Food Friday: Granadilla!

I’d been saving this one until all of my visitors from home had come and gone, because I didn’t want to ruin the utterly unique experience of meeting (and eating) a granadilla. Now that I’m here all by my lonesome, I can finally enlighten the rest of the non-Colombia-visiting world about the very weird joys of the granadilla.

See? They look perfectly normal like this!

I’ve waxed poetic before about the plethora of amazing fruits that Colombia has to offer — the granadilla is one of these exotic delights (well, they’re not exotic here. People walk around all the time here eating them like they’re apples). On the outside, they’re pretty unremarkable — slightly oval, with a mottled orange skin that makes them look like a not-too-distant citrus cousin. Like a citrus, you can also poke your thumb right through the peel — and that’s where the similarities end. That’s where it starts getting weird.

As soon as you pop your thumb through the skin of the granadilla, you notice something peculiar about it: the peel gives way in tectonic plates of chunks, like Styrofoam. Directly under the thin peel, the inside of the rind is white, fluffy and aerated, as if it were designed to keep the innards safe on long, transcontinental journeys. But that isn’t the weird part. Those innards are what has spooked every person new to Colombia — hell, I even thought they were inedibly bizarre the first time I saw them.

grana-fingers

AHHH! Alien food!

The inside of a granadilla — the part you eat– is a slimy, dark cluster of seeds surrounded by clear goo that bears a strong resemblance to frog eyes, or what I imagine alien eggs look like. And as if that weren’t bad enough, those gooey seeds are enclosed in a layer of little white tentacles, like baby stalactites or ghost fingers, that seem to serve no biological purpose other than to freak people out. There is no way this is not alarming the first time you encounter it. It does not look like something that is meant to be consumed by humans, much less eaten in a casual fashion while walking along the street. And “eaten” is a generous description, since by necessity (unless you have a fork), it’s pretty much mandatory to stick your face into the opened shell of the granadilla and slurp out the seeds in the loudest manner possible. This is infinitely more satisfying than it should be.

People sometimes talk about things being “an acquired taste.” This usually confuses me, since they’re often referring to things that I find so revolting I don’t understand why anyone would want to acquire the taste for them. Granadillas, however, are a perfect example of an acquired taste. Once you get past the initial shock of slurping down something that looks like it’s about to spawn tiny amphibians at any moment, you realize that the gooey insides actually have a nice, light, not-too-sweet flavor that’s a refreshing break from all the rice we’re eating all the time here.

Some of us really, honestly like these things!
[photo courtesy of the lovely Jamie Wiebe, who tried a granadilla once and decided that was enough]

Plus, eating fake frog eyes is kind of fun, in a spooky, Halloween-themed-food kind of way. And then there’s the insistence of my Colombian friends that the best way to loosen the seeds (a necessary task before opening the fruit), rather than banging the granadilla against your hand a few times like I do, is to whack it against a certain, very specific spot on the back of your head — or, more amusingly, your friend’s heads. Any food that combines tasty flavor, weird appearance, the possibility of alarming my friends and family members AND the potential to hit my friends in the head is a winner in my book!

Food Friday: Papas Criollas

Between my three-quarters German heritage and my Bostonian (so, Irish by osmosis) upbringing, it should surprise no one that I would choose potatoes to make a major appearance in my hypothetical last meal. I could happily eat potatoes nearly every day, in whichever form they wished to appear: fried, slathered in mayo and cubed into salad, baked with rosemary and salt, covered in butter and mashed into topography on my plate — you name the potato, and I’ll be there to eat it. I thought I knew everything there was to know about my favorite vegetable, but it turns out that I didn’t really know what true tuber love was until I arrived here in Colombia and met the papa criolla.

Salty criollas and a michelada on the sunny lakeside boardwalk: my ideal recipe for happiness.

Papas criollas are one of several species of potato native to Colombia, and they’re reason enough alone to convince any true potato aficionado to visit here. They’re small, gold-skinned potatoes with soft insides, ranging from the size of a marble to about a ping-pong ball (although they don’t play games, as far as I know). Papas criollas are one of the three types of potatoes used to make ajiaco, Bogotá’s traditional soup, and they show up alongside everything from hot dogs to picadas (essentially a plate of meat with toothpicks). This is one of the sides I’m thrilled to receive with meals — no matter how many other starches the Colombians throw on the plate (and rest assured, they will be many), you’ll never catch me complaining about the criollas.

I’ve consumed them in towns across the country, eaten them with forks and toothpicks, found them rolling across plates, tucked in napkins and piled in plastic cups. I don’t know why they taste so much better than other kinds of potatoes, but the fact remain that they do, and I’ll just have to keep eating them until I figure out what the secret is. In the meantime, does anyone know how the USDA would potentially feel about the import of really, really tasty potatoes?

Food Friday: Historic Pastries in Villa de Levya

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This gallery contains 10 photos.

Delicious treats from Villa de Leyva. I swear we ate real food while we were there — but you wouldn’t know it from my photos. Clearly I have my artistic (and gastronomic) priorities in order.

Food Friday: Chontaduro

So this is more or less the evil twin of my cholado post. When I arrived in Cali, one of the first things my friends living there asked me was, “Have you tried chontaduro yet?” Since they were asking with a tone of voice that implied less the sharing of a really exciting secret than some serious schadenfreude, I was already a bit suspicious. But when in Rome, etc.

who knew the knife wasn't the scariest thing on that plate?

They look innocuous enough, right? They could totally be plum cousins!

At least I had braced myself, though, so the next day, when one of our gracious hosts came into the room I was sharing with my two other visiting Bogotá friends with a full plate of the shiny red fruits, I was ready. Or so I thought.

I was ready for something weird, for sure, but at first they didn’t look that strange. Chontaduro, which grow on palm trees and go by different names all across South America, have shiny red skin and are about the size of a large strawberry or one of the mini plums here that I love so much. So far, so good. Normal-looking, normal color, nothing deeply frightening. Maybe it’s not so bad, after all.

Instead of biting into the little beasts, though, you peel them — I’m not sure if the rind is edible at all for anyone besides birds, but in Cali at least, they don’t eat it. And that’s when things get a little stranger. Since it bore a passing resemblance to other small pitted fruits, I was expecting something like a peach or plum to emerge from that bright red skin. Wrong. The innards of a chontaduro are orange, flaky and fibrous — they look kind of like a tiny, round sweet potato with a big pit in the middle. And that’s more or less how they taste, too, except without the “sweet” part.

otherwise I'm going outside and corralling a few bees

Wait, where did the honey go? There’s no way I’m getting through this plate without it!

That’s right. Chontaduro are a fruit that taste like the terrible cousin of a potato (if they tasted like potatoes, you can believe I’d be eating a pound of them every week). I don’t even know why they bother calling them fruit, since they seem much closer to a starch like yuca than a juicy fruit. In Cali, they eat them with salt and honey, which makes the taste marginally better, until you realize that you’re essentially just covering it with enough honey to hide the flavor of the fruit itself. Once I took one bite, I realized why my friends had been smirking when they inquired about my chontaduro experience.

Maybe it’s an acquired taste, since most caleños don’t seem to mind it at all, or maybe they place more importance in its alleged power as an aphrodisiac (can someone explain to me why all the most disgusting foods — with the exception of chocolate — are the ones reputed to be aphrodisiacs?), but either way, I’m somehow missing the appeal of the whole thing. Even after eating a whole plate of them, because I’d rather eat some gross stuff covered with honey than be rude.

Still, though, the next time I have an opportunity to enjoy the culinary delights of Cali, I think I’ll be sticking with cholado.

whatever the opposite of 'nom' is, that's this photo

One bite down, ten more (and a plateful of salt) to go….

Food Friday: Cholado

they look just good enough to eat, don't they?

Oh so tempting…

On my trip to Cali a few weeks ago, I think it’s safe to say that about 30% of my conversations with my best friend revolved around cholado. How excited we were to eat cholado, where we were going to buy cholado, how much cholado we could possibly eat in one weekend — if it involved cholado, you can be sure it was discussed at great length.

So what, you ask, is this magical, delightful treat that so captured our imaginations and taste buds? WELL. Remember a few weeks ago when we talked about raspado?

that is a brave woman, right there

DO YOU SEE HOW MANY BEES ARE ON THIS CONTAINER RIGHT NOW??

Cholado is more or less its bigger, sugarier, fruitier cousin — and man, is it delicious. It’s also a specialty of Cali and the Cauca department, appearing under brightly-colored carts every few blocks in the cities and towns of that region. I guess icy treats are a much easier sell in places where it doesn’t rain every two hours.

Imagine if a sno-cone and a fruit parfait had a baby and shoved it into a giant cup with a straw. That’s essentially what cholado is: a sugar-high in a cup. It’s made by tossing a bunch of different kinds of fruit (pineapple, maracuyá, papaya, strawberries, etc.) into a plastic cup the size of a Big Gulp, adding shaved ice and food coloring, and topping the whole thing off with a strawberry, sticky-sweet condensed milk and a vanilla wafer, just for the hell of it.

all of that color is purely natural, of course

Bet you’re jealous you don’t have one of these right now

Grab a long-handled spoon and a straw (yes, you’ll end up needing both), and you’re good to go.

I only ate one of these treats during my weekend in Cali — not because I didn’t like it, but rather that one per weekend is about the limit that a normal digestive system can handle. Any more and I would’ve been bouncing off the walls for the whole week. It’s been long enough since that delicious day, though, that I think I’m just about ready for another.

Food Friday: Arequipe, or Whatever You Call It Where You Live

If you’ve visited pretty much any country in South America, you’re probably already familiar with arequipe, or at least with one of its cousins. It goes by many names: arequipe here in Colombia, dulce de leche in Argentina, manjar in Ecuador, and something in Mexico that I won’t write here because it’s a dirty word in Argentine Spanish and I don’t want to offend my former host family. Google it yourself.

evidence of my non-love for the 'quipe

Not all arequipe is created alike. Some comes in a plastic container from a roadside stand somewhere west of Bogotá….

Whatever you want to call it, arequipe is a sugary treat made from heated, caramelized milk and, obviously, a lot of sugar. Like many of the dulces here, I often find it overwhelmingly sweet — a little bit goes a long way. Conventional wisdom has it that Americans have a serious (and seriously problematic) sweet tooth, so maybe I’m just an abnormality, but to me it seems that people here eat way more sweets than at home, and  dulces here have a hell of a lot of sugar. Lunch at my school always comes with some kind of candy, and everyone from kids to adults walk around snacking on sugary confections. You’d never see an adult in the U.S. walking around with a lollipop, but here, it’s pretty common.

but really, I'd probably eat dirt if it were covered with chocolate

…some comes slathered in chocolate and baked into a cake…

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’re talking about arequipe. Colombians put arequipe on/in EVERYTHING — cakes, pastries, croissants, cookies, you name it. There are arequipe-flavored lollipops, ice cream, chocolate bars and cappuccinos. And that’s if they even bother pairing it with something — half the time, people will just eat it right out of the container with a spoon, like a sugarier version of me with a jar of peanut butter.

GET AT ME, arequipe con cafe

…and some is coffee-flavored and further evidence of the brilliance of the Colombian people.

I have to admit, I still haven’t totally adjusted to the national obsession with arequipe. Don’t get me wrong — I love my sweets, but I prefer my sugar fix to arrive in the form of chocolate or possibly frappes (I believe those of you who aren’t from the Northeast call them milkshakes. Colombians call them batidos). I didn’t really love dulce de leche while I lived in Argentina (unless it arrived inside alfajores, which I could happily eat every day for the rest of my life, or at least until they gave me diabetes), and apparently my taste buds haven’t changed significantly in the last three years.

who am I kidding? I totally want to shove my face in it

You know what? At least I’m bothering to put it on cookies instead of just shoving my face in it. Small victories, people!

As with every rule, of course, there’s one exception: last week I discovered, lurking in my second-closest supermarket, arequipe con café. Yeah, that’s right, kids: it’s coffee-flavored arequipe. Because the only thing that can make a bowl of sugar better is caffeine. Friends and family, expect me to return to the U.S. with about ten jars of this stuff.

Still, while this product was obviously designed specifically with me as its target consumer, I’m not yet a full-fledged arequipe convert. Sure, it’s tasty in small doses, or as a topping, or when flavored with my biggest food vice after chocolate, but for the foreseeable future, I think I’m going to reserve my spooning-empty-calories-directly-from-the-jar impulses for Nutella.

Food Friday: Roving Ice Cream and Penguins on Wheels

Ice cream is pretty much second only to oxygen on my list of Things That Make Life Worth Living (and oxygen is only winning because I want to stay on its good side). I remember reading once that Boston consumes the most ice cream per capita out of any major metropolitan region in the U.S., and I see no reason to doubt this — given the proximity and availability of both Ben & Jerry’s and J.P. Licks, it’s only logical. When I was younger, it was perfectly normal to go get ice cream at Herrell’s (RIP!) in the dead of February winter. It is, in fact, still totally normal (except we have to go somewhere else. Stupid corporate takeovers of Harvard Square, etc.). What I’m saying here is that I have a cultural basis for my fundamental need for ice cream in my life and my stomach. It’s both nature and nurture.

waterfront delivery

The Crem Helado guy is so committed to his important task, he even ventures onto the beach.

Fortunately, the multitudinous ice cream carts of Colombia are here to satisfy my cravings. Granted, if I had to pick a winner in a battle of helado supremacy, Argentina would win over Colombia every time (I would fight someone for a Volta avellana y pistachio cone right now), but I’m here, and I can’t really complain. Sure, Colombia may not have Freddo, but Popsy isn’t half bad, there are a few gelato shops to be found here and there, and I’ve even spotted the holy grail of fro-yo in a few malls. But we’re not talking about brick-and-mortar shop here — this is all about indulging my laziness and letting the ice cream come to me.

It’s hard to go more than a few blocks without running into one of Bogotá’s ice-cream-cart pushers, especially on weekends. There are two fairly ubiquitous options when it comes to icy treats on wheel around here. The first, Crem Helado, arrives in a little square white cart, heralded by a ringing bell attached to the handle. This stuff is your basic ice cream truck-style fare, popsicles and creamy fruit-flavored treats. It’s not necessarily my favorite, but it’ll do in a pinch.

it's too hot here for penguins

BON ICE MAN!!!! Sans penguin, but still. You get the idea.

The better option, if you can take it, is the Bon Ice man (or woman. But usually it’s a man). These ones are easy to spot, as they’re always decked out in their bright blue uniforms, pushing either a bright blue cylindrical cooler or one shaped like a penguin. They sell frozen treats here, OUT OF A PENGUIN. I have been here for four months and I am still not over this. I will probably never get over it. Frankly, I never want to.

But not only is Bon Ice visually exciting — it’s also incredibly tasty, particularly if you ever had a childhood. Remember those Freeze Pops everyone used to eat all the time in the summer when we were kids (and, if you’re me and my friends, that you still keep in your basement freezer)? You know, the skinny sticks that are essentially just ice with sweet food coloring, and for some mysterious reason the blue ones are vastly superior to all other flavors and you always had to fight everyone else except that weird kid that liked the red ones better to get them? That’s Bon Ice, except it comes in flavors like mango and uva (grape), and costs about the equivalent of US 15 cents. Bon Ice vendors are somewhat less common than the Crem Helado dudes, and it is therefore totally appropriate to do what my friends and I do every time we spot one, which is to shriek “BON ICE MAN!” and dash toward him and/or the sacred penguin as quickly as possible. This will also probably never get old.

mmmm, sugar and ice

Medieval torture device? Paper shredder? Nope, just a raspado cart.

And then there’s raspado. Ohhhh, raspado, the Colombian version of Sno-Cones. Raspado is a bit harder to find around here — I haven’t had much luck locating a cart in Bogotá so far, but I’ve run into it on a few occasions in warmer climates. Raspado begins as a cup of shaved ice, which the vendor shaves off of a big frozen block right there in front of you, using a very cool and slightly steampunk-looking hand-cranked device. Once in the cup, your pile of ice is layered with various colorful flavor syrups that are no doubt full of food coloring and carcinogens, then drizzled with sugar or sweet condensed milk. Raspado has absolutely zero nutritional benefit, and it is awesomely delicious, especially on a sweltering hot day. Oh, and the most entertaining thing about it? Depending on which way you eat the stuff, the sweet liquid left at the bottom turns some kind of horrifying color, which is never the same as the color in your friend’s cup. So if you go left, it’ll be green; favor the right side, you’ll end up with a cup full of pink sugar water. Individual eating styles deserve unique colors!

Last but absolutely not least are the vendors: dudes (or sometimes ladies) who wander around with a cooler slung from their shoulder, selling what are basically creamy homemade popsicles for about 1,000 pesos (roughly 50 cents) in every flavor from coco to mandarina. These folks are usually found at high-volume events — I remember a particularly delicious mora ice cream I bought from one of these guys at an outdoor performance during the International Theater Festival here. About half of it ended up all over my hands, since it was actually sunny for once. Probably the best my hands have ever tasted, and worth every penny.

The point here is: In Colombia, they sell frozen treats out of a cooler shaped like a penguin. I dare your country to beat that. Go ahead, you won’t.

Food Friday: Coffee, Ambrosia of the Gods (in Tiny Styrofoam Cups)

Forget the fruit: I’m really a terrible Colombia blogger because of the coffee. Or rather, the failure to discuss coffee at least four times already. After cocaine and Sofia Vergara, coffee is probably the only thing most people around the world associate with Colombia, and yet here I am, twiddling my thumbs and talking all about (admittedly delicious and worthy of mention) buttered corn on the cob and pastries instead. Oddly enough, Colombia actually exports the vast majority of its coffee, so the stuff we drink here isn’t as high-quality as the beans you can buy in some fancy shop in New York, for example. Still, it’s pretty hard to find a genuinely bad cup of coffee around here, so I’ve got no complaints.

except they don't give you lids. WHY.

This was my very first cappuccino in Colombia, at a cozy Oma in Candelaria. An auspicious and tasty beginning to the year, for sure.

But I digress. To the coffee! For the record, I am slightly biased on this subject, as I’m essentially incapable of human speech, in either Spanish or English, before I’ve had my coffee in the morning. One of the first things I did upon arriving here was to warn my co-workers about this, and luckily, because Colombia is nothing if not a coffee culture, they’re pleasantly understanding about it. My students have yet to grasp why I just blink at them if they speak to me before about 8 a.m., but they’ll understand someday.

Coffee culture here doesn’t meant the same thing, though, that it does in Rome, or Istanbul, or Seattle. There are several near-ubiquitous chain coffee shops (I’ll get to those in a minute), but one can also find tiny, double-shot cups of strong black coffee (tinto) sold from carts or backpacks on nearly every street corner, from morning until well past dark. People don’t linger over frappuccinos in comfy chairs here — rather, they stand around the carts, chatting and taking small sips of steaming black liquid. Drinking coffee, like so many other actions here, is more of a social occasion than it is at home — you’re almost obligated to speak to someone else at some point, which is nice on the one hand, but, as I’ve mentioned, tends to be a bit of a challenge for me. My school alone has at least two different places to get coffee, and I haven’t ruled out the possibility of more that I haven’t discovered yet. Naturally, I frequent both of them at least once a day — more often, if I have class with seventh-graders in the morning.

I often consider ordering more coffee just to get more cookies

Oh, did I mention that they give you tiny cute cookies with your coffee? Because sometimes they give you tiny cute cookies with your coffee.

Of course, since Colombia is a modern country and all, carts, cafeterias and random dudes aren’t the only place to satisfy a caffeine craving. Pretty much any restaurant, bakery or bar worth its potable tap water offers a small variety of coffee drinks, though obviously the quality varies. There are two major national coffee chains: the Greek-sounding Oma and the somewhat more renowned Juan Valdez. For reasons I cannot fathom, both companies chose practically the same dark red shade as their main brand color, which makes them rather hard to distinguish from a distance. Luckily, this isn’t much of a problem, since there’s at least one of each roughly every two blocks in most busy neighborhoods. Both places offer your Starbucks-style range of drinks, from basic Americanos to fancy blended frozen arequipe-flavored concoctions (which I will never try, given my ironclad opposition to cold coffee beverages. But they look nice!), and some tasty pastries. The one thing they don’t give out freely are lids for the coffee cups — you have to ask them for a lid when you pick up your drink, or you’ll be spending the whole walk trying not to spill steamed milk all over your shirt. As a clumsy person, I am still not used to this. Juan Valdez are also rockstars at branding, and sell everything from coffee presses to T-shirts at their stores. Oddly enough, their clothes and bags are are actually fairly popular here — can you imagine people walking around downtown Philly in Peet’s t-shirts? I guess Colombians just love their Juan so much they have to wear it on their sleeves.

(Sorry. That was a really terrible joke. I’ve obviously been speaking Spanish so much lately that I’m forgetting how to be funny in English.)

Food Friday: Get Me to a Juicery

I think at this point I’ve waxed poetic enough about the fruit of Colombia that y’all have a pretty good idea of the plethora of vitamin-packed options just hanging off the trees (or whatever else they grow on) here. But the great thing about fruit, you know, is that it’s versatile. You can just snack on it, which is usually my preferred method, but you can also squeeze it, shake it, mix it with other liquids, and turn it into glorious, drinkable juice.

it's called the aloha smoothie, because of course it is

Our group's circle of glorious breakfast smoothies in Santa Marta. Mine was something like papaya-pineapple-mango, and I could happily drink it every day for the rest of my life.

Now, if you’d asked me about six months ago, I would’ve told you that I’m not really a juice person. However, my time here has convinced me that I’m just not an American juice person. What passes for juice in most supermarkets or restaurants at home is some sort of terrible joke, Technicolor liquids made from a 9:1 ratio of concentrate to actual fruit juice, packed with fructose, food coloring, and basically everything else except the fruit itself. Well, to let all of you guys back at home in on a little secret: that shit is not juice, and we should be ashamed of ourselves for letting kids drink it without telling them what they’re missing.

oh bob, you never let me down

The biggest glass of mora juice in Bogotá. Juice courtesy of Bob's Pizza (you laugh, but it's damn good pizza); photo courtesy of the lovely Tasha Miley.

Because what they’re missing is this: the amazing range of fresh fruit juices available in almost every restaurant here, in flavors from mora (blackberry) to mango to guanabana (try to say that three times fast). My personal favorites are piña (pineapple) and durazno (peach) — I mean, where the hell can you even buy fresh peach juice in the US, besides maybe Georgia? Juice can be mixed either en leche (in milk) or en agua (in water), depending on your personal preference. I find that some flavors tend to taste better with one versus the other, but I’ve yet to buy any truly bad juice here. And they don’t cheat you on quantity, either — since the basic fruit juice is mixed with another liquid, it tends to arrive in a massive glass usually reserved for bar crawl quantities of beer. A pint glass of pineapple juice for about $2? You won’t hear any complaints from over here!

can I bring this home with me, please?

Step right up! Get your fresh-squeezed guanabana! (Note: I have no idea if squeezing is the correct way to juice a guanabana)

And restaurants aren’t the only place to find tasty juice, although they’re better if you’re looking for more exotic flavors. If all you need is a shot of Vitamin C, though, the street vendors have you covered. Every few blocks in most busy neighborhoods, you’ll come across a juice cart, selling fresh-squeezed naranja or mandarina (different variations of orange/citrus) juice for about the equivalent of a dollar a pop. The vendor will squeeze the juice right there in front of you while you wait, which can be a pain when you’re in a hurry, but is a really satisfying reminder of exactly how fresh that juice is. At some markets, especially on weekends, it’s also possible to find stands with several kinds of fresh juice, like guanabana (a soft white fruit which yields a juice that looks deceptively like coconut) and papaya (I’m still working on warming up to it. Give me some time).

yeah, so I play with my ice cubes. what of it?

Ice-cold pineapple juice: the perfect way to cool down on a hot coastal afternoon.

Even the supermarket juice kicks our ass. Every market, even tiny corner tiendas that are basically like three 7-11 shelves packed into the space of one, stock bottles and boxes of different flavors of juice. Did I mention that it’s also socially acceptable here for adults to drink juice boxes? I can’t wait til that trend catches on back at home. Listen up, health advocates: I’m telling you right now, the trick to getting people to drink more fruit juice is juice boxes. Everyone loves juice boxes! My personal favorite supermarket juice, a brand called Ades, does, in fact, come in a large box, decorated with a tasty-looking colorful picture of whatever fruit it contains — because it’s actually made with real fruit. It’s also made with soymilk and various other tasty, good-for-you ingredients and generally just kicks the ass of any packaged juice I’ve ever had in the U.S. (with the possible exception of Newman’s Lemonade, but they don’t sell lemonade here, so that’s an unfair competition).

Like lollipops, arepas and diet soda, juice is something my body has learned to develop cravings for since coming to Colombia — but unlike those other things, juice is actually good for me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I hear a peach juice box calling my name, and who am I to deny its siren song?