I'm relatively sure that I'm not the only person who, after an evening of cocktails with friends who recently headed home, has stood in his kitchen looking desperately for an easy, late-night, meat-based meal. But cooking abilities are questionable for someone who's holding on to the fridge and freezer door handles simultaneously to keep steady and for whom driving to Taco Bell is right out.
This is what I was thinking about the other day in the freezer aisle of a supermarket when I wondered what, besides laziness, would drive a meat eater to consider the merits of a bag of frozen General Tso's chicken. Right there, I decided to do a comparison of precooked meat dishes. I'd evaluate selections not only as meal substitutes but as late-night post-alcohol binge sustenance. And I'd evaluate them under battle conditions.
My criteria were simple: I wanted an array of proteins, they needed to be easy to cook, and none of them could have the TGI Friday logo on the box. The notes that follow consist of a brief product description written in the sober light of day, followed by my comments and experiences with each product after downing a copious amount of Irish whiskey. Many thanks to my lovely wife, who transcribed my commentary and made sure I didn't injure myself or others in the production of this column, then allowed me to sleep in the same bed despite what I have to assume would have been breath bad enough to blind an innocent.
Goya Beef Potato Puffs (Rellenos de Papa)
Frozen. These remind me of one of my favorite dishes ever, rice balls from Ferdinando's in Brooklyn. Goya describes them as "savory beef filling enclosed in our delicious potato puff pastry." I'd say that's taking a bit of artistic license.
In the field: Three ways to cook may lead to brain lock-up, and the hot-oil version could lead to a horrible injury. I opt to try microwave and oven-cooked versions. Heading to the microwave with one on a plate turns into a bad circus act as I try to keep it from sliding onto the floor ("Holy crap, these are slippery bastards!").
Cook time calls for simply hitting the "add minute" button three times. While one's heating, I toss another in the oven on a cookie sheet for 30. The microwave version comes out welded to the plate, which I demonstrate by carrying it to the counter by holding onto just the pastry and burning my fingers. The base is as tough as an oak when I go for a forkful, and it's dry and chewy. "Really dry: could choke a drunk," I say, then finish it anyway because I'm hungry.
Later, when removing the other one from the oven, I'm reminded why it's a bad idea to bake when you've been drinking: too many hot surfaces. After icing my finger, I discover it wasn't worth cooking in the oven either. And I burn my tongue too.
Rank: a disappointing fifth.
State Fair Classic Corn Dogs
Frozen. These come six to a box, sleeping head to toe. Extremely reasonably priced, they're a good option for when alcohol has lowered one's inhibitions.
In the field: I rip open the box to reveal the tops of three corn-covered ICBMs ("ooh -- looks like rockets"). I toss one on a plate and I'm back in the circus ("Whoa, whoa! These things roll"). Microwave instructions call for 70 seconds, a potential disaster when clumsy fingers accidentally set the time to seven minutes. After resetting the timer ("That could have gone nuclear"), I pull one from the 'wave and take a bite. "Hot. Fucking hot. And sweet. And spongy. And really good. This stick is pretty dangerous, though -- if you don't approach the last bite horizontally, you could scar your uvula." All in all, pretty sweet when you need a fast late-night munch.
Rank: a surprising second.
Curly's Pulled Pork
Refrigerated. The label explains it's "Always Pulled, Never Shredded" -- my personal mantra. It comes in an 18-ounce tub with one of those "chef's best taste" award emblems on it. They obviously didn't judge texture.
In the field: Once again, a microwave cooking time divisible evenly by minutes makes button-pushing almost foolproof. My wife thinks it smells the best; I think it looks horrible. I hold some up on a fork: "I'm a BBQ fan, and this does not look appetizing -- does it look appetizing to you?" I ask. "No, it looks like a bloody wig," she tells me. I start laughing so hard, literally going "hee hee hee," which I don't think I've ever done, that I drool. "It tastes OK, I guess, but the texture is awful. I don't think I've ever eaten something that looks like a drain clog." It would be OK if you could hide it in a bun. Otherwise, run.
Rank: Thanks to the look and feel, yes, it is pretty rank.
Perdue General Tso's Chicken
Frozen. Comes in a hearty 26-ounce bag. Looks about as good as General Tso's ever does, which is to say you know it will meet your fat and sugar requirements easily.
In the field: I yell happily: "Ziplock bag, bitches!" Cooking requires a turn midway through, which is a mind-fuck. Dividing total cooking time by two also requires math, which I'm disinterested in due to my current condition. I'm also disinterested in finding an implement to use to make the turn, which causes me to burn my fingers repeatedly but gives me a halftime flavor preview when I put them in my mouth. When done: "Mmm. This shit is good. I could eat this in front of the TV all night. Maybe a bit sweet, and the middle of the smaller pieces are hot enough to burn through the Earth to China, but I like it a lot."
Rank: A tie for second. Easier cooking would give it sole ownership of the position.
White Castle Cheeseburgers
Frozen. Eight bags of two burgers per box, I had high hopes for these. I used to stop at White Castle at all hours when I was in college. Usually on the way back from acquiring study aids.
In the field: The box has clear perforations for opening it, but I can't figure out where they start, so I just rip it open. Instructions are printed on each mini bag that's scattered on the floor, which is good, because the box is destroyed. Into the microwave for another easy time: a single minute. Caution: When they're done, they're hot and need to be removed using a plate. "Good thing I'm a chef," I say while I hold a plate in the ready position.
With my first bite, I know I have my winner. I'm so blissed out on White Castle goodness, in fact, that I don't realize they don't have ketchup on them until I finish my first burger. Squirting some onto a plate makes a farting noise, and l laugh ("That never gets old") so hard I almost choke, proving that I'm an idiot. With ketchup, they just get better. These may well be the perfect frozen meat dish, and I love them more than I can say.
Rank: Number one by a mile.
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The Bottom Line
White Castle cheeseburgers rule, and I'd eat them any time, in any condition. Two of the remaining five I'd never buy again, but two are worth a purchase. While they aren't perfect meal replacements for a sober, intelligent person who wants a quality meat dish, they're definitely worth the trade-off of not having to cook. Where they really shine, though, is as an answer to the age-old question: "I think I mightahad a bittoo mush to drink buh I'm hngy wha th'fck cn I eat?"
Bradford Schmidt is The Meatist. He's also author of the blog Bone in the Fan. He lives in northern Palm Beach County and believes that hangovers can be avoided by eating six to 12 White Castle cheeseburgers.