Back When a Chocolate Puck Tasted, Guiltily, Like America
By DAN BARRY
Published: November 16, 2012
There was a time; admit it. There was a time when, if given a choice between a warm pastry fresh from a baker’s oven and an ageless package of Ring Dings fresh from the 7-Eleven, you would have chosen those Ring Dings. Not even close.
After opening the tinfoil or cellophane wrapping with curatorial care, so as not to disturb the faux-chocolate frosting, you would have gently removed the puck-shaped treat and taken a bite deep enough to reveal crème — not cream, but crème — so precious that a cow’s participation was incidental to its making.
You did not care that this processed food product in your trembling hand was an industrial step or two removed from becoming the heel of a shoe. You already knew that not everything is good for you, and this was never truer than with a Twinkie, a Sno Ball, or a Ring Ding — the Ding Dong equivalent in the Northeast.
To you, they all tasted like, like: America.
Now, from Irving, Tex., comes word of the closing of Hostess Brands, your friendly neighborhood baking conglomerate, the maker of Ring Dings, Ho Hos, Funny Bones and other treats whose names conjure a troupe of third-rate clowns.
“We ceased baking this morning,” Anita-Marie Laurie, a Hostess spokeswoman, said Friday morning. This means Hostess, and Drake’s, and Dolly Madison, oh my.
Though the bankrupt company attributes its closing to a strike by a union with a mouthful of a name — the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International — the truth is that the bad-snack market has been in decline for years. All of a sudden, it seems, nosy consumers want to know what it is that they are ingesting, and that’s not good if you manufacture edible curiosities like SuzyQs and Raspberry Zingers.
Beyond the heart-aching loss of many, many jobs, a Hostess shutdown doesn’t necessarily mean that consumers, particularly the dietetically tone-deaf, have eaten their last Twinkie. Some industry analysts express confidence that as Hostess sells off its assets in this saddest of bake sales, an iconic treat like the Twinkie will be snatched up by a savvy opportunist — perhaps one who might resume production using a novel application for the famously indestructible Twinkie (a loofah sponge you can eat!).
Speaking personally, the news sent me into a panic. A Hostess shutdown would mean an end to certain rare and delicious moments of guilty bliss, those few seconds that come right after devouring a Ring Ding and right before the stomach realizes what has happened.
It would also mean an end to measuring the passage of time by the color of Hostess Sno Balls, those marshmallow-y mounds of cake and gunk that appear to be some kind of confectionary prank. Normally the pinkish color and approximate texture of an eraser, they turn green for St. Patrick’s Day, orange for Halloween and lavender for the Easter celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ. Or maybe the lavender just means springtime.
Hurrying to the nearest food store, I barreled past the fruit and fresh produce section, fully aware of the eyes of potatoes narrowing in disappointment, and the heads of lettuce turning away in judgment. I nursed dark, violent thoughts about making a salad, and kept going.
And there, in the supermarket equivalent of the timeout room, were the food chain’s nutritional delinquents. Your Hostess cupcakes. Your Funny Bones. Your Yodels. Your Yankee Doodles and Sunny Doodles, the ebony and ivory of cupcakes. And, yes, your Ring Dings. Make that my Ring Dings.
I held a package of two Ring Dings in my hands. Reading the nutrition facts, I took comfort in seeing that the word nutrition was not in quotation marks. I skipped past unimportant details — the 310 calories, the 13 grams of fat, the 37 grams of sugar — and found validation in the 2 grams of dietary fiber.
The package says that’s 8 percent — count ’em — 8 percent of your “daily values.” Whatever that means.
Then I turned my eyes to the block of white type listing the ingredients that help to make the “devil’s food cake” resilient enough to be enjoyed in whatever comes after the End of Days. Well, I thought, you can never have too much “sodium stearoyl lactylate,” and I headed to the checkout counter with my single item.
Here is the eat-your-broccoli part of the Hostess saga. According to Harvey Hartman, a food-industry researcher and consultant in Bellevue, Wash., the country’s food culture is rapidly changing. Consumers want less processed foods, he says, and more information about “the story behind their food” — which might not be something that a Sno Ball would want told.
But Mr. Hartman understands the allure. The careful unfolding of a Yodel or Ho Ho, but only after the frosting has been nibbled away. The scraping of teeth against the piece of white cardboard for that last remnant of a SuzyQ. The connection in a Twinkie, or a Funny Bone, to what he calls the “soulful elements of our past.”
That is why, one night this fall, or maybe this winter, or perhaps in the spring — there’s no rush — I will wait until the kids are asleep, their tummies content with kale chips and quinoa. Then, basked in the bluish glow of some black-and-white television show, I will eat my faux-chocolate, crème-filled, Bloomberg-infuriating, chemical-rich, bad-for-me, really-really-bad-for-me, all-but-extinct Ring Dings.
Both of them.