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How My Career as a Poet Was Killed by Kraft Macaroni & Cheese
My older brother has pursued a successful career as a poet—which sounds like the opening line of a joke, but it’s actually true in his case. He’s made quite a mark in the field, with honors that include a stint as Poet Laureate of California, and a shelf filled with medals, trophies, and crinkly parchment certificates.
Under different circumstances, I might have tried to pursue the same vocation, just as my brother Dana briefly considered a music career. But sometimes it’s best for siblings to take different routes. In any event, I chose jazz instead of poetry.
I’m still not sure which of those two vocations is the frying pan, making the other (by process of elimination) the fire. You can get burned and fried in either job. But at least the drinks are better at the jazz club.
Even so, in the idle days of my youth I did write poetry. What moody teenager doesn’t jot down a few angst-ridden lines now and again?
But at age 20, my aspirations to poetic achievement were killed—by Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.
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The story is true, as strange as it sounds.
In 1978, Kraft announced a writing contest to promote its famous brand of mac and cheese. I learned about it one day while lounging in my pajamas in the kitchen of my parents’ off-the-grid home on a dirt road in Sonoma county.
On this momentous day, my mother—who made it her mission to encourage every male member of the household to increase their income-producing activities—threw a magazine in front of me. As it hit the formica tabletop, she announced: “If you think you’re such a great writer, mister smarty-pants, prove it by winning this contest.”
I put down my copy of Civilization and Its Discontents, and stared at the glossy magazine in front of me. It was one of those disgraceful periodicals displayed near the checkout counter at nearby Fircrest Market.
The magazine was opened to this advertisement:
The proposition was straightforward and irresistible. All I needed to do was write 25 words on why I like Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. And then I win a new car.
What could be simpler?
Of course, I had to write something better than any other contestant. But I had confidence in my writing chops. After all, I had been co-editor of my college literary magazine and had written a few extremely hip music reviews for the school paper—so I felt ready to go toe-to-toe with the best.
There was one tiny problem, however. I hate Kraft mac & cheese. I never eat the stuff.
But that might even be an advantage, I told myself. I could do objective market research, and come up with a more accurate assessment of the food’s features and benefits. Then I would make sure to list every one of them in my 25-word summary.
For the next few days, I surprised all our family friends and neighbors—who were puzzled when I started every conversation by asking about mac & cheese. Like a focus group moderator on speed, I probed and hairsplitted all of their reactions to this yellow glutinous menace from dairyland.
Eventually I came up with an exhaustive list of product benefits—at least according to my informants (a fancy word I learned in my anthropology class). They told me:
You can force your kids to eat it, instead of something more expensive.
It clearly doesn’t kill the little buggers, maybe it’s even healthy for them. At least we tell them that.
It’s easy to cook. All you need to do is boil water and dump in the ingredients.
It’s fast too—you can get it ready during the TV commercials without missing a tawdry detail from your favorite soap opera.
With some ardent brainwashing, you can even convince the kids that they like the taste of the stuff.
I now had a fairly complete grasp of the proverbial selling proposition. At this point, you might think that all I needed to do was summarize these findings in 25 words or less.
But you are seriously underestimating me.
I decided that I would take all of these features and incorporate them in a dazzling poem, employing the same complicated dactylic meter Robert Browning showcased in his masterful “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix.”
This is a famous poem of virtuosic construction where you can actually hear the hoofbeats of the horses in the impulsive lines. Here’s the opening of the poem:
I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;
”Good speed!'“ cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
”Speed!” echoed the wall to us galloping through;
Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest,
And into the midnight we galloped abreast. . . .
My plan was to do the same thing—except that my subject would be mac and cheese.
I must add that this was well beyond the requirements for the contest. The rules said you needed to write 25 words, but made no mention of rhyme and meter, and certainly said nothing about Robert Browning. These were just added constraints I put on myself—in order to dazzle the judges and win that shiny new car.
I labored over each phoneme and morpheme of my entry, until it was finally ready. And when I was finished, I had something special.
Here is the entry I submitted:
I LIKE KRAFT MACARONI AND CHEESE BECAUSE. . .
it’s my favorite dish, it’s
when I’m on the run, in seconds it’s done
so easy to do.
the kids love it too.
Savor the brilliance of this, my friends. Note the lilting and sophisticated meter. Admire the internal rhymes: three in just the first seven words of the entry—and they’re complicated two-syllable feminine rhymes. Then take full measure of the radical (but pleasing) enjambment at the close of line one.
But there’s more sublime rhyme to come in time, including a doozy with a firm Anglo-Saxon caesura preceding the formidable closing phrase, with its maternal, cross-generational appeal. And don’t forget the marketing concision here. If you count the product features enumerated, you will find six separate platitudes in just five lines.
For good measure, I used all lowercase letters, just like E.E. Cummings. Uh, excuse me—just like e e cummings. This imparted a sly, avant-garde quality to the work, perfectly suited not only for winning a magazine contest, but also anthologization and assigned reading in MFA programs.
But, finally, I urge you to count the words. You will see that there are exactly 25 of them.
The folks at Kraft didn’t deserve something so swell.
I briefly considered ignoring the contest, and sending this little gem to The Paris Review or The New Yorker—both of which had been consistently rejecting my regular submissions. This paean to mac and cheese would definitely catch their attention, no?
But there was an automobile as stake, and I desperately needed wheels. I didn’t know what The Paris Review paid for a poem, but I was pretty sure it was a lot less than a $10,000 car. So I carefully typed up my entry, and sent it off to Kraft Foods, P.O Box 22, New York, New York, 10046.
Then I started visiting car dealerships.
What can you show me in a ten thousand dollar price range? Oh, it feels so good to be twenty years old and saying those words. And it was amazing how this simple question seemed to galvanize the attention of even the seediest looking car sales rep. That furtive hangover look disappeared immediately, and I was escorted to the high-end models in the showroom.
You have no idea what kind of fiery beast ten grand got you back then. You could take ownership of many fine autos for less than half that princely sum in those days. With the Kraft company’s generous upper limit I could buy something that would turn me into a total chick magnet.
I gradually narrowed my choices to a handful of garish devils with oversized internal organs—they fell under the rubric of what was then called a muscle car. (Do they still use that term?)
The one thing that never occurred to me was that somebody else would win that new automobile. After all, who else would even come close to my rhapsodic tribute to Kraft’s inedible swill?
But week after week went by, and I never received that much anticipated phone call from New York. Mom started making sarcastic remarks (which was her bardic skill). Hey, mister smarty-pants, when are you going to take us for a ride in your swell new car? Even worse, she kept prodding me to get a part-time job—and to placate her I actually went to interview for a position selling kitchenware door-to-door for a noxious pyramid scheme.
They even offered me the job. The truth was they offered everyone a job, just to see who was dumb enough to work for their meager commissions. They were even less selective than the Selective Service, which takes some doing. But door-to-door labor was just too much of a bummer—a useful word in that era, applicable to almost anything unpleasant, disagreeable, or merely uncool. So I declined, and kept mom at bay with confident predictions about my imminent appearance behind the wheel of a large automobile.
Eventually, after days of dispirited waiting, I called up Kraft headquarters, and asked about the status of my entry. I got bounced around from phone to phone, until I finally found someone authorized to talk about the competition.
To my utter disbelief, this company rep told me that it was done. Over. Finished. The judges had made their decision, and given the car to a housewife from La Crosse, Wisconsin.
“But what about the other prizes,” I sputtered. “Second place got a TV. And third place got a Kodak movie camera . . .”
“I’m sorry, but if you haven’t heard from us by now, that means you aren’t a winner.’
“Wait, wait—there were a thousand cookware sets given out as consolation prizes. I must have won at least those lousy pots and pans. . . “
But, as it turned out, I got the big goose egg. Nothing. A big hole in the ground halfway between the cities of Zip and Zilch.
I was sorely disappointed—but I blamed the philistines at Kraft Foods, who clearly didn’t know quality when they saw it. It now made perfect sense why their macaroni and cheese was so unpalatable. These folks had no taste, literary or culinary or of any other denomination.
But there was at least one benefit to this unfortunate turn of events. In a world in which such things happened, I knew that poetry was not a dependable career. If I’d won that car I’d probably still be churning out sorry sonnets today, and living on Kraft processed foods.
Jazz was looking better all the time, and I started practicing with more fervor than I’d mustered in months.
Every so often, my mother would pass by the family piano, and offer a few words of encouragement. Keep working on those scales, mister smarty-pants, and maybe someday it will bring in a little bit of cash income. Or is that too much to expect?