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Another Portland Blog

Monday, March 07, 2005


The Chili Incident

It's been a while since my last trip to Winco. Running low on groceries I decided to take the last edible thing in my house to work: a box of chili.

But this wasn't just any box of chi, er, maybe it is. Now that I think about it, this was my first box of chili. Typically these things come in cans. Nevertheless, this was a different bread of chili, regardless of what sort of container it came in. This was "INFERNO: SELF HEATING MOUNTAIN CHILI (meat free)."

I picked up the box months ago during a dull trip to REI. Wedged between the indoor rock wall and an aisle devoted to tin coffee and espresso cups was another full of ready-to-eat meals. Most of what REI had to offer was run of the mill "Just add boiling water" packs of lasagna and scrambled eggs: the sort of inedible glop that can be found at any yuppie camping site. The bright red Inferno box practically screamed "BUY ME! I AM THE COOLEST THING EVER FORGED BY HUMAN HANDS!" Self cooking chili? What will those wonderful food scientists think of next?

I wanted to head out to the car and immediately break it open but an eerie warning on the side dissuaded me.

"WARNING: During the initial activation process you may notice a chemical vapor. This odor is the result of the chemical reaction between the flameless exothermic heater and the inert activation solution (salt water). This odor will quickly dissipate and poses no harmful effects whatsoever."

Exothermic heater? That didn't sound harmless. This was an experiment that would have to wait for another time and place. The time? When I ran out of anything else to eat. The place? The break room at my office. There was no way I was going to open this Pandora's Chili Box anywhere near my abode.

Instead of following the directions I tore open one end of the box. Ooops. Step one on the "heating steps" was "lift tab." With no way to tape the box back together I pushed a copy of Wired up against the side and lifted the tab. Inside was a thin white "activation strip." I pulled it and expected some sort of wiring noise or a few laser beams to jut out of the box. Instead, nothing happened.

The instructions advised me to wait no less than 15 minutes. A minute or so later I noticed the chemical smell. So it was working, after all. Then it happened: a cloud of steam shot of the box like a teakettle. The box's "take Inferno to the office" suggestion sharply contrasted with the "always use in adequately ventilated areas" advisory I had overlooked. I tried to look as nonchalant as possible next to this mysterious steaming box as a coworker came in to buy a Butterfinger from the vending machine.

Somehow he didn't notice the steam or the weird smell that had filled the room. I eyed the sprinkler system overhead. Was this chemical cloud enough to kick-start the office's fire alarm? Or would it be able to tell the difference between life-threatening smoke and possibly carcinogenic chili smoke?

Apparently, it was the later. After ten minutes I got tired of waiting pulled out the chili's black plastic tray along with an included spork and a Baby Wipe napkin. Given all the vapors floating around it had to be fully heated.

Alas, not. The chili was lukewarm. The verdict? It tasted like any given can of .99 cent chili that would have taken me 2 minutes to heat up in the microwave. The box of Inferno had set me back $5 and over 10 minutes.

The other $4 must have gone into making the heating unit, which was hidden within the black tray. I thought about using the rest of my break to dissect it with a coworker's Leatherman but noticed Inferno's final warning: "attempts to disassemble may result in injury." I wasn't going to take any further chances with Inferno. I tossed the tray in the trash and slowly backed out of the room.

This will probably be my last self-cooking meal. Nevertheless, if Inferno rolls out a self-cooking Thanksgiving turkey that'll be hard to pass up.

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