1. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese — This is a staple of every home on the planet with a gross family income of less than $18,000 (my family income growing up was around $9,000, for a family of four). Of course, I know plenty of adults who still consume Kraft Mac and Cheese (probably many of you); certain chain restaurants will even peddle this sh*t as part of the kids’ meals. Personally, I was already off the stuff by the time I’d discovered Annie’s Mac n’ Cheese (clearly, a far superior product), but finding out from Seth that he and his Philly peeps referred to it as the all too apt “butterworms” basically ended my relationship with Kraft forever.
How many of you were so desperate at some point in your life that, though you had no butter, and even though the milk in your fridge had already soured, you made some anyway, using water instead of milk? I have never felt poorer.
2. Hamburger Helper — They may as well advertise this as “one pound of ground beef plus one package of MSG” because that’s all that Hamburger Helper is: MSG, sodium, and ground beef (the 70/30 kind, not the 95/5 kind). Adding a package of ground beef always gave it a certain Stone Soup allure for me, though. Plus, I really never understood how that tiny package of chemical dust and a few pieces of pasta turned into a such a marvelously huge and delicious meal, but I never respected science more than when I sat down for a bowl of Hamburger Helper (the cheeseburger macaroni was my favorite). Like a lot of MSG-laden foods (and bourbon chicken at the food court), however, only the first 12 bites or so are good. After that, it’s definitely a food with diminishing returns.
3. Ham and Cheese Loaf — The cheese is built right in! I’m not sure why they called it “loaf,” but I assume it’s because the ham is so diluted by the other chemicals (and the processed cheese bits) that companies are not legally allowed to call it “ham.” But for the single-parent with two jobs on the go, this inexpensive product saves you all the time of having to get out a piece of ham and a piece of cheese. Also, it is mandated in some states that ham and cheese loaf be served on only Wonder Bread, which itself is one part flour, one part yeast, and three parts sugar.
4. Store-Brand Frozen Pizza — Each store has their own brand (growing up, it was called G&N pizza in my region, but at Hannaford’s now, it’s “My Essentials”). I’m fairly certain all of the store-brand pizzas are made at the same cardboard factory. They’re like little discs of cardboard covered in a kind of cheese that taste best if it is slightly burnt (like pizza in school cafeterias). The funny thing is, growing up, these pizzas were $.99 a piece. Today, they are still $.99 a piece. I know because sometimes, when my wife and kids are out of town, I will still sneak one or two of these home for dinner because they are delicious, especially the ones with the tiny square bits of pepperoni. I also remember that, when I was in first grade, I was in charge of providing meals for my little brother and sister while my mom slept (she worked overnights), and I specifically recall the pride my mother felt for me because I could microwave lunch for my entire family.
5. Fruit Barrels — Rich kids had juice. The suburban kids had Capri Sun. And on very special occasions, poor kids got Fruit Barrels (I’m not sure what the name brand was back in the day, but now they go by Hug’s Fruit Barrels). I’m fairly certain it was just water, high-fructose corn syrup, and food coloring and that was it. I think they also used the exact same sugar-water, put them in different packages, and marketed them as popsicles. Interestingly, lately the product claims that it’s low sugar, by which they mean: It’s full of Splenda, which is a wonderful thing to give your children, isn’t it?
6. Kool-Aid — If you’re a latchkey kid whose parents were never at home, Kool-Aid — especially the kind with sugar already in the package — was a foolproof beverage. It’s also the gateway beverage to Mt. Dew and a lifetime of dental problems. I would drink a pitcher of this sh*t a day. In fact, I remember drinking so much of it one time that, when I looked out my window, I vomited red Kool-Aid all over the side of my house. After I laughed and told my cousin to come see, he also spewed half a gallon of red Kool-Aid down the side of the house. It was a rental, but I vividly remember driving away when we moved out and seeing the red streaks still stained into the side of the house.
Fun fact: To this day, my best impression is of the Kool Aid man. “Oh Yeeeaaaaaah!”
7. Store Brand Cereal — The store-brand cereals went by tons of names, like Tootie O’s, Crisp Crunch, or Cocoa Crunchies, although my favorites were the kind that simply described the product: Crunchy Hexagons or Rice Crunch Squares. They probably should’ve called them all “Sugar Crack.” Our parents would always tell us that these products came from the same manufacturer as the other name-brand ones, but just had different names, but they were lying. LIES. Store-brand cereal is made with inferior products, there’s a lot more settling at the bottom (Mmmmm. Fruity-O dust), and sometimes, weird bits of cereal so hard it could break your teeth will end up in the box. It doesn’t taste right.
8. Catsup — People will tell you that Ketchup and Catsup are the same things, only with different spellings, but I will tell you that any product that calls itself Catsup is a disgusting watery tomato-sauce like substance that will make you already soggy Ore-Ida fries even more soggy. Heinz or GTFO.
9. Cube Steak — Cube steak is very specific to very poor people in the South, and to be honest, I had no idea that “Cube Steak” wasn’t “steak” until I was a senior in high school and had real “steak” for the very first time at a friend’s house (I also never had a bagel or coffee until I was 23). Cube steak is very flat (about as thik as four pieces of paper, stacked) and incredibly tenderized. You can buy a package of four or five cube steaks for about $4 (even today). It’s the “steak” that’s used inside of chicken-fried steak, and if you’ve ever had chicken-fried steak without half an inch of breading and when it’s not smothered in gravy, the only way it’s edible is if you drown it in ketchup. Even then, swallowing a piece of cube steak is like an hour-long event.
10. Ice Milk — I’m not sure if Ice Milk can still be found in stores, but I can tell you this much: The image below does not do justice to how terrible ice milk is. For a kid jonesing for some ice cream, it’s like a punch in the gut. It’s ice cream, except instead of cream, they use milk, and instead of being delicious and creamy, it’s like eating a flaky vanilla ice cube. It is one of the most disappointing desserts in the history of mankind.