Probably, objectively, eating a nutritious, well-balanced diet is going to make you feel–if not better–not worse? But also, the main reason to eat actual food as opposed to nutrition pellets or shakes or whatever (and I do consume the protein versions of these, too, for the sake of my fabulous muscles) is for personal pleasure and comfort. While proper comfort food implies thoughtful home cooking, family recipes, possibly a lot of preparation and simple yet unobtrusive visual appear, there’s a baser sort of comfort to be found in trash food. Trash food is comfort food’s crude cousin: necessarily garish, questionable, occasionally uncanny in its resemblance to a “satisfying meal.”
Now, junk food might be the bag of potato chips, but trash food is when you microwave the potato chips with American cheese and hot dog slices and call it “nachos,” as a close friend of mine does. Trash food can be low or high effort. It can be fast food specials unwisely paired, a mish-mash of pre-packaged junk, but it can also be one of those hyperbolic home-fried, things-wrapped-in-other-nastier-things (something-something-masculinity).
“Trashy” is a pretty old and widely used euphemism in American culture for messy, unrefined, and tacky stuff, but it seems like more and more people are having fun with it, and at least in my online circles, trashiness is enjoying a bit of moment. So instead of a recipe this month, I talked to the most online trashy person I know: Jae Bearhat!
JARBOE: Hi Jae! Thanks for talking to me today about trash food!
BEARHAT: Hey Julian! I was just getting back into town from camping so I’ve been slowly reintegrating back into human life. Thank you again for reaching out to me!
JARBOE: There is a recurring motif in your social media pictures and general persona of trashiness and trash substances, and I don’t just mean “substances” like alcohol and cigarettes, which are constantly present, but also snacks and meals which border on non-food: “substances” in the literal way rather than the euphemistic. I love how this carries over into your personal style and ideas where nothing is too “high” or “low” brow to be worthy of at least a taste test. In your daily life, what are your favorite trash snacks and meals?
BEARHAT: My go to trash snack and meals tend to always be like, novelty offerings from fast food chains and convenience stores, friends and I will constantly be texting each other photos of some new sandwich or taco arrangement and pleads to come get it with us for lunch. Because I’ve pretty consistently lived in low-income areas my life, it’s been super common to always be a short distance from 7/11s, Taco Bells, Jack in the Boxes, the like, as well as oftentimes having them nearby my favorite dive bars and other such haunts, so I tend to see advertisements for every “limited time offering at a participating location” deal when they come around and they almost always turn into outings or impulse purchases with friends. I also in the last few years discovered the joys of discount/overstock stores such as Grocery Outlet, where failed brands or flavors end up at low prices, so I’ve usually got some box of promotional chips or pastries stashed in my pantry. When I was more of a night owl, diners and especially places like Denny’s were my go-to, but I’ve been trying to stay on a more normal circadian rhythm and they just are not as satisfying if it’s not like, way too late to be drinking coffee.
JARBOE: What’s are the best and worst surprises you’ve had in concocting something that you ate or drank? Ever discover weird culinary genius, or make yourself way too ill?
BEARHAT: For a while, I was buying super cheap frozen cheese pizzas and putting other ingredients on them for movie nights with my friends, and that actually led me to discovering some decent meals I still eat (soy chorizo and feta cheese fried up with diced chiles on a pizza is surprisingly indulgent) and some meals that I mostly ate out of obligation and spite (I have tried multiple attempts to put Chinese food either fresh or frozen on a pizza and I have yet to get either a decent flavor profile or something that doesn’t require handfuls of Tums). While camping this weekend I tried to make up for missing out on getting jackfruit pulled pork by stealing a bun and putting Jack Daniels teriyaki strips and string cheese over a couple Bic lighters and it went about as well as that sounds.
JARBOE: A lot of my own favorite trash food is just what’s affordable, available, and popular. For example, I will eat Oreos in or on anything. Part of me mourns the messed up structures of society that narrow most people’s options so much, yet every time I take that first bite, I hear the unbridled joy of a phantom punk kid in my head exclaim “they’re technically vegan!” and I decide not to beat myself up for eating a cookie in a bad world. It’s like a little way to make peace with the embarrassing, ugly, shallow parts of myself, too. In what ways do you think embracing trashiness can heal and protect people who’ve been told their tastes, bodies, and lives are garbage?
BEARHAT: My love of garbage is absolutely tied heavily to my class and queer background. Growing up I ended up in a school program for smart kids which mostly meant the upper class ones who were being fast tracked for Ivy Leagues, so I learned really early on that if I wanted friends I had to feign a lot of class affect I didn’t have and “play it straight” so the parents of the kids I hung out with wouldn’t think I was going to corrupt or lead their children astray. Which, even early on just made me find even more joy in acting out in the most overly trashy ways I could when they weren’t looking. At some point in college I know I just kind of dropped the pretenses in general and just started indulging a lot in trash that I liked, because it’s cheap and easy to attain and pleasurable, and there’s a lot of fun in that. There’s also a lot of absurdity in especially trashy food and drinks that I find funny, but not in this sort of sincerity/irony dynamic so much as like, “This being created is a reflection of a specific culture or perspective or marketing or even just drunk decision making and I want to commit to trying it 100%”. I get a lot of shit at parties sometimes because I always bring flavored Steel Reserves but for me they’re not only familiar but also they reflect me perfectly- – cheap trash that gets the job done without approaching being intolerable.
JARBOE: A lot of lower effort trash food also overlaps with depression meals. Nutritionally, while things like “health” and “wellness” are often thin veils for disordered eating and magical thinking, in what ways can embracing trashiness cross into cynicism, nihilism, and self harm?
BEARHAT: For me, it’s definitely making sure I mix in indulgence with like, actual sincere self-care. I’ll post a lot online about garbage I eat, but I also will post about recipes I’m excited to try, about figuring out the best grocery route to get all the ingredients for a complicated meal, about going to the gym or getting out of the city for a few days. I’m constantly having to remind myself that preparing a full meal for the week actually makes me feel incredible mentally and also gives me a healthier meal, because every time after I’m like “Oh yeah, this also rules”. To me, I see it as if you’re indulging in trash to a point where you can feel negative effects sticking around for longer and longer and outweighing the positive ones (whether that be physical or mental), it’s good to offset it by also indulging in something “healthy”, even if it’s as simple as just having a juice smoothie in the morning or taking a lengthy walk in the evening. I guess that’s the best way I’d say to keep yourself from lapsing into just “health” activities that are just as potentially self-harming as “trash” activities is to treat them as an indulgence rather than as a punishment. For cooking, especially, I proselytize a lot about just starting with small simple stuff like stir fries and building up the confidence to do more, but even if you don’t have the time or resources for that, picking specific meals to be your palette cleanser also helps make the trash feel even more decadent.
JARBOE: Any new or forthcoming projects–yours or other people’s– you wanna plug?
BEARHAT: I’ve been working a lot on the video essay series Film Critters with my cohort Barroo and we’re probably going to be launching a Patreon soon, which I’m excited about. Cartoonist Rory Frances and I are also gonna be releasing a new installment of our comic Little Tooth this year, and he will definitely have a lot more updates on his Twitter as we get closer!
JARBOE: Thanks so much!
As I type this, I am wearing a blanket and barely digesting the “sushi corn dog” I had for dinner last night. Sometimes your body wants powerful yet questionable things that others don’t always understand the appeal of (wink wink), and what could be more affirming–nay, liberating!–to your True Self than to stop worrying and pursue those abject dreams?
Cover illustration by Flynn Nicholls.