It’s rare that a product stops me dead in my tracks, when I am taking my near-daily slow stroll down the frozen food aisle of our local supermarket. Today, though, tucked away on the bottom shelf, in an area normally reserved for three-for-a-dollar frozen burritos, underneath the chicken nuggets and the pre-packaged buffalo wings, the bright red “FlatJacks” bag caught my eye. It wasn’t the illustration of the company’s mascot, his yellow t-shirt, sideways-turned blue baseball hat, wraparound sunglasses, or cocky, irreverent grin that caught my eye. It was, instead, five simple words, emblazoned across the top of the bag in a grungy, typewritten typeface: “NEW! Chicken from your TOASTER!”
“Finally,” I thought.
In fact, the very name of the distributor does me one better. It’s right there on the package. “NEW! Chicken from your TOASTER,” the bag exclaims, and then, in a smaller, more modest type whose serifs almost make the words sound like the voice of an adult: “THANK GOODNESS.™”
I thought back to my experience with frozen chicken patties, reaching back to my first exposure to them at age 16, when the Schwans man delivered a bag of 50 of them straight to my parents’ freezer, and I spent my Junior year in high school working through the bag, pan-frying them in oil while drinking pilfered bottles of my dad’s homebrew. In my early 20s, broke and starving, when I had the tendency to eat one thing over and over every day for a week, frozen, pre-cooked chicken patty sandwiches, with a dab of mayonnaise on a hamburger bun, made for an inexpensive, easy-to-prepare bachelor lunch. I wasn’t proud of it, but along with toasted bagels, chili, and canned soup, it did make up a large portion of my diet in those days. It wasn’t until I laid eyes on FlatJacks, though, that there was the solution to another problem I never even knew I had. That is, that I never, ever get to eat chicken from my toaster. No longer.
I stood in the freezer aisle of our supermarket, eyes glazed in reverie, mind ablaze with questions.
Presumably, “FlatJack” is a reference to the word “FlapJack,” which is another kind of flat food that, in its instant version, can also be cooked in your toaster. But the good people at “Thank Goodness” (a division of Janes Family Foods) must have at some point realized that this was chicken, and that making a reference to pancakes made no godamned sense. Unwilling to bend on a great concept when they hear one, the marketing muscle at Janes must have designed the sunglasses-wearing mascot to explain the product name. If his name is “Jack,” though, then wouldn’t the name of the product then be “FlatJack’s,” with an apostrophe? My mind boggled.
I had to pull it together. I had a decision to make. FlatJacks Chicken Snacks come in two flavors: “Original” and “Bar-B-Q,” which presumably tastes the way a pulled pork scratch-n-sniff sticker smells. My intention was to grab a bag of the Bar-B-Q flavor, to fully examine the flavors of the FlatJack phenomenon, but I just couldn’t do it. I picked up the bag and put it down several times. Ultimately, I decided that the “Bar-B-Q” variety wouldn’t offer the full versatility of the “Original” version, which I added to my shopping cart.
When I brought them home and presented them to my wife, she greeted the product with the lack of enthusiasm I have come to expect from her in the “Cold Shoulder” series. “What are they, Canadian?” she asked, making reference to the bag-dominating illustration of Jack that just seemed a little bit off, the way Degrassi High, Tim Horton’s, and Alan Thicke all seem to have come from some kind of slightly off-kilter alternate universe. Jack is clearly cool, but he’s not cool like a Cobra-era Stallone; he’s cool like a Kids in the Hall-era Bruce McCulloch. Jillian’s instinct was exactly correct. A flip of the bag revealed FlatJacks thinly-disguised Ontarian roots.
Though FlatJacks Chicken Snacks are already “Fully cooked chicken breast cutlet patty fritters with rib meat chopped and formed,” the back of the package reveals several methods for heating your FlatJacks. I wasn’t about to put a product whose main claim to fame was its ability to be cooked in the toaster through any other means of preparation, however. Following the package’s urging to “Toast on highest setting for 2 cycles or until desired level of crispness,” my FlatJacks were ready in just a few minutes, with no dirty dishes (though, the package notes, some “risk of smoke or fire”).
For the initial tasting, I gave my FlatJack the bare minimum of accoutrement: A single FlatJack Chicken Snack, edge slightly burned, laid bare on a piece of sliced white bread, with just a touch of mayonnaise. Though thinner than other frozen chicken patties, I was surprised by the thickness of the FlatJacks, as well as the quality of the crumb coating that, astonishingly, did manage to crisp after a second run through the toaster. The first bite? Not terrible! I was impressed by the crunch of the coating, and the admirable job my toaster did heating the chicken through. The texture of the formed, shaped meat wasn’t nearly as revolting as I had expected, wasn’t minced, mushed, or gummy, but actually seemed to have been a part of a chicken, at some point in the far (far!) distant past.
Emboldened, I decided to fully run FlatJacks through their paces. If they were edible in plain form, what would happen if I dressed them up? This time, to compensate for their thinnishness, I cooked two FlatJacks in the toaster, before coating them in Buffalo wing sauce, placing them on a butter-grilled hamburger bun, and topping them with blue cheese dressing and a slice of Bibb lettuce. The results were staggering. Though the crispiness of the FlatJacks was dampened somewhat by the wing sauce, the resulting sandwich was far, far from the worst version of this lunch I have tried, which speaks either to the caliber of restaurants I have been eating in lately, or to my unending love of Buffalo wing sauce.
If we can agree that FlatJacks Chicken Snacks aren’t the worst quick-serve chicken product ever, the next logical questions are, “Why does this product exist? And what kind of person buys it?”
At nearly eight dollars per bag of eight chicken patties, FlatJacks are hardly the most economical choice. It’s hard not to think about how much actual chicken eight dollars could buy, honest-to-goodness boneless, skinless chicken cutlets that could be pounded thin and served in much the same delicious way. If they can’t compete on economics, they must be trying to compete on convenience, where they certainly beat raw chicken by quite a wide margin. They’re safe for children to prepare, and carry no food safety risks (though as the package again notes, they do pose some “risk of serious injury” related to sticking metal knives into your electrical appliances).
As the ultimate in convenience food, where cost and quality are the main expense, FlatJacks are a success. There are some downsides. They can’t really, in their straight-from-the-bag form, be thought of as “food.” They’re clearly for children, who might need an after-school chicken snack before their evening chicken-dinner, which makes them a little embarrassing to purchase along with, say, hamburger buns and a fifth of Jameson. Finally, there’s little reason to cook chicken in your toaster, unless you also live in your car, and a rusty 12-volt toaster with just one working slot is your only appliance. If, however, you’re the kind of person who, like me, orders a box of drive-through chicken nuggets every now and then, I can’t think of why you would draw some kind of moral line at FlatJacks Chicken Snacks. I certainly won’t go out of my way to buy them again, but if my kid comes home in a few years and tells me she’s had one at a friend’s house, I’ll understand. She won’t be allowed over there again, but I’ll still understand.
In our “Cold Shoulder” series, we review, at great personal peril, some of the things that are in the frozen food section of the supermarket that we just don’t remember being here before. Synthesized from non-ingredients, mass-produced and marketed with breathless excitement, most of these items are pretty disappointing. Some day, we will find a winner. Click here to read more from this series.