So, these Dumpster Diving pieces were not essays I had planned to write, and they’re more or less the equivalent of me sitting at my PC, looking around the office and then just letting letting loose until I’ve exorcised some personal demons. The last one (on Fruit Corners Thunder Jets) was a tad more personal than I tend to get here at Branded, and fair warning, this one might stray into that territory as well. Typically, I tend to do a couple weeks worth of research and image prep prior to sitting down to write, but lately these weird pieces of food-related ephemera that have been landing in my collection have been in the forefront of my mind whenever I sit down to work on other stuff I have in the hopper. So I’m just going to go with this and see where it takes me. I think I might have a couple more of these in me after this piece I’m about to let loose from my brain.
As I mentioned in that last piece, I was a pretty stereotypical “fat kid”, so much so that in 1987 when I first saw The Monster Squad in the movie theater, I literally thought I saw myself up on the screen when Horace first turns up. It was never something about myself that I wanted to change because when I was happy, I was very happy. Yes, I took a whole lot of crap for being overweight. Coaches in gym classes were merciless (like dealing with Sensei John Kreese in the Karate Kid.) There was also a string of seemingly endless jocks who had nothing better to do in life than to give me a hard time between classes, running up behind me and slapping my ass or making some stupid joke at my expense. But I was also lucky, or at least I managed to create my own luck with utilizing my skill in art and having a quick enough wit that I managed to make enough friends in school that it all seemed to balance out in the end. After 10 years of being the husky kid in school I also learned the art of blending into the background as well. I had a semblance of control over when I wanted and didn’t want to be seen, and that was a nice skill to have developed as well. I dated, had most of the high school experiences kids quest to have, and made it out on the other side of adolescence fine.
But to try and dive into the point of this particular piece, I want to talk a bit about why I was fat to begin with, and why I was cool with it (for the most part.) I wasn’t always a “fat kid”. In fact, up until age seven, I was a fairly skinny kid. But there were a few things happening in my life at the time that drastically changed my habits when it came to food. Some of the things going on were kinda dark, too dark for this venue and is stuff that no one needs to know (not trying to be cagey, just trying to set the stage here for my state of mind at age seven.) The other two events deal directly with a pop culture food product, Chef Boyardee Mini Ravioli. I’ve written about one of these incidents in the past, but the quick version is that I was served a meal of Mini Ravioli topped with a runny sunny side up fried egg at a friends house and it wrecked my ability to stomach any food prepared by anyone that wasn’t my mom, myself, or from a restaurant. This food phobia traveled with me for thirty years after that weird night, but you can read all about it in that older piece if you want.
The last event was that my father had found a new job in 1984. We’d been living in Tampa, Florida for the previous five years, and even though this was going to be my father’s third job change and second location change in the seven years since I was born, it was the first that I was old enough to appreciate or really notice. At this point I had a handful of friends that I thought would be my buds for life and it felt like my world was ending when my folks broke the news that we were moving an hour and change away from Tampa to Orlando. My sister was hit even harder by this move as she was 15 and had just moved across the country twice with my folks, so this was a third big uprooting for her, and I know that I was feeding off some of her anger. When we landed in a new house in Orlando, my first two memories of that week were our cat running away and my mother not only showing me how to use our first microwave (it was built in to the kitchen), but also encouraging me to constantly use it on my own to make Chef Boyardee Mini Ravioli to keep me busy, fed and out of her hair while we were settling in. Eventually she’d also start trusting me with the stove top so that I could cook it in a pot if I wanted as well. She was also shoveling a lot of other junk food into my face at this point to keep me happy, something she had tried really hard to avoid in Tampa when I was younger. All of a sudden it was okay to ask for and drink soda on the regular, as well as getting some more sugary cereals like Cap’n Crunch with Crunchberries, fruit snacks, and bucket-loads of microwave pop corn.
I reveled in this food freedom, and it became my escape from sadness and ennui. Wake up missing my best bud Anthony? Well crack open a can of Mini Ravioli and problem solved. Dad and my sister Beth at each other’s throats in blood-curdling screaming matches? Crack open a can of Mini Ravioli, retreat into my room with warm, tangy and filling pasta and problem solved. Very quickly the taste of Chef Boyardee, and that warming feeling from eating it way too fast so that the pit of my stomach felt like there was a comforting heater in it, became synonymous with safety and home. I was eating it for breakfast AND lunch in heavy rotation, so much so that my mom must have been picking up five to ten cans of this stuff a week. Like McDonald’s, the taste was also the same, the quality super consistent, and the effect was blissful for a kid who was craving stability and familiarity. Thank goodness for Chef Boyardee was the first product tagline that had any real weight and resonance with me. The design of the can became etched into my memory, and even though years later I’d miss remember the label being a bit more yellow, this following image was one that was always in forefront of my mind…
I searched for this label for years with no luck. This wasn’t the kind of thing that was being archived on the internet for the longest time. There were similar labels for other Chef Boyardee products floating out there, ones for Beef O Ghetti, or Beef-O-Roni, but not the one I remembered so fondly. I hadn’t thought of looking for it again until recently. Picking up the Thunder Jets and DC Super Heroes Cookies had me on the hunt for a short list of food packaging I was hoping to score, and lo and behold, sitting right there on eBay was this above label of 80s era goodness. Whereas in the past I would have been content just seeing the image (and archiving a copy for my digital collection), the collector that I’ve become in my 40s had to have this, so I immediately scooped it up. Though as a kid I was eating these by the 15oz can (my lord, just thinking about shoveling in up to two pounds of these stuff into my mouth a day seems so wrong), this label is luckily for the larger family-size 40oz can so it’s a much larger representation of a product that I loved so much. Something interesting to note, this can design was used on the Mini Ravioli for almost 20 years with little to no change.
Even though I was very clearly ballooning up to an uncomfortable level within that very first year we moved to Orlando, I didn’t care one bit. Especially around the ages of seven, eight, and nine, when I was still young enough that P.E. in my elementary school meant recess and kickball games, and the idea of cliques jocks and trying to get dates for the weekends was still a long way away. Like I said, I developed a lot of bad habits at this time when it came to food, and of course it didn’t all revolve around 15oz cans of meaty pasta, but the 100% mainstay from the age of seven to 16 was Chef Boyardee Mini Ravioli. What really made me realize the impact it had on my health and weight came much later in my late thirties. In 2012, right after I lost my sister to suicide I made a concerted effort to change my eating habits drastically and started a consistent exercise routine that led to me shedding 150lbs off of my heaviest weight. It took a year and a half, but for the first time in my adult life, the first time since age seven actually, I was down to a healthy, almost skinny weight. I lost 10 pants sizes, went from desperately trying to find size 4XL t-shirts to a standard XL or Large depending on the cut, and felt like I had entered into an entirely new era in my life. Then in 2015 I took a leap of faith and moved up to Maryland from Georgia (where I’s spent the previous 20 odd years) and start a new chapter in my life. It was a lot of change all at once, and of course I had a strategy to deal with the unease and stress. It was homey, carby, warm and came in a can, was in bite-sized pieces and smothered in tomato/meat sauce. I started with a couple of cans, rationalizing that I just wanted that homey feeling of safety that came so easily with the same taste I remembered from my youth so well. Then it was a few more cans. Then soda. Then snacks. Then the significant other and I sold and bought a house (thank goodness for cheap Chef Boyardee.) Then we had a child (Chef Boyardee sure heats up fast and tastes amazing at 3:45 in the morning when you haven’t eaten in the past 10 hours and the baby is screaming, and just put the ravioli in my mouth now please and thank you.) And then, before I knew what happened, I ballooned back up to 350lbs. That was back in December of 2019. I put my foot down hard again, cleaned up my eating habits, and am starting to edge back towards exercising on the regular. Over the past six months I’ve lost 50lbs on my way to losing a full 100lbs. It’s a daily battle, but one I’ve fought before and know I can win.
Picking up this vintage 80s era Chef Boyardee label is a visual reminder that I can evoke the feeling of safety and comfort without having to actually shovel the stuff in my mouth twice a day. I’m not saying that Chef Boyardee is to blame for my weight problems, just that I have a problem with slipping into bad eating habits, and Mini Ravioli just so happens to be my gateway drug. Realization is a good step right?
As a kind of interesting post script to this story, I’ve recently been super excited and loving a new youtube series created and hosts by Mr. Toast’s own Dan Goodsell. The series is called To Be Determined and features interviews with folks in the collecting and archiving world, friends of Dan who have some interesting insights into the world of collecting and how we both develop as collectors and how it shapes our lives and careers. The series is fantastic, and the first two episodes feature a couple of my favorite online buds who were very instrumental in my starting this very website, Jason Liebig of Collecting Candy and Kirk Demarais of the Secret Fun Blog. I’ve spent the last few weeks watching along as these episodes have been dropping and getting some very radical insight into collecting stuff like the Chef Boyardee label in this piece. These items that are basically trash and shouldn’t exist, but do and are an important if not overlooked part of our pop culture history. As I’ve mentioned in recent piece, like part 1 of this Dumpster Diving series, Dan and Jason in particular have fed my love of this kind of stuff and have supported my articles in the past by allowing me to share pieces from their respective collections. Then here I am in the midst of finally taking a few steps into their world collecting when the show hits and it all feels like it was meant to be, like this just all makes so much sense at this very moment in time.
To my shock, I had ordered the Chef Boyardee label a few weeks ago, before watching the new web series, and by the time it landed in my hands I was just fining the latest segment. I came home from work, tired and worn out to a package in the mail, and as I scanned the return address to see if I could figure out what it was before I opened it I was gobsmacked to see Dan Goodsell’s name. I ripped open the package and the Chef Boyardee label was sitting there staring back at me. I had no idea that this piece was being sold on Dan’s eBay account, but it was just another instance of all of this seeming to fit into place in the weirdly perfect way. So thank you Dan for doing what you do, and making it possible for me to be connected with this piece of paper that means the world to me. It wasn’t intentional on your part, but it’s still an amazing gift.