It was with a heavy heart (and a sweet tooth of nostalgia) that I read news yesterday of Hostess Brands closing its St. Louis bakery. Apparently the maker of Wonder bread and Twinkies is in bankruptcy (How is that possible? Are we not still a nation of fat asses?!) and has promised to close any bakery where workers honor a labor strike.
That threat proved real on Monday after St. Louis employees refused to cross the picket line. Some 365 local employees of the factory will lose their jobs. And while that is extremely unfortunate for the workers and their families, the fourth-grader in me cannot help but think of the thousands of St. Louis kids with no connection to the bakery other than this: For generations the Hostess plant was the most kick-ass school field trip ever.
I still vividly recall my trip to the plant on North Broadway. I'd spent my entire elementary school career waiting for that moment. Older kids at the bus stop had gloated about it since I was in kindergarten. And now I had arrived. My classmates and I were finally old enough to -- as a friend put it at the time -- "go to the place where Ding Dongs are made."
We triumphantly boarded the school bus that morning already giddy about the sugar high we were bound to experience that day. And, spoiler alert, the Hostess plant would not disappoint. But before we got to sample the bakery's confections, we were given hairnets for a tour of the plant floor. To my nine-year-old eyes, the scene was dizzier than anything Lucy would experience in the chocolate factory. Traveling past us streamed thousands of plump and luscious Suzy Q's, raspberry Zingers, sweet and sticky Fruit Pies, spiral-swirled Ding Dongs and creme-filled Cupcakes.
Right then and there every kid in Mrs. Robin's class knew exactly what they wanted to be when they grew up. They wanted to be one of the employees in white uniforms and cotton gloves frantically packaging the sugary delicacies as they whizzed by on the conveyor belts. These people were true professionals.
Though they were not perfect.
For every dozen Twinkies the employees scooped off the conveyor belt, two or three more would get past them and drop into a plastic garbage can at the end of the line. It was a girl in our class who asked the tour guide what happened to those Twinkies. I'm not sure if our Hostess host was new to her job, but the following is not something you tell a group of elementary school students within arm's reach of their favorite junk food.
"Those Twinkies are sold to farmers and fed to hogs."
Fed to hogs!? The blasphemy! No sooner had the words left our tour guide's lips than half the kids in our class rushed the conveyor belt and furiously began stuffing their faces with Twinkies. We had to. It was that or let the spongy yellow goodness end up as pig slop.
Alarm bells rang. Mrs. Robin freaked out. Parent chaperones grabbed us by the scruff and tossed us back toward the factory floor. The foreman on the Twinkie belt shut down the line. And our gracious, but clearly frazzled, tour guide quickly wrapped up our visit.
Yet unlike the bad children visiting Willy Wonka's candy factory, we were rewarded all the same. Each of us got a Hostess treat of his or her choosing to eat before boarding the bus for the journey back to school.
I remember sitting toward the back of the bus -- enjoying the sugar buzz of a Twinkie -- when we passed by the old Vess bottling plant in north St. Louis. It was the first time I'd ever seen the gigantic soda bottle that stood outside the plant. I remember thinking to myself then, "Wow. St. Louis has a Hostess factory and what has to be the biggest soda bottle in the world? This place is pretty sweet."
Thirty years later I still think the same, even if we're losing some of our flavor with the closure of the Hostess plant.
R.I.P. Ding Dong Palace. You'll always survive -- in our memories.
P.S. Do you have your own favorite memory of the Hostess bakery? Leave it in the comments section.