Local Lifestyle

Saturday, Jul 20 2013 09:00 AM

HERB BENHAM: Hostess still the most-ess with neighborhood kids

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    David Kroeker holds the tray with some of the Hostess products on it while his brother Isaiah, right, along with Mimi, left, Lily, and Evy Raytis get ready for the taste test.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Hostess products are cut into smaller pieces for the taste test on Herb Benham's porch.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Isaiah Kroeker, right, gives the thumbs-up during the Hostess Twinkie test on Herb Benham's porch in Bakersfield. Sisters Mimi, left, Lily, and Evy Raytis give the Twinkies a try also.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Longtime Californian columnist Herb Benham interviews several as they taste test Hostess products.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Evy Raytis taste tests a Hostess Twinkie.

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By HERB BENHAM, Californian columnist hbenham@bakersfield.com

Finding them wasn't easy. "Them" refers to Twinkies, CupCakes and Donettes. With more than 50 million Twinkies and 35 million CupCakes having shipped over the last two weeks, you'd think it would be a cakewalk to locate a few packages. It wasn't.

"I think I'm going to buy some Twinkies, get some kids together for a tasting and write a column for Sunday," I said to Jennifer Self, my editor.

The news, or what Hostess modestly termed "Sweetest Comeback in the History of Ever," has been everywhere. Investment firms Metropoulos & Co. and Apollo Global Management, LLC rescued the Hostess brand earlier this year, buying some of the assets out of bankruptcy.

Although it's hard to imagine how America made it through the long dark months without Twinkies, CupCakes, Donettes, Zingers, Ho Hos, Ding Dongs, fruit pies, mini muffins, Sno Balls and Suzy Q's, it did. And now the sun is shining once again.

Did you know there is a "Twinkie Town, USA" (Schiller Park, Ill.), the home of Hostess. Or that Twinkies were born in 1930 by bakery man

ager Jimmy Dewer after he spotted a Twinkle Toe Shoes billboard on the way to pitching his idea? They originally sold two for a nickel.

"Hostess has an inherent cool factor -- a magical quality that has transcended time and trends," said Evan Metropoulos, principal of Metropoulos & Co.

Childhood obesity, runaway diabetes, heart attacks, strokes and death, let the experts figure that one out. I wanted to take a stroll down memory lane and maybe make some new memories with a generation unfamiliar with what I call Magic Food.

Ding Dongs saved my life

Hostess and I go way back. So do Hostess and a lot of people. Having a relationship with Hostess was like having one with Wendy Wayne. She made everybody feel like her best friend.

When I was 10, I had the mumps and could not eat anything. Even chicken noodle soup hurt. I was starving.

The road back started with a Ding Dong, that delicious foil-wrapped chocolate morsel filled with cream. Without it, I was a dead man and may have never grown past two feet.

I longed for Twinkies when I took my lunch to William Penn Elementary. My mother had a trade embargo against anything Hostess (don't ask), so I was reduced to gazing across the lunch table and hoping that some child with a mother less socially conscious than my own might entertain a trade involving a sandwich made with kippers for a tantalizing package of Ho Hos.

In high school, liberated from the tyranny of a Hostess-free home environment, I discovered Hostess Apple Pies. The icing was thick as the polar ice caps and would get in the center of your brain and make you bark like a seal.

I could go on. The point is, there is food and there is Magic Food. Each have their place.

Magic Food makes us feel like life is good, like we're going to live forever and like we can accomplish anything we set our minds to.

Cheetos are the best example in the non-dessert category of Magic Food. When it's right, there is nothing better than a bag of Cheetos. Don't ask what's in them. It's not important.

On the nougat trail

Wednesday, I went to the Albertsons on Mount Vernon. After buying some cranberry juice, Honey Nut Cheerios, sweetened condensed milk, original Triscuits, Wheat Thins and four salmon filets, I drifted into the cookie section thinking I might find a giant end-cap of Hostess products. Not a Ding Dong or a Ho Ho in sight.

"I think FoodMaxx may have them," whispered Jeff, the man who checked me out.

Not wanting to disappoint the five children who would be descending on my front porch at 10 a.m. the following morning, I drove straight to the FoodMaxx on the corner of Columbus and Chester, testing the speed limit.

I don't know if you've been to FoodMaxx lately, but you enter on the left side of the store and are immediately funneled into the produce section. You can't cut through the aisles.

Cart or no cart? I chose no cart because how much can a box of Twinkies, CupCakes and Donettes weigh?

However, when I walked through produce, I went by the watermelons and they looked good. Especially the big oblong ones. I grabbed a watermelon and it must have weighed 50 pounds.

I asked an employee of FoodMaxx where the Hostess section was.

"In the corner of the store," she pointed.

Way over yonder. I was carrying a 50-pound watermelon through what essentially was a corn maze and I had four salmon filets heating up in the back of my Honda.

The watermelon was heavy. They use these things in the big-and-strong contests. I backtracked and returned the watermelon because I didn't think I was astute enough to find a cart or strong enough to hike the remaining two miles with the melon.

Fortunately, the Hostess display was intact and I spent $11.92 on Twinkies, Donettes -- powdered sugar and chocolate -- and a box of CupCakes, iced with that iconic sheen of chocolate, capped with the white squiggle down the center.

Once bitten

The five children were early, arriving at my front porch before 10. I'm surprised they didn't sleep on the lawn. They included Isaiah and David Kroeker --12 and 9 -- and Mimi, Lily and Evy Raytis -- 11, 8 and 5 respectively. It would have been cute anyway but put out a silver tray of treats, plus five glasses of cold milk, and questions are almost unnecessary.

Their eyes lit up with each bite, as they downed the sugar, chocolate and textures not to be found in nature.

After their first bites, I tested their honesty by asking whether they'd rather have a carrot stick or a Twinkie. Only Isaiah opted for the carrot stick, though I was tempted to run him through a polygraph test. Who knows when a child is trying to cozy up to his parents.

The children were asked to rate the Twinkies on a scale of 1 to 10. The responses averaged an 8.8, except for the verdict rendered by 5-year-old Evy:

"I'd give it a 100."

During the tasting, important information slipped out about both families.

Although the Raytis children did a good job of playing possum -- "We only have Popsicles in the house," Lily said -- come to find out, breakfast often consists of Honeybuns.

Isaiah Kroeker said, "My mom sometimes bakes chocolate chip cookies, but we know where her secret chocolate stash is."

While Hostess may not be on the menu of either nutrition-first family, something tells me that now that these kids have had a taste, they'll be back for more.

There's always a way. Even if your lunch includes a kippers sandwich. Hostess still the most-ess Magical snack foods re-emerge, but were they better in memory? Kids take test

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