Certain things will make the human heart despair: the barbed tail of a stingray, say, or an unrequited love, or the prospect of an afternoon spent contemplating the metaphysical brinksmanship concealed in Justin Timberlake's "My Love."
I do not pretend that little list is complete. Misery is everywhere and ever-ready. Still, for many years I've thought I had a pretty good handle on what does and does not cause despair. How hard could it be, anyhow? Raindrops on roses, and whiskers on kittens? Do not despair. Syphilis and cholera? Despair.
It seemed straightforward. That is, it seemed straightforward until this morning, when I discovered the existential sinkhole that is the ingredient list on a can of La Choy Chicken Chow Mein. Now I'm fairly certain I've discovered an entirely new form of despair, which I'll dub La Choy Dysphoria.
A can of La Choy Chicken Chow Mein is actually two cans, one stacked atop the other. The lower (and larger) can holds the "vegetables"; the top can holds the "chicken & gravy."
Symptoms of La Choy Dysphoria emerge when the casual observer notices that chicken is one of the first items listed on the ingredients list: an encouraging sign. Less encouraging is that La Choy then lists the ingredients that combine to form its "chicken." Among them: modified cornstarch, isolated soy protein, sodium phosphates, modified potato starch and, oh yes, chicken thigh meat.
Characterized by a tightening of the throat, heightened blood pressure and generalized anxiety, the effects of La Choy Dysphoria deepen as the victim opens the can of "vegetables" and is confronted by a larval vision of gray bean sprouts, fading carrots, limp celery and other less-recognizable examples of vegetable matter.
Having rinsed the "vegetables" and combined them with the "chicken" in a saucepan, I distract myself with visions of La Choy past. The company was born in 1922, when two friends, Wally Smith and Ilhan New, capitalized on the nation's chop suey craze by canning bean sprouts, which New, a Korean, grew in his bathtub.
By the early 1960s, the company was a household name. Its marketing department even enlisted visionary muppetmaster Jim Henson, who concocted the La Choy Dragon, a clumsy stuffed creature that trumpeted the food giant's "dragon fire" virtues. (To see some truly remarkable advertising campaigns, click here, here and here.
That was a long time ago. Today La Choy is but another brand under the ConAgra umbrella, fighting to maintain shelf space. If the quality of the Chicken Chow Mein is any indication, it's a losing battle.
The waterlogged bean sprouts have lost all but the feeblest crunch. They don't taste good, and neither do the rest of the flabby vegetables. Conceived by mating cornstarch and fowl, developed in a wood chipper and birthed from a pastry tube, the "chicken" expands our traditional notions of ornithology.
And the whole is even worse than the sum of its parts. The cornstarch-saturated gravy binds with the solids to form a slimy, brick-like substance studded with bean sprouts. It feels like a battalion of flaccid, worm-like cylinders riding around in one's mouth.
And that's the problem with despair: Though you know you should spit it out, more often than not, you swallow.