On Eating Combos

An ode to a miserable snackfood

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I wouldn’t think I’d feel discounted by others over what I eat, though I’d expect it of what I read. Just the other day, I responded — aptly, I thought — to my wife’s charge of only wanting to read great art and not Gone Girl or Stephen King, no matter how popular, by pointing out her insistence at never wanting to consume a sandwich made by the Subway Fast Food Restaurant Company. On occasion, stranded in the city, I will partake of a foot-long tuna (not toasted) while she refuses to ingest the admittedly icky bread and plastic-tasting tomatoes and sweet peppers. Now what could ever be the difference here? One goes into the mind and the other the body, but they both touch spirit, which holds dominion over all organs.

My lifestyle choice, reader of great literature, isn’t so outlandish. Sure, I started on Stephen King and other “bestsellers,” but as I’ve grown up, I’ve been drawn to much different sensibilities, being what author Gary Lutz terms a “page-hugger” rather than a “page-turner.” That is, glorifying the words of each individual sentence and the “world” or “soul” revealed in its architecture, something the late William H. Gass forwarded. Along with this, I’ll admit to the hypocrisy of ordering my mind over my body’s intake of garbage, including the ignoble Combos. Most of us have our special ham-handed thinking and indulgences. Mine affects the longevity of my body, but at least I’ll be quoting Shakespeare left and right as my ship goes down.

brain eating book

A co-worker saw me with Combos Baked Snacks, made by Mars, Incorporated, for the third time in two weeks and related that she had seen Combos for sale at a highway rest stop and told her fiancée how she works with a man who likes to eat Combos for breakfast (as I do arrive a bit tardy to the office at 11, after my early-morning driving duties). Everyone in the office laughed. Even I had to (on the inside) and replied with the punchline that I didn’t want to be known as the man who likes to eat Combos for breakfast. (Did it matter I had chosen the Pizzeria Pretzel flavor on two of those occasions? Something I would have to admit at gunpoint had more to do with the pizzazz of the Italian word “Pizzeria” and less the taste — good job, marketers.) Then I kept the neurotic plates spinning with more one-liners, both for attention and making others laugh in lieu of having my feelings hurt — a most complex Freudian complex. Yes, at some level, quite apart from my proud donning of the highbrow label in literary matters, I do care what people think of me in terms of food. Should I have parried, stating what only I could know? That I really planned on buying one of the five or six types of tofu, seitan, or hummus and avocado (why are those two always bedfellows?) sandwiches that 7-11’s amazingly sell, but the one I visited did not carry them anymore.

Combos are not so much a guilty pleasure because there is little guilt — besides when more than one person judges my diet — and not so much pleasure either, as I don’t seem to be afflicted with the unassailable cravings for junk — whether salt, grease, or sugar — I hear aired by many of the generations born since the Johnson administration. I don’t need Combos like I require other vitamins, and though each bag is stamped with the pride point “Made with real cheese,” it is a quixotic one because it tastes nothing like real cheese. Instead, the smell of a freshly opened bag of Combos, no matter the varietal, carries a vague aroma of not-too-old vomit. It’s a filling portion — when I multiply the serving sizes the front of the bag generously proffers, it’s 780 calories, though I’m unimpressed either positively or negatively. When you have to eat, you eat — a motto I put in the second person to not be so closely identified when someone turns critical. But give me props — it’s a small bag, so my green footprint is light. Food is food and I usually eat Combos because they can fill me up at least three-quarters-of-a-meal full for only $2.80. Also, I can eat them at a leisurely pace while doing something else, as I often consume them when driving or looking at the computer. They actually resemble few snack foods I’ve ever eaten. The cheesy middle eliminates pretzels and popcorn, while chips, whether tortilla or potato, are thin and undaunting, except for their awkward size and choking danger if not properly masticated. Yet I wouldn’t bill Combos as an exotic appetizer — how could I when the chemical aftertaste makes the thought of eating anything else comical?

sexy combos

The experience of eating Combos is not so different from that of Plato’s mealiest cave-dwellers who watch the shadows of the shadows of real things. It’s an imitation food. For instance, the “pretzel” or “cracker” parts, depending on the concoction, could be made out of dried cardboard marinated in soy sauce for a day too long. Yet, the lark of the combination sends it into another realm — that is, the illusion that one is eating some form of bread and cheese, but more a form preserved from 2008, when Mars, Incorporated, bought out William Wrigley Jr., the world’s largest gum company, for $23 billion, cash. I feel satiated for about five minutes after I finish eating a bag, but more often, I leave behind the last two of roughly 35 in a preemptive attempt to claim I did not eat the whole thing. After those minutes elapse — it’s a different story. Combos largely affect my mood more than my stomach, which has been taught to put up with this travesty of a three-quarter meal around twice a month. They are in actuality, a quick-release narcotic and mood destabilizer, as I instantly begin to rebuke myself, hating the person who has slummed to eat something of no nutritional value, despite the company’s boast that, “COMBOS® Baked Snacks are a delicious and indulgent treat that can be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle.” Suddenly, I think my “Food is food” stance paltry — reading Gillian Flynn, even if she wrote Girl Gone With Combos, wouldn’t make me double over in pain, unless I put on a show — and I enviously recall people who are able to bring apples and bags of carrots or celery to work, and actually enjoy eating them. Soon I begin to see the world as scuzzy and cruel because I feel my life spirit sapped by the experience of 33 Combos sitting in my stomach, sending into my bloodstream maltodextrin, sodium acid pyrophosphate, and food starch, which suspiciously carries a “modified” designation. Who said you are what you eat? I wouldn’t be surprised if Combos caused temporary impotence, but I’m sure they cut down libido. How can you want to have sex when you feel like refuse?

But Combos are really worse than I’m letting on. They might be stand-ins for those cyanide pills people took in the French Resistance. I can easily imagine eating a few handfuls, then laying down in a ditch to die. But maybe it’s good to have this type of life experience. To eat something so malnourishing and nauseating one could wish life would cease for a while. What other experience is like eating a bag of Combos? What other ugliness can be consumed wholesale and force one not to enjoy the sun, Bach, and sex? A nasty fight with a friend or spouse? Anything to do with politics? An evening with Burt Reynolds? Yet, I have made a pact with myself to avoid these obstructions, whether real or imagined. I don’t have all the answers, but for me and Combos, it’s not bad enough to not eat more, though their taste keeps me verging on bipolar, allowing me to obdurately remain in the zeitgeist. •

All images by Isabella Akhtarshenas.

Greg Gerke’s fiction and non-fiction has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, The Kenyon Review Online, Denver Quarterly, Quarterly West, Mississippi Review, The Millions, and others. A book, My Brooklyn Writer Friend, is out from Queens Ferry Press. You can find and follow him @Greg_Gerke.

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