On that fabled evening in 1964, in the tiny Anchor Bar in upstate New York, when Teressa Bellissimo first plunged fried chicken wings into a spicy hot sauce, she couldn’t have known the massive culinary impact her dish would create. As a chill crept through a crack in the window of her cramped kitchen, she couldn’t possibly have guessed that nearly fifty years later, highly scientific studies would reveal that nearly half of all food consumed in the United States would be “Buffalo Chicken” flavored. Had she known, had she been able to collect her thoughts over the din being created in the dining room by her son Dominic and his hard-drinking friends, would she have done anything differently? Would she have patented her new flavor combination immediately, guaranteeing a life of luxury for the Bellissimo clan for generations to come? Or, sensing the total degradation of the nation’s food supply that was to come, would she have “accidentally” dropped her tray of chicken wings on the floor, saving us all from ourselves? Or by then, was it already too late to put the genie back in the bottle?
Fast forward to 2013, where the aisles of the supermarket and menus of convenience eateries nationwide have gone certifiably Buffalo-crazy. Buffalo wing flavored Pringles. Buffalo chicken rice pilaf. Buffalo chicken Chunky soup. Buffalo chicken pizza, for goodness’ sake. Hot Buffalo chicken dip, made by combining canned chicken with canned condensed soup. And now, finally, this awkward mouthful: “Jack Link’s Buffalo-Style Chicken Big Dippers™ Buffalo Style Chicken Strips with Buffalo and Ranch Sauce.”
I was surprised at my immediately adverse reaction to this product, which I first spotted while contemplating suicide while standing in line at the Rockland Wal-Mart, awash in the smell of sweat-soaked flannel infused with decades of stale cigarette smoke, mingling with the toasted garlic bagels from the store’s built-in Dunkin’ Donuts. I’ve long been a huge fan of Jack Link’s products, even once writing them a handwritten letter to express my delight with their Cholula-flavored beef jerky. But that particular product seemed almost quaintly underprocessed when compared to the explosion of random packaging, flavoring, and ingredients presented before me in the form of these Buffalo Style Chicken Big Dippers™.
The very notion of “chicken jerky” already bears very little appeal, for me. No one has ever intentionally roasted a chicken at home for hours too long, only to pull the dry, chewy carcass out of the oven to pick at and savor for days on end. Dehydrated chicken just isn’t something you find yourself craving. No doubt sensing that their product may lack a certain visual appeal, the packaging keeps the actual chicken portion of the product a bit of a mystery, choosing to much more highly emphasize the “dipping” aspects of the meal.
Peeling the top layer of plastic off of the TV dinner-style segments tray revealed why. Six sad, shriveled chicken sticks sit at the bottom of the package, glazed in a very faint moisture that coats your fingers and gives off the distinct smell of sausage casing and artificial butter flavoring. Inside, two more tiny containers, each with their own lids to tear off and discard, contained a few tablespoons each of both ranch dressing and Buffalo wing sauce.
A quick whiff of the two sauces proved disastrous. The ranch sauce gave off an unexpectedly sweet aroma, followed by a sour smell which flooded my brain with the sensory memory of that time Charlotte barfed in the carpeted hallway of our elementary school and the janitors put sawdust over it for the rest of the day. She had to stay home for three days, due not to her stomach virus, but mostly to shame. The Buffalo sauce wasn’t quite as bad; here, there were the cayenne and vinegar notes you would expect from a Buffalo wing sauce.
After getting all the various packages-within-packages unwrapped, finally prepared to dunk one of the shriveled chicken strips into the wing sauce, I found myself kind of frozen in place at my kitchen counter. I’ve eaten plenty of horrible, mad-scientist processed foods as a part of this series. Most of the time, my none-too-secret expectation is that I’ll find something that is unapologetically awful, but that I secretly really love eating. Poor-man’s “Chicken and Waffles” made with Flatjacks and Eggos come to mind. As do Cool Ranch Doritos. But after smelling all of the individual elements of Jack Link’s Buffalo Style Chicken Big Dippers™, my body was locked in what was unquestionably a “fight or flight” response. The more I willed my hand to dip dehydrated, smoke-flavored chicken sausage into the accompanying sauces, the less I was able to move, and the more my stomach churned at what was to come.
My hand, finally able to process the signals it was receiving from my brain, and finally able to overcome its own basic desire to avoid self-harm, plunged a chicken bit first from the Buffalo sauce, then into the Charlottebarf Ranch sauce.
The combination was worse than I ever even could have imagined. First, the “Chicken Dippers” themselves are godawful. The consistency is dry and kind of crumbly, reminding me foremost of what comes out of my dog the day after I feed her way too many chicken bones.* A few chews didn’t do the meat product any favors; the additional saliva only brought out the artificial smoke and butter flavoring of the chicken bits. The Buffalo sauce itself was totally respectable, bearing the familiar flavor of heat, spice, and vinegary bite. It wasn’t enough to overpower that Ranch dressing, though, which I may have to go on record as naming one of the worst packaged sauce flavors I have ever encountered.
I was also struck by just how inconvenient this product was; this isn’t something you stuff into a backpack along with your bottled water and your space blankets and your carabiners or whatever it is hikers do, to keep you alive when you stray off the trail and get lost in the woods for three days. It didn’t strike me as even something that could reasonably be eaten while driving your car, what with all the sauce-covered lids and the dipping and whatnot. No. Eating a package of Jack Link’s Buffalo Style Chicken Big Dippers requires your full attention, which you may be reluctant to give.
Look, I get it. I understand why Buffalo wing flavored products are so popular. When you have a sauce that’s made almost entirely of cayenne and vinegar, you can bring a huge whallop of flavor to almost any food, without adding any significant fat or caloric load to that dish. There’s probably also a certain mental association between “Buffalo wings” and “good times,” so that when you’re wolfing down a Buffalo chicken sandwich from Subway while sitting in your cubicle during your 26 minute lunch break, your brain is tricked into thinking that instead it is among friends, laughter, and fun. With the introduction of Jack Link’s Buffalo Style Chicken Big Dippers™, though, we have to finally acknowledge that it’s simply not going to be possible for all of us to be eating Buffalo wings at all times. I know things are tough out there, and we’re all looking for comfort wherever we can get it. It’s time to admit, though, that comfort is not going to be found anywhere near a package of Jack Link’s Buffalo Style Chicken Big Dippers™.
*Before you write to explain to me that I shouldn’t feed my dog chicken bones, I have to remind you that she is a rescued Mexican street dog embodied with the spirit of the fearsome chupacabra, and cannot be killed by any conventional means. When I first found her, I’m pretty sure she was eating another dog.