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Death at Double X Ranch

September 23, 2014

“Uh… Raunch”
~Holly Martins

I suppose congratulations is due to the Clorox company. While I worked with this West Coast based consumer packaged goods manufacturer for a few years during my advertising days, I never worked on their Hidden Valley Ranch business.

Man. This has got to be a marketing case study somewhere, because kids today seem to have gone apeshit for the stuff. It’s being served with wings, drizzled over pizzas, spread onto sandwiches, and I’ve even seen it on a hot dog.

Me? I can’t run away fast enough from the squeeze bottles, packets, and little plastic cups filled with this gelatinous white goo, bespeckled with flecks of dust that resemble seasonings. Honestly, I can’t even see what people could find appealing about this once great dressing.

Yes. Once great.

Creamy buttermilk dressing isn’t inherently disgusting. Of course, real buttermilk isn’t easy to come by, but take that tangy byproduct of the the butter making process, combine it with a healthy slug of sour cream, smooth it out with a scant spoonful of homemade mayonnaise, flavor it with some herbs and other fresh seasonings, and now we’re talking about something special.

Here’s a recipe you may be interested in trying out.

But the stuff that comes off the unrefrigerated supermarket shelves? It’s mostly soybean oil and water. Some are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. Buttermilk may be added as an afterthought. All mass market brands have added flavor, and it’s really immaterial whether that lab-made flavor is extracted from natural sources or synthetic ones. It’s likely the same chemical compound, regardless.

We haven’t even touched on the thickeners, gums, preservatives, and all the other unpronounceable ingredients that litter the label.

What pours out is a poor imitation of an American classic. It’s sweet. It’s gloppy. It’s oily. It’s tangy. And it’s totally beloved by millions of college students.

How? Why? Where did we go wrong?

Was it the school lunch program where industrially produced packaged foods are the growing norm? Or was it even before that, when desperate parents allowed their kids to slurp up the stuff with abandon if it meant Timmy would actually eat broccoli without a fight?

Perhaps Clorox executed some brilliant marketing campaign aimed at the youth of America that I totally missed. I don’t understand Miley Cyrus and all of those giant dancing bears, so maybe they are complicit in all of this. Okay, I suppose that last part is unlikely.

Hopefully I’ll figure all of this out soon, because somehow last night unbeknownst to me, I inadvertently entered a contest and won. The prize has something to do with ranch dressing and maybe chicken nuggets? I don’t know. All I do know is that I’m totally out of my element, and getting older by the day.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Aaron M permalink
    September 23, 2014 9:45 am

    I recall an article in New Yorker food issue from a few years back that talked about the origins of Ranch dressing. Short version, if I’m recalling correctly, is that in trying to make a product that was shelf stable the food chemists could not get the flavors right–could not get it to taste like ‘real’ ranch dressing. Then they realized that since almost no one new what real ranch dressing was, it didn’t matter if it tasted authentic or not. So mass produced ranch is its own thing with its own flavor and texture. Maybe someone with access to New Yorker archives can dig up the original article.

    • -R. permalink
      September 23, 2014 10:13 am

      Excellent point – if there’s no point of reference or paradigm for actual “ranch” then food scientists can create anything they wish and hang an appropriate label on it. But it’s all rather insidious, isn’t it? By producing a product purposely in tune with the dynamics of the American palate (more fat, more salt, sweeter) the companies who produce this dross can constantly fine-tune the levels of sweet, salt, fat, umami, etc in their products in a slowly evolving manner that reflects the current flavor desires of the public. Not to be too conspiratorial, but would a bottle of ranch produced by, say, Hidden Valley 20 years ago taste the same as one rolling off the line today (providing for lack of spoilage, freshness, etc)? I would speculate that it would not. And of course, that’s the beauty of these constantly mutating products – they are both substantial, yet ephemeral by their very nature.

  2. September 23, 2014 11:42 am

    Here’s a recipe that captures the key flavor notes but at a much lower fat/calorie level:

    The Hidden Valley website is worth a gander, by the way. The brand extensions will make you weep, and not for joy.

  3. September 23, 2014 11:47 am

    By the way, “authentic” Hidden Valley style dressing contains MSG. It’s missing in the Huffpost recipe you linked to.

  4. September 23, 2014 12:40 pm

    Our kids eat raw veggies with nothing on it, but they favor a dressing on their salad greens. We keep it simple balsamic olive oil and I make “green sauce” (pesto like) with herbs and greens, olive oil, lemon juice, nuts, sometimes cheese. The other is the “white sauce” sour cream, buttermilk, mayo, smoked paprika, vinegar, and herbs. I cooked at my church camp this past summer and I was surprised by the amount of “ranch dressing” was used on a daily bases. I think, I hope, it goes back to us spending time educating and eating more seasonal foods that has amazing taste and complex flavors (5 tastes) to combat our addition to artificial flavors. It is not easy. I have two kids and I think they are pretty open to new foods and flavors since I am Brazilian and my husband Russian and we cook all kinds of foods at home. Still, our kids do better eating their vegetable around the family table. I usually send one veggie on their lunch boxes and often comes back. They say they did not have time to eat at school… that’s another topic, right?!

  5. September 23, 2014 5:17 pm


    The change in the school lunches came about with the 1981 federal budget where then President Reagan made cuts across the board which included cutting 1.46 Billion from the Child Nutrition Budget This lead to schools getting rid of their cooking equipment and turning to the food industry to provide ready to heat/eat food that was cheap and simple and that’s just what the prepackaged foods industry did. In 2006 %80 pf schools operated with exclusive contracts with soft drink manufacturers like Coca-Cola and Pepsi. By 2012 over half of all US School districts were serving fast food and by that I don’t mean quickly prepared foods I mean brand name fast food like McDonalds, Pizza Hut and so on. This problem has been made worse via the schools addiction to the money they get from these deals with the food & beverage industry.

    In 2010 President Obama Signed the Healthy Hungry Free Kids Act that authorized the FDA to come up with new standards for the federally funded school lunch program in an effort to make it healthier which had the potential effect of eliminating Pizza from the lunch menu. Schwann Food Company which at the time had %70 of the market (for school lunch pizza) stepped in and fought back by having its representative in DC, Amy Klobuchar, a Senator from Minnesota, and she wrote a letter to the department of Agriculture. The results of this was that pizza was declared a vegetable and thus was safe from being eliminated from lunch menus via new food standards. I used to think these politicians in DC were supposed to work for the people that elected them but I now see they work for those who make the largest donations to their campaigns.

    Unlike real food including the food that schools used to serve when they made/cooked the food and did not just reheat it, these newer processed foods are high in sugars and these sugars have calories that are not processed by our bodies they way real food is. When you eat real food like a handful of almonds, the sugar in those is accompanied by fiber. This fiber causes the calories to be slowly absorbed by the system. Processed food with sugar does not contain these natural fibers and so when you eat them the sugar is immediately converted to fat. Not all calories are the same even when they are from the same base product.

    The lunches served to kids today are not about nutrition and health; they are about but marketing, brand recognition (to create future customers) and sales. This push of processed foods for school lunches has greatly contributed to the obesity epidemic in America and these food giants are well aware of what’s going on but they are far too powerful to be stooped now that our representatives in government no longer work for us.

    If you want to learn the whole story about whats going on with food check out the documentary FED UP. After watching it I changed my eating habits and was able to loose over 20lbs and 2 waist sizes. Thus was just by changing what I ate and not how much or when.

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