When I was growing up, no one cared all that much about what children ate. Except that one family—their house smelled like vitamins, and they watched nothing but PBS. My mom called them “health nuts,” said they were weird, and proceeded to give me four Vienna Fingers and a tall glass of peach Hi-C right out of the big, metal can, for lunch, just like everyone else’s mom.
Now our food’s all gluten-free, fair trade, biodynamic (which is like extra organic and maybe also magical), Paleo, low-carb and green. I often look back wistfully and yearn for the days when Roman Meal bread and Chewy granola bars were serious health foods. Before the tyranny of kale and the oppression of kombucha, before the quinoa regime took over, I used to eat some pretty frightening things (at least by today’s standards), but, boy, were they delicious.
Here are the 10 greatest comfort foods I remember from my carefree childhood:
1. French Bread Pizza
When Mom pulled the orangish-red box out of the freezer, it was cause for celebration in our house. All of the flavors were good, but the one with pepperoni, sausage and peppers was by far the best. My sister and I considered French bread pizzas superior even to delivery, and we used to doctor them up with extra mozzarella, Italian seasoning and “shaky cheese,” which was the parmesan in the green can, that we also enjoyed on our Chef Boyardee beef ravioli.
2. Ring Dings
I got one of these foil-wrapped discs of joyous, chocolately, cream-filled bliss in my lunch bag every single day. If I ate so much as half a Ring Ding every day now, I would gain at least 30 pounds and need a prescription for Metformin, but as a kid, I’d run off those calories at recess, no problem.
3. Ramen Noodles
After overdosing on ramen during my impoverished early 20s, I vowed never to eat these sodium bombs again, but something came over me recently and I gave them another go. I did, after all, eat a pack of oriental flavor Top Ramen every single day between 7th and 11th grades, with no apparent ill effects. Oh my god, ramen noodles are even better than you remember, with a flavor best described as brown, salty goodness. Toss in a handful of frozen peas so you can pretend this is good for you, and let the deliciousness take you back in time to the era when no one worried about their blood pressure or kidney function.
4. Processed American Cheese Food Product
Put away the truffle Taleggio for a second and remind yourself of a time, long, long ago when cheese came in a spray can and did not need refrigeration. We had Cheez Whiz, Velveeta, and Kraft American singles individually wrapped in thin plastic film. How good were our childhood grilled cheeses? Think of the nachos we dipped into the microwaved jar of salsa con queso that bore no resemblance to authentic Mexican cuisine. I’ve had my share of fine Brie and manchego cheeses as a grown-up, and they’re OK, but sometimes I just like to be able to squirt a cheese smiley face on a Ritz cracker and call it a day.
5. Magic Shell
How did I forget this stuff? Drizzle it over your ice cream, and it miraculously forms a crunchy, chocolate shell, which mystified every one of us as children. Did you know they still make it? And that it comes in lots of different flavors? Better yet, were you aware that the “magic” of the shell comes from none other than coconut oil? Back in the ’80s, we had no clue that coconut oil was a miracle cure-all for pretty much everything. That means that Magic Shell is a major health food—also because the chocolate has anti-oxidants. Why are you not at the store buying it right now?
6. Chicken Pot Pie
Do me a favor and spare me the puff pastry, cream velouté, fresh thyme and chanterelle mushrooms. None of these things belong in a chicken pot pie ever. A chicken pot pie needs to come frozen in a little metal pan. It should have bright yellow gravy, peas, diced carrots and perfectly uniform cubes of an unidentifiable poultry-like substance. There should be both a top and a bottom crust. It’s all about the crust anyway.
7. Carnation Instant Breakfast
I’m only talking about the chocolate malt flavor. I threw out the vanilla and strawberry ones in the variety pack, because why would I even try those after tasting the perfection of the chocolate malt? Only Nestle Quik comes close. Pro-tip here: Sprinkle Strawberry Quik powder on your vanilla ice cream and thank me later.
8. Swanson Turkey Dinner
You could have Thanksgiving whenever you wanted, even in mid-July, as long as your mom would buy it for you (which she usually would on her girls’ nights, when she’d fluff up her perm, put on her shell suit and go out dancing to Billy Ocean and Steve Winwood at the Holiday Inn bar). You also loved the fried chicken dinner with the mashed potatoes, buttered corn, and brownie, but the turkey one had the better dessert. No one knew exactly what it was, but it appeared to be some kind of apple cranberry crumble, and it was clearly baked by angels.
9. Hostess Fruit Pies
I got these in my lunch for field trips only. Don’t ask me why. ’80s parents weren’t that logical, but I can tell you one thing: A Hostess Fruit Pie sure made touring the state capitol building a lot more exciting. I was all about the cherry, but there really wasn’t a bad flavor, not even the lemon. Fruit Pie the Magician knew what he was doing (but seriously, worst mascot ever, am I right?). Close second to the Hostess pies? The original, deep-fried apple pies from McDonald’s with the molten filling and greasy bubbly crust.
10. Frozen Burritos
If you didn’t follow the instructions exactly (something about a wet paper towel), these wouldn’t cook evenly. The ends would get so dry and hard that you could rip off the brackets of your braces, but the middles were soft and filled with a scrumptious taco-flavored ooze that made it all worthwhile. These were even better topped with the aforementioned processed salsa con queso.
Our eating habits have changed a lot in the past 30 years, and definitely for the better as far as our health is concerned. My daughter will never know what it’s like to have chocolate cake in her lunch box every day, and I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t eat a TV dinner if her life depended on it, but every now and then it’s fun to reminisce and introduce our kids to a retro-style treat from our childhoods. I may just surprise her with a chicken pot pie or French bread pizza night. I don’t see the harm in the occasional fruit pie, either. Oh, and don’t worry—there’s a fresh bottle of Magic Shell sitting in my cabinet right now. You know, for special occasions.
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