What Do Newsweek and Twinkies Have in Common?
The iconic Twinkies.
Food for the soul? No, that's not it. Unless you have spent the last few weeks hiding under a rock, you undoubtedly know that both will cease to exist as we have known them. Newsweek, the venerable weekly news magazine, was founded in 1933 as an alternative to Time. It has spent most of the past 80 years as number 2, but still a large circulation, successful alternative. However, the past few years have been rocky – declining circulation, sales to new ownership, and mergers dotting the way. Ultimately, they were but a delaying tactic. Newsweek's story is the same as that of so many other newspapers and magazines. Free, instant news from the internet stole their audience. Paper and ink could not compete with electronic impulses. Newsweek will continue in a different form. No more paper and ink, it will no longer appear on newsstands, no longer show up in your mailbox. It will, instead, become a website only. Why there is a need for a weekly review of the news website in a day when people want news the moment it happens is unclear, but we wish them well. Presumably, they will at least offer a more thorough presentation.
The end of Newsweek was a brief story. Most heard about it, but if anyone rushed out to the newsstand to pick up some last copies, it did not make the news wires. It was nice to have known you, goodbye. The Twinkies story was more momentous. People did fly to their grocers to pick up last available packages of these favorites, and the other snack cakes made by the dying Hostess Brands. Newsweek was respected, Twinkies are an icon.
The demise of Twinkies is a bit more complicated a story. They were invented three years before Newsweek, and they and the stable of Hostess cakes have filled grocers' shelves from coast to coast for generations. Changing tastes, and particularly more focus on healthy foods, hurt their popularity, but their parent bakery's bankruptcies - it is now on its second – costly reorganization, debts, Wall Street ownership, and an unwillingness by some workers to accept further wage cuts, signaled their end. They will not be replaced by digital versions, nor by carrots either, no matter what nutritionists tell us. Rights to their brands will likely be bought by someone else, who will then bake “new” Twinkies. Whether they will be the same is anyone's guess. Replicating the astonishing list of ingredients won't be easy.
It is that list of ingredients, along with the iconic name, that made Twinkies such a symbol of 20th century America. It is also what makes this story appropriate for a book website. Five years ago, I reviewed the book Twinkie, Deconstructed, by Steve Ettlinger, for this website. Click here for the review. The author tracked down the myriad of strange sounding ingredients and what role each played in creating a Twinkie. Suffice it to say, a single Twinkie has more ingredients then a typical seven-course dinner, and most of them are unfamiliar and difficult to pronounce.
The strange ingredients led to much bad press for the Twinkie. It may have been unfair. The ingredients in a Twinkie, like fresh fruits and vegetables, arise from the good earth. The only difference is, instead of being grown, they are mined. Some people are troubled by this.
While Twinkies were the star, Hostess provided many other varieties of snack cakes, and delicious as they were, I would only put Twinkies in the middle. Superior, in my estimation, were the Suzy Q's, with the greatest quantity of Hostess's chemically wondrous “creme” filling, their cupcakes with the squiggly lines on top (among the ingredients in those squiggly lines is pig fat), and greatest of all, nature's perfect food, the Sno Ball. An unscientific lifelong survey tells me that 90% of the public detests these pink and white round combinations of coconut, marshmallow, chocolate cake, and, of course, “creme.” For the other 10%, they are the most wonderful things ever created. Count me in the 10%.
Going down with the Hostess cakes is another classic American brand owned by its corporate parent – Wonder Bread. Probably every young person of my generation ate sandwiches made with Wonder Bread everyday for their entire youth, such was its popularity. Wonder Bread was the whitest of white breads, thoroughly bleached of anything that might conceivably be good for you. Somehow, it still “built strong bodies 12 ways,” but nutritionally certainly wasn't one of those twelve ways. I can't imagine what they were.
What Do Newsweek and Twinkies Have in Common?
Marshmallow-coconut topped Sno Balls.
The decline of the Hostess snack cakes reflects changing tastes, along with corporate mismanagement. In my 20s, I bought a Hostess snack cake for dessert with all of my lunches. When you are in your 20s, your bodies can withstand anything. McDonald's built one of America's largest businesses on that proposition. In time, I became more concerned about weight, and after that, about artery clogging fat. I don't eat them anymore. They are still as delicious as ever, all the ridicule notwithstanding. It's just that when I read the fat content, well.... I long for the days when those things didn't matter.
That a new generation has not adopted these cakes the way mine did is a surprise to me. Tastes change. Today's young people are more conscious of sugar. They don't like to eat so much of it. Drinking sugar is another thing. They will gladly buy those 64-ounce unlimited refill sodas and think nothing of it, but not a Twinkie. Mayor Bloomburg shares my sense of irony in this fact. Instead, they will eat such things as Cheez Doodles, with the iridescent orange “cheez” on it that takes weeks to wash off your hands. What your insides look like after eating this is a frightening thought, but today's kids seem to think that salt and lard, as long as it's free of sugar, is good for you. Yet another piece of evidence of how our schools are failing.
Nevertheless, Twinkies would have survived with better corporate management. There is still a market for them. Unfortunately, if there is something even more frightening than 30 unpronounceable ingredients in your food, it's that your food has been baked by hedge funds. They never shared our love for Twinkies, or Sno Balls, Donettes (mini-donuts), Suzy Q's, Cup Cakes, and Raspberry Zingers. It was just a business to them, and when the business went south, they pulled the plug. They didn't care. And they wonder why ordinary folk so despise big bankers. This is why. We may not eat our Twinkies anymore, but it was comforting to know that they were still there.
For an interesting aside to this story, see the following interview with Cleveland bookseller John Zubal. Click here.