A Love Letter to Frozen Food
We never forget our roots—and our roots are Hungry Man Dinners, frozen novelty desserts, and cheap frozen burritos
Today, March 6, is National Frozen Food Day. And if you're wondering whether that's something to be celebrated, just let your mind take an amble down memory lane. Have we all forgotten our roots, and our truest and most wanton culinary desires?
It's easy to take frozen food for granted. There it is, quietly humming in the dead center of the supermarket in its own igloo-like kingdom of glass and cardboard. Artisanal jam-obsessed, kale-munching urbanites scoff at these convenience items as pedestrian; microwaves have somehow become akin to Razor Scooters in terms of their shamefulness.
Yet when it comes down to it, eating frozen food is as American as shooting empty cans of orange Crush in your cousin's backyard. Hell, the vast majority of the technology that enables us to eat California Pizza Kitchen BBQ Chicken Pizza or Trader Joe's Speculoos Cookie Butter Cheesecake on a whim was actually developed by the US military.
But you know what? Before we became kimchi-loving snobs who scoff at the ubiquity of truffle fries, we were just kids who liked things that tasted good, even if those things happened to come in a cardboard crisping sleeve wrapped in cellophane. Frozen food, like fast food, is consistent, reliable, and, well into adulthood, endlessly comforting. Here are the freezer-burned delights that have captured our hearts with the fiery, eternal warmth of the roof-of-mouth-eviscerating cheese in an overcooked Hot Pocket.
Matt Zuras, Senior Editor
Tina's Red Hot Beef Burritos
Were I to pick a death row frozen meal, it would be Tina's burritos. Specifically, Tina's Red Hot Beef burritos. Beef & Bean and Spicy Beef & Bean are acceptable substitutes, but Chicken, Rice & Beans tastes like hospital food with a grudge. These are not really true-blue burritos, of course; they're like Hot Pockets, but bigger and with a molten core that could probably liquify titanium. It's probably been a decade since I've had a bite of Tina's Red Hot Beef, which in retrospect had the taste and texture of Red Hot Cat Food. But this aging man was once a teenage boy, and he was nourished with mountains of Tina's burritos, hastily microwaved and swallowed well before they'd cooled. Tina's, you made me who I am.
John Martin, Publisher
Frozen fish sticks
I don't know what kind. They were gross, but also something to look forward to. They'd been breaded and fried, and all a hungry kid, or dad, had to do was put them in the oven. Garnish with lemon slices. Usually there were so many that we'd play catch with our dog with the leftovers. He loved them, too.
Hilary Pollack, Associate Editor
There's this excerpt in Mary Karr's excellent memoir Cherry where she talks about her first kiss, and beautifully describes how it reminded her of a TV commercial she'd seen as a child for a shampoo called Prell. Somehow, the commercial that made a comparably deep and heavily romanticized impression on me was a 1992 commercial for Cool Whip in which an anthropomorphized blob of the whipped topping soars around some kid's kitchen and makes him a delicious-looking snack of two enormous chocolate chip cookies sandwiching a massive dollop of Cool Whip, garnished with what appear to be M&Ms and sprinkles. As a six-year-old, this treat became almost mythological in its perfection in my mind. When I finally tasted the immaculate synthesis of chocolate chip cookies and Cool Whip, it was life-changing. Plus, that is literally the best name for a product that I've ever heard in my life. Somehow, they did it; they made hydrogenated vegetable oil and high-fructose corn syrup cool.
Alex Swerdloff, Staff Writer
I was pretty damn torn on this, and almost ended up going with Flintstones Push-Up Pops or Minute Maid Juice Bars, but every fiber of my being loves Kid Cuisine, despite its ageist assertion that only children enjoy eating novelty-shaped chicken nuggets. I love Kid Cuisine in a nostalgic, hazy-90s way, even though I find the penguin mascot to be low-key creepy. Still, in a world with McDonald's anthropomorphic "Happy" mascot, one has to pick one's mascot battles wisely—and I figure global warming with take care of that penguin fucker in a few years anyways.
Charley Lanyon, Contributor
Bagel Bites represent the apogee of frozen food. They are better than just "the best frozen food"; they are among the best types of pizza full stop. Those tiny molten rings—tangy, savory little umami bombs—never fail to bring a smile to my face. Maybe I love Bagel Bites because I discovered them (and continued to eat them every day) during the flowering of my adolescence, when I began to learn who I was and embrace what would be more than a decade of being an unrepentant pothead. Maybe I love them because they remind me of Paul, my best friend who would make trays of them and then put on a Simpsons VHS while I sat in the giddy, hallucinogenic haze of those first few marijuana experiences, a feeling I know I'll never achieve again. But now, as an adult and a sophisticate, I know that Bagel Bites are the best because they are difficult. You may think there's nothing easier than throwing a sleeve full of frozen mini bagels into the toaster oven, but even for an expert bagel-iolo like me, at least three out of every four bagels fall short in some way: the topping slides off the bagel sticking to the roof of my mouth scalding it, the mini "sausage" pieces over-render—turning ashen and crumbly—or the bagel itself turns somehow rock hard. The thing is, it's those inevitable three subpar bagels that makes that fourth perfect bite so transcendent. You realize that all the burns and all the scars ultimately serve to only make those precious joyful moments count for something, and stand out in golden, glowing relief.
Elana Schulman, Supervising Producer
Tabatchnick frozen Barley & Mushroom Soup
Growing up in Chicago, I lived on the 26th floor of an apartment building and my grandmother Harriet (also known as "Trix") lived on the 57th. From the ages of about seven to ten, I would go to her apartment after school, sit on the white carpeted floor of her bedroom, and watch the reunion special of Beverly Hills, 90210 on VHS. If I wasn't eating carrots, peppers, and celery dipped in Hidden Valley Ranch, it was frozen Tabatchnick mushroom barley soup. I loved that frozen soup so much, almost as much as Brenda Walsh.
Farideh Sadeghin, Culinary Director
When I open my freezer door, there are a few standards that come into view through the mist. Behind the mini bottles of booze and large cubes of ice is inevitably a bag of frozen peas. Sure, I use this bag for the days I have fallen on my ass and injured my knee, but frozen peas are the real unsung hero of the freezer section. I would even go as far to say that they are better than fresh peas. I don't fucking care about your farmer's market peas in the spring. Fresh peas freeze SO WELL—I can chuck them into some pasta, throw in a handful or two into my chicken pot pie, or even add them into a curry or stew, no questions asked (and no shelling involved). Give frozen peas a chance.
Jelisa Castrodale, Contributor
Totino's Pizza Rolls
Before Totino's Pizza Rolls became "Totino's Pizza Rolls," they were sold in the same yellow carton, with the same artificially delicious filling and the same ability to turn the roof of your mouth into one single third-degree burn. The only difference was the name: when I was a kid, it said Jeno's on the box, in honor of now-late microwavable genius, Jeno Paulucci. I still eat those imitation mozzarella-stuffed pillows and they still make me think of hiding in my childhood bedroom, terrified that every sound outside my window was a 39-year-old former member of the Manson family trying to break into my house. In 1987, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme escaped from the women's prison where she was serving a life sentence for trying to assassinate President Gerald Ford (she was just a wide-eyed acolyte of Charlie's; she didn't actually kill anyone for him). And even though we lived a solid 40 miles from the fence Fromme had climbed, all the parents in my neighborhood kept their kids inside, worried that...I don't know, we'd be used as human shields in an eventual police shootout. (Again, it was the late 80s: everyone was irrational). As the local news showed stock photos of Fromme, my next door neighbor and I sat in my room, silently scalding our mouths with Jeno's rolls, wondering if we'd ever be allowed outside again. Fromme was caught two days later, two miles from the prison but, to this day, sometimes that first bite of a pizza roll still tastes a little like danger.
Sydney Mondry, Social Editor
Amy's Cheese Pizza Pockets
In middle school, I went through a phase of eating Amy's Cheese Pizza Pockets at least three times a week. I'm a sucker for the slightly undercooked whole wheat "crust" and tiny mozzarella-tomato-sauce puddles that inevitably exploded out of the bottom. Plus, it's "organic" so it's healthy, right? RIGHT?!
Tommy Lucente, Channel Manager
Hungry Man Fried Chicken
The Hungry Man Fried Chicken dinner is the penultimate frozen food experience, featuring four complementary courses (two pieces of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn, and a spongy brownie thing). Comparatively, it's cooking instructions are a bit complex, but once you master the partial film removal (I use a pair of scissors) and the timing (the potatoes always need longer), you are set for success. Hungry Man hack: Cook the brownie for an extra 30 seconds to transform it into a wild, crunchy, rock-like element.
Becky Hughes, Intern
The only thing I don't love about Uncrustables is that I didn't think of them first. Seriously, this was a fucking brilliant move, Smucker's—kids hate the crust because it's brown, which means it's healthy, which means it sucks. These glorious hand-held discs of sweet, soft, gooey nirvana are, for obvious reasons, the ultimate symbol of cultural capital in an elementary school cafeteria. I'll trade you a Lunchable, a Capri Sun, and my first-born child for one of these. Deal?
Chris Grosso, Executive Producer
Healthy Choice French Bread Pizza
I love it. Plain, no shitty frozen vegetables, no crappy pepperoni, just plain. It heats up well, and is a great vehicle for hot sauce. You can also put your own hot pepper or anchovies on it.
Frozen food, we love you. But more importantly, we respect you.