If you’re surprised to see a story featuring junk food here in Edible Cleveland, you’re probably not alone. Truth is, hard as we strive for dietary virtue, most of us at some point succumb to the siren song of junk food. And when we do, what could be more fun than a little high-low culinary hijinks? And so, we present a few of our favorite junk food wine pairings.
There really is no right or wrong way to enjoy wine. Perhaps wine’s greatest asset is its ability to play well with others—including the lowliest pairing of them all: junk food. But how best do you master the junk food/wine game? We turned to three local experts, including two James Beard Award honorees, for the skinny on what they like to drink and eat when no one is watching.
Chef Jill Vedaa, co-owner of Salt in Lakewood and a semifinalist for a 2018 James Beard award, is celebrated for her creativity and precision in the kitchen. Her own secret guilty pleasure is a bag of Harvest Snaps Snapea Crisps teamed with a dry Italian prosecco. “The tiny bubbles are great with these and any saltycrunchy snack. Plus the dry astringency of the wine leaves your palate refreshed against the salt,” she says.
Jill elevates the classic junk food favorite—French fries—beyond fast-food fare. “The potatoes need be thickly cut and fried to a ‘mushy’ crispness and nicely salted,” she says. With this crispy, salty, fatty mix, Jill’s perfect pour is a medium-bodied Languedoc red from the south of France, with just enough tannin and body to cleanse your palate alongside the heft of the oily richness.
For a candy fix, Jill again conjures a chef ’s sensibility. She pairs dark chocolate (one with at least 72% cacao) with a big California Cabernet Sauvignon, drawing together the similar weighty textures and earthy nuances common in both.
Chef Karen Small, owner of The Flying Fig and Market at the Fig, is also a 2018 James Beard semifinalist and one of Cleveland’s earliest evangelists for cooking with local ingredients. “I’m not above drinking good wine with junk food,” she says. Small loves a good German Riesling with potato chips, enjoying the salty, fatty, fruity flavors together.
Karen demonstrates a rather lofty perspective on junk food when she suggests duck nachos with a spicy Zinfandel. The pairing would be equally delicious with more common ground beef nachos, she concedes. Lambrusco is another one of her favorites, which she loves serving with deep-fried risotto balls stuffed with cheese. When I protest that she’s getting way too “chef-y” with her suggestions, she smiles and says that Lambrusco would also be wonderful with a big Subway Italian B.M.T.
Finally, she hits gold when she suggests Funyuns washeddown with a grassy Sauvignon Blanc and Chex Party Mix with a French Pinot/Gamay blend. Rosé, another of Karen’s favorites, is great with a juicy fried bologna sandwich. For a sweet ending, Karen may reach for a PayDay candy bar with a glass of good Sherry. It’s easy to imagine those salty, roasty, nutty, and sweet flavors mingling together in lowbrow bliss.
Adam Fleischer, proprietor of The Wine Spot in Cleveland Heights, maps out a few strategies for getting maximum bang from your junk food-wine combos. He reminds us that although there are no rules, a few parameters can be helpful:
- Lighter foods work well with lighter crisper wines. Don’t get bogged down in the red versus white paradigm. Instead, let the wine’s texture, acidity, and intensity guide you.
- Spicy foods like wines with a little residual sugar.
- Richer and fattier foods are great with wines that have some zingy acidity.
Adam rattles off a surprising number of delicious-sounding combos to upgrade a few down and dirty snacks, including:
- Slim Jims with a dry Italian Lambrusco. The wine’s earthy fruity flavors marry with the salty meat while the bubbles cleanse the palate. Want a local substitute? You might try artisanal beef jerky from Ohio City Provisions or Saucisson instead of Slim Jims for a cleaner and healthier choice.
- Glazed doughnuts from your favorite local bakery with a nice sparkling Brut Champagne. The doughnut delivers all the sweetness you need.
- Pepperoni pizza (he was thinking Geraci’s) with a Nero d’Avola from Sicily. Nero offers acidity to cut through the cheese oiliness and has the structure to stand up to the sausage.
- Cracker Jacks with Roussanne or Marsanne from the Rhône region of France. He likes highlighting the savory, salty, caramel flavors with these white wines, which bring fullbodied richness to the party.
- Pork rinds with a cold crisp Rosé. Look for those with watermelon or pomegranate flavors.
- Big Macs with a Primitivo with red fruit aromas, smooth tannins, and lots of body. If your burger choice veers to Tavern Company’s JB’s All World Burger, which delivers a big beefy smoky punch, Adam suggests the power of a rich Spanish Tempranillo.
The idea of junk food wine pairings pokes a little fun at the occasional pretension of the culinary world, but convenient, inexpensive junk food is a reality for many with busy lives. Rather than beating ourselves up over occasional junk food indulgences, why not elevate them with a few local options and a glass of wine?
Some of the most delicious and satisfying experiences with wine come from sublimely simple pairings enjoyed among friends. If the convenience and economy of junk food offers us a few more opportunities to include that kind of pleasurable interaction into our lives, we say, every so often tear open that bag of chips, order a pizza, pop a cork, and enjoy!