Requiem for the Twinkie

Hostess packs it in, but its pop culture legacy lives on

Topics: Consumerism, Hostess, Drake's, Wonder Bread, Twinkies,

Requiem for the Twinkie (Credit: Wikimedia)

Here’s that abyss of chaos and destruction the Mayans warned us about, America. In a stunning bombshell, Hostess Brands announced Friday it was shuttering operations in its 33 plants and liquidating its wares. Chief executive Gregory Rayburn declared Hostess would be “promptly” laying off its 18,500 employees and “selling its assets to the highest bidders.” And so this is how a once mighty purveyor of treats meets its end, with a sad “Hostess Brands is Closed” message on the Web page and in a bankruptcy court in White Plains, N.Y. Cue America dropping to its knees, shaking an angry fist at the sky, and screaming, “WHYYYY GODDDDD WHYYYY?”

The news of the 82-year-old brand’s imminent demise — set in motion by declining consumer loyalty and a crippling Bakers Union strike — is a horrible blow to American business and workers, a sweeping job loss. It’s also set off an avalanche of vows to hoard Twinkies till there are no Twinkies to hoard. As a friend mused Friday, “What am I going to get deep fried at state fairs now?” Yet even after the last Fruit Pie has been belched, the company’s legacy as cultural touchstone will live on.

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Hostess is as iconic an American brand as it gets. Its products, which also include Drake’s, Dolly Madison and Wonder Bread, have become our beloved zippy punch lines and clever sight gags. Imagine a “Seinfeld” bribe without Drake’s Coffee Cakes. Imagine describing a man as bland and colorless and not having Wonder Bread to invoke any more. Imagine explaining “something big” without a Twinkie metaphor.

And though Hostess products have always built a strange kind of fame for their surreal, decidedly not baked from scratch-level durability, their mix of distinctive flavors and shapes and names are what endure. Entire generations have gladly forfeited their diets for the sweet, cottony, hot pink delight of Sno-Balls. The perfectly serviceable cupcake pan now shares space on the shelf with with its boat-shaped cousin, because a homemade snack cake holds a more powerful allure when it resembles something gathering dust at the local corner deli. And if you ever want to see a bake sale frenzy, I can vow from personal experience that you need only squirt a nostalgia-inducing white squiggle of icing down the center of a chocolate frosted cupcake. Hostess, in its unself-conscious, typically American way, has been the company that’s thrived on product names that defied you not to feel giddy just saying them – Ring Dings. Yodels. Funny Bones. Ho Hos. And as they say in classic Weird Al videos, “Yo, Ding Dong, man. Ding Dong. Ding Dong, yo.” When all of these are gone, they’ll exist only in our memories and our discomfitingly less artificial tasting recreations.

The Hostess company’s CEO, Greg Rayburn, said Friday they’re still hoping to find a buyer for their legendary brands, but for now, there is none. So while we may not be in the throes of an undead apocalypse, who’d have ever imagined the 2009 adventure caper “Zombieland” was so prescient when it warned us, “Believe it or not, Twinkies have an expiration date”?

Mary Elizabeth Williams
Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

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