Junk Food Conversion

I grew up in one of those college-professor neighborhoods where all of the professors' kids run around half-clothed, pretending to be the Boxcar children, while their parents get together to grill bratwursts and talk about quantum mechanics. My friend Emma, whose dad taught philosophy, lived across the Manchester college soccer field from me. My dad taught math. In the summer, my brother Joey and I would run across the field barefoot to play with Emma almost every day.

When I was eight or nine, Emma's dad built a clubhouse inside the hydrangea bush at the edge of her lawn. It always smelled like new wood and flowers in there. Emma, Joey, and I were the long-term club members, but there were other members too, like a friend of ours named DJ, who didn't have professor parents and lived on the other side of town. We knew DJ from the Manchester Church of the Brethren, which we all attended, but we didn't really like him very much because he called pancakes “pantcakes” and because he pronounced the “h” in the word “wheat.” So DJ was more of a peripheral club member.

Because she was a doctor, Emma's mom never let Emma eat Oreos or Doritos or any kind of junk food. My parents didn't really like us eating junk food either, though whenever my mom went to the Aldi's grocery store in Wabash, she would buy us a bag of off-brand Cheetos, which we called “Tasty Buddies.”

But we all wanted shinier, sleeker, more brightly colored food in our lives—the sort of packaged food that our peers whipped out of their school lunches—and so we began collecting. We kept the coins in a mason jar, and every time we had a club meeting, we were each required to add a quarter from our allowance to the jar. It was all very top-secret; we kept the collection jar wrapped up and stored at the back of Emma's closet in between meetings so her parents wouldn't find it. There was an almost religious atmosphere to our club meetings—usually I played the ministerial role in calling us to order, and then I would pass the jar around like an offering plate. After we had all dutifully contributed to the jar, we began the slammings.

Emma, Joey, and I were naturals at slamming. Our favorite word was “dumb” and we applied it quite liberally. We made fun of a guy we knew named Jacob who had his initials stitched onto the back pocket of the khaki pants that he wore every day. We imitated our friend Katie's wimpy galloping walk. And we jumped on anyone who talked about God or Jesus, especially if they referred to Jesus as their “savior.” Slamming was our way of assuring ourselves that we were astute, intelligent people—that all of these other kids had problems, but our heads were squarely on our shoulders.

After weeks and weeks of collecting quarters in the mason jar at these meetings, we finally saved up $10—a tidy sum we felt was sure to buy us gallons of junk food. We convened a club meeting without DJ and decided that we would have a sleepover and not invite him. That way, the three of us could get more mileage out of our $10 and not have to deal with DJ's stupid mispronunciations. That afternoon, Emma, Joey, and I told Emma's parents that we were going to go play in the field. We put our mason jar in a backpack and sneaked through the soccer fields to the college Union building, where all the vending machines were.

They stood like wise pillars—like graven images—in the silent cement room, and the insides of those vending machines was something like heaven. The packages were gold and hot pink and lime green and neon orange and the wrappers were all shiny, with bubble lettering and little cartoon pictures of smiling candy on them. We stood in awe for a minute, incapacitated by the choice before us, forgetting even to glance around to check for any health-nazi adults who might be lurking nearby.

Then we went crazy. We bought Rolos and Snickers and Reeses and Twizzlers and Skittles and Coke and Sprite and Dr. Pepper and so many other divine foods. I don't know if we had ever had that many choices before—until then, our parents had made most of our decisions for us. It was this great liberation to be able to think, “I want some Starbursts,” and then to push a button that said “A3” and watch the robotic hand respond immediately to my wish. The Starbursts fell from their ordered A3 line and gave a satisfying thunk as they hit the receiving trough in the vending machine.

After we had inserted our last quarter into the vending machine, we scooped all of our goods into the backpack and tripped on back to Emma's house, stealing little furtive glances at the backpack. We stowed the backpack in the very, very back of Emma's closet and waited around until it was time to start our sleepover.

We had a very particular method for holding sleepovers in those days. Emma's family didn't own a TV, which was a major downfall, so instead of watching movies we got creative with yearbooks. We were only in about third grade, so we didn't have many yearbooks to go around, but we lugged them all out anyway. We pored over those elementary yearbooks, going through them page by page, pointing to our classmates' photos and remarking that Jaina Alexander stuck out her chest when she walked and Coachy Boswell had flunked two grades. We made fun of Mrs. Shafer, an elephant-shaped recess aid who had big frizzy hair and who, we were convinced, hated us because we were in the “gifted and talented” class.

Yearbook-slamming was great entertainment, but at this sleepover we had a new component: junk food. I had been reading a lot of the Babysitter's Club series, and I loved the character Claudia, who stashed junk food in little hiding places all around her room and was continually surprised to pull a bottle of Pringles out of her underwear drawer or a ring pop from under her pillow. I told Emma and Joey about this and we all agreed to hide our stash in different places around Emma's room. This way, we could appreciate the sanctity of each piece of packaged paradise instead of binging all at once.

The only problem with this was that we really wanted to get started on the junk food; plus, we had only hid it a few minutes before, which didn't really give us time to forget where we had put it and pull it nonchalantly from the laundry hamper. So after we made sure that Emma's bedroom door was locked, we started chowing down. We sat around with those yearbooks splayed across our laps, taking luxurious bites of Snickers bars and popping gummy bears reverently into our mouths. The sweet, smooth candy inside the wrappers was almost as glorious as the bright crinkly wrappers themselves. While we ate, we talked about how annoying DJ was—how he pronounced the word “cinnamon” “cimanon.” We were glad we hadn't invited him to the sleepover, we said. And then we took great carbonated gulps of Dr. Pepper.

As we ate, I gradually became uneasy. I had known all along that our comments about our friends were cruel, but as I ate more and more, I began to feel really terrible for some reason.

All of a sudden, as Emma popped an M&M into her mouth and said that Mrs. Shafer looked like a huge speed bump, I had a thought: What if God really was real?

I stopped chewing the Rolo. I stared at Emma and Joey for a second, and then I dashed to the trash can and spit the Rolo into it.

“What's wrong?” Emma and Joey asked me.

At first I was hesitant to explain my epiphany. I didn't want them to hate me as much as they hated DJ. But I also couldn't go on eating the candy. Somehow the candy and the slamming and Satan had all just become inextricably linked in my mind, and now that the thought had occurred to me I couldn't get rid of it.

“Don't you guys feel a little bad that we didn't invite DJ?” I asked. “I mean, we used his money to buy all this candy and everything, and if he finds out that we had this sleepover without him, he's going to feel really bad.”

Joey and Emma stared at me for a second. Then Emma said, “But DJ is dumb.”

She had a point, and I told her that. But, I said, I just felt kind of bad that we were always saying such awful things about people all the time. Had they ever wondered if maybe there actually was a God? And if God really did exist, what would God think of us sitting around in this dungeon of a room, slamming our friends and stuffing our faces with sugar? I started crying. I just didn't want to go to Hell, I said.

Emma and Joey looked at me. And then slowly, strangely, miraculously, their faces changed. They stopped fiddling with their candy bar wrappers. “You're right,” said Emma. “What if God is real?”

One minute we were shoving fat down our arteries and the next we were stunned by the possible existence of God. It was a swift conversion. We joined hands around the now-neglected backpack of chocolate and prayed to God to save us from our sins.

We repented at having said such cruel things about our friends, we apologized for eating such awful food, we regretted pilfering DJ's collection money and excluding him from our sleepover.

We might have even used the word “savior” once or twice. In any case, as we flushed our undrunk soda down the toilet, we promised to commit the rest of our lives to Jesus Christ.

And we did—or at least we committed the next two weeks to him. We told DJ what we had done and invited him to join our newly-Christianized club. We did away with the collection and the slammings, and for the next two weeks we sang vacation Bible school praise songs at our club meetings. We made up a Christian version of tag (you had to say “Jesus loves you!” when you tagged someone) and played that during club meeting times.

But after a couple of weeks, our passion for Jesus went the way of so many other passions—which is to say, down the toilet to join the Dr. Pepper that first inspired it. Since then, I've gone through a whole string of other clubs—feminist clubs and political clubs, pacifist clubs and transcendentalist clubs—and each of these has had its own packaged passions, its own shiny convictions.

Emma and Joey have now both returned to the old God-scorning club of our childhood. But I keep coming back, giving God a whirl, trying to figure out what club I'm in and where exactly the boundaries of that club lie.

About the Author

Sarah  Rich

Sarah Rich graduated from Goshen College in 2011 with an English major and a Journalism minor. From 2013 to 2015, she served with Volunteer Missionary Movement in Nicaragua, teaching English and working on an organic farm in the mountains. This mini-graphic novel was originally written for the blog she kept chronicling life in the town of San Nicolas, Nicaragua. Since returning to the U.S., Sarah and her husband, David Wiegner, have self-published a Nicaraguan cookbook, Nicaraguan Campo Cooking, compiling many of the stories and recipes they learned from Nicaraguan friends. Sarah now lives in Philadelphia, where she works at the Drexel University Libraries and is pursuing a Masters in Library and Information Science.