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I have a food confession: I love Marshmallow Fluff. In hot chocolate. On very cold days.
Not much of a confession? How about if I add that I always buy a fresh jar of it every fall to get me through the winter, even though I only use it in hot chocolate?
When it comes right down to it, I’m drawn to sugar’s magical, chemical reincarnations. I can’t turn down an opportunity to roast marshmallows over a fire (or even a Weber grill); I still have a childlike fascination with cotton candy; and I’m a sucker for nearly any combination of sugar, vanilla and egg whites, from meringue on a cream pie to crunchy, swirled cookies shaped like Hershey’s kisses to angel food cake.
It feels strange to me, embarrassing even, to like these desserts. Marshmallows and cotton candy are kids’ food, and meringue is a sweet cloud of nothing. How can the person who loves sour grapefruit, sugarless espresso and strong, earthy foods such as mushrooms, kale and olives be seduced by something so sugary, so pretty, so frivolous?
These are my guilty food pleasures— not because sugar is bad for me, but because they are so unlike my other food tastes.
In the same way we have guilty music or television pleasures (“Dancing With the Stars,” anyone?), it’s pretty clear after polling family, friends, neighbors and a few foodies about town that there are lots of foods that provoke guilt or shame. (Though one neighbor called herself a hedonist, proclaiming, “No guilt involved!” before admitting to craving egg salad and bacon sandwiches.) It’s also clear that we hold different definitions of what a guilty food pleasure is.
My friend Brian sums up what most people think of when you challenge them to name their food secrets: “Eating too much of something that’s colossally bad for me.” A big, though not overweight, man (his nickname is “6-12” because he’s 7 feet tall), he says he’s susceptible to all-you-can eat buffets, like the one at The Embers restaurant in Ocean City or “a five-piece, dark meat, original recipe meal from KFC.” He also loves Pringles, which show up on more than one person’s list.
It turns out lots of folks love— but hate that they love— unhealthy things like fast food, doughnuts, creamed chipped beef or the sausage and biscuits that my friend Michael allows himself once a year. We also love (and love to hate) what I call movie food— extra-buttered popcorn, Twizzlers, gummy bears, Good & Plentys— and foods that show up around the holidays: eggnog, pecan pie and Peeps.
Recently retired Sun food writer Rob Kasper feels guilty about what he calls “the late night stout,” the one that calls out to him, he says, “past 11 o’clock [when] the newspapers have been read, the televised ballgames have been abandoned and it is just me stretched out in the recliner, listening to Rod Daniels read the news.”
“I know I shouldn’t,” he confesses. “I know that what I am about to do negates the sweaty hour spent at the gym, but… I rarely resist.” Each night, he says, he promises to have more willpower, starting tomorrow. Personally, I’d just call it research for the beer book he’s working on.
Predictably, folks also feel bad about junk food, confessing to eating Reddi-wip out of a can, chili cheese fries and all genres of puffed cheese, particularly Cheetos, a favorite of my friend Terry. He’s a father of three whose two oldest sons are in college, necessitating frequent road trips. “I never buy Cheetos for home,” he says. “But for a four-hour road trip? I often arrive dusted orange.”
But guilty food pleasures come in different forms. Sometimes the guilt is induced by cost. Bridget Sampson, who co-owns The Dogwood Restaurant with her husband, Galen, has a thing for lobster with Kerrygold Irish butter and champagne— but only on special occasions like birthdays and Christmas. My neighbor Rick loves foie gras, but both the cost and the treatment of the geese set off his shame (folks feel the same way about eating veal). A gluten-intolerant friend names bread as her guilty pleasure because eating it can make her ill, and Rick’s wife, Tanya, is sentimental about food that reminds her of her childhood: boxed Kraft spaghetti mix that she’s had a hard time tracking down recently.
When it comes to guilty food pleasure stories, however, Cliff Murphy, director of the Maryland Traditions program of the Maryland State Arts Council, has everyone beat. Cliff’s guilty pleasure is what he calls “Elvis food,” and for years, he has made his indulgence a celebration. Each year on Elvis’ birthday, he serves the King’s favorites, including fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches, Twinkies, glazed doughnuts, meatloaf with ketchup and sausage spoon bread, all washed down with Diet Dr Pepper.
After collecting nearly 40 responses to my question, I can report the top contenders for guiltiest food pleasure are: Pringles, fast food (particularly Chick-fil-A), bacon, Fritos, whole tubs of ice cream, cheese curls and foie gras or other chicken liverish preparations. But my question raised other, unexpected issues as well. One woman responded that she didn’t remember a time when she didn’t equate food with guilt, while my husband pointed out that food wasn’t something he would ever feel guilty about— not even potato chips. Initially, I took this as a smart remark from a lean marathoner, but as I considered more, I thought about the idea of food as a gift, how lucky we are to have it at all, and how one person’s guilt might be another person’s dinner. Food guilt may have originated with the apple and Eden, but today it is definitely a first world issue.
What strikes me most, though, are the sweet associations with food that temper the guilt— the making of root beer floats with parents, the Fritos and milk snack that recalls an elderly grandfather’s treat of Saltines and milk mixed together in the same glass, the marshmallow pinwheel cookies my sister and I associate with our grandmother. If loving any of these treats is wrong, then I don’t want to be right.