Twinkies, Part Deux

My previous article, which indulged in bit of nostalgia about grade school lunches, missed much of the actual drama that put Hostess, the maker of Twinkies, Ho-Ho’s, and Ding Dongs, on the ropes.

It isn’t quite over .  A USA Today article by Kevin McCoy reports that Hostess management and the baker’s union are meeting for mediation today, delaying the company’s second bankruptcy filing in less than a decade

The maker of popular snack foods has a billion dollars in debt, which it blames on an “inflated cost structure,” largely as a result of labor contracts.  The union contends the problem is years of mismanagement.  An outside financial analyst found that problems included, “years of underinvestment in products, facilities and equipment, long-term neglect of once-dominant brands and hollowing-out of a distribution system that once provided a competitive advantage,”

Bruce Maiman, a local contributor to the Sacramento Bee, interviewed workers striking at the local Hostess bakery who say their hourly wage and pensions are lower than other bakers like Oroweat and Sara Lee  Maiman lists a string of gaffes by a management led by six different CEO’s in ten years.

Local workers claim that rather than replacing outdated equipment, money was recently spent to replace windows and paint the lunchroom, locker room, and floors.  “They want it to look pretty so they can sell it,” says the head of the local baker’s union.

Selling assets may well be the outcome.  US Bankruptcy Trustee, Tracy Hope Davis, joined the union in arguing against management’s current shutdown plans – which among other things, would grant them large bonuses.  Davis favors Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which would liquidate assets according to US Bankruptcy Code priorities.

In other words, Twinkies may survive, so we’re better off waiting before spending $5,000, the going rate for a Twinkie on eBay.  This, says Bruce Maiman, just goes to show that “as long as human beings exist, the planet will never run out of Twinkies or nitwits.”   

Remembering an icon

When I was in grade school, the lucky kids had Hostess snack foods in their lunch. I remember one guy who would shove an entire Twinkie into mouth, partly to gross out the girls and partly to gloat over those whose mothers, like mine, packed boring things like carrots and celery.

Once I got to junior high, with its snack bar window, I could indulge, and that was when I made a terrible discovery – Twinkies just weren’t that good.  Oblivious to the dangers of breaking a filling, I generally spent my pocket money on corn nuts instead.  And yet, I will miss Hostess.  Not just because the cupcakes are good, and you gotta love any snack food called “Ding Dongs.”  Not just because the local Hostess bakery will close and thousands of people around the country will lose their jobs.

There’s something endearing about the little gold icon, an image of youth, when there were do-overs in terms of diet and teeth and most other things.  I would also argue that the same font of creativity that brought us Twinkies and Elvis impersonators brought us microchips and iPhones as well.  Say it loud and say it proud:  “Only in America!”

Hostess cared about its customers!  I remember hearing on NPR’s Science Friday that the company conducted experiments to determine how long you could safely nuke a Twinkie.  Seems that many enjoyed warming their Twinkies, but when left in the microwave too long, they would explode.  After careful research, Hostess reported that 60 seconds or less was generally safe.

The reputation of Twinkies was forever tarnished by the notorious “Twinkie defense” used in a sensational murder trial in 1978.  On November 27, disgruntled San Francisco City Supervisor, Dan White, climbed into City Hall through a first floor window, circumventing the newly installed metal detectors.  He carried a pistol and fatally shot Mayor George Moscone and fellow Supervisor, Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man ever elected to California public office.

At the trial, White’s defense attorneys argued diminished capacity resulting from depression and a steady diet of junk food, most notably Twinkies.  In what is widely regarded as a great miscarriage of justice, the jury found White guilty of manslaughter rather than first degree murder.  After serving five years of a seven year sentence, White – “the most hated man in San Francisco history,” according to the Chronicle – committed suicide.

None of this was the fault of Twinkies, and yet the growing awareness surrounding the trial, that sugary snacks, like cigarettes, might not be in our best interests helped doom the little “Golden Sponge Cake with Creamy Filling.”  I gotta confess, I long ago joined the bran muffin crowd.  I munch on carrots voluntarily now.

Twinkies were the brainchild of James A. Dewar of the Continental Baking Company, makers of Wonder Bread and the Hostess line of snack foods.  Machines used to make cream-filled strawberry shortcakes were idle when strawberries were out of season, so in 1933, Dewar used them to make banana cream filled snacks which sold, two for a nickel.  During WWII, when bananas were rationed, Hostess switched to vanilla creme, a move so popular they never went back.

Twinkies popularity grew in the 1950’s when Hostess sponsored the Howdy Doody Show. During the nuclear scare of the ’60’s, Twinkies were stored in bomb shelters, because according to Hostess, they “stay fresh forever.”  If Twinkies are as iconic of my generation as Howdy Doody, it’s also true that now we worry more about preservatives than thermonuclear war.

So long, little guy, and happy trails! Someday, enterprising history students will rediscover you in the course of their doctoral research in 20th century popular culture. They will come to know, as we do, that there are worse ways to meet the challenges of life than with a smile on your face and a golden bread-thing in your hand!