Hotdogger vs. Notdogger

How Kraft Foods kidnapped the farmers’ daughter and how they won her back

Part One — The Church of Kale Loses a Disciple

I could blame our loss on that red plastic whistle and the sappy jingle that promised universal love. Or Lunchables, that brilliant enabler our daughter grew up on in school. Or myself, for choosing to work at the bottom of the food supply chain instead of the top.

Today, however, is Christmas. Peace on Earth. I must set aside my anger as our 21-year-old daughter stands in front of us – a girl once painfully shy, now a young woman beaming with the poise and confidence of a Kraft Food Ambassador ( a.k.a,  an Oscar Mayer Hotdogger).

“I’ve got a little present for everyone,” Alex announced before dinner.

Twenty of us had gathered at my brother-in-law’s upscale Austin home for this annual confluence of family, food and gifts. A Turducken was roasting in the oven while our homegrown kale chips competed with processed snacks. One couple had just returned from China. Another had recently sailed up the East Coast. But it was Alex’s travels through the Mid-West that stole the show. Standing beside the large-as-life flat screen TV, she selected a You Tube video from the menu. Once again, my inescapable nemesis, that ketchup-colored Trojan Horse on wheels, was center stage, sweetening the mouths and memories of its childhood converts.

Everyone, it seems, has wanted to be an Oscar Mayer Wiener.

Yes, even the daughter of an organic farmer could not resist the lure of that most famous marketing icon, that libidinous spectacle known to indiscriminate eaters around the world as the Wienermobile. Call it destiny — “Born to Bun” was her new given name. Or fate – she was one of the chosen 12 plucked from 1,500 college applicants. Or hilarious – and laugh with everyone else who asks what Alex is doing these days.

Just don’t call her a Lucky Dog. Or relish the conceit of joining the “First Family of Fun.” Frankly, I don’t think I can stomach another hotdog pun.

Like Santa himself, Alex had arrived with her bag of Krafty goodies. Perfectly timed to the Oscar Mayer theme song, bright red wiener whistles in various sizes were passed around until suddenly the livingroom was filled with high-pitched toots and giggles. Induction into this Mickey Mouse Club of Cheap Food was completed – the Wienermobile rides, the selfies in front of its curvaceous hood, and now the souvenirs to prove you were a full-blooded, fun-filled American.

Just like the lyrics promised, everyone was in love with our Oscar Mayer daughter.

If Alex was feeling like Saint Nick (albeit riding a 27-foot phallus instead of a sleigh), I was feeling more like Jesus. Not rejected as much as irrelevant in this season of mindless consumption. Nine years earlier, I had abandoned a public health journalism career to pursue the naïve conviction that if I grew organic vegetables, people would flock to our farm to eat them. By going small not big, local not global, our family would join a one-bite-at-a-time revolution that could restore health both to our bodies and our farmland.

I didn’t need a cross to bear. I simply loved to grow vegetables in an era when local food had become the newest religion – the Church of Kale, as someone called it. Having endured years of extreme weather, draconian food policies and Texas-sized resistance to change, I was exhausted and discouraged. I hadn’t failed at farming – far from it – yet all I could see were countless rows to hoe before I slept and so few mouths waiting at the other end.

My wife, Erin, was equally frustrated. We had met when I toiled in a glass tower at CDC’s Atlanta campus while she worked across the street at the American Cancer Society. We were recently divorced and had new jobs as communication specialists, promoting prevention in an economy addicted to quick fixes and expensive treatment. After years immersed in the fight against diseases, we yearned to join the happier side of public health – promoting the good life. Growing vegetables would revive my childhood passion. Growing vegetables in Texas would feed Erin’s need for adventure and reconnecting with family.

Not surprising, our leap into farming was met with shock and indignation. How dare we give up the trophies of middle class success for what seemed little more than peasantry dressed up in Cahart jeans and Red Wing boots? There was envy, too. We were pursuing that most romantic of American dreams – independence and a return to the land and all the wholesomeness it promised. The other take – held by a small handful of supportive friends – was that we were middle-aged Davids, skilled and crazy enough to fight the corporate Goliaths whose appetite for children had turned insatiable.

Few Goliaths were bigger and more cunning than Kraft Foods. Before I left CDC in 2005, Big Food was projected to eclipse tobacco as public health enemy number one. These two addiction-based cultures had converged when Philip Morris bought Kraft in 1983. Yet unlike the link between cigarettes and cancer, the nation’s obesity epidemic seemed to confound CDC epidemiologists. This was the Bush administration, the bio-terrorism era. Politics had infused the agency with caution and timidity at a time when bold action was called for. It was if a fire were burning across the land and CDC was still studying the efficacy of smoke detectors.

Kraft had courted Alex and millions like her long before I became a food activist. Her mother, a single, self-employed family therapist, had grown up in working class Wilkes Barre. Ethnic food prepared with fresh ingredients in cramped hot kitchens was the center of the Pukach family life. The first in her family to attend college, Mary Ellen left those roots when we graduated from college and moved South to start our careers — hers in social work, mine in journalism. In a single generation, the tradition of food as an act of family coherence had disappeared, replaced by convenience and a long shelf life. When Kraft came knocking at her kitchen door, she succumbed. Alex grew up on Lunchables and a steady diet of unregulated television commercials that fed her perception of eating as a mindless act.

During her summers and holidays spent at our Austin farm, Alex was introduced to a new set of standards. Meat from pastured animals. Vegetables with strange names. Conversation spiced with food activism. By the time she entered the University of Texas, Green Gate Farms had become a local beacon of sustainable urban agriculture. The seeds of radical ideas planted during her visits had begun to sprout. Her first part-time job was making videos for the university food services to promote healthier eating options. She helped start the first community garden on campus. Much to my delight, Alex was following my two passions – communications and farming.

Then, by chance, her roommate planted another seed. UT, she said, was one of a dozen colleges where Kraft recruited Hotdoggers. Food and communication — it was as if the jingle and brand she grew up with had followed her to Austin. And now Kraft was offering her what Green Gate never could, “a job with all the fixings.” Travel, salary, benefits, social media, and instant recognition.

“Are you willing to see the world through the windshield of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile?” the job posting asked. For a college senior saddled with college debt and loyal to the brand, the answer was a no-brainer.

“Just like the thousands of other kids of my generation, I grew up on Lunchables,” began Alex’s cover letter. “And I continue to be a loyal customer of Oscar Mayer. What sets me apart is that I know hotdogs from the ground up. Not many people can say they have raised a pig from birth. Twinkle Toes was abandoned at birth, and I became her new mother.”

Sitting in the livingroom that Christmas, I felt the weight of countless farmers before me as they watched their children abandon the farm for fortune, fame, or simply an escape from mud and manure. The farm-to-table movement had diverted a trickle of middle-class youngsters in our direction, but the offspring of real farmers knew the dirty secret: once the novelty wore off, what grew in its place were calluses to peel, endless weeds to pull and countless mouths to feed. And, oh, one more thing — very little money to count.

What, then, was the dirty secret behind the mass appeal of Kraft and its legions of Hot Dog High graduates? What was the special ingredient of the lowly frankfurter beyond the whistle and a buff hotrod with nice buns? And how might our kale ever compete for the attention of our nation’s under-informed and over-nourished consumers?

Surely the answer was out there. But where? The ambitious young woman standing before me might offer a clue. She had literally climbed inside the belly of the beast – a smartphone in one hand, steering wheel in the other. Yet Kraft had tied them both. Not only had they scripted every move and message, but they made Hotdoggers sign a gag clause. Alex would have to wait seven years before she could share her experience publicly.

Tentatively, I put my mouth to the whistle she had placed in the palm of my cracked and dirtied hand. It felt cheap and hollow. How could I blow life into this plastic toy that represented everything I fought against? For Alex, for the proud dad I was, I smiled and made that whistle sing. Tomorrow I would confront the painful truth: Kraft had kidnapped my daughter – for a song — and all the kale in the world couldn’t win her back.