Guilty pleasure. The very term, with its giggly air of mischief, makes me want to hurl my sausage McGriddles onto the pavement. Perhaps I’m overly sensitive to guilt, but whenever that emotion pops up while I’m snacking, my meal is instantly diminished.
I wish I had the strength of mind never to extend an invitation to guilt, that nattering scold, to dine with me. But I regularly do. Guilt can hover over my lesser tabletop experiences (or, more likely, covert face-stuffings in the car) like a radioactive cloud. I always know when I’m indulging in a “guilty pleasure” — the same thought always crosses my mind: “Dear God, I hope no one sees me eating this [fill in the blank].”
Truth is, I have numerous guilty pleasures, most of them remnants from youth, when I didn’t know better. As a kid, I was the Keith Richards of sucrose. I gobbled down lots of junk — burgers, dogs, chips, Icees, colas, Ho Hos, Ding Dongs, Cap’n Crunch, the list is embarrassingly long — and the memory of some of those salt-and-sugar rushes remains buried deep in my brain no matter how much Michael Pollan I read.
Ever since a reader during a Washington Post online chat posed a question about the Food staff’s guilty pleasures, I’ve been thinking about my affection for foods that are frowned upon today but were considered Standard Issue Snackage during my Midwestern childhood. I’ve (mostly) detached from this slow-drip lethal injection of a diet, although I still indulge in plenty of hamburgers on this beat; they just don’t come wrapped in wax paper, and the ground beef is visible to the naked eye without needing to pry the sweet, gummy buns apart.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve read Michael Moss’s “Salt Sugar Fat,” and I know that the food industry engineers products to hook us like trout. I’d like to claim my intellect always overrides my emotions and my palate in matters of taste, but we all know that’s a lie. Sometimes you just want a Krispy Kreme doughnut, even if you have to mow down a street full of Food Police to get one.
I mean, once the “Hot Now” sign flickers on, I’ve been known to slink into a Krispy Kreme on a full stomach. Few indulgences are finer than a ringlet straight from the Krispy Kreme fryer, its sugar glaze still sticky and hot. The chain’s yeasted doughnut recipe is virtually without peer, the round so light and puffy it deflates on contact with any hard surface. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve wolfed down flattened Krispy Kremes.
There’s a dichotomy, I’ve noticed, among my guilty pleasures. Some, like the doughnuts, are as soft as marshmallows; others offer a pleasurable resistance for the bicuspids. The latter category includes one of those bronzed logs rolling 24/7 at the neighborhood 7-Eleven. Few items in the convenience store’s display case of Hot Impulse Junk (I’m trademarking that as I type) entice me, but those Buffalo Chicken Go-Go Taquitos own me. Their exterior, I must admit, can be off-putting: Are those golden tubes shellacked with tanning spray? So I close my eyes and let the pleasures roll across my palate. The crispiness. The tanginess. The heat.
When I dare to darken a fast-food chain’s door, I’m usually on the prowl for crispiness, which explains why I don’t fetishize McDonald’s french fries like so many others do. I’ve sampled some Clown fries that were as crispy as taro root mash. No, when I want crackle, I’ll drive past the Golden Arches and head straight for the red cowboy hat. Arby’s Potato Cakes are lusty little isosceles triangles of pure crunch. Dipped into ketchup and Horsey Sauce, these cakes practically explode with flavor. Which reminds me: I love Nacho Cheese Doritos, too. Please don’t give me any. I’ll eat the whole bag in one sitting (and wipe my fingers on your shirt as revenge).
For something approaching an actual meal, I’m still a sucker for Taco Bell’s Burrito Supreme, even if the stuffed tortilla doesn’t look as supremo as it once did. In my mind, the burrito used to be big enough to double as a seat warmer. No matter. The creation remains a gut-buster, packed with lush, fatty ingredients (beans, cheddar cheese, ground beef and enough sour cream to feed a family of four) as well as some crispy shredded lettuce to counter all that mushiness. Don’t forget the little packets of hot sauce.
Upon reflection, I was tickled recently to discover that one of my favorite junk foods did not originate from my childhood in the ’burbs, where street vendors were limited to stoners driving multicolor vans and peddling Bomb Pops, ice cream sandwiches and other drippy delights of summer. No, I first encountered a chili-and-cheese-smothered “half-smoke” on the streets of the District, back when downtown was still dominated by vendors working out of tiny tin boxes.
Times have changed dramatically on the streets of Washington, of course. Gourmet food trucks — or whatever you call that seemingly endless fleet of kebab and taco vendors — have hogged all the attention and much of the stomach space of downtown office workers. I don’t say this in a nostalgic way, as though I wish we could reset the streets to 2006. I say this because, after buying a half-smoke on the streets recently and burying that link in cheese sauce, onions and a thin chili, I recalled all over again how perfect (and messy) this bite is. Its heat was unapologetic, a reminder that some street creatures can’t be tamed.
As I stood next to a trash can, taking one large, satisfying bite after another of my half-smoke, I realized something: I didn’t feel a lick of guilt.