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Everything was great until it sucked: Dwight Stuff.

November 10, 2011 \am\30 9:47 am

This month, Everything Was Great Until it Sucked explores my fascination with Dwight Yoakam’s frozen food line and the trend of celebrity cuisine.

DWIGHT STUFF

I’ve known Dwight Yoakam for many years, almost a decade. Not in a personal—cracking open a few beers in our lawn chairs—type of way. I honestly can’t picture his face. Well, I can, but then something inside me says, “No wait, that’s Alan Jackson,” and then it counter-corrects and says, a little shaky, “Um, wait, maybe you’re thinking of Michael Madesn in Kill Bill, he wore a cowboy hat, right?”  And no, I don’t really even know Dwight through his music.

I am probably the only man on Earth who knows Dwight Yoakam strictly through his food. And now I am in mourning, sort of.

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My girlfriend and I were more or less nomadic for a few years in the early 2000s. Ohio, Florida, Arizona and finally Oregon were places we called home. We were making a huge move from Tucson to Portland and realized there ain’t a whole lot of anything between Las Vegas and San Francisco. The World’s Largest Thermometer, check. Desert-o-plenty, check. But then we hit California’s famed San Joaquin Valley and the scenery turned to long green fields of lettuce and tomatoes and gigantic sprinkler systems. The World’s Largest Salad, in essence.

Soundly in the center of this lushness is Bakersfield, where we spent a night. But what does one do for fun in Bakersfield? Well, just mosey down to Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, of course. The California Country King, Owens, was a lifelong Bakersfield resident and supposedly invented something called the “Bakersfield Sound,” which by my best guess is country played to the rhythm of a lettuce sprinkler. The Crystal Palace wasn’t too big on crystal and not much of a palace. Sort of a really ornamental Outback Steakhouse…but with a stage! I don’t remember who played our night, but they sang a song about the Martha White Flour Company, because they were sponsoring this tour. This was my first exposure to the tangled bromance between music and food.

My next exposure came quickly, as in my entrée. I’m a sucker for food items named for celebrities. So it was impossible not to go for the “Dwight Yoakam Baby Back Ribs.” Huh, what? Like the flour-power band on stage, I can’t remember anything about the food. But whenever I meet someone from Bakersfield, my reply is always, “Wonderful place. I stayed in Bakersfield once. Had the Dwight Yoakam ribs.” And the general consensus of Bakersfieldians is that of confusion and “what are you talking about?”

So imagine the confusion and “what are you talking about?” look I gave the freezer section of Walgreen’s a few years later when I spotted Dwight Yoakam’s line of frozen foods.  Somehow this country star had graduated from having racks of ribs named in his honor to filling a freezer rack with an entire line of food seemingly designed for stoned teenagers. Boxes featured the mysterious Yoakam’s silhouette and the I-only-did-this-for-the-cash slogan: “Just heat ‘em and eat ‘em.”

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My first exposure came via the Chickin’ Licken’s Chicken Rings. “Odd,” I always thought. “What business does a country musician have deep frying chicken into circles? For that matter, what business does anyone have?” This was a hilarious oddity that I couldn’t help but walk past each time we visited the drugstore. I honestly looked forward to it, if for no other reason than the cheap smile the box provided.

Soon, that girlfriend became my wife and my family grew, meanwhile Yoakam’s line seemed to also double every so often. Following the traditional Rings, Chef Yoakam entered his Progressive Period with the equally perplexing Rings of Fire (I bet Johnny Cash was pissed he didn’t think of that first), quickly followed by Dwight Yoakam’s Chicken Fries. “Seriously, Dwight,” I would think as the years passed and Mr. Yoakam found new ways to morph microwave chicken. “I’m a little embarrassed for you and I don’t even know anything about you. Do you think Mrs. Butterworth or Betty Crocker would put their likeness on this stuff? Maybe that Gordon’s Fisherman guy, but, come on, sailors will eat anything.” But still, I smiled and chuckled and always made a visit to the freezer section.

Finally, Yoakam entered his Avant Garde period of microwave meal art: First it was the Lickin’ Chickin’ Pizza Fries, which, I guess were breaded shards of chicken-pizza. But his Salvador Dali moment came courtesy of Dwight Yoakam’s Macaroni Mouth Poppers. Yes, batter dipped, deep fried mac and cheese. At this point, the smiles and chuckles were transformed to dropped jaws.

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This was getting out of hand. I started honestly anticipating new Yoakam material. What would Dwight, in top secret Bakersfield test kitchen, invent next?

Sadly, like the last track of Dwight’s famous album (insert your own title here because I don’t know one), his crowning achievement was followed by silence. A recent trip to Walgreen’s revealed an empty slot in the freezer for all Yoakam’s goodies and an empty slot in my heart. A quick look online showed all links for Yoakam’s food company, Bakersfield Biscuits, to be dead.

This sucked the wind out of me. I felt responsible for Yoakam’s failure, because while I was always amused by his gastronomic stunts, I never once bought any. Maybe if I had, Dwight would have had the capital to fund his secret culinary lab in the San Joaquin Valley. My point-and-laugh routine could have cost the world its only shot at Chicken Squares, Chicken Triangles, Chicken Rhomboids and maybe even Dwight Yoakam Baby Back Rib Tots.

Who else had the balls to push microwave cooking that far?

This got me thinking about misguided celebrity foods. My eyes have always had a sixth-sense for celebrity meals at the store. I’m not talking about Paul Newman’s ridiculous line of Newman’s Own Frozen Kimchi or Newman’s Talcum Powder or whatever. I was never led to believe they were using Paul’s secret recipe for Newman-Os, but Dwight was different. Chef Yoakam, I assumed, was the mastermind here.

Smokey Robinson's 'The Soul Is In the Bowl' Red Beans and Rice

Dwight’s rise to stoner cooking guru and fall back down to humble-everyday-average-country-singin’-millionaire mimicked that of Smokey Robinson’s. Equally missing from grocery store shelves and the internet is Robinson’s disturbingly rubberized face. [Wentastic Fact: I originally thought this was poor graphic design, but I saw Robinson in person once and it looks like Mr. Motown was trying to fill up a Buy 10 Facelifts Get 1 Free Card.] Smokey, a Detroit native, released his own line of frozen treats: Soul is in the Bowl Red Beans and Rice, Gumbo and Pot Roast. Equally perplexing, equally embarrassing and I equally couldn’t stop squealing in delight whenever I spotted one covered in freezer section fog.

It’s no shock these products are born with one culinary foot in the grave, but why are they there in the first place? Do we blame musicians struggling with hefty facelift debts? Money-hungry microwave food corporations? Niche fans who purchase food a favorite singer supposedly created?

No, the man to blame is Jimmy Dean…and to a lesser degree, Kenny Rogers.

Not to be confused with movie star James Dean, Jimmy was a country singer in the 50s and 60s, peaking with the still-awesome tune, “Big Bad John”. Jimmy actually tried a movie career, costarring in James Bond’s “Diamonds are Forever,” but like Yoakam and Robinson after him, found his true home in the grocer’s freezer.

In 1969 Jimmy started selling sausages. Jimmy Dean Sausages featured a picture of him on every tube of fatty breakfast fun and included the singer in commercials. These foods are, to my knowledge, still around.

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Seeing this success from his mountaintop fortress, Kenny Rogers stoked his snowy beard and declared he, too, would like to be a singer and food entrepreneur. This, of course, led to the foundation of Kenny Rogers Roasters. Made ultra famous in a Seinfeld skit where Kramer was equally tortured and infatuated by the rotisserie birds, the restaurant was apparently handcuffed to Boston Market as they both fell down the elevator shaft of poultry obscurity. [WENTASTIC FACT: There are still 37 Kenny Rogers restaurants in business, all, oddly, located in the Philippines.]

After Seinfeld, I guess singers took a hint that there may be quick money to be made in chow.

So after all this research and reminiscing, I left a trail of macaroni poppers, gumbo and chicken bones in my wake, but no answers. What makes a man—this phenomenon seems to be focused pretty heavily on dudes, though Madonna did apparently try to shill her own wine for a while—decide to sell his soul to sell his bowls? I’m no marketing exec, but Billboard Chart success does not instantly translate into microwave meal millions. It’s not like Emiril Legasse is cutting country records or Colonel Sanders ever released a rap mix tape [Wentastic Fact: Though, Corbin, KY’s favorite son did once release a Christmas album].

So I’m sitting at my desk, thinking deeply on the subject of chicken rings and country music sausage and you know what? I don’t care what makes these crooners run to the kitchen. I’m just sad to see them try. Dwight and Smokey, they took a swing at frozen food for some odd reason and I support it. It’s what makes waking up worth it some days. Not that they are actually producing food, which is pretty damn irrelevant at this point, but that there are still surprises in this life.

Information whips through our consciousness so quickly and easily, it’s the little foundsurprises that make me happiest. So bring it on. I might not buy this stuff, but if I ever see Travis Tritt’s Shrimp and Grits, it’ll give me a smile and that’s worth a little failure.

[Wentastic Fact: Dwight lives! Apparently, since writing this, Bakersfield Biscuits has gone back into business with a vengeance. Not only does it have a web site again, but they offer rib sandwiches!)

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