Red and white candy stripes, the crisp and wintry bite of peppermint ... nothing says Christmas like a candy cane.
Archie McPhee, legendary purveyor of weird toys and fine rubber chicken products, is never one to bow before tradition, though. The novelty dealer stocked a bevy of unusual varieties to liven up those stockings this year: Bacon, Mac and Cheese, Butter, Brisket, Hot Dog, Kale, Pho, Shiitake Mushroom, Caesar Salad, Ketchup, Pickle, Sour Cream and Chive, and — you might want to sit down for this one — Sardine. Available at its flagship Seattle store, online and at independent retailers nationwide, a box of six canes retails for about $7, but the reaction you’ll get is priceless.
Before we go any further, I hope you’ll take a minute to close your eyes and sit quietly, imagining in your mind’s tongue what some of these might taste like. Approach the question with an open-minded curiosity. What’s the deal here? Are they minty? Sweet or salty? Perhaps there is one you suspect might be genuinely delicious, or that you envision merrily gifting to a prankster friend or unsuspecting grandma. Now, when you’re ready, gently explore your fears, keeping your breath even and calm. You may find yourself anxiously worrying about how bad this could get, noticing a resurgence of your kalephobia, or reliving an unfortunate childhood sardine accident. Repeat to yourself that this is a safe space. You are in no danger.
Me, though? I’m in real trouble, because I have to try all 13 flavors of these terrors in order to rank them. I’m taking it seriously, too, trying them one at a time over days, cleansing my palate carefully. I want to be sure I’m presenting them in all their immaculate glory. And in this case, the worst-ranked is the best, and the best-ranked is the worst, so if you want one someone might actually enjoy eating after having a good laugh, start with ...
I might have been perversely looking forward to this box the most, because although I dearly love real pho, I expected a candy version to be singularly appalling — would it center on beef knuckle broth and fish sauce, like the real Vietnamese delicacy? The pale green and brown stripes imply a disquieting savory ride. Fortunately, featuring just some of the spices and no scallion or broth flavors, it’s an absolute delight. I taste star anise and basil, delicious and subtly licorice-adjacent. I would prefer these to the traditional peppermint canes any time. My only suggestion for improvement might be to add a hint of ginger. Dreams of these sugarplums are going to dance in my head for days.
12. Mac and cheese
This one smells like the iconic Kraft blue box, but the flavor is more like off-brand vegan mac, flat and too sweet. Think low-sodium Velveeta Dum-Dum. They’re beautiful, though, sporting a translucent yellow core layered with opaque white stripes, and if you’re a licorice-adjacent-hater, it’s the next best option. Is saying it’s one of the least bad flavors the same as saying it’s one of the best? I’m not willing to go that far.
The scent is sharp and unmistakably dill. The flavor is heavy on the dill, too, but after a minute, it develops surprising complexity with more of a bread-and-butter overtone. I think I taste a hint of fennel and possibly mustard seed. It’s sweet, but there’s an aroma with a sharpness reminiscent of actual vinegar. The only thing missing from a classic dill pickle effect is the salt. I kind of dig it. It’s weird, but if you have a dill pickle devotee in the family, they will probably love these.
Eating one is like pouring unsalted movie theater “butter,” sans popcorn, directly into your mouth. That might sound like a compliment. It’s not.
There’s a little bit of an “off” scent, but it dissipates quickly. The fakin’ bacon flavor is light and not too sweet. I can’t believe I am saying this, but crushed, these might actually enhance candied bacon baked goods. I hate them by themselves, though, and to add insult to injury, these are a dead ringer for a regular peppermint cane.
I eat a lot of kale and, welp, this is kale flavor. There’s some vegetal breadth and depth to it, but little bitterness. It’s very green and fresh but sticky sweet. If you made a smoothie out of Dr. Brown's Cel Ray soda and a couple of leaves of dinosaur kale, you’d come close to this experience. I think this one would be the most fun to give to kids who love shock candy. They sound more disgusting than they are.
7. Shiitake Mushroom
Not much smell, but they taste exactly like a mushroom stuffed with breadcrumbs and garlic, and sauteed in a corn syrup and white wine sauce. It doesn’t taste bad, but it is very, very wrong, the gustatory equivalent of playing John Coltrane on a glockenspiel. I may never recover.
I think this one contains real, distilled tomato plant essence, as though you had someone follow a recipe for homemade tomato ketchup and didn’t specify leaving out the leaves and stems. It also has a little bit of celery seed background. It’s a surprisingly spicy ketchup, with a Sriracha-like tang. It might be piquant enough to alarm an unsuspecting ketchup-loving child. Would it make you a terrible parent if that factoid made it more likely that you’ll put it in all the stockings? I’m not here to judge.
Yikes. This one smells like a charred whitewall off a 1964 Buick. It’s best to unwrap it fully and to let it off-gas what I assume to be sodium nitrite, sort of like decanting a fine wine, for three to four hours. Make some cookie-exchange snickerdoodles. Or better yet, take care of some holiday shopping several miles from your house. Once it’s safe to return, you’ll find what’s left is a smoky peppercorn flavor, something like candied beef jerky without the beef. So, it’s just a big jerk.
4. Sour Cream and Chive
There is a genuine creamy flavor, a disturbing tang and a chive finish that lingers far, far too long, boorish and uncultured despite its cultured dairy namesake. It’s hard to define indecency, but I know it when I taste it. This flavor poses an existential threat to civil society. I’m calling Mister Manners to report it immediately.
3. Caesar Salad
At first, I didn’t taste anything, but after a minute or so — BAM! — punched in the face by mayo. This flavor is astonishing, worthy of Wonka. I got so many details — a crisp greenness, a hint of garlic, even a Worcestershire afterbite. It’s sweet, but you get the fermented quality of vinegar, as though one took a genuine Caesar salad and poured corn syrup on it. A truly remarkable achievement in vile cuisine, death by 1,000 flavor cuts. Of all of the flavors, I think this is the one to buy for gag gifts and family fun. It’s awful. I love it.
I’m relieved to report it lists “artificial flavors” on the label and not naturally-derived. The chemists outdid themselves, though. It’s a ghastly smell, just hideous, like low tide at Bikini Bottom Municipal Landfill. I was irrationally worried that it would taste like raw, day-old fish smells, metallic and rancid, but of course it’s like fully cooked, canned, low-sodium sardines. That’s 100% disgusting, mind you, even though it’s not as bad as my pessimistic imagination. Gift these with caution. Most children will not even try them on a dare once they peel back the wrapper. But, if you’re that guy who gave your sister’s kids a Big Mouth Billy Bass singing fish wall plaque last year? Someone is buying a box with your name on it.
You may be asking yourself how something that’s an A+ on the disgusting scale could only rank No. 2 on this list. Well, rank is the operative word so, without further ado, I give you our unspeakable champion of Yuletide dismay ...
1. Hot Dog
This one smells like burning hair and turpentine. It is shockingly putrid, as though the devil himself lovingly tended an enormous cauldron of hot dog water for eons, tossing in a lost soul here, trapping a sulfurous demon there, until finally, after centuries of infernal stirring, concentrating the humours of Hades into a foul putty, he poured it into molds, baked it solid in the flames of the pit of despair, and personally delivered a case to Archie McPhee. When Archie reached for the box from the hand of Mephistopheles on that moonless midnight, Fourth of July, with the scent of neighborhood cookouts and fireworks still lingering mockingly in the air, he hesitated, sure. He reconsidered whether he truly wanted to preorder them for Christmas stock, unleashing this irredeemable evil on the world, this insurrection of all that is good and holy about processed meats and Christmas candy alike, and then he decided, yes, he absolutely did.
Five glistening, smoldering stars. This is one of the worst things I have ever eaten, and I’ve made a list of the people to whom I’m going to send the remaining five canes, tied jauntily to an innocent-looking package with an inviting bow.
I’ll see you all in hell.