Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Twinkies 2012

Audio mp3 file / podcast

The end of time happened for Twinkies in November 2012, and I took it as a harbinger of larger and gooier apocalypses to come.

It’s sad that Hostess bakeries went bankrupt. How many of my childhood and teenage memories revolve around Hostess Zingers, Cupcakes, and the Little Debbie crème-filled oatmeal cookies?

The packaging was perfect. With logos and designs virtually unchanged from the 60s, it was almost impossible to look at the food packaging without having flash memories of earlier times. They had a Mother Goose, "And the Dish ran away with the Spoon" feeling; cupcakes with toothpick legs in motion, and little cakes with tiny stick arms.

The pastries themselves upped the kitsch ante, with their sweet, jarring frostings and heavy, bland, spongy cakes. I loved them. But, I bear in mind I also had a wall-sized DayGlo poster of Snoopy doing a happy dance on the wall in my room at my family's cabin in Vermont.

Like all "good" kitsch, Hostess products were all about consumer culture. But, I wasn't worried about that as a 16-year-old swimmer on the swim team (all heart and no talent), I stopped by Sterr’s grocery store after school and to buy myself a satisfying snack to eat on the way home before practice.  Zingers and Vienna sausages were perfect. My mother, the organic food purist, would have been horrified.  I liked the way you could peel the frosting from Zingers and cupcakes and roll it up to make a coiled tube frosting confection you could pop in your mouth for pure sweet joy. You could even coil the frosting around the Vienna sausage. Yum? Yuk? You decide.

Twinkies 2012. It coincides the end of time with the Mayan calendar.  Love the sound of it: Twinkies Twenty-Twelve…. But… what’s going on?

Ding-Dong, Apocalypse Calling.  (Okay, that was too cute.)

But seriously, Twinkies should be apocalypse-proof.

After all, didn’t someone put a box of Twinkies in a time capsule, and when they opened it a year later, the contents were completely intact? That may be an urban legend. I don’t know.

People like to blame the obesity epidemic on Twinkies. But, Twinkies were around in the 1930s, and there was no obesity epidemic then, at least not in Depression and post WWII-era America.

Plus, Twinkies aficionados have complained for a few years now about the “miniaturization” of Hostess products, which makes me think it was a failed Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle solution to the public health crisis. “You may eat what you want! It’s all about portion control!” I can imagine her burbling in her 1950s cheerio voice and “well, of course, BooBoo, you can do it!” attitude.

If Twinkies have shrunk from the size of a Coney Island hot dog bun, to roughly the equivalent of the teeny-tiny bread wrapper for a Vienna sausage, well, that’s just sad.

With their petite size, Twinkies should be getting awards for their role in the fight against obesity.

The same goes for Little Debbie.  While individually wrapped cookies have gone gourmet, and weigh in at around a half-pound apiece, and their nutrition label suggests that there are 6 – 8 servings per cookie, Little Debbie classics – the crème-filled oatmeal cookies – have miniaturized. Once the size of a McDonald’s quarter-pounder hamburger pattie, the cookies are now somewhat larger than old-school silver dollars.

For me, it’s criminal that a “vegan” peanut butter cookie would be considered “good” for you with 1200 calories per cookie (but you’re supposed to break it into 6 equal chunks and share with your buddies – who does that?  No one, of course.), while Little Debbie is cast as “junk food” perhaps even bearing trans-fat (which it does not have). No one mentions that a Little Debbie cookie “miniature” weighs in at less than a hundred calories.

The vegan snack is infinitely worse for you than a Little Debbie oatmeal crème cookie, and even a pair of Twinkies.

But, well, perception matters more than reality, so here we are.

The message is that Baby Boomer comfort food is bankrupt. By extension, are Baby Boomers themselves bankrupt? Not fiscally, but morally, ethically, and stylistically?

I’m not sure I’d go that far. After all, Twinkies are the great equalizer, the great democratizer.

If anything, I’d say that the demise of Twinkies suggests the demise of the tools of democratization and inclusion. After all, everyone loved Twinkies. Or, at least they did around 20 years ago.

The Twinkies (miniaturized as they are) and Twinkies alternatives we’re stuck with now are socially and politically divisive: either you buy your snack food at a vegan Whole Foods-type upscale establishment, and pay $5 or so for a single snack, or you go to the other end of the spectrum, and go to Dollar Days stores to buy a expiration date-crowding box of snacks featuring misspelled labeling and deliberately obfuscating ingredient lists, along with goofy graphics and a creepy suspicion that the snacks are sweet due to propylene glycol, and not high-quality cane sugar or even corn syrup…

I don’t know why or how Hostess leadership blew it, but I have to say that I’m not happy with them.

My feeling is that this apocalypse could have been averted.

That simple conviction makes me think that most, perhaps even all, commercial apocalypses could have been (or can be) avoided.

That said, I have been just tragically too riddled with nostalgic grief to work through my shock-paralysis. I failed to do what I should have, and scoop up all the Twinkies I could at Homeland, the employee-owned grocery store that now occupies the land where the family-owned Sterr’s used to combine grocery store with a comfort-food deli, bakery, and, when the season was upon us, Christmas trees and Santa’s Workshop.

What do we do now?

For once in my life, I don’t have the slightest idea. Is it possible to rescue a brand that rests on little more than nostalgia these days? And, is it possible to rescue a brand that has great sales, but just too much overhead, thanks to generous pensions, labor contracts, and transportation arrangements?

This is the time to share your thoughts. Do it before it’s too late.

The end of time has not established itself as an absolute – at least not now…