By Gilbert Garcia
Early in his career, Dwight Yoakam informed us that guitars, Cadillacs, and hillbilly music were the only things he needed to get by. Nearly two decades later, you could add chicken fries, buffalo bites, and boom-boom shrimp to that formidable shopping list.
In recent years, Yoakam - with the marketing and distribution help of Modern Foods - has emerged as an unlikely frozen-food tycoon, with a successful line of products collectively known as Dwight Yoakam's Bakersfield Biscuits. Two months ago, his presence in the local marketplace increased dramatically, when H-E-B stores joined Wal-Mart Supercenters as carriers of his products.
While Yoakam's dead-serious commitment to artistic integrity would seem to be at odds with his decision to moonlight as a food entrepreneur, upon closer inspection, the move makes some sense. Yoakam, more than any other performer to emerge in the '80s, attempted to return country music to its homespun, honky-tonk roots. And that tradition has always included room for a little bit of culinary product endorsement.
Jimmy Dean started as a journeyman country singer, and went on to become America's sausage king; Minnie Pearl hawked fried chicken; Tanya Tucker had her own line of salsa; George Jones recently got into the sausage game; and Tracy Byrd markets an array of sauces and spices. The most ambitious such food venture came from bearded country balladeer Kenny Rogers, who took his rotisserie-chicken expertise nationwide in the early '90s with a chain of Kenny Rogers Roasters restaurants. At its peak, the franchise included 350 restaurants, before a business slump resulted in a "restructuring" (that means downsizing to you and me) and eventual sale of the company.
For his Bakersfield Biscuits, Yoakam hooked up with John Marburger, a businessman whose previous company, Marburger Foods, branded itself "the world's largest independent manufacturer of pre-cooked bacon products." In 2000, Marburger sold that company to Armour/Swift-Eckrich, and started from scratch with Modern Foods, a business devoted to developing and marketing celebrity-endorsed foods to stores.
Yoakam's chicken fries, the original product in his food line, remain its defining creation. Breaded strips of chicken breast with rib meat, packaged in the shape of french fries, the chicken fries require five to 10 minutes of heating in the oven, or 75 seconds in the microwave. They come 34 to a package, and five or six make for a pleasant appetizer, but they're not quite the hearty meal that Modern Foods' publicity hype would have you believe.
Last July, Yoakam added Chicken Lickin's Buffalo Style Bites to his breaded arsenal. Small pieces of boneless, precooked chicken, peppered with a blend of spices, these snacks offer more of a flavorful kick than the chicken fries, and are a preferable option for Yoakam fans who insist on sampling his dietary delights.
"It's a chicken lickin' way to have all the fun of buffalo wings ... with none of the bones," Yoakam was quoted as saying in a Modern Foods press release last year.
Just as Yoakam owes much of his musical inspiration to his mentor Buck Owens, he can also cite Owens as the catalyst behind his food products. Years ago, Owens opened a restaurant, Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, in Bakersfield, California, with a menu that includes homages to Owens (Buckinini's Pizza), his best-remembered sideman (Don Rich Special), and his most famous protege (Dwight Yoakam's Baby-Back Ribs). For the restaurant's opening night, Yoakam whipped up some of his vaunted biscuits smothered in gravy. The response was so positive, he decided to take a stab at marketing his recipes.
The danger with such a venture is that Yoakam, who arrived on the musical scene with a particularly earnest drive to be taken seriously, might eventually be regarded as a chicken-fries salesman who plays music on the side. That might explain why he's keeping his nose clear of the retail details, and letting Modern Foods do all the planning.
Yoakam is generally a man of few words, and he's been pretty tight-lipped about his culinary exploits (even feeling compelled to invent a satirical, fictional history for his food line on his official website). In his own way, though, he always gets to the crux of the issue. In last year's Modern Foods press release, he told consumers everything they needed to know about his batch of frozen foods: "Just heat 'em and eat 'em." •