We Cooked Air Force One’s Jack O’Lantern Pepper To Terrify You On Halloween And Heal America

The most striking thing about Donald Trump is that his personality is so monolithic. Everything he says and does, every story about him is a supporting paragraph to the main thesis of his childish vulgar stupidity. If there’s any justice to his presidency it’s the poetic kind, where Americans are finally represented to the world by a man who embodies all our most negative national stereotypes. He cheats at golf and likes bad food? Of course he does.

So when a reporter tweeted out a picture of the food on Air Force One earlier this week, it seemed, as always, on-brand for the president.

It’s not as if we expect airplane food to look good, even if the airplane in question happens to be one specially designed for the most powerful office in the world. Even so, there was something especially sad about this dish — its mix of rote cooking and enforced cheer, the spread of undressed, wilted mixed greens, fresh from a bag, underneath the main food screaming FUCK YOUUUU so loudly that it turns the stuffed pepper’s crooked smile into bad parody.

Like all things related to Trump, it also managed to be both almost too stupid to contemplate and impossible not to discuss. What is inside that pepper? What is that white stuff on top of the pepper? And for the love of God, what the hell is that thing on a separate plate on the left? The longer you stare at it, the more the possibilities expand. It’s almost a Rorschach test. Is it a glazed scone? A chicken thigh smothered in gravy?

In an attempt to answer these questions, I set out to try to recreate the dish myself. This would be dumb as hell but I do love a cooking challenge. First, ingredients. Some decisions were fairly obvious.

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Bagged salad was probably the most obvious ingredient, other than the orange bell pepper and tomatoes (possibly the only obvious ingredient that I would actually buy). I’m pretty sure I saw a baby spinach leaf and some red lettuce in there.

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Ooh, that’s helpful.

So peppers, mixed green, tomatoes… but what was inside the peppers? Thinking logically, some kind of ground beef mixture would seem like the most obvious filling for a stuffed pepper. Though that wouldn’t explain the chunky, zombie vomit texture that seemed to be peeking out in the smile.

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What would be chunky and Fall-themed? I’m guessing some kind of squash. I split the difference and went with ground beef and zucchini. Which still left the strange schmear of white stuff at the top flecked with black. The Uproxx Slack channel had some plausible suggestions for what this might be. Ranch dressing? Possibly. Certainly color appropriate. Cream cheese? I could believe either — cream cheese being an especially good guess, because “cream” is the only variety of cheese I can imagine being served at a Trump event that wouldn’t be bright yellow or DayGlo orange. It definitely wasn’t fresh mozz.

Here’s what I went with:

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Mashed potatoes seemed the most logical choice. It would explain both the whitish color and the black flecks (pepper), and it followed from my ground beef filling decision. The mashed potatoes turned the dish into a kind of stuffed pepper/shepherd’s pie frankenfood.

Furthermore, I decided to do them with instant mashed potatoes to fit the general tone of sadness and apathy. Here’s where I reveal my inner snob and admit that I’ve never bought instant mashed potatoes before. Partly, that’s because I rarely camp, and partly because I can’t imagine a situation in which I both desperately crave the idea of mashed potatoes but don’t have 15 minutes to make them. Pretty wild that you can get four and a half cups of mashed potatoes out of a four-ounce baglet though, I gotta say.

On the side plate… well, I kind of punted. My first thought was that it was a smothered chicken thigh. But this does not seem like it would be a chicken thigh crowd. (I actually like a chicken thigh.) Based on the other elements of the dish, this seemed more like a chicken tender with fake grill marks crowd. That also wouldn’t explain the separate plate, or that there would be a second meat course. It seems more like a dessert plate. My best guess is that it’s a square of dry bread pudding (potentially an apple fritter/turnover kind of thing) with a strangely colored glaze that melted and unmelted a few times. I couldn’t find that at the grocery store, and lazy disregard for the final product seemed like the utmost consideration here.

I ended up buying a weird-looking cinnamon roll and some canned frosting.

Here was the full haul:

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Hey, this is starting to look not so bad! That seems… wrong?

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Vince Mancini

After I made my pepper lantern, I sprayed it with a little Pam and stuck it in the oven at 350 along with the vine of tomatoes. Once that was in, I diced my zucchini and left it to sautee in a pan with some diced onions and the ground beef. In the original photo, the filling had a reddish sort of color. I added a few scoops of an Armenian spice blend I made a while back that I had laying around. It did the trick in terms of color, but the appetizing smell felt contrary to the whole exercise.

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It’s quite possible the ingredients in the original never even saw the inside of a pan. But once you start cooking, it’s hard not to make something you actually want to eat.

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Next, I prepared the mashed potatoes by pouring the entire bag into two cups of boiling water, as per the instructions. They fluffed up and actually resembled mashed potatoes within seconds. Ta da! They didn’t taste as bad as I thought they would. Kind of a salt bomb — which makes sense, I don’t know how you could fit four cups of potato nutrients into a four-ounce bag, but you can definitely fit seasoning.

Once the peppers were finished cooking (Yes, actually cooking them to a reasonable state of done-ness seems contrary to the original), I stuffed the meat mixture into them and added a topper of instant mashed potatoes. It actually smelled pretty decent at this point.

But how to recreate that “bed-of-wilted-greens” look? I put a handful of spring mix onto a plate and stuck it into the still-warm oven for a few minutes, just wilt them a little and get it looking really sad. The baked tomatoes looked like by far the most appetizing element of the original and I think I nailed that.

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As for the side plate… I don’t know, man. I tried to smear some canned cream cheese frosting onto my cinnamon roll, warm it in the oven for a bit, re-refrigerate it… it didn’t turn out that close to the original (probably because the original didn’t have cinnamon), but it was definitely bad! In that sense, probably accurate.

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Here is the finished product. It looks much weirder once you cut it open. You definitely get the sense that something shaped like a jack’o lantern… isn’t really supposed to be food?

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And yet the taste is…

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Honestly not too bad. Granted, I cooked and seasoned my pepper and stuffing, in a way that I doubt was true of the original. But a shepherd’s pie-type thing stuffed into a pepper, despite how weird that is as an idea, isn’t the worst food idea in the world. I could easily have finished the stuffed pepper. Of course, that still left me with an entire plate of shitty undressed spring mix.

If we’re grasping at metaphors, I think you could definitely say that this meal was, like all of Trump’s policies, a dumb idea, poorly thought out and ineptly executed, imbued with an overarching disdain for its audience and suffused with poor taste. There’s an element of misguided Americana to it as well — we love processed foods, don’t we folks? Terrific.

Between the pepper’o lantern, Trump’s famous McDonald’s order (two Big Macs, two filet o’fish, french fries, and a Chocolate shake, allegedly eaten bunless), Kirk Cameron’s sad Subway sandwich birthday, Ted Cruz’s flatbed truck’s worth of Campbell’s soup, and Scott Walker’s tragic ham sandwiches, there’s certainly a case to be made that there exists a strain of modern conservatism that involves performatively eating bad food to trigger the libs. Avocado toast? No sirree, I’ll be having bologna and margarine on Wonder Bread just the way we like it here in the REAL America, thank you very much. Harvard Law grad, military man, and Senator Tom Cotton admitted to eating birthday cake every day. A person’s mental childishness has a way of expressing itself through food in even in the most faux-serious men.

But that also seems like a lot of mental gymnastics. Maybe the greater takeaway is the more obvious one. This was dumb and bad and I did it anyway.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.