Twinkie terror

Monday , November 26, 2012 - 12:21 PM

Neal Humphrey

I’m not a fan of Twinkies mostly because I prefer to consume my empty calories in the form of sudsy fermented beverages. In fact, I don’t recall the last time I ate a Twinkie — I guess it’s been years. But I adored the snack food when I was a child so the news of the recent threat to this iconic food caused me to experience a slight a tickle of Twinkie terror.

Twinkies have been around since 1930. Continental Bakeries used to make a strawberry compote filled sponge cake called Hostess Little Shortbread Fingers. But the snack was a seasonal product dependent upon having fresh fruit available. So, in the best tradition of capitalistic innovation, a new product was developed to keep the idle equipment (and workers) in service. That product was called the Twinkie but it had a banana cream filling in those days.

The popular snack almost died a dozen years later during a World War II banana shortage. But another spurt of creativity caused the development of the familiar cream filling and an iconic and controversial American junk food was born.

As foods go, the Twinkie is both lightly flavored and textured. There isn’t much in a Twinkie not to like. Still, a bland mouthful of Twinkie is hardly going to dance across the palate in a frenzy of transcendence.

Do Twinkies have value? Well, they have enough value that bribery charges were filed in 1985 against a candidate for city council in Minneapolis because he gave Twinkies away to potential voters. That metropolis now has The Twinkie Law to bolster its campaign finance statutes against further suborning voters with junk food.

The most famous instance of Twinkie misuse, of course, was the infamous "Twinkie Defense" in 1979 that blamed junk food for the homicidal rage of San Francisco Supervisor Dan White when he gunned down Mayor George Moscone and fellow supervisor, Harvey Milk. White’s attorney, Doug Schmidt, later proved that blaming Twinkies was due to pernicious media reporting because only Ho Hos and Ding Dongs were specifically mentioned in testimony.

In one of those bizarre coincidences that cause you to just shake your head, a week before we heard the news that the Twinkie might be terminated, Dr. Martin Blinder, the psychiatrist who presented testimony attributing White’s erratic behavior to junk food and soda, was stabbed by an enraged ex-wife.

The sturdy Twinkie survived all this opprobrium but is now at risk.

Hostess simply isn’t making money. There’s plenty of blame to go around, depending on your point of view.

Corporate executives have obviously been focused more on raking off profits for personal enrichment rather than business development. Capitalism works when profits are sufficient for keeping a company competitive with hiring good people and maintaining production with upgraded equipment and marketing.

However, an unprofitable Hostess has been plagued by junk financing through private equity and hedge funds. The baker’s union became intransigent, accusing overpaid paid executives of looting the company. Management has accused unions of sabotaging any hope of recovery.

One would think that a bunch of people who made a living baking would know when there wasn’t enough pie left to slice up.

Of course, the real culprit is you.

Americans aren’t eating enough Twinkies or other Hostess snack products. With Hostess’ market share flat or declining, the inevitable increased costs of producing empty calories set up a collision course with financial reality.

I agree with the experts who believe the Twinkie and other worthy Hostess concoctions will survive. To repeat the previous metaphor, the snack cake will merely be produced by the next company that buys the piece of the Hostess pie that serves the Twinkie. The sponge cake has such a reputation for durability and shelf life that they could be baked, packaged and shipped from either Timbuktu or even Panguitch.

Twinkie lovers may even find hope in the parabola of actor Nicholas Cage in his role as the Ghost Rider, Johnny Blaze, who annihilates just about everything he touches. The only thing that survives contact with the destroying angel is the durable Twinkie.

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