Quest for pork rinds 

The elusive search for the perfect vending machine meal 

Finding a great lunch downtown in Indianapolis is no problem — if you’ve got a big wad of cash and a flexible schedule. You can order a steak at St. Elmo, order a delicious meal at Palomino or eat at the Columbia Club.

But what about the cash-strapped young professional with only 30 minutes and a small amount of money at their disposal? Where do they go? Sure, they can brown-bag it, but that requires organization and preparation. And if they’re that prepared and organized, chances are they have a job where they can afford a nice meal.

I’ve perused the major office buildings in the city and scoured their break rooms in search of that most elusive of culinary delights: the edible vending-machine meal. I’ve sampled and rated the best and the worst of vending-machine meals available to the lower-middle-class white-collar workers of our fair city.

Twin Chili Dogs With Baked Beans Meal, $2.50

If you have to start a review with the phrase, “Not nearly as disgusting as you’d think,” you know it’s not going to be a glowing review. But this microwavable platter from the good people at Capitol Vending, Inc. wasn’t nearly as disgusting as it looked when I plucked it from door 3E in a downtown office building. There they were, two pink franks of indeterminate origin, coated in a thin layer of hardened coney sauce, with a small cup of baked beans for company. But after two minutes in the microwave, the franks were tasty, the sauce zesty and the beans, well, they were edible. For a vending-machine meal, there really isn’t a more hearty endorsement than that.

Dinty Moore Beef Stew, $2

If the sewers of Hell could be cooked, processed, pasteurized and fitted into a 7.5 ounce can, then this would be it. Dinty Moore Beef Stew is bad enough when it’s cooked at home — only generic mac ’n’ cheese or Great Value Ramen screams “desperation” louder — but when eaten on the job, it takes on an unprecedented layer of despair. The sauce, meat and vegetables combine into one salty, vaguely beef-like flavor and texture. You’d be better off donating the can to famine victims. Anyone higher up on the economic ladder would do well to avoid it. Oh, and that giant red thumbprint on the can? Satan’s.

Big AZ Jumbo Breaded Chicken Sandwich, $2.50

With a hint of workplace-inappropriate vulgarity, the Big AZ line of sandwiches from vending-food titans Pierre Foods ups the ante by cramming an oversize breaded chicken cutlet and a giant bun into an 8-ounce bag. Pierre’s PR flacks boast of having the “world’s best microwavable bun,” but the tasteless chicken-like substance between said bun succeeds only in making its consumers wish they’d followed their parents’ advice and gotten that master’s degree.

Orville Redenbacher Microwavable Popcorn, $1.25

When all is said and done, there’s really only one unpardonable sin in the workplace. Sexual harassment, embezzlement, absenteeism — all those things can be forgiven in time. But even the death penalty is not sufficient punishment for those who burn their microwave popcorn to a crisp. I’m convinced more tumors are formed from inhaling acrid popcorn smoke than cigarette smoke. That being said, this popcorn is OK, if you like licking the floors of movie theaters.

BakenEts Fried Pork Skins, 60 cents

In an era where product labels read like chemistry textbooks, the label on BakenEts Fried Pork Skins is refreshingly straightforward: “Fried pork skins, salt.” If consuming the peeled flesh from slaughtered pigs is your idea of a meal — as it is mine — then BakenEts is your brand. They kind of taste like bacon, kind of like pan scrapings and kind of like the smell of Gary, Ind. But if you’re hungry enough, hey, it beats going into a diabetic coma.

Yes, the plight of the workingman and -woman of this country is a dire one. They face a bad economy, the collapse of the housing industry and astronomical costs to commute. But for 30 or 60 minutes a day, they’re temporarily freed from their shackles to wolf down a few bites of over-processed food.

And as long as there’s a secretary out there wanting more info on the Jumbo Cheeseburger Sandwich or the nutritional value of Andy Capp’s Hot Fries, I’ll be there for them. Workers of the world, unite!

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