Traveling around California to talk about your passion, getting a per diem for eating out at local places seems like a dream, and it is! But one where every element of your fantasy is replaced by a less favorable alternative, so “refurbishing bumper cars with Sasha Banks to raise money for underfunded libraries” becomes “repainting a bus headed to burning man with Ronda Rousey”.
I spent two months deposited in the smallest, most obscure California towns, where I was probably the only visibly queer person and most definitely the only visibly trans person for miles, watching people chew with their mouths open while they make clumsy weed jokes – grass fed? What kind of grass? – for hours at a time, unable to sit or step away.
The accountant where I worked had very strict ideas about what counted as a “meal” for expense purposes. I wasn’t allowed to get anything from a grocery store to bring at my hotel for later; I had to buy 2-3 people’s worth of food at a restaurant and store it in my hotel fridge if I didn’t want to flag down breakfast the next day.
Trader Joe’s salads and sandwiches were a source of some contention; to the accounting department, it was groceries and therefore not covered, but I often ate these right after buying them. They have disposable cutlery for you to eat them like take-out food! I even made a short video once, only to find our expense reporting app didn’t have an option for gifs.
Such to say: as underwhelming as this salad was, I ended up submitting three separate expense reports for it, and it has taken too much space in my life not to share it with you.
TODAY WE’RE GOING TO EAT TRADER MING’S CHINESE INSPIRED CHICKEN SALAD.
Not content with glamorizing imperialism with his shameless appropriation of Polynesian culture and giving all the employees at their stores sailor names, Trader Joe’s also rebrands all of their “ethnic” cuisine (Trader Ming’s, Trader Jose’s, Trader Joe-San), suggesting that rather than the result of a brand homogenization that offers a taste of the exotic without alienating the wary palate of the American consumer, that all these tamales and dumplings were given to us by distant brothers-in-trade.
“Get on Pop-Pop’s knee, Josh, and let me tell you how about my adventures to China, where I learned how to put dry, mealy chicken on a bunch of wilting leaves and soak it all in sugary dressing.”
There are many things about California culture I could do without; I will defend entree salads in the air and on the beaches. It’s a panacea for cosmopolitan promiscuity; it’s light and well-rounded, good for eating by yourself before a big date, or at a big date, if you want the energy for snogging but aren’t comfortable farting around them, or as a celebratory cool-down after a good hook-up with friends the next day. Conscious of the comingling of sexism and food as I try to be, having lived here so long, when I see a femme eating salad in public, I see it less as an act of restriction and more of empowerment and indulgence; it’s times like this where parsing the finite boundaries between my lesbian sexuality and patriarchal programming is difficult.
Where I had intended to go with this is that the Chinese or Asian chicken salad was likely itself the result of fusion cuisine cavorting with the California dinner salad craze. Madame Wu is credited with making the salad famous in her Santa Monica restaurant, because Cary Grant was all “I really liked this thing at this other place, can’t you just make something like it so I don’t have to make two trips?”
I’m talking big for someone who, like a cat caught in the cycle of snubbing and defeatedly returning to the same bowl of dry food, left this salad on a nightstand and picked at it over the course of three hours because I was hungry but not so hungry that I was willing to put on clothes or deal with talking with a delivery person.
So about the actual salad.
What’s great about chicken salads is that the hot, grilled chicken mixed with room temperature greens and dressing creates a medley of sensation, flavor, and temperature.
What’s great about fusion cuisine is that it unites elements of seemingly disparate cultures to bring out the best in them in something unique and unreplicable.
This salad fails at both, it’s recipe developers likely too busy thinking of how to effectively brand itself as authentically other to bother to create a flavor profile or a dressing that actually spreads.
The “crispy wontons” have the texture of pub mix scraped out between the couch cushions. The sweetness of the snowpeas is not countered by the sesame dressing, but only exacerbated by its cloying sugariness. This salad is practically a racist caricature in food form. This is like, imagine you really hated eggs, and so to discourage your child or significant other from eating them in your presence you purposely over or undercooked them so they never get a chance to like them.
This salad is some suburban mom’s secret weapon to make sure her little babies never ask about the outside world.
TO SUCH AN END, ONE COULD ARGUE THIS IS TRADER JOE’S WHOLE FUCKING BAG.
By providing cheap, abstractly health-focused and vaguely “exotic” food through their own brand, Trader Joe’s is able to posit itself as some sort of ambassador of taste to the cultures it rips off.
No need to visit your local immigrant-run supermarket. It’s scary! You might have to ask where things are! Come to Trader Joe’s. We’ve got salads with crunchy bits. Our frozen tikka masala isn’t spicy at all. Take a free sample of black bean lasagna and treat yourself to our knock-off sriracha sauce. We made it, so you know it’s safe.
Come over anytime; haven’t you noticed you just feel a lot safer in your neighborhood now that there’s a Trader Joe’s? Would you be a dear and hand us some of those crates? We’re gonna stack em up in front of the front door in case of one of those “anti-police brutality” protests. We’re not taking sides here! Trader Ming, Trader Jose, and Trader Joe-San agree: all lives matter.
You could improve this salad by adding water chestnuts, toasted almonds, and maybe some mandarin orange slices. I’m not an expert on “authentic” flavor profiles, and if you’re buying salads from Trader Joe’s, you’re probably short on time or resources to follow any suggestions I’d give.
So don’t buy it. Doing so already puts you several steps ahead of me, who bought this and then tried to get an accountant in Colorado to reimburse me for it, several times. Look at this head start life has given you. You remind me of me when I was younger. Fresh-faced. My joie de vivre pristine yet stagnant, like fresh latte art.
Worse things happen at sea; that’s why there’s no Trader Pierre or Trader Bjorn.
Final Verdict: This salad gets 1 out of 5 dehydrated snow peas.