After explaining the Supertaster mandate (trying a lot of the most questionable stuff on the market, like cheesecake-stuffed pancakes at IHOP) to my Uncle Phil one day, he remarked, "Oh, I get it: In terms of food, you're basically jumping on live hand grenades so we don't have to." Sometimes that's true—the job of wading through the frozen, the mass-marketed, and the quickly served is not always a pleasant one (see the last half of this post). But some surprisingly pleasant things happened in the world of prepackaged food and beverages in the year 2010, bright spots of flavor that made the whole odyssey worthwhile. Here are five items that really stood out—in a good way.
Domino's Pizza Surely nobody on the planet hated Domino's pizza more than I did at the beginning of this year, and so when the chain began a major commercial campaign based on the idea that its own pizza was totally ghastly, my ears perked up. Think of a cat hearing a can of tuna being opened several rooms away—that was the level of my shock and interest. Lo and behold: The new Domino's pizza is really not too bad. Not terrific, not as good as a solid local pizzeria, but OK for delivery. And most importantly, several orders of magnitude better than it was before. The major brand turnaround of the year, no question.
Annie Chun's microwavable sushi This one wins the prize for Least Likely to Succeed. The idea of making sushi at home from a kit is questionable at best, and then introducing the microwave seemed to be a surefire disaster. Nope. Actually totally decent, and if you stuff it with something simple like avocado, a totally passable sushi snack. Mind-blowing—we are truly living in the future.
Snack'n Waffles These Liege-style Belgian waffles by Smucker's are the fun-to-eat product I'm most ashamed that I went back and bought more of. The last thing I need is an easier way to eat waffles. And yet—the crunchy, sweetened interior of these things is soothingly tasty, and they're really easy to prepare and eat.
GoGo squeeZ applesauce It's just applesauce, but good Lord is this stuff charming. It's a simple, healthy, delicious product that's packaged in a minimalist Euro art box evocative of vintage Saul Bass—what's not to love? This year's standout amongst obscure underdog products that deserve to make it in the marketplace.
Throwback Pepsi and Mountain Dew With their use of real sugar and gorgeous retro packaging, Pepsi's "Throwback"-style sodas breathed new life into old brands this year and last year. The flavor had enough depth and charm to stand out in a blind taste test against the HFCS equivalents, and certainly made a case for more mass-marketed sodas going back to the sugar standard for their beverages.
Honorable mentions also go out to the Thin Mints clones that are better than the real deal, the weird and delicious SooFoo grain blend, a perfectly balanced ginger syrup, the classy and versatile Absolut Brooklyn, and the pleasing salt-sweet contrast of pretzel M&M's.
Supertaster's Worst Five Foods of 2010
And, for the sake of balance and talking through the pain, here are the worst of the year, five gastronomic moments I'd love to be able to undo. Oh, if I could turn back time ...
Toll House Filled Cookies In the world of big-budget food rollouts, few things are more detestable than the "old-timey family baking" bait-and-switch. A family sits around the kitchen making cookies together and not constantly checking Twitter and yelling about the trivial crap that families are always yelling about. Toll House Filled Cookies are this sort of product: a shortcut to domestic bliss. But they are soul-rottingly bad. I don't normally describe anything as wretched, but that seemed to be the best word at hand for this particular product. Perfect if you hate your family.
Chill-activated wine Two things seem to be the kiss of death in the world of alcoholic beverages. The first is any image of a young, tall, shopping-bag-toting woman running around the label. Putting a picture of your target demo on the product says that you are trying to sell a product, not that you are trying to make a good product. The other thing is "chill-activated" technology. Again, if the only way your product is drinkable is if you've chilled the flavor out of it, something is rotten in the metaphorical Denmark that is your beverage. Mommessin Beaujolais Grande Reserve Red combines both of these things to make a wine perfect for pouring into a sink, toilet, or shower stall. Dishonorable mention also goes to Skinnygirl, the low-calorie "margarita" in a bottle that combines all the alcohol-fueled narcissistic self-loathing of Sex and the City with all the flavor of antifreeze.
Hot Pockets stuffed-crust pizza Oh, Hot Pockets. I ... don't even know what to say to you anymore. Maybe you could try taking a break? For just a year or two? Let everyone recover, and explore some new ingredients, and just, you know, stop hurting everybody? This stuffed-crust pizza is very bad, and writing about it makes me sad, like when a baby animal is separated from its mom and wonders where its mom went. That's how bad this stuff is. It's like two pieces of cardboard with sadness sandwiched between them.
Jekyll & Hyde liqueurs The idea is cute: two complementary liqueurs, one kind of sharp and edgy, one sort of sweet and smooth. But what if both liqueurs are basically terrible? Doesn't that sort of miss the point of the Jekyll/Hyde dichotomy? "Dr. Jekyll was terrible at his job, and nobody liked him, and the state was on the brink of revoking his license. But some nights he would transform into Mr. Hyde, who was also very bad at whatever he did, like terrorizing people who were stumbling home at closing time. He was not terrifying, he was just sort of silly and weird."
Finally: Michelob Ultra Dragon Fruit Peach Beer. Man, who green-lighted this?