Photographer: Damon Dahlen / Pickle stylist: Christy Havranek
They don’t make any sense together. No one believes they’ll ever last. But despite the odds, some “odd couple” foods continue to attract people willing to try these “it’s so crazy, it just might work” mashups.
Remember when dipping french fries in a Wendy’s Frosty was considered the height of culinary madness? These days, it’s canon law. Today’s cuckoo-pants ideas just might be equally popular tomorrow.
But first let’s take a look at the psychology that leads people to, for example, stuff a Snickers bar in an oversized dill pickle and name it a “Snickle.”
Neuroscientist Rachel Herz, author of “Why You Eat What You Eat,” said that no unusual pairing can begin without the risk-taking of neophiles, people who love anything new or novel, especially when it comes to food. “Someone who wants to dip their popsicle in peanut butter, for example, is probably someone who seeks out the new and adventurous,” Herz told HuffPost. “They’re probably more open to new experiences and more likely to be extroverted.”
There’s actually a term that describes the tendency of some folks to eat foods that induce disgust or that are so spicy they cause actual pain. It’s benign masochism, a concept introduced by Paul Rozin, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Herz suggested yet another reason for the mixed-up meals: good old-fashioned attention-seeking, a sign of our Instagrammable times. “If people are making sure others know about their unusual food combinations, there could be a public-facing component that has ‘look at me’ dimensions,” she said.
Speaking of Instagram, influencers are finding ways to make money off these odd pairings. With 6.5 million Facebook followers and 3.97 million YouTube subscribers, social media sensation Alonzo Lerone has created a subspecialty of tasting the food pairings his viewers suggest on camera. One of his videos, which currently has 14 million views, bears the subtitle, “Yall should go to jail for telling me to try these weird food combos.” On camera, Lerone chews his way through food pairings like sugar cookies dipped in hummus, hot dogs steeped in milk, and Doritos slathered in chocolate pudding. He spits out mouthfuls, wipes away tears and even sweeps plates off countertops when the going gets really tough.
“People were putting so-called ‘strange foods’ together long before social media,” he told HuffPost. “The fact we have easy access to a platform that consists of everyone of all types now means that people with different taste buds can come together and give input on what kind of weird food combos they have grown to love. Since I started trying these food combos in 2016, I’ve actually been shocked by how two totally different ingredients can make such a beautiful harmony in my mouth.”
While Lerone plays his food combos for laughs, others earnestly share their culinary darlings, hoping others will appreciate the peculiar pairings. Singer Adrienne Bailon Houghton (from season two of “The Masked Singer” and a current co-host of “The Real”) makes what she calls “bomb” tuna fish salad by mixing in a cupful of bright red fruit punch to the tuna and mayonnaise. She dunks the finished tuna salad sandwich into a glass of fruit punch until the soft white bread turns a mushy shade of pink.
“It doesn’t taste fishy and it’s got mad flavor,” she said in a video on her All Things Adrienne YouTube channel, which has 953,000 subscribers. She explained that the dish has its origins in her high school years when one day after school she was seeking a way to up her tuna fish game: “I had high-end taste buds with a low-class budget, so this is what I created.” Other Houghton culinary originals, featured in her video My Favorite Weird Food Combinations, include sliced bananas in cheese quesadillas, peanut butter with white rice, and fried Cheerios.
In the “dippiest dip” category, television personality Alton Brown has confessed to dipping his Fritos in caramel sauce. On the “say what!?” snack front is singer Selena Gomez, who swears by what she calls Texas-style popcorn: popcorn drizzled with Tabasco sauce and salt and then dipped, kernel by kernel, into pickle juice.
In the “what won’t you put on a sandwich?” category, actor Channing Tatum shared his favorite recipe on a Reddit AMA as follows: “bread, white. peanut butter, not crunchy, creamy. grape jelly, double portion, more than you think should actually fit on a piece of white bread. bread. and then some Cheetos shoved in there, and then you’re good to go.”
Restaurants are also getting in on the act. Minneapolis sports bar and restaurant Peppers & Fries has found an unexpectedly popular dish in PB&J fries, made by tossing peanut butter and pepper jelly over fresh-cut fries. Owner Lorraine Frias told HuffPost, “We already have a PB&J burger that’s very popular, so we thought we’d give it a try. It makes sense if you think about it ― the classic savory and salty french fry gets sweetness and spiciness from the pepper jelly, and then it all gets a boost from the rich creaminess of the peanut butter. It’s savory, sweet and salty, all in one. But I have to tell you, some people still add ketchup.”
Myra Rucker, a full-time yoga teacher, spent much of her childhood in Houston, where ice cream trucks routinely offered a twofer deal on this odd pair: a dill pickle and a green apple Jolly Rancher lollipop.
“You would take a bite of the pickle, then take a lick of the lollipop,” she told HuffPost. “It was a perfect combination ― simultaneously sweet and salty, hard and crunchy, while also a little bit soft.” When her family moved to the Maryland-D.C. area, she was astonished that ice cream trucks didn’t have pickles and lollipops in stock. “That’s when I realized it was a purely local thing. It might even have just been a thing in my neighborhood. I haven’t had it in years, but I can still remember how good it was.”
No matter where you live, you probably know someone with a truly out-there take on foods that go together. Sometimes these creations start out on a dare. Nina Jonson of Robbinsdale, Minnesota, said that her daughter Adella, age 9, loves blue raspberry ICEE mixed with Panera broccoli cheddar soup.
“It’s been a favorite combo of hers for about two years, ever since she brought her unfinished movie theater ICEE into lunch at Panera,” Jonson told HuffPost. “Her older sister dared her to mix them together. She did ― and she liked it.”
There are some commonalities among all these crazy combos. Often they’re an attempt to layer on more of the three things we like best in food: sugar, salt and fat. Then there’s the universal truth that people will put peanut butter on just about anything. Ditto bacon. And, of course, ranch dressing. The urge to mix salty and sweet seems to be nearly universal, which is why new variations on that theme, like barbecue potato chips eaten with mini marshmallows, could take off. And people everywhere love to mix pickles with anything that’s even remotely edible.
Will what we see as odd couples today become the established snack food royalty of tomorrow? It’s hard to say, but keep those jars of peanut butter and dill pickles handy, and you should be good to go.