Low-Rent Umami

Wholesome Classics Hamburger Helper

By: Betty Crocker

Suggested Retail Price: $2.09

Taste: 1stars


Marketing: 3stars

When I served up the two new Wholesome Classics Hamburger Helper flavors to my wife, her succinct summary was: “The only flavor is salt—well, salt and beef, but we added the beef.” This isn’t entirely fair to the products, as the Cheeseburger Mac version has a muted but distinct Cheez Whiz note, while the Stroganoff flavor sports a low-rent umami that suggests mushrooms without actually delivering any.

Wholesome Classics promises “great taste” and a “good source of whole grain, calcium, and vitamin D.” The whole grain comes from the brownish pasta that is supplied with the “helper,” and the calcium and vitamin D, presumably, from the milk that the consumer pours into the slurrylike sauce that accompanies the ground beef and pasta.

As for the great taste, not so much.

It feels, well, unsporting to bad-mouth Hamburger Helper, a classic American product that’s been helping people adulterate perfectly good ground beef since the early ’70s. No one has ever expected or demanded excellence of Hamburger Helper; it’s practically a get-out-of-dinner-free card. And yet this stuff is a thick, salty, somewhat oily culinary atrocity. It takes 14 minutes of simmering, and requires water and milk in addition to the ground beef that you supply, so why not just prepare a meal? Even an extremely simple one?

You look at the package’s cheerful glove mascot with its simple, black beady eyes, devoid of malice or comprehension, and you think: “You poor thing. You’re shilling for something terrible.”

Big & Soft Chips Ahoy!

By: Nabisco

Suggested Retail Price: $2.89 for eight cookies

Taste: 3stars


Marketing: 3stars

What’s wrong with Chips Ahoy! cookies that can’t be solved by making them bigger, fluffier, and chunkier? That’s the proposition that seems to have inspired the new Big & Soft incarnation of America’s most universal chocolate chip cookie. Each Big & Soft cookie comes individually wrapped, and, as promised, is both bigger and softer than you might expect.

While the chunks of chocolate that liberally stud each cookie aren’t of single-source artisanal quality, they’re not terrible. There’s a bit of actual chocolate flavor associated with them, which is a pleasant surprise in a mass-market product like this.

As for the overall flavor and texture, if you’ve tried Soft Batch cookies, you’re in the general ballpark. There’s an odd chemical aftertaste that lingers, but it’s not entirely unpleasant; like nondairy creamer, you know that the taste isn’t completely kosher, but there’s a familiar (if depressing) sort of comfort to it.

Like so much of America’s grocery-store fare, a good part of the appeal of Big & Soft Chips Ahoy! seems to be the cookies’ uniformity. Each is exactly like its predecessor: the same texture, the same size and weight, approximately the same number of chocolate chunks (or oatmeal/chocolate chunk clusters, depending upon which variety you’ve purchased).

Ultimately, though, these things aren’t half bad. Big? Yes. Soft? Yes. Delicious? Let’s stick with “big and soft” and quit while we’re ahead.

James Norton edits the Upper Midwestern food journal Heavy Table. He's also the coauthor of a book on Wisconsin's master cheesemakers. Follow CHOW on Twitter, and become a fan on Facebook.