fast break. If you crave peanut butter without the heavy feeling in your tummy, eat a Whipp.

Or just eat three Whipps if you're hungry and want more peanut butter. Choice is American, after all.