I want to begin this with an admission: I am no stranger to the dark, forbidden pleasures of an Oscar Meyer Lunchable.
Launched by Oscar Meyer in 1988, these perfectly-portioned, sectioned plastic trays filled with round, machine-sliced lunchmeat, a brick of square sliced cheese that was always, illogically, even impossibly, laid on its side, warranting a flip with grubby pre-teen fingers, and buttery crackers, appealed directly to my already-forming sense of childhood anxiety and desire for structure. Instead of a sweaty plastic baggie filled with crushed crackers and weird rindy cheese with flecks of unrecognizable greenery in it, packed lovingly by my mother, I could finally enjoy an orderly assembly of factory-to-table ingredients that could be pulled neatly from a backpack, none of the disparate elements touching, every ingredient in its place.
“They’re too expensive,” my mother would proclaim back in 1988. And indeed they were. But that was precisely what made them so desirable, what led the coolest kids in the cafeteria to choose them as a dietary staple. “They’re just cheese and crackers,” my mother would say, and I knew that she was right, but I also knew that if they were good enough for that D.J. Marquardt, with his brand new Mike McGill skateboard (with green plastic rails and matching grip-tape) and his muscle tee-shirts and his stonewashed jean jacket and his Converse One-Stars and his orthodontia and his private school and his mom with the fancy job and his inevitably bright future filled with near-limitless opportunity, then godamnit, they should be good enough for me, too.
After being systematically denied the pleasures of Lunchables throughout my formative years, I continue to eat them as an adult on two occasions: At the first stop on the beginning of a long road trip, to establish a baseline of nutrition that I will undo with a Frosty from Wendy’s 100 miles later, or after a long night cooking at the restaurant, when all I really want after all of that tasting, tasting, tasting is simple food that doesn’t taste like much of anything at all. In both cases, the basic Lunchable has been a calming influence.
But, oh ho! Lunchables aren’t so basic anymore, are they? In addition to the original meat-cheese-cracker option, which now, by comparison, seems like it’s for poor kids, Oscar Meyer has continued to roll out ever more complicated options, from combinations that include vanilla cookies and a Capri Sun (brand synergy that just plain makes sense), or even combinations imploring you to make your own cold miniature pizza out of flavorless shredded cheese and doughy flatbread rounds.
Over the course of nearly two decades, this evolution has led to the Oscar Meyer Lunchables UPLOADED line, a brand extension that manages to be both extreme, teenage-friendly, hi-tech, and…internet? All at the same time. The UPLOADED line pushes our definition, nay, our basic human understanding, of what a Lunchable can be, with assemble-it-yourself sandwiches, cheesy nachos, and these: The “Walking Taco” series. From the website:
“New Beef Walking Taco takes all the flavor of a classic beef taco, and puts it in one easy and portable pack for the ultimate afternoon snacking experience. Each package includes Tortilla Chips, Ground Beef in Sauce, Taco Sauce, and Nacho Cheese Sauce. Just mix it all in the bag, heat in the microwave for 15 seconds, then get your Spork ready for maximum portable snacking enjoyment.”
I’m going to move right past my question of whether “Walking Taco” is a proper noun that everyone but me has heard of, and assume that west of the Mississippi, it’s a term that everyone understands to describe “a bag filled with chips and goo that you eat with a ‘Spork,’ and not a 1950s horror movie monster that sounds terrifying and admittedly delicious.” Instead, let’s get right into the product testing.
When you first open the box, you are confronted with a set of expectation-setting instructions describing not just what you’ll find in the box, but the order in which they should be applied (or “dumped into”) the nearly-empty bag of chips. Follow the directions, and you’ll first add a squeeze of meat goo, then a packet of taco sauce, then a packet of cheese sauce so flourescently colored, that you can’t believe it’s real, even as you’re holding and touching it with your hands. After a scant 15 seconds in the microwave, you’ve got a semi-hot half-a-meal, an empty box, and a pound of random plastic packaging to dispose of.
I was disappointed in a few things almost immediately. First, the bag of corn chips is huge, but contains only a few scarce triangles of chip. The chips themselves are great: Thick, salty, intensely corn-flavored, and enough to stand up to the onslaught of shelf-stable meat and cheese paste that the package implores you to dump on. There just aren’t many of them. This would be a meal fit only for the scrawniest of self-loathing teenagers, who would probably be so distracted by his diet of light cigarettes and Imagine Dragons, that he couldn’t be bothered to eat actual food, anyway. It seems like the good people at Oscar Meyer went to a whole lot of trouble, only to deliver what amounts to, at best, an after-school snack. I ate the contents of the bag in four sad bites.
Second, 15 seconds is not nearly long enough in the microwave. I wouldn’t describe the contents of the bag (which stays open during cooking and seems like it would be prone to either “spillage” or “scalding hot cheese burns”) as hot. Or even warm. If anything, the product’s short trip on the microwave carousel rendered the contents of the bag…kind of loose? A little runnier? At any rate, no state-change related to an increase in temperature.
This led me to another troubling conclusion. I may not remember middle school very clearly, but I’m pretty sure that if I had asked a teacher to let me use the microwave in the Teacher’s Lounge to microwave my lunch, they would have laughed me out of the room. In my day, the teacher’s lounge was a mysterious closet filled with shabbily upholstered furniture, the smell of burned coffee, and massive floor-to-ceiling cubbies housing inter-office memos, where teachers could capture a brief few moments of silence away from swearing teenagers who wore wallet chains and smelled like they have been dipped in Axe “Tempest” deodorant body spray. They weren’t letting you into their Fortress of Solitutde to microwave your wet taco sadness bag.
Which means…kids are eating these thing cold. COLD. I shudder to think of the level of disconnected, careless parenting happening in these terrible homes.
Finally, though I was pleasantly surprised by the texture of the contents of the “meat” bag, the flavor of this packet was neither “beefy,” nor even “spicy,” which are the two things I would expect from a “Walking Taco.” Instead, the overall experience was kind of tangy and sour, which I expect is due to the sauce that the meat is swimming in, and that you then add MORE of, when you apply your second packet. Ugh.
In conclusion, Oscar Meyer seemed determined to reinvent their aging Lunchables brand with a cool new look, some high-tech packaging, and lots of exclamation points following shouted instructions that repeat the word “dump” over and over. Unfortunately, piling four forkfuls of Taco Bell-caliber ingredients into a bag, selling it for three times the price, and then heating it to just barely room temperature doesn’t amount to a satisfying lunch or snack time experience for anyone, pre-teen, post-teen, or otherwise. It is an extension of the brand that nobody asked for, and that I can’t imagine anyone wanting. But y’know, free spork.