Ah, lifestyle guilty pleasures, a true catch-all for everything and anything we're just a wee bit embarrassed by.
Shopping indulgences. Favorite junk-food treats. The cheap paperbacks we hide behind our college textbooks, pretending we're just saving them for that next airplane ride.
Even the most straitlaced, politically correct vegan among us gives in to temptation from time to time. Guilty pleasures put color in life, and who are we to deny ourselves?
'll admit it. I dig Asian buffets. And this from a guy who worked as a restaurant reviewer for a time, scrutinizing each morsel for its flavor and flair. Sure, I appreciate the latest trendy eatery as much as the next guy, but these buffets are so unabashedly American in their sheer enormity, they’re nearly impossible to resist. They heard the insatiable pleas for food — lots and lots of food — and popped up on nearly every corner of the suburban strip-mall landscape to meet the demand. It beats dropping a cool $200 bucks for a snooty waiter and a cracker with a sprig of watercress at the chic bistro du jour down the street.
If you’re pressed for time, you can belly up to the lo mein bar the second you get seated. But the best part is they're just so accommodating. If you're craving variety, you can eat your way from one end to another. (And I actually did once. For a review, I ate literally one of everything on a restaurant’s buffet.) Or you can have a bunch of whatever item you prefer — and nothing else. Forty plates of crab legs? Nobody in the place will even glance sideways at you. And all for under $10 bucks? Pinch me. But not in the general region of my stomach — I’m very full. Oh, man, is that shrimp? —Brian Bellmont
Usually, when a friend or loved one expresses horror at something I'm snacking on — and it happens frequently, given my love of anchovies, toxically stinky cheeses, and peanut-butter-and-tomato sandwiches — I try to defend my choice. "It's an acquired taste," I'll say, or "don't knock it 'til you've tried it."
When it's a bag of Funyuns, however, I have no defense — primarily because Funyuns have such an odd, cakey texture that they wick all the saliva away from my tongue, and even if I want to stick up for Frito-Lay's strangely addictive "onion flavored ring," I can't speak at all until I cleanse my palate with a swig of Diet Coke. (Yes, I see the paradox there. No, I don't care to examine it more closely.)
But the Funyun is basically indefensible in the first place. I've never read the list of ingredients — I don't want to know — but I suspect that the average Funyun has about as much to do with an actual onion as grape Kool-Aid does with a vineyard. It's like an onion ring, except it's only the ring; it's like a food, except it contains no organic materials. It's a snack George Jetson would have invented. Or Rene Magritte. And I love them. The starchy space-age onion dust, the satisfying crunchiness, the word "fun" right there in the brand name: truly the Funyun is a king among snacks. —Sarah D. Bunting
Giant Chewy SweeTarts
Tooth-breakingly hard and jaw-fusingly dense, eating one Giant Chewy SweeTart is like chewing a small hockey puck. And half of each pack is a waste: Let's face it — the only reason to eat grape and lemon is to get through to the apple and cherry. The impossibility of eating them makes them all the more irresistible, like stale Jujubes. The sourness is so strong (thanks, malic acid!) that they become their own exquisite form of torture. That just makes us want more.
I remember when they first appeared, around the mid-1980s. A curiosity at first, they demanded a try. With one bite, you were either hooked — or vowed never to touch the vile things again. Why did they have to be so darn big, anyway? Spree’s chew version was so identical to the hard original that only the wrapper gave away the difference. Even Nestlé caved and created mini chewy SweeTarts. Neither product — not even a wholesale gorging on Sour Patch Kids — can match the sheer sour power of these crazy things. Hidden in the kitchen drawer, they firmly command respect.
Sour makes us love it. Chewy makes us its slaves. —Jon Bonné
HatsIt started in childhood, at Disneyland's "Mad Hatter" shop, my fascination with funny hats. Mickey Mouse ears were not enough, I had to have the Donald Duck cap with the squeaking bill.
Unusual headgear can both attract attention and discourage unwanted contact: a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker, a dyed-green Caribbean straw hat or a "Fargo-style" insulated wing cap (especially during a California summer). I seek out obscure or unusual cap-front messages: (yay, Toledo Mud Hens!) And instead of a standard bicycle helmet, I'll wear my white plastic hard hat with the outdated phone company logo.
I learned the dark side of hat messages when my employer went broke in the '80s junk bond collapse, and held a meeting to warn us it might not be safe to wear their company logo clothing in public. So I'm choosy with the messages my headwear send. I put away my '40s fedora after Matt Drudge made it his trademark, and Michael Moore has made me reconsider baseball caps — at least when I'm overdue for a haircut. The pride of my collection are souvenirs of my teenage employment at McDonald's: paper hats designated "Trainee," "Employee" and "Supervisor" (the last one acquired without authorization).
But the hat I most enjoy came from a Los Angeles celebrity garage sale: a multi-colored umbrella hat that a rock DJ claimed had been once owned by Woodstock's Wavy Gravy. It had no autograph or letter of authenticity, but I can't wear it without yelling out for "Breakfast in bed for 400,000!" —Wendell Wittler
Manicures and pedicures
My ultimate guilty pleasure, sitting in the large vibrating massage chair, my feet soaking in a warm, scented whirlpool while one woman pampers my tootsies while another tends to my hands. Clean, trimmed cuticles. Callouses removed. Finely shaped nails covered with a pretty shade of pink.
I always feel just that much more confident extending a freshly manicured hand to someone. And your strappy sandals (see below) always look just that much better with feet that don’t look like they’ve been through a meat grinder (I’m a runner, so keeping my feet in order is very important).
Apart from being aesthetically pleasing, a mani-pedi is really a mini massage treatment. Your hands are soaked, cleaned, lotioned and massaged. In the finer salons, you also have your hands dipped in paraffin wax, which makes them as smooth as butter. During your pedicure, your feet and calves are massaged with sea salt and lathered in scented lotions. I have been known to fall asleep during a mani-pedi. Hmmmm, wonder if Michelle can fit me in today. —Denise Hazlick
My parents were pretty mellow, but they raised me with an odd strictness in one regard: We never, ever, ate anything while at the movies. Concession stand? Let's all go to the lobby? Would you like butter-flavored grease with your popcorn? I know not of what you speak. And looking back, I view this little rule as nothing less than brilliant — never getting into this habit saved me who-knows-how-many extra pounds (and possibly, pimples). Yet as happens with so many of us, we slide away from our family regimen as we get older. Once I discovered Raisinets, I learned about the perfect melding of movie and munchie. Raisinets give you the perfect bite of chocolate, the tang of raisin, and the foolhardy feeling that something that's part fruit can't be all bad. —Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
ShoesYes, it is a cliché — a girl and her shoes, but they become clichés for a reason. And when it comes to shoes, I don’t need a reason. Cute little kicky pink mules with the flower on top? Of course, they would go perfectly with a least three summer outfits. A good pair of black short boots? No question, you always need black boots, usually more than one pair. A rainbow of colors and styles to fit my clothes and the seasons. And who are we kidding: waistbands widen, but your shoes always fit.
Shoes are the perfect accessory that can turn that same old outfit into something fresh. You don’t have to spend a lot of money. When it comes to those high-fashion (re: short shelf life) shoes, I hit the discount stores. No sense in spending big money on something I won’t be wearing in a year. When it comes to something timeless and essential (hello — I do NOT play it cheap when it comes to running shoes), you get what you pay for.
Like all true shoe mavens, I covet the true jewels — Prada, Jimmy Choo, Christian Louboutin and, of course, Manolo Blahnik. My ultimate guilty pleasure: A pair of strappy, spike heeled silver Manolos. So I skipped lunch for a month to pay for them, but I sure looked stylish while I was warming up those Cups O’ Noodles. —D.H.
Sweet Valley High books
Sandwiched between a row of battered Agatha Christies and my shelf of chef biographies, there's a long candy cane line of red and white spines. A glance at the titles reveals such slop as "Double Love," "Dear Sister" and "Dangerous Love" — and those are just a few symptoms of my Sweet Valley High habit that has lasted over 18 years.
These slim volumes are brain candy in the worst form, particularly since I regularly allow myself to revel in the disgustingly unrealistic descriptions of the Wakefield twins. Let's see, there's the sun-streaked hair that floats above their shoulders like spun sugar, their almond-shaped aquamarine eyes — which are so often compared to the Caribbean — and their "perfect" size six figures. I must admit that it took going to college to determine what the hell a lavaliere was.
In a sort of twisted ritual, every summer I give myself over to the original 60-some books my older sister and I collected. It's disturbing how frantic I get when the responsible, sweet, and honest (read: dull, dull, DULL) Elizabeth sustains a concussion from a motorcycle crash and undergoes a major personality revision. I still haven't worked out how that's medically possible. Even at 30, I still view the 16-year-old Wakefield Twins as being so much older than I am. Maybe it's because I never really reached the age where I thought could pull off the wet-look bikini Jessica was so fond of picturing herself in when she should have been conjugating French verbs. —Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic
Thrift-store dishesI rarely meet a plate I don’t want to buy, or a wine glass I don’t covet. I have thrift stores lined up on my route home, stopping at each every day. I am breathless when I happen upon a glistening set of cut-crystal wine and champagne glasses for $25. Or find a set of Harmony House “Scroll” china with calligraphic black scrollwork (soup and berry bowls, dessert plates, sugar bowl, creamer, etc, for $35). I can just imagine the place card in calligraphic handwriting to match! My brain is overheating and I have the table set in my head before I leave the store.
With no place to store them in the house, and not wanting to explain why I HAD to buy the Knowles ‘Scandia’ with a sweet bunch of pastel flowers arranged on berry bowls and plates, I drive around for weeks with my purchases in my car. Visitors might encounter a spring table of eclectic antique floral plates, cups, saucers and linens — with Chinese lanterns hung from the ceiling in a great mass of floating pastels. For our “fall” china I found Noritake Helene with beautiful silver and brown leaves. I discovered them at my favorite antique store for a bargain, and at once begin collecting more for the big Thanksgiving dinners we host. I think my next obsession is going to be buying big old china cabinets in which to store the first obsession. —Kim Carney
I'm a part-time cheesemonger in a shop where cheeses go for $24 per pound, and quite often I tote home oozing rounds from Jura or wedges of bandage-wrapped Poacher. I stow these foreign visitors next to the cheeses that have a secretly permanent home on my dairy shelf: a package of Kraft singles and a bag of Sargento shredded cheddar.
You see, underneath my washed rind, I'm at heart a cheese whore, and I will give it up for trashy cheese if the craving strikes. My plasticky Kraft singles are consumed only one way: stashed firmly between two pieces of bread and grilled to maximum oozing. Dipping in ketchup is optional.
Turning to shredded cheese, I should allow the cheesemonger to come out and lecture how you should never buy pre-grated or pre-shredded cheese because it's not going to be fresh. However, that warning pertains to real Parmigiano-Reggiano, Grana Padano, or other ritzy cheeses. Freshness is really not something I'm worried about when buying Sargento's Ziploc bag of sharp shredded cheddar, you know?
Many are the late nights when the noshing mood hits me hard. It's much too late to make something fabulous, but I am perfectly happy to settle for something quick and trashy. All it takes is a pile of Triscuits carefully arranged on a plate to maximize their cheese coverage, which are then sprinkled with handfuls of the pre-packaged shredded cheddar. If I'm feeling fancy, I might toss scallions on top before irradiating the plate for 45 seconds. Now excuse me, I feel a craving coming on. —S.V.W.L.
True crime books
I've already written about my love for true-crime shows, but that developed naturally out of its predecessor — my love for true-crime books. God bless you, St. Martin's Press, for your $6.99 paperbacks with titles like "Blood Brothers," "Bitter Blood," "Family Blood," and — well, you get the idea.
True-crime books are easy to find even in a mega-bookstore: Most of them have black covers decorated with slashes of red and promise "16 PAGES OF NEVER-BEFORE-SEEN PHOTOS!"
Of course, I have some standards— I shun the books that are excessively gory or violent, preferring established authors like Ann Rule to those fly-by-nighters who seem to have put their book together in the back seat of their Geo Prizm. But that said, if it's about the Menendez brothers, Betty Broderick or Laci Peterson, you're likely to be able to borrow a copy from me. —G.F.C.