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Hostess Is Toast: The Twilight of the Twinkie

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Nothing -- not even the bleak winds of Sandy -- could have prepared us. It's a cold dark world out there, and it just got a whole lot darker, with the downfall of the Twinkie.

On the heels of hurricane Sandy, amidst bombings in Israel and Gaza, and on the brink of cake and cobbler holiday season, we were hit with the shocking news that Hostess is going down. Tweets were pouring in as Twinkie was fading out.

Looking back on my childhood (a.k.a. my Wonder Bread years), there was nothing quite as soothing as digging down into that lunchbox and finding that crinkly plastic package with the squiggly white curves drizzled over each chocolate cupcake in the snuggly three-pack. Or, after swallowing the last morsel of my tuna sandwich on soft Wonder white bread, squinting into the dark crevices to discover my afternoon snack reward: a long oval sponge cake filled with sweet vanilla cream.

Forget the ladyfinger. Long live the Twinkie. No matter what happened that day at school -- whether Alan L. pulled my pigtail, or Jackie C. bossed me around -- I could always count on Hostess.

There were few things as reliable and comforting -- there was my Mom's meatloaf; my Dad's playground sessions pushing me high up on the swings; my shelf of World Book Encyclopedias; and the Hostess Twinkie.

When I graduated to the brown bag lunch in junior high school , I had slightly more sophisticated lunches than the egg salad or peanut butter & jelly sandwich; I progressed to eggplant caponata and chicken pesto; but the one thing that never changed -- the common denominator -- was Hostess.

Now the caliber of cupcakes may have upgraded over the years. We've observed Magnolia Bakery in all its sophisticated cupcake splendor, publicized globally by Sex and the City... 20-somethings winding around the Greenwich Village block waiting for the lemon, vanilla, and red velvet cakes; pastel colored icings and rainbow sprinkles.

And we've got everyone from Martha Stewart to Rachael Ray spouting recipes, decorating and baking tips for their delectable desserts. We've got marzipan, macaroons, mousse and meringues. But let's face it kids; nothing can compare to that first dreamy bite into the Hostess cupcake.

Then there was that other moist concoction -- I'd heard "Ding dong, the wicked witch is dead" whenever I watched The Wizard of Oz... but when I finally tasted Hostess' rich chocolate Ding Dong, my heart almost stopped from rapture.

Is it my die-hard nostalgia taking over like Proust's taste of madeleine... and the memory of that sweet cake melting into sugar bliss as I watched Father Knows Best and I Love Lucy? Or is it the reality of the fact that old world recipes like Betty Crocker and Sara Lee simply take the cake? After all, bakeries from Duncan Hines and Pillsbury base their whole persona on the '50s and '60s world of batter, mixing bowls and Mad Men.

Life was certainly simpler then. I often walked home for lunch in elementary school to the smells of Campbell's chicken noodle soup and hot roast beef with gravy sopping up my scrumptious Wonder Bread. Multi-grain, rye, whole wheat and spelt may have their moments. But it was the soft white Wonder Bread that won my lunchtime stomach and heart.

During my piano lessons, the fragrance of roast chicken wafting out of the kitchen merged with my Bach French Suites. I truly think that half my motivation for practicing scales was related to the warm signal of dinner in the wings. My mom interrupted my homework by calling upstairs to my sister and myself, "Girls, come down... I've got something... " and our reward, after bounding down the staircase, were hot slices of hard-boiled eggs. And then, on very special winter afternoons, a surprise plate covered with mini-bites of Drake's Devil Dogs.

I guess it's that Hostess cupcake simplicity that's almost impossible to duplicate -- both on the home front and in the storefront. I can still hear my Dad whistling down the block, calling me home when I stayed out playing with my friends way too long after dusk. We had a rigid family meal schedule: 6:00 p.m. was dinner time and the structure represented a simple desire to be together. Families in America rarely sit down to dinner together anymore. Moms are often at work and can't be home to welcome their kids back from school or offer them goodies.

Children are out practicing soccer more frequently than piano... they're off playing sports, not scales, and there's much less intimate time to share simple pleasures like music and food together.

Desserts have become so much more diverse. Farmers markets compete with exotic gourmet markets. Whole Foods and Citarella compete with supermarket chain brands like A&P, IGA and Trader Joe's. Specialty stores like Dean & DeLuca and Fairway have their own dessert sections with independent bakers and high-maintenance labels.

Walking into our local Adrian's Bakery in Queens with my Mom at holiday time was almost as delightful as the dessert itself. The smells of rugalach, challah bread, apple strudel and sponge cake still swarm in my sugar-addicted brain.

Every year, when my Mom asked what I wanted for my special December birthday meal, I answered "meatballs and spaghetti"... followed immediately by "Adrian's whipped cream cake." I could hardly speak until the bakery lady held out her hand offering me a sample of the just-out-of-the-oven muffin crisp confection. Those local bakeries, like so many mom & pop stores from shoemakers to sandal-makers, are fading away. Now brands that imitate local bake shoppes are following suit. There are just too many alternatives, and life's just too complicated.

Today's kids are pretty savvy with menus... they have a vast gastronomic bread and bakery vocabulary from Artisan to Zabar's, and they can order tiramisu as easily as I can order French Fries. They can identify a cannoli as easily as I can choose Teeny Bikini nail polish color. Teenagers now order ciabatta sandwiches (wraps) and cinnamon dolce lattes while sending Instagram photos of their food on iPhones. They order cakes with alliteration and adjectives... from outrageous oatmeal and chocolate chunk to very berry and scrumptious pumpkin. They're multi-tasking from morning to midnight -- from the minute they grab their a.m. granola to the p.m. second they call their new BFF. They can order a Caramel Brulée Latté from Starbucks, but could they measure ¾ cup of flour to bake a batch of cupcakes?

They're hip to hip-hop; Modern Family; Rihanna; and pilates. They know about K-Stew's every move and Bieber/Selena's every mood. But do they know how to line a baking pan or beat an egg?

When my Mom made her famous chocolate frosting, half the fun was licking the wooden spoon and the batter. Does anyone remember batter?

Watching Lucy Ricardo on that chaotic assembly line trying to keep up with the Hershey's chocolates, I always wondered if she needed union representation. There's often strength in numbers. But even the bonding and banding together of two adorable Hostess cupcakes may not necessarily keep the brand alive (from folding).

In the case of Hostess' financial woes, talks with the bakers' union apparently crumbled -- no pun intended. The new contract (forced by a bankruptcy judge) included demands that drastically cut wages and pensions, making the take home pay less than unemployment (one receiving clerk's take home pay would have been reduced more than 25 percent). The union went on strike, and Hostess is to lay off almost 18,000 workers.

It's sad that it took a union strike to make us notice the significance of simplicity, to emphasize the huge loss of something so simple and yet so solid as the Hostess cupcake, the symbol of home-baked sweetness. Alas, America will still have its Twitter, but it has lost its Twinkie.

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