Nostalgia Week #4: McCain Smiley Fries

Well, readers, it’s shaping up to be a pretty crappy day and it’s barely past noon over here. My phone, which I’ve had for the last three years, stopped working today. It registers as on, but the screen is blank and I can’t read texts or receive calls. So it’s basically a light-up brick. I feel overworked, I’m stressed looking for a summer job, I’m the goddamn Batman, and I have an enormous baking project to undertake tonight. So I’m pretty peeved right now.
Luckily, I remembered I had these fries in the freezer to review today, which brightened up my day significantly. These fries are getting more dreamy eyes and shooped tumblr posts than Titantic, One Direction, and puppies with broken legs combined. It fuses together 17 year old girls’ love for their childhood, which they perceived as idyllic and uncomplicated in retrospect, and their projected appreciation of the simple things in life. No joke, I once saw a Facebook status circulate around a specifically dumb group of pre-deletion friends that read something like, “~i would rather have a boy make me dino nuggets n smiley frys then take me out for a fancy steak dinner ♥~ REPOST IF U LOVED UR CHILDHOOD!!! Or something like that. And yes, the “then” was spelled like that and nobody noticed that the re-poster made herself out to be an enormous hambeast.
My point is, people, specifically people my age, love reliving their elementary school glory days for no other reason than to relate to people who, like them, were also children at the same time they were. It’s a little pathetic. Likewise, Disney sing-a-longs, Lion King marathons, and Harry Potter fanart also falls into this category of the 90’s Nostalgia Generation. Regardless, everyone can still agree that it’s immensely satisfying to bite an anonymous face apart piece by piece.
I’ve seen grown college students, legally defined as adults by the state of Massachusetts, push each other and grab at these like toddlers lacking fine motor skills. Why? Because they’re absolutely delicious. They’re the best of french fries and tater tots, with the increased crispy surface area of the former and the thick, pasty sustenance of the latter. Salt for all. Even better when you dip them into ketchup because then you can justify eating them due to their extended cranial injuries. Even better than feeling like God when you’re able to injure them at whim and then consume them before anyone notices are the deformed ones.
You’re special in your own way. And possibly incapable of frowning. Smiley fries, you are the best. Your starchy, whipped texture makes cannibalism almost seem pure.

Larry the Cable Guy’s Spicy Corn Muffin

Euphe-what? I went there. To whomever neglected to inform me of the wonders and joys of Big Lots. You are a saint. I now have yet another funnel of cake and destruction to fuel my hard-earned paychecks into. This store is a mecca of weird-assed junk of the weirdest and assiest variety. I spent $12.50 on beautiful things and a lifetime supply of Propel in the ever-popular Lemon Pledge variety. Today’s selection, however, is not for the faint of heart. It is an item that exists on no websites, with proceeds that go toward prolonging a dubious catchphrase, and is advertised by a celebrity virtually nobody enjoys.

Amidst a gentle background of Conway Twitty, ladies and gentlemen, this is Larry the Cable Guy’s Spicy Cornbread mix. Hey, it was between this and a child-sized guitar emblazoned with a hip-gyrating Elvis, filled with festering cheese popcorn. No brainer, right?

You’ll notice that I neglected to sample the vast majority of the entire Cable Guy family recipe roster, including the Triple Cheese Cheeseburger Skillet Kit and Lasagna Casserole. This is because I do not fetishize e. coli and stomach pumping. Those of you who do have come to the right place. The first thing worth noting about this is its complete lack of presence on the Almights Lord our Internet. The only trace of this I found, aside from the downright creepy Git ‘R Done Association, whose charitable payouts undoubtedly include Big Mouth Billy Bass dolls for all, was the apparently brilliant pyramid scheme of selling these on eCrater for a mere $9.99 apiece. And to think I almost balked at parting with a dollar for the humiliation of having Larry’s face grace my kitchen. Eh, I’ve done worse.
Perhaps the most upsetting thing about this package are Larry’s witticisms and advice, scarily intended for an audience to which he is superior. Larry warns me on the back to “taste ’em before you add more hot sauce” and enthusiastically points out that I’ve “gotta try this.” What the fuck, Larry? No offense, I’m sure you’re a great guy, but I don’t come to you for advice on FDA safety regulations and Frank Bruni-esque recommendations. But I bought this cornbread because I was delirious with glee and also, hungry. For a dollar, it’s not terrible. Emphasis on the “not” and the “terrible” part. By that, I mean that it is edible, but only to a certain degree. My friend Larry might compare this to roadkill or one of his second cousins, but it’s no better than soul food and no worse than cornbread made from huitlacoche. I’m done. I’m sitting alone in my kitchen eating cornbread branded by a man with all the finesse of a drunk Guy Fieri.

Do not patronize me, Lawrence.

For all its poor advertising, though, the cornbread is a decent value. What it lacks in visual appeal it surely makes up for in taste, with a surprisingly spicy, non-medicinal burn and a tender crumble with a moist center. Too bad it’s colored in Home Depot’s bestselling “decoy orange” shade. I served it with a roasted jalapeno compound butte- ahahaha, I did no such thing. I ate it out of the pan. In the great, wide world of TV tropes, it’s the quickbread with a heart of gold. If you chance upon these, folks, I might say to give them a try. For a dollar they’re no worse than Hamburger Helper, but for the love of God, if you must gamble with your life and try the Cheeseburger Dinner, git ‘er done- git ‘er well done and don’t send me your hospital bills.

T-Fal Actifry

I never imagined my few summer jobs in retail would ever come back to haunt me. For instance, I’ve never been offered a free puppy from one of the two imbeciles who owned the pet store I toiled at for two and a half years, nor have I been offered a free child from any of the summer camps I worked for. However, when I worked for T-Fal last summer, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be offered the flagship product of the very store, the Actifry.The Actifry is the stuff of dreams and reality of the incompetent. Where else could you combine a hairdryer, microwave, and peoples’ dieting hopes and fears and charge $300 for it? People would come in and marvel over the two we had in stock. One couple actually decided not to buy it because it didn’t come with the premeasured oil spoon. It was something that both entranced and scared me.

When I was offered a chance to review the Actifry last week, I immediately accepted. The most lauded recipe of the product is french fries, for god’s sake. So to make sure I was adequately prepared for the ensuing wonder, I invited FF over, bought a year’s worth of vegetables, fruits, and chicken, and prepared to have a fryathon. The deal was that if the Actifry failed both to impress and satiate the three of us, we’d all go out to tapas instead and bemoan the football helmet-sized device.

The Actifry is fucking huge. And noisy. When it turns on, it scares the cat and makes a weak, yet persistent whirring noise as it churns its innards around. FF dubbed it “Baby’s First Fryer” after seeing the aftermath of 40 minutes in the chamber. This thing is pretty weak. Keepitcoming and I tried it with both regular fries and sweet potato fries when it first came in. The problem really lies in its construction. The benefits to frying are that, if done correctly, the water from the product being fried will repel the oil and cook the food as it is heated without absorbing any extra oil in the process. Add that to the straining after and frying isn’t nearly as bad nutritionally as it’s made out to be. With this, the one tablespoon of oil is swirled around and distributed, but never really focusing on the exterior of the product versus that of a fried piece of potato that eventually develops a crust. With the Actifry, the oil doesn’t so much develop a crust so much as it just unsticks the pieces after cooking. In our photos, it was sitting on top of the fries in small beads.
The real issue with this, which we found out after cooking no less than nine different traditionally fried foods, is how it’s constructed. Older models of the Actifry had a large paddle that churned the foods similar to the paddle in an ice cream maker or fraternity. The model was revised to have a spade-shaped paddle that lifted and turned the items around. This is, of course, in its most ideal setting. In the worst of all scenarios, in our case, kettle chips, the shovel/paddle/spade scoops up all the chips, mushes them together, and carries them around for the remaining 40 minutes. I imagine this could be improved if the paddle had a setting that automatically switched the direction of its rotation after a prescribed amount of time, thereby eliminating the dreaded clumping syndrome and evenly spreading around the ingredients in the chamber. We found the paddle to better distribute chunks of things rather than long strips or slices.

It’s also difficult to set the timer on the device as the angle that the display is set at is badly placed and reflects so that the dial can’t be seen. It’s also hard to use this at night as there is no backlight or setting to make it easier to see in the dark.

To exhaustively test out the mad skillz of the Actifry, we tested ten traditionally deep-fried items. As a side note, this is NOT an alternative to a deep fryer. We found it to be rather limiting with the number of things one could actually “fry.” Anything tempura-battered or gooey is out as it automatically gums up the works. Deep-fried ice cream is impossible. However, unlike a fryer, it’s easy to do like a crock pot and “set it and forget it.” So we narrowed it down to french fries, sweet potato fries, a leftover frozen Davio’s egg roll, tortilla chips, plantain chips, kettle chips, David Liebowitz’s “foolproof” Korean chicken wings, onion petals, spiced stewed apples from the included cookbook, and deep-fried Oreos.

The Actifry rests its oil-free laurels on its french fries. Spoiler alert: they’re not really that great. They come out tasting like a baked potato with less seasoning. Even my oven fry recipe from Cook’s Illustrated, which uses around the same amount of oil, has much crispier, firmer french fries. These just had a hard, crackly exterior and a somewhat gummy and wet interior.Before. How bad would thick, skin-on fries be?And, meh. Any fries over two inches long were mangled by the spade of doom. It looks like we stuck fries in a trash compactor and then ate them. We ate the whole plate of these, but it was only once we were finished that we realized we weren’t enjoying the texture so much as we were enjoying the copious amount of salt we’d put on top.Our next trial was sweet potato fries. A seemingly innocuous recipe. I expected these to be more turgid and harder to break in the cooking process because of how brittle they were when raw. Unfortunately, the Actifry pulled another Frymangling Maneuver again. These fared much better than the regular fries, but only because they were tastier when mushy. There was barely any crust on the outside. Raw fries…Turn into edible, vaguely crisped mush. And origami-like folded fries.Our next item was a frozen egg roll leftover from the last week’s review. This actually turned out to be really tasty. It didn’t break at all in the Actifry, though it occasionally got stuck on top of the rotating spade and had to be taken down so it could evenly cook. The egg roll soaked up all the oil and got very crispy without burning, as well as heating the frozen center. Delish.
We moved from Asia to Mexico with our tortilla chips. I’ve fried and baked tortilla chips before with awesome results, and this somehow screwed them up. After ten minutes, they had soaked up most of the oil, had broken up into a few small pieces, and were rock hard and over cooked, despite looking really delicious.
The plantain chips were fucking gross. Seriously. The flour and corn starch coating we applied infiltrated every bite of the chips and the slices were overcooked and brittle. Appetizing, no?
When FF arrived, we switched to a more finger-food-friendly snack, thinking that they’d be cooked well. Wrong again. While the chips were tasty, they weren’t kettle chips in any respect. The centers of the chips were cooked, but not crispy, so again carried that same wrinkled baked potato texture. The outsides were crunchy. Wholly inconsistent results.
I was most disappointed in the Korean chicken wings. The photos on David’s blog looked mouthwatering and fantastic. Using the exact same recipe, we took our chicken and coated it in the batter. It came out looking tasty, but in the scooping process, had lost most of its spicy coating. The chicken was well-cooked and juicy, but couldn’t really be considered a piece of fried chicken or chicken nugget. With the sauce, it was passable, but overall, not an alternative for the glorious bird.
The fried onion petals looked like discarded aromatics…
And the spiced apples were only partially cooked and oily. They left a film on the fryer.
I believe the above photo illustrates the success, or lack thereof, of the fried Oreos. Purchasing the Berry Blast variety only added insult to injury. Two days later, the pan is still soaking.

So, to recap. Here are our ratings for each individual item, based on flavor, authenticity/resemblance to its fried counterpart, and ease in preparation.
French fries- 2/3 for flavor, 1/3 for authenticity, and 2/4 for prep = 5/10
Sweet potato fries- 3/3 for flavor, 1/3 for authenticity, and 2/4 for prep = 6/10
Egg roll-3/3 for flavor, 3/3 for authenticity, and 3/4 for prep = 9/10

Tortilla chips- 0/3 for flavor, 0/3 for authenticity, and 1/4 for prep = 1/10

Plantain chips- 0/3 for flavor, 0/3 for authenticity, and 0/4 for prep = 0/10

Kettle chips- 1/3 for flavor, 1/3 for authenticity, and 2/4 for prep = 4/10

“Fried” chicken- 2/3 for flavor, 1/3 for authenticity, and 3/4 for prep = 6/10

Onion petals- 2/3 for flavor, 1/3 for authenticity, and 3/4 for prep = 6/10
Baked apple and apricot dessert- 1/3 for flavor, 2/3 for authenticity, and 1/4 for prep = 4/10 Fried Oreos- 0/3 for flavor, 0/3 for authenticity, and 0/4 for prep = 0/10

Machine pros: Easy to clean up if frying, set it and forget it function, knowledge of exactly how much oil is going in food.
Machine cons: Larger than Rosie O’Donnell’s left ass cheek, loud, takes a long time to prepare food, and $300.

So, either the Actifry is manufactured to only work with specific, low-calorie foods that need to be fried, and like the behavioral modifying drug Alli, discourages against using high-calorie foods in the fryer by turning them into facsimiles of poop, or it isn’t as successful a device as the world thought it would be.

Mama Mary’s Soul Food, New Haven, CT

I don’t know what you’re doing to celebrate the return of Our Lord Jesus Christ in his much-hyped 2011 Rapture tour, but Swagger and I went into New Haven to toast one of our last three meals on earth with some soul food at Mama Mary’s.
Mama Mary’s Soul Food, predecesed by Sandra’s, is a surprisingly upscale establishment on Whalley Avenue, a restaurant in muted earth tones and metals with quirky, blasphemous touches one notices mid-bite. Some are funky, like sitting in refurbished pews and taking menus out of the hymn book racks, and some a little strange, like the haphazard mismatched living room set tables to the right, where plush armchairs crowd each other around small bar tables, flanked by booth seats three feet away from the tables they are supposed to occupy. Michael Jackson, gospel, and soft R&B plays softly above as the fans whir and a steady stream of people filter in and out.

The service, though painstakingly slow, is worth the shift from a hectic schedule to soul food time. Upon ordering, we were promptly served our respective drinks, a delicious homemade sweet tea and lemonade, and two thick slices of the most tender, fresh cornbread I have ever been privy to consume, the top half inch of it soaked in butter. When the Rapture comes, it would do you wise to wander around Mama Mary’s. Remember, when the looting begins, the cornbread can be yours. This is a side dish that I would gladly come back for. Not only is it free, but it is laced with just a slight sweetness and a soft, moist crumble that falls apart at the slightest fork prod.With this as a small tease in mind, I expected nothing short of mind-blowing entrees and sides. We took a sweeping approach to their menu, taking advantage of the easily customizable dishes to order the maximum number of different items we could possibly sample. Swagger dove right into the scarier parts, ordering chitterlings with collard greens and candied yams and I opted for a more prosaic, yet blatantly Southern dish, fried catfish with macaroni and cheese and fried okra.The small plate, roughly the size of a small watermelon, was heaped with orbs of fried okra and a large pile of pasta. The star of the plate, the catfish, occupied a scant quarter of the plate, but was piled high. After sampling pieces of each dish, it was apparent that this was a restaurant where one would go for the chicken (or fish) but stay for the sides. The catfish wasn’t particularly outstanding on its own, but with a few squirts of the well-loved Kurtz hot sauce, present at all tables, it was transformed into a vinegar-heavy, spicy fish with a delicate crunch and buttery, flaky texture.

Both sets of sides were even more sumptuous, the fried okra my new alternative for popcorn chicken. That was a flavorful snack, with a light batter that belied its weighty center, with a slight heat and a heavy crunch. This was the first time I’d ever eaten okra, and it was an absolutely perfect example. The vegetable inside was firm and fresh and needed no seasoning to eat, simply providing an earthy, salty flavor on its own. It stayed crispy for a few hours and made an excellent afternoon snack. The macaroni and cheese was regrettably unimpressive, with a cheese-heavy yet flavorless texture and a presence that seemed only to serve the purpose of filling rather than sating the palate. Wholly ignored by all.Swagger says, “I, on the other hand decided to go for a more exotic and possibly more authentic dish at Mama Mary’s. From the moment when I was essentially challenged by the menu by it saying “for a true Southerner”, I felt that it was my duty as a former Southerner to get the chitterlings or as I was taught to pronounce “chit’lins”. For the people who don’t know, chit’lins are pig intestine. The chit’lins at Mama Mary’s was absolutely delicious. They had the smarmy distinctive stink of what a good chit’lin should have. (Note from Foodette: They carry the pungent odor of boiled human skin.) It had a soft melt in your mouth texture with a little bit of chewiness. They were cooked in a spicy sauce with just the right amount of heat and flavor as to not overtake the natural taste of the chit’lins.

The sides I opted to get were the candied yams and collard greens. The collard greens were nothing too special but the candied yams were a whole different story. When biting into a piece of heaven that was the candied yam, I may have literally saw Jesus’s eyes. This type of sensation has only happened on one other occasion. The yams were cooked to a soft melt in your mouth softness in light cinnamon flavored syrup. I could probably eat these yams all day and every day. Candied is an understatement here. These were more like dessert yams, with a caramelized sauce and a fork-tender yield. They brought the ignoble tater to a beautiful place, where the starches were melted down to a pudding-like consistency, married to the very sugar molecules themselves. Just for the candied yams I would go back again. The candied yams and cornbread at Mama Mary’s are possibly the best things ever. (Note from Foodette: Swagger let me eat his last yam and now I must name my first born after him.)

If the world ends, we’ll probably be around until October 21st. After all, this blog is a sure sign of hell on earth and none of us are going up with Jesus, unless it’s to slip him some whipped cream vodka for whatever heaven-tastic party he’s planning up there. See you on the other side of the Rapture, folks. It’s been a good run.

Pillsbury Simply…French Bread

This is going to be photo-heavy because this bread dough was technically a Transformer: Breadbot in Disguise. Like top-heavy but the photos are of bread and not tits. Hate to disappoint. In any case, this is new from Pillsbury’s Simply… line. Yes, the ellipses are mandatory. A lot of pondering went into my head when I heard this name. Simply what? A hearkening back to the simple, rustic days of living? A command to simplify our lifestyles? Nudist beaches? Ball-scratching? All of those things are simply delightful, so I was pleased to try a product that I could rank up next to some of my favorite simple pleasures- eating and sex.The bread performed up to my expectations. Granted, I had steeled them reasonably low as this was, after all, a canned bread, albeit one that simplified (see what I did there?) the ingredient list, even going as far as to gently tell us that xanthan gum is nothing more than a “natural carbohydrate.” Granted, it is, but it’s still a food additive meant to catalyze something that does not naturally occur in food. It’s tantamount to calling polylysine “nature’s refrigerator.” It both patronizes and minimizes the concern as a whole. But the bread, with all its flaws, was not a bad bread. Appearance-wise, it was attractive and rustic looking with a pleasant, browned exterior with only a slightly can-like shape from the package.That browning, by the way, was awfully hard to create and was the product of rotating the bread in the oven halfway through. No joke. They don’t mention it on the instructions, but this browns rather unevenly. If I’d left it prostrate in the oven, it would have come out with a tanned top and a fleshy bottom, desirable in neither chicks nor pastries. As it was, I paid careful attention to it and proudly extracted a crusty loaf upon completion. The floured surface was a nice touch and with the artistic slashes I’d added before, (I didn’t want to get too crazy) made it look almost homemade. Almost.That “almost” was belied in the texture of the bread. When I cut into it, the knife sank through easily. The texture was singular throughout the loaf. The crust definition was poor and seemed as though it was more of an extension of the fluffy middle itself, thus lumping it into the ignoble categorization of things like fake grill marks on meat. It was neither crispy nor chewy, falling flatly in between to resemble a light toast than anything else. The flavor was what would make me purchase this again, albeit on restricted terms. It just didn’t taste like canned bread and it didn’t have that wonky pre-portioned touch that most do. It was a wholesome, airy flavor with a hint of sweetness that brought out the honeyed coating I later doused it with- and accentuated the savory sandwich, a delicious mock Monte Cristo, that I had for lunch. Shot glasses. I’m just really big on shot glasses right now.My other big complaint with this would be the portioning. One package makes a ten inch loaf roughly the length and girth of a freakishly elephantine peni- er, roughly the length and girth of a Subway sandwich loaf. One person can eat that in a sitting. That’s not going to feed a hungry family of four unless you’re cutting tiny slices. I was able to cut eight good-sized slices from the loaf, including the bitch corners that nobody wants to eat. That might make a sufficient side dish with pasta, but for anything or anyone larger than the American standardized family set (batteries not included) it’s a little restrictive.Homemade bread takes about three hours to make, and most of that is letting it rise while you do other things. If I was pressed and had only twenty minutes, thirty if you count going to the grocery store, to prepare a baked good and had no time to bother with measurements and shit (that’s for pussies) I’d probably go for this. Despite the bullshitting with the ingredients, it was wholesome and tasty, and even if people did rag on me for buying it from a can, I could then counteract with a comment about how their twenty minute Robert Irvine-esque warnings for dinner parties sucked anyway. I can’t wait to see how this turns out tomorrow as a giant sandwich. In conclusion, this is not better than sex. Unless it’s really boring sex, and in that case, maybe.