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The 411 on 7-Eleven

Illustration by Alison Elizabeth Taylor

On a rainy Friday night three weeks ago, I stopped in at the 7-Eleven on Mount Pleasant Street NW. I’d lost my umbrella, and my 13-year-old raincoat was no longer waterproof. Wet and hungry, I looked for something basic and warm.

It had been more than a decade since I’d tried a 7-Eleven hot dog, and I was apprehensive. Not just because of the standard superstitions about hot-dog composition, but for a more immediate reason: 7-Eleven’s meat logs always look a little greasy to me lying on the rotator.

For $1.09, I was willing to take a chance. It would be part of my experiment in giving up the domestic comforts of mealtime—utensils, companionship, salad—in favor of convenience and affordability. In case I needed something to chase the frank flavor, I added a 10-cent Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup to the tab.

The inspiration for such minimalism had come two summers ago, as I stood in an empty studio apartment in the Midwest, preparing to leave for D.C. The room where I’d lived had been reduced to a bed and a phone; the romantic notion had crossed my mind that you could get by without much else, in a kind of urban Thoreauvian simplicity—if only you had a steady supply of cheap food.

And here, at 7-Eleven, was the food: on hot-dog rollers, in racks under heat lamps, and stowed in the refrigerator case. And where better than D.C. to try to simplify eating? Rootlessness is part of life here. I’m one of a horde of underpaid, itinerant interns who come to town without so much as a frying pan. There may be other places to eat anonymously and quickly, but I can’t afford to shell out $6 every day for a shredded-free-range-pork burrito.

So, starting with the hot dog, I ate more than a dozen 7-Eleven meals, mostly at my neighborhood 7-Eleven, over the next few weeks. I was curious about how wholesome—and, in some cases, exactly what—7-Eleven food was. (I know all about Pizza Hut’s P’zone, but as near as I can tell, 7-Eleven doesn’t saturate the airwaves with tutorials that explain what it’s trying to feed me.)

As I ate the hot dog that night, my anxiety subsided. 7-Eleven’s Big Bite offered a mild, steamy take on the traditional hot-dog taste, suitable for any major-league ballpark. The Reese’s chaser was dessert.

I went back the next night and ordered a slice of pepperoni pizza from the bright, multileveled rectangular display case on the front counter. The slice was handed to me in a triangular cardboard box. Again, I had low expectations, this time rooted in experience. I’d tried a piece last winter that called to mind worn-out tire rubber. But, like the hot dog, the pizza went down without incident: bready crust—not cracker-style—with toppings that offered a greasy but moderate pepperoni-and-cheese taste.

I spent the following week tackling breakfast and lunch. For lunch, I grabbed pre-wrapped sandwiches from the refrigerator case—a turkey-and-ham pita on Wednesday, a turkey-and-cheese sandwich on Thursday.

The latter was pretty standard, but the former was a little weird. Wrapped to a plastic foam tray, the components were all fine—it was the assembly that threw me. This was not a pita sandwich in the customary sense—the fillings were so massive that they were not stuffed inside a pita but wedged between two pitas, each subbing for a slice of bread.

The pita cost $2.99 and the turkey-and-cheese $2.29; either sandwich—right down to the packet of Heinz mustard tucked into the second sandwich’s plastic container—could be gotten cheaper with intelligent Safeway shopping. Buying them pre-made at 7-Eleven may be convenient, but it’s also a form of freedom: freedom from racing to eat a dozen turkey sandwiches before the packet of store-bought turkey in your refrigerator goes sour.

On Thursday evening, I tried one of the oddly shiny, yellow pastry pockets I’d spotted in the pizza-slice display case. I’d hoped that they were calzones, full of pepperoni and mozzarella.

Quite a letdown when, having inquired with the cashier, I heard the word “chicken” in the response. I was expecting a choice between pepperoni and sausage, but what I ended up with, according to my receipt, was a “JamaicanChknTrnovr.” Flaky crust concealed a dark paste that I initially took for beef. But as I made my way through the center, I found a whipped-chicken filling familiar from many microwave burritos.

The next day, I went for an item that had long mystified me: Given that they were yellowy and sat on the hot-dog rotator, I’d assumed long ago that the objects in question were corn dogs. But no: The crust was not corn batter but soft bread. Inside were cheese and pepperoni, blended to near-homogeneity, leaving a spicy if somewhat processed-cheesy aftertaste.

This was it: the calzone I’d been looking for. It’s known in the vernacular as one of the 7-Eleven Snack Stix Treats. (As I am with “pants” and “Boston Red Sox,” I was confused as to whether “Snack Stix” is singular or plural—www.7-eleven.com invites surfers to “[c]hoose one of the popular 7-Eleven Stix Treats” before referring to a “tasty bread stick.”)

I’ve embraced this cylindrical calzone as the best dinner I’m going to get for 99 cents. In exchange for giving up on getting the real thing, I got something that I can buy in less than three minutes and eat on the way to the Metro.

Over the following week, I tried a few Taquitos. The fillings varied—taco cheese, Monterey Jack chicken, fiesta chicken (according to my receipts)—but just as the Jamaican turnover was essentially a microwave burrito, the Taquitos were essentially the pizza stick: an edible tube filled with a somewhat-ethnic-food filling. Cuisine from different parts of the world has been equalized—squeezed into a cigar-shaped crust. It’s a handheld version of what many family restaurants have become: Bennigan’s food is largely Irish, and Olive Garden’s is Italian, but they both accept major credit cards, sell cheesecake, and serve the same soft drinks.

At 7-Eleven, distinctions among foods have been leveled. Pre-wrapped, microwaveable bacon cheeseburgers sit alongside containers of fresh strawberries. And both are a few feet away from one-third-pound hot dogs. The unheated foods I sampled tended to stick to basic forms. Lunch consisted of sandwich-shop sandwiches; items such as a double danish shaped something like the infinity symbol notwithstanding, breakfast mostly covered the standard coffee accessories: bagels, doughnuts, pastries, croissants.

With the baked goods, the store transcended its own biggest limitation: reducing food to shorthand. One morning, I sampled the chocolate doughnut. The chocolate glaze had the perfect right-on-the-edge texture—I could feel it break, but it didn’t quite crunch. It was sufficient; I wasn’t losing anything in exchange for convenience. I wasn’t going to find a better one anywhere else. CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Alison Elizabeth Taylor.