Saturday, November 17, 2012

Hostess, a love story...

I have never eaten a Twinkie.

Or a Snoball.

Or a Ding-Dong.

In this age of American excess—where obesity is fast becoming the norm and cancer clusters crop up like dandelions—Twinkies, and other associated products, have become a symbol of a bygone age. When calories went uncounted and no one bothered to read the ingredients.

While other companies updated their classic recipes with varying degrees of success (new Coke anyone?) Twinkies have remained largely the same. Sold in crinkly packaging with a heart on the front. What little change has occurred has been in the form of product diversification (100 Calorie Twinkie Bites! The same chemically dependent formula—now smaller—with the calorie count on the bag!)

Twinkies are sold in gas stations, convenience shops, and grocery stores all over the country. Two to a pack, perfect for grade school friends pooling their allowance or a young couple lounging under the stars, contemplating life, death, and all the fun stuff in between.

I could go out and buy some Twinkies right now, but tomorrow—or the next day—they’ll be gone. After eighty-two years of business Hostess Brand (previously Interstate Baking) is declaring bankruptcy and liquidating its assets. Perhaps Twinkies will rise again, bought by a rival American snack maker or foreign conglomerate, buoyed by its personal reputation and place in American hearts as the snack cake equivalent of cockroaches (indestructible and kind of icky), sought after in movies by survivors of the zombie apocalypse and police officers about to be called to a Christmas terrorist attack (Zombieland and Die Hard, respectively).

But, the fall of Hostess doesn’t just mean the loss of one product. Hostess is also the owner of Eddy’s (the ice cream I grew up eating with my grandfather), Wonder Bread (crafted into peanut butter sandwiches by mothers less concerned with whole grains than my own), and a dozen other brands equally tied to the American consciousness.   

Hostess announced its bankruptcy (the second in less than ten years) in January of 2012, attempting to use the cover of Chapter 11 to renegotiate contracts. However, when management finally announced the company’s closure and liquidation this week they didn’t blame their high debt levels ($860 million earlier this year) or the exorbitant pay packages given their executives. They accused the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union of driving the company out of business because the union was unwilling to negotiate givebacks after making $100 million in concessions during the previous bankruptcy.

With a deal unlikely to materialize, the Baker’s Union struck last week necessitating the closure of more than half of Hostess’s factories. With Teamster drivers unwilling to cross picket lines and customer orders going unfilled, Hostess quickly lost what little cash reserve they had left. On Thursday management announced that they would be liquidating the company.

If the fall of Hostess is tragic because it marks the loss of a classic American icon, it is even more tragic because of the more 18,500 jobs that will disappear beside the Twinkie. In an era where Presidential candidates import branded hats from China, Hostess snack cakes were still being made by American workers earning a living wage, with health insurance and a pension. Men and women who deserve dignity and respect from a management system which seems more interested in finding someone else to blame for their problems then to step up and admit they were in over their head.

I was twenty-three years old when I ate my first—and only—Hostess product. Half a Hostess cupcake, yellow cake filled with white—dairy free—cream, shared on a dark back stoop with a boy a few years older than me. A man I’d known only a few days and was already more than a little in like with. After a month filled with personal tragedy the cupcake tasted like a childhood unlike my own, a moment of innocence I would never feel again.

I’d tell you more, but I have the sudden urge to run out and buy a Twinkie.

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