Hot Pockets has a new line of frozen meat sleeves that were inspired by popular food trucks. They come in such clumsy, chef-inspired flavors as Spicy Asian-Style Beef (tastes like Asia!) and Triple Cheesy Bacon Melt. My first instinct was to destroy them. I wanted to go straight-up scorched earth. This was a softball begging to be rage-hit out of the park, and if you can’t totally rail against a faceless monopoly putting no thought and effort into foodie trend exploitation, what can you rail against?
Madder than I’ve ever been about freezer-aisle pastries, I went to the store and grabbed every food truck-inspired Hot Pocket I could find. The plan was to take them back to the office, pop them in the microwave, make my coworkers eat them, then, I don’t know, stand around the proverbial water cooler and gloat about how high our personal food standards are or something. Seemed reasonable.
When I unsheathed the first slab of dough, something embarrassing happened. Something so cringeworthily cliche that, if it weren’t one-hundred-percent true, I would want to punch myself in the face for even thinking about putting it on paper. I smelled the Hot Pocket and it instantly transported me back to the happiest days of my childhood.
Yeah. Right? And if you feel gross reading that, think about how I feel. It’s pretty fucked when your emotional catharsis comes by way of a freezer-burnt calorie pillow. But it did, and since there’s no climbing out of the rabbit hole now, we might as well dig deeper.
Like millions of other kids born in the 90s, I was raised by a single parent who worked full-time-plus and had a long commute, which meant dinner was whatever microwaveable box of food was on sale at the grocery store. It was either Tina’s burritos, Budget Gourmet pastas, Lean Cuisines, Hungry Mans (Hungry Men?), or—you guessed it—Hot Pockets.
As delicious as Stouffer’s boneless rib meal was, nothing compared to a perfectly nuked Hot Pocket. Sliding the frosty flavor log into the crisping sleeve was interactive and made me feel a part of the cooking process, they were hand-holdable so I could easily flip back and forth from ESPN to the Food Network, and the infinite variety of flavors made me feel like I had power and control over a small part of my life.
When I say the frozen Hot Pocket smell reminded me of the happiest days of my childhood, I don’t mean that in the “smiling kid frolicking in a sun-drenched meadow” kind of way. But sitting on the couch, alone, watching Bobby Flay turn and burn rib-eyes on TV with a Hot Pocket in my hand is the happiest, strongest, most vividly ubiquitous food memory I have. Some kids didn’t grow up with grandmas who baked pies. Some of us only had Hot Pockets.
And if I try to remove myself from this ridiculously indulgent job—one that allows me to eat the best food across one of America’s best food cities and spew my opinions from a keyboard—and put myself back into 12-year-old me’s head, the food-truck Hot Pockets would have been like Christmas in a crisping sleeve. And I’m sure that’s the case for tons of other people out there.
Someone living in Montana who consumes mainstream food culture on the same scale as someone in L.A. doesn’t get to participate in it in the same way. They don’t get to experience celebrity chef-owned restaurants, or monthly food festivals, or an army of Kogi trucks. But maybe they’ve watched every single episode of The Great Food Truck Race and it would mean the world to them to taste any of the dishes they’ve only experienced through a screen. That it’s through the medium of a microwaveable meat parcel doesn’t even matter.
In season two of Top Chef, there was a TGI Friday’s sponsored quickfire where the winning dish got a spot on the chain’s menu the day after the episode aired. I begged my dad to go so I could try chef Betty Fraser’s Tuscan Portobello Grilled Cheese with tomato soup, something, if not for a little corporate ingenuity, I would have only been able to experience with my eyes through a box.
It’s a completely average plate of chain diner food—with all due apologies to chef Fraser and the good people at TGI Friday’s—but, at the time, if you asked me what the best thing I’d ever eaten was, I would have pointed right to that.