A Matter of Convenience
Is there anything Americans won't put in their mouths?
By Meg Favreau
Do yesterday's failed convenience foods equal nutritional hope for the future? Last February on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart responded to Bobby Jindal's claim that “Americans can do anything” by dipping a Jimmy Dean pancake-wrapped sausage on a stick into Baconnaise Light and putting it in his mouth. “Putting it in his mouth” is the operative term here — Stewart spit the baco-covered food-pop out immediately, contorting in his chair and desperately grabbing for a bottle of water before finally proclaiming, “I think my tongue just took a shit.” Stewart made the Baconnaise the star of this horror, encouraging the Baconnaise people to never send samples to the Daily Show again, but I'm more interested in the terror of Stewart's supporting character, Jimmy Dean's Pancakes & Sausage.
If you don't eat JD's P&S and just happen to see a box of them at the grocery store or read the reviews, you might think to yourself that they're simply a flash in the pan (er, microwave) and will soon fade into obscurity. But no. Oh, no. Jimmy Dean has been selling its Pancakes & Sausage on a stick since 2006 — and that's not their first sausage-pancake product. In the early '90s, they launched a similar product called Flapsticks, which a reviewer in South Carolina's Rock Hill Herald described as “fun, tasty, and easy to eat,” a review so kind that I wonder if she was on Jimmy Dean's payroll. And even before that, Sanderson Farms made a pancake-and-sausage on a stick product in the late 1980s. That's right, America: We've been dashing out the door in the morning with glorified breakfast corn dogs for more than 20 years. The pancake and sausage on a stick is old enough to legally drink alcohol.
Oh god, please don't make an alcoholic pancake-wrapped sausage product.
All of this is, of course, why Stewart chose to dip the pancake and sausage on a stick: It represents the zenith of misguided American food. Calorie laden, filled with unpronounceable ingredients, and cross-bred, Jimmy Dean's Pancakes & Sausage is a short-hand explanation for why we're fat and unhealthy.
And really, we are: As of 2008, at least 25 pecent of the population in 32 states was obese, according to data from the Center for Disease Control. The solution to the problem isn't a mystery. From morning chefs cooking vegetable frittatas on the local news to contestants on The Biggest Loser getting taken to task for their eating habits in prime-time, there is always someone telling us that we eat bad food and too much of it. Fixing that problem, however, is a situation that gets syrup-sticky. Changing our eating habits is difficult enough of a task, especially for those who don't have time to prepare a meal or never learned how to cook. And then there are institutional problems. A 2008 New York Times piece cites a study showing “that 'energy dense' junk foods, which pack the most calories and fewest nutrients per gram, were far less expensive than nutrient-rich, lower-calorie foods like fruits and vegetables.” As Bryan Walsh later wrote in Time, “A food system — from seed to 7-Eleven — that generates cheap, filling food at the literal expense of healthier produce is also a principal cause of America's obesity epidemic.”
But I do have a reason to celebrate the state of food in America — it could be much worse. I know this because it has been. I'm not talking about when farms turned to dust during the Great Depression, or when tough mothers in tenement houses served thin cabbage and potatoes to their wide-eyed, malnourished children. No, I'm talking about the convenience foods that flopped. Because seriously, if pancakes and sausage on a stick can last as long as they have (long enough to, if they were human, be a legal daycare provider of your children) how bad were the foods that failed?
In 1994, Prepared Foods (“the industry's leading ingredient-oriented, food, beverage and nutritional product development publication”) came out with a piece in its Annual highlighting failed product launches from the previous 10 years. The article started with 1983, the Year That Everybody Decided to Make a Cheese-Filled Hot Dog. It's little wonder that none of these lasted; one of these hot dogs was called Frank 'n' Stuff, and I can unequivocally say that here's nothing that makes me less excited to eat a food than giving it a name that hearkens to sticking together cadavers (which I guess is kind of what hot dogs are already). Then, Prepared Foods points out, in 1990 there was Betty Crocker's microwavable bread, six-ounce loaves that were purchased partially baked and finished with two-to-three minutes in the microwave. Oh, and what about when Clorox was making microwavable meals? Because nothing says “good food” like a company primarily associated with bleach.
But many of the most interesting and hideous convenience food product failures of the last 25 years didn't make it into Prepared Foods' hallowed Annual. For example: I recently wrote a piece where I mentioned IncrEdibles, a late '90s convenience food product. Packaged in cardboard tubes and available in flavors such as Macaroni & Cheese and Scrambled Eggs with Cheese & Sausage, IncrEdibles featured a stick at the bottom of the cardboard tube, so after you heated them up in the microwave, you could simply push into your mouth without utensils. Even though I have never actually seen an IncrEdible, every time I think about them, I am attacked by the one-two sensory punch of smelling Velveeta and hearing fake cheese squelch like living, spiral-shaped food slugs twisting around one another.
Some of the blips on the prepared food screen, meanwhile, were at least health-minded (if not actually healthy). The year 2000 saw Shareables, a line of foods and bottled water sold solely by PetSmart. Designed to be shared by humans and pets, Shareables featured treats like yogurt-covered raisins for the humans coupled with pet food. In 2007 there was GOAT, a food-like product that launched after Muhummad Ali signed away his name and likeness. The resulting line of “Greatest of All Time” snacks, each checking in at under 150 calories had a “homemade look and feel,” “contain[ed] all of the essential nutrition that young adults need to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle,” and allowed snackers to “indulge without guilt or regret.” (The same megolomaniac branding claimed that Ali was “the most recognized man in the world” – sorry, Jesus.) GOAT was also the only food listed so far that I had the unfortunate luck to actually try. I was treated to a snack of multicolored pellets that resembled a cross between pet food and futuristic vitamin pills that tasted like peanuts wrapped in a crispy coating of Southwestern disappointment.
But while I like to think that the disappearance of these foods says good things about the choices we've made as consumers over the past several years, I also have to admit that I have no idea why these foods failed. I want to believe that it's because we're smart enough to not eat the stupidest of food-type products, but as the Prepared Foods Annual notes, "These products may have failed for many reasons — spurious consumer research, poor product performance, inability to achieve shelf placement, overpricing, misdirected advertising, lack of adequate marketing support, etc.”
Meaning that until we do the hard work of really improving our eating habits (and the system that influences them) Pancakes & Sausage will probably remain in a grocer's freezer near you, no matter how stupid they are.
Meg Favreau is a writer and comedian living in Philadelphia.