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'Junk food is a language that everyone understands' — meet the Baltimore man behind Junk Banter blog

Chris Brugnola’s Canton kitchen is rather inconspicuous; its exposed brick wall and granite countertops hardly give away his secrets. It’s not until he opens the freezer that all 40 of them are revealed: every limited-edition Oreo released since 2015.

There are so many of the signature yellow and blue packages that Brugnola is considering buying a second freezer for the basement.

“I know they won’t ever make them again, and one day I want to be able to have a certain flavor that takes me back,” he said. “That’s the weird part of my brain that’s like ‘I’m the only person who gets to do this because I froze them all!’ ”

Brugnola’s collection is a little less surprising in the context of his passion: He’s the mastermind behind the popular product review blog Junk Banter. By day, the 32-year-old is an auditor for the Department of Defense, looking for inefficiencies in U.S. Army spending and writing reports with his findings. But on his own time, he writes snappy jokes about sugary cereal, Cheetos, ice cream and especially Oreos.

“Pistachio Oreo Thins might be the surprise of the year,” he blogged on June 5. “For all my doubts about the chocolate cookie, Nabisco whipped it out and showed me why they made $674.2 million in cookies sales last year, while my blog made $6.42 yesterday.”

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Brugnola was first introduced to the curiosities of junk food while pursuing an MBA at Syracuse University in 2011. While grocery shopping on his own for the first time, he spotted orange Creamsicle Oreos and realized there was a world beyond the black-and-white cookies his parents used to buy.

Years later, Oreos have helped him garner more than 166,000 followers on his Instagram page (@junkbanter) and turn the thousands of likes on his posts into visits to the website, junkbanter.com.

“Junk food is a language everyone understands,” he said.

Junk Banter began with a rejection. In 2015, Brugnola and a childhood friend from New Jersey, Jaclyn Menendez, applied to become junk food critics for another site. When neither of them got the job, they decided their wit was good enough to stand on its own.

“We were still texting each other our own little reviews and I said ‘Screw it. It’s free to put your words up online. Why don’t we just do it?’ ” said Menendez, who lives in Colorado.

Menendez eventually left the project, but Brugnola continued on, learning how to build an audience through Instagram hashtags. He’s so dedicated to blog that he once cut out early from a dinner with friends so he could be first to review the latest Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Pie Spice Cookie Butter, Menendez said.

“He’s a genuinely funny person, and he actually cares about this stuff,” she said.

Brugnola reviews all types of junk food. Recently, it was Summertime Ranch Cheetos Stars: “Because nothing says ‘I’m ready to take my shirt off’ like a bottle of Ranch dressing,” he wrote on the site.

But salty snacks are usually less evocative.

“Oreos are big because I know I’m going to get good traffic, but the flavors they choose – there is always an organic story to tell about why you should want to try it or what’s funny about it,” he said. “I have no problem creatively with an Oreo review.”

In fact, Brugnola said the worst product he ever reviewed was the Swedish Fish Oreo, which he described as tasting like cough syrup: “Opening this package unleashes a medicinal aroma that made me gag,” he wrote.

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Junk Banter’s posts caught the eye of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream. The company flew Brugnola to Vermont in June 2017 for a weekend with other bloggers and social media influencers.

“He’s really authentic with his reviews, he’s honest and he has a really engaged audience,” said Lindsay Bumps, who works in social media for Ben and Jerry’s.

Some of that really engaged audience might come as a surprise: Fitness geeks and body builders are often the ones liking and sharing Brugnola’s Instagram posts.

“They follow it because they can’t eat it,” Brugnola said. “I hate to say it, but it’s literal food porn to them.”

Brugnola used to be one of them. But even on his strictest diets, he always craved an Oreo or two. Eventually, he found the right mix of junk food and exercise.

“As someone who’s been active in the fitness community, I know the things that are funny to us or what we struggle with when we’re eating healthy and dieting,” he said. “So I have a blast poking fun of the fitness community myself.”

Behind the scenes of Junker Banter, Brugnola said, there’s “unsexy stuff.” Some of it involves tracking down the wacky new products.

“I had been searching for Friendly’s Crayola Color Me Vanilla Ice Cream for months,” he blogged back in February 2016, “but when I finally located it… I was nearly an hour from home. So I did what any normal person would do; I stuffed a bag full of snow from the ground, tucked it away, and drove 100 mph on a 65.”

And when it comes to dating, Brugnola is never quite sure how to bring up the hobby that eats up so much of his life. He’s so dedicated that at any given time, he has 35 to 40 reviews waiting to be published. Sometimes, he discovers his writing has a shelf life.

“The other day...I was ready to publish a review and I found out [the product] had been discontinued for six months,” he said. “I wrote it two years ago.”

As his website gains popularity, so does Brugnola. Companies often mail him samples, which he happily shares with coworkers. Occasionally, people recognize him on the street, he said.

“People are always like ‘Oh, you’re so instafamous!’ I’m like it’s not me, it’s a page about food,” he said. “I’m like an F-list celebrity. It’s not that big a deal.”

amuckerman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/annamuckerman

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