Thursday, February 5, 2009

What did they do to my old Sailor Boy pilot bread label?

CHANGE: Buy product and help young Alaskans get books.

Inspect a box of Sailor Boy pilot bread crackers on grocery shelves in March and you'll note something different. In addition to the smirking cartoon sailor on the familiar navy blue background, the package will carry the logo of First Book, a group that gives books to young Alaskans.

The slight -- and temporary -- redesign includes an invitation for cracker crunchers to "help share the magic of reading."

One side of the container will carry the full pitch for the "Feeding Hungry Minds" campaign. For every "limited edition" box of Sailor Boy sold during March, 50 cents will be donated to First Book "to provide new books to children in need throughout Alaska."

There's nothing unique about the fundraiser: Food companies often partner with charities. Nor is there anything fancy about the announcement itself, which is block blue letters in a big white rectangle.

But pilot bread glories in its plainness. Made from flour and shortening and almost nothing else, the commercial version of hardtack has long been a staple throughout rural Alaska precisely because it lacks any flavor that might offend (some would say any flavor whatsoever) and because it's just about impossible for it to go bad.

Left in a remote and seldom-tended cabin, it will taste the same season after season. Toss it in the bow of a boat where moisture melts or rots anything that's not in a can and it will remain chewable. Dry it out after dropping it in a lake and it miraculously resumes the same tough texture and taste that it had when you first took it out of the box.

No, the news is that there is any change, however slight, in the design of the classic, old-fashioned cardboard packaging. (No change in the recipe: Connoisseurs can relax.) Jeff Poirier of Interbake Foods, which produces the crackers in Virginia, says it's the first time the product has been involved with this kind of promotion.

Maybe that's because, while Sailor Boy has been a fixture in Alaska kitchens for generations, it's little-known anywhere else. An overwhelming 98 percent of the company's pilot crackers are sold and consumed in Alaska.

Last year Karen Jenkins, chair of Anchorage's First Book program, was strolling through a grocery store trying to think of a way to raise funds and promote First Book's new Rural Alaska arm. Her eyes lit on the Sailor Boy display and she got the idea of calling the company.

It was a long shot, but it paid off. Interbake "loved the idea," she said. She followed up by sending her proposal to First Book's national office along with a box of pilot bread, "because they had no idea what I was talking about."

March was selected for the promotion because "that month is big in literacy," with Dr. Seuss' Birthday, Read Across America day and the Anchorage School District's Iditaread. A "launch event" is planned for March 5 at the Costco on DeBarr Road.

Feeding Hungry Minds funds will go to First Book advisory boards throughout Alaska. A majority of the money will support programs in rural Alaska. Jenkins said the group believes that, in many quarters, lack of access to books squelches love of reading and, hence, literacy.

With the promotion, First Book is sponsoring a contest for students to send self-produced videos weaving pilot bread into a favorite story. For instance, the organizers suggest, substituting pilot bread for porridge in "Goldilocks and the Three Bears."

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