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Taco Bell Bowlz bring on a serious case of existential angst 

OK, I get it.

This new slew of unrefrigerated ready-to-eat semi-perishables isn't new. We've been canning for nearly two centuries, and I'll bet not a day goes by that we don't down preserved food in some form or another.

Still, this species of preservation — wrapped in cellophane, packaged in a plastic tray, unrefrigerated and "ready to eat" after a mere 90 seconds in a microwave — frightens me.

It isn't so much their ability to maintain a stable state for months on end lounging, as they do, in the air-conditioned environs of a Walgreens or Sam's Club. That's bad enough. What really alarms me is these foods' frank pitch to the lonesome shut-in that lurks within us.

Their ancestor, the frozen TV dinner, required a preparatory step: Turn on the oven, take the tray out of the freezer, and for half an hour, at least, anticipate the pleasures (if rarely delivered) of a warm meal.

But these new, joyless repasts have done away with even this nominal step. Instead, as you pull, say, a Taco Bell Santa Fe Style Beef Bowlz from the shelf, eating, that most social of routines, is transformed into a solitary endeavor that goes something like this: 1) Pull back one corner of film 2) Microwave on high for 90 seconds 3) Insert contents into mouth.

Of course, this is a Taco Bell product, so you can bet it's savory. You can also bet that the packaging deploys a wacky font, supplemented by plentiful exclamation marks, that endeavors to inject some "fourth meal" sexing-up to the rancid enterprise.

To add another layer of excitement (and mute the Bell's existential tintinnabulation), I rounded out my microwaved meal with a dessert course: a Betty Crocker Warm Delights Minis Molten Caramel Cake. (Just add water and microwave!)

The steps of adding a tablespoon of water to the cake mix and extruding the viscous contents of the "caramel pouch" gave the product a whiff of baking — a whiff that must have wafted away during the 30 seconds it spent in the microwave only to return a bubbling (yet dry!) approximation of a caramel brownie.

Neither Taco Bell's pre-packaged excitement nor Betty Crocker's down-home promise goes very far once these steaming bowlz are in front of you. It's not that they taste bad: They don't. Rather, stripped of their identifying packaging, they taste...anonymous. Think of the most generalized rice-and-bean dish imaginable or a dry baked bit of chocolate sheet cake, and there you have it: Mealz that don't matter.

Then, in the blink of an eye, it's over. Not that it was anything special, but now it's gone — literally. You throw the whole thing away, bowlz and all. No mess, no clean-up, no trace. The meal, its empty calories and banal flavors, gone and quickly forgotten, just like, these bowlz seem to say, those irretrievable fifteen minutes you spent ingesting them.

Seen a foodstuff you're too timid to try? Malcolm will eat it! E-mail particulars to keepitdown@mac.com.

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