Foodie Underground: A Penchant for Gourmet Junk Food

ColumnBeing a junk foodie has never been so hip.

It’s always good to leave your bubble. In Portland, Oregon, my bubble is food related and consists of farmers markets, New Seasons and buying quinoa in bulk. But for the past few weeks, I’ve been on the road, which has necessitated numerous gas station stops. Entering a gas station in general is rare for me, and the experience is much like sitting down to watch an hour of regular television and getting completely sucked in by the commercials. A sensory overload of sorts.

These interstate gas stations and mini marts offer much of what you’d expect: bad coffee, beef jerky sticks and an assortment of chips and high fructose corn syrup packed candies. In fact, I certainly don’t expect to find examples of fine cuisine at trucker stops, but the amount of strange food products above and beyond the standard is mind-blowing. Consider Tum-E Yummies, a 100% fake drink that’s the color of a neon set of Crayolas, a gummi spread of Mexican inspired food and a two pound bucket of cheese balls. How can it be that people really eat this stuff?

But it’s not just late night road trippers in need of a sugary fix. Even in a world of organic and local, junk food is all the rage. In fact, at a recent monthly supper club with my usual gathering of like-minded foodies, there was a plate full of crab bruschetta. Lovely. Until I overheard the maker of said bruschetta say, “You know what I rolled the crab in? Ranch Pringles.” I cringed.

You can go so far as to call it “Gourmet Junk Food.” Twinkie Napoleon, Mountain Dew Jelly and Fruit S’Mores – there are plenty of recipes waiting to go around, making the simple fried onion, green bean and mushroom soup casserole look tame. These days even lollipops have celebrity status and you can send all kinds of junk food gift baskets to your nearest and dearest. No matter what your personal take on the trend, from five star restaurants to books, being a junk foodie, for better or for worse, has never been so hip.

Andrew Freeman & Co.’s annual Trend List for 2011 was spot on when it announced that “Munchies are moving to the forefront as chefs reinvent junk food in gourmet ways.” The list cites Cereal Milk Ice Cream at Momofuku Milk Bar in New York City as one of the examples of culinary destinations taking a stab at classing it down, but there are certainly many more restaurants and chic bistros out there incorporating junking their gourmet, like the Junk Food Platter at Simon L.A and deep fried Twinkies spotted in Honolulu. In Philadelphia you can even take a Junk Food Tour, which touts a First Class tour and dining experience.

Incorporating bad foods into classier creations isn’t just happening out and about at finer restaurants. The real gourmet junk food movement is happening right at home. Just look at Mini-Mart a la Carte. This book probably has its greatest following in the hipster crowd, but bad food is unfortunately back, from Vienna sausage pigs in a blanket to Sardines Rockefeller. I’ve been drawn to perusing this book on several occasions simply because of mere disgust; reading the recipes are akin to staring at a traffic accident, when you know you should look away but you can’t.

And while Mini-Mart à la Carte certainly doesn’t attempt to label itself as a cookbook for foodies, Junk Foodie does exactly that, taking advantage of the word with which so many of us use to define ourselves. A cookbook for “the lowbrow gourmand,” it’s all about taking office snacks and turning them into something classier, like Oreos and Hot Tamales blended together to make an Aztec Coffee Cake. The author, Emilie Baltz, is quick to remind us that nothing in her book is good for us, but that somewhere in between the aisles of jelly beans and potato chips, we can find inspiration for new creations.

Need some real inspiration? Head on over to Fancy Fast Food, a blog devoted to fast food makeovers that look almost like they could be served with a white starched napkin and your finest silver. Except for the fact that some of these photos, which turn combo meals like Popeye’s Fried Chicken into Spicy Chicken Sushi, might induce some gag reflexes.

Foods and desserts that incorporate some of the worst ingredients that the food industry has to offer? Bring your bismuth.

Of course, no matter how conscious we are about the negative effects of these junk foods that we’re cooking with, we’re still popularizing products that shouldn’t have a place in a healthy food society. I doubt you’ll see Alice Waters making a homegrown, organic spinach salad sprinkled with crumbled Doritos anytime soon.

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’s weekly column at EcoSalon, Foodie Underground, discovering what’s new and different in the underground food movement, from supper clubs to mini markets to the culinary avant garde.

Images: Junk Foodie, Anna Brones, Anna Brones, Chronicle Books, Junk Foodie



Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.