Dweezil Zappa’s dad memorably declared that a country’s legitimacy is predicated upon its having its own airline and its own beer, and maybe a football team and a nuclear arsenal for good measure. With all due respect to the groovy and departed, I’d like to suggest that in this more enlightened age, we replace “nuclear weapons,” which are perhaps the greatest man-made scourge ever visited upon the planet, with “dumplings,” which are the opposite. It’s awfully hard to respect a culture that hasn’t produced its own dumpling variety, and just as hard to justify warring with one that has.
Various corners of the wide world have come up with bao, gnocchi, pierogi, egg rolls, ravioli, samosas, momos, tamales, and tortellini. Hell, even burritos, calzones, and empanadas count if you’re large of hand and ambition! The global community is full of wonderful dumpling options, to which we Americans have contributed … jalapeño poppers? Crab rangoon? Mozzarella sticks? Not a lot, and even less that hasn’t been nakedly appropriated from another culture’s cuisine.
But pizza rolls are all ours, partners. Well, they’re technically Totino’s, and capitalized. But still ours all the same. Let’s compromise by declaring Pizza Rolls™ our national dumpling. They were invented in 1968 by a genius named Beatrice in the service of a genius-hirer named Jeno, who later sold them to Pillsbury before that company was gobbled up by General Mills. Somewhere along the way, Jeno’s Pizza Rolls were renamed Totino’s, but that’s of little concern in light of the fact that they should have been called Beatrice’s Pizza Rolls all along.
Hot Pockets are ours, too. Chef America started pumping them into our microwaves in 1983, and though the original HP and its flavored variants only qualify as dumplings under the “but what if you are a giant?” exemption outlined above, new Hot Pocket Snack Bites pose a direct—and may I say brazen?—challenge to Pizza Rolls’ title as America’s Dumpling.
I respect this new Hot Pockets hustle, especially in light of declining sales at least partly attributable to their little diseased-meat scare in early 2014. They could have just wheezed along waiting to die like the rest of their misfit brethren in the 7-Eleven sandwich case, but instead, they are coming directly for the crown. Good for them. But do they really stand a chance at unseating Pizza Rolls? That’s for me the people to decide.
I baked a batch of each in the toaster oven, as decency demands. The only other acceptable way to enjoy foodstuffs of this sort is to eat them straight from the box on the way home from an early-morning stop at the kind of store that isn’t super-concerned with keeping the frozen food strictly frozen. I have very fond memories of binging on luke-cold Pizza Rolls from the Duane Reade at 14th and 3rd, and I suffered no resulting parasitic calamities to speak of. Don’t try this at home, though. Unless your home lacks an oven. What I’m saying is that you shouldn’t microwave frozen pizza-snack dumplings. That don’t crisp ’em right. Okay, let’s fight it out.
A box of 15 Pizza Rolls set me back $2.50 at the grocery store. It contained 7.5 ounces of food designed to be spread over 2.5 servings (good one!) at 220 calories per. That works out to a robust 37 calories per half-ounce, thumb-sized Roll, which makes it a really efficient energy-delivery device when you think about it. Or maybe just don’t think about it.
Further cursory scanning of the back of the box reveals that the pepperoni is composed of the Big Three meats, only the chicken of which is mechanically separated. Not bad. There’s also vitamin A palmitate, which is probably good for you, and Natural Flavoring, which can’t be worse than a push. All right, maybe I’m starting to see the merits of microwaving, so as to reduce time spent loitering in the kitchen reading the backs of junk-food boxes.
Once the longest 12 minutes of my life were over, I was greeted by a dozen-and-three of the prettiest little pizza dumplings imaginable. Pizza Rolls really do look the part, don’t they? But let’s not get hung up on superficial stuff. Let’s eat. But maybe allow them to cool off for a couple minutes first, if you’re the sort of wise and cowardly soul with the patience to sit out the two minutes advised by the instructions. These sons of bitches somehow manage to get extra-terrestrially hot, like old-school McDonald’s apple pie filling.
The Pizza Roll’s shell has a slightly gritty, cornmeal effect to distract you from the grease. It tastes fine, like wheat and salt; its primary attribute is its thinness, which allows it to cook all the way through without leaving the undercarriage gummy. The interior is, uh, better ventilated than strictly ideal. There’s a lot of room in there for more filling. I might suggest going with additional cheese, as each Roll features but a mere few dots of hard-to-melt mozzarella-ish material that bears a textural resemblance to those dastardly soap microbead things.
The pepperoni is similarly sparse, but it packs more flavor: slightly hammy, and maybe not even the very freshest ham at the deli, but very fine all the same. I also detect a good deal of spice, insofar as salt is a spice. Hmm. Hard to quantify it now that my fingers have traded in Roll-poppin’ for word-typin’, but I stand by my impression that the pepperoni is somehow good. As is the sauce, which is plentiful and tomato paste-y, and hotter than the sun’s surface.
Totino’s Pizza Rolls are far greater than the sum of their parts, and they will make you happy. Up next …
For the same $2.50, I got a plastic pouch containing 12 triangular Snack Bites. A Bite is nearly double a Roll’s size by volume, though only 50 percent larger by mass, owing to a puffier construction. A 9.25-ounce bag of Bites contains three 230-calorie servings, making their calories per ounce nearly identical to Pizza Rolls’ at 74.6 to 73.3; there are 35 calories in an ounce of chicken breast, 15 in an ounce of apple, and 10 in an ounce (by volume) of Guinness. Enough math? Yeah.
Hot Pocket Bites look pretty good, too, though they might be better suited to the microwave, as baking takes upwards of 20 minutes, and their center-bloated shape makes it hard to brown the tops without burning the edges. The crust is the same flaky shell you know and love from the traditional Pocket; it holds in the filling, it’s fine. In fact, it could manage to hold about twice as much filling, as Bites are even more egregiously understuffed than Rolls.
The sauce is noticeably sweeter than the dustier, more austere Pizza Roll juice, which might appeal to some reasonable eaters, but I found it to be disconcertingly ketchup-esque. The sweetness might not be a problem on its own, but it combines with the pastry shell to suggest a dessert-ier item.
The pepperoni tries to skate by with just beef and pork, and while I’m no meat scientist (yet), it seems safe to speculate that mechanically separated chicken must pack a flavorful punch, because the Hot Pocket Snack Bite pepperoni is some real weak shit. In happier news, the cheese distribution is better than in a Pizza Roll. Oh wait, did I not even mention how the Pizza Roll cheese actually tastes? It doesn’t. Cheese of this class doesn’t taste, for it is engineered simply to coat, congeal, melt, or otherwise texturize. So Hot Pocket nugs have the better cheese. Is that enough to save them?
Nah. Totino’s Pizza Rolls are America’s finest dumplings.
Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states, including, come to think of it, Vermont. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain.
Art by Sam Woolley.