EarthWorms Castings

by Jean Ponzi

Extinctions (more or less)

I’m embarrassed now to admit how excited I have felt while planning to expound on the fateful saga of Twinkies.

Not only because the apparent extinction of a mass-produced snack cake is reprehensibly goofy compared to obliterations of actual groups of living creatures. And not just due to how predictably commercial forces have rallied to buy, revive or at least “commemorate” this iconic brand with surely profitable, limited-edition product releases – and what is culturally, let alone environmentally, notable about a big deal like that?

I blush as I write these lines because my research has spooned up not only pithy, nostalgic Twinkie Fun Facts, but also dozens of articles – and references to whole books – devoted to the golden-yellow sponge cake story I have been sniffing after.
Yet I will fold my cultural extinction musings in a colorful (think the Wonder of red-yellow-and blue balloons) printed cellophane wrapper and join the Praise Twinkies chorale.

I grew up coveting a pre-packaged, mass-produced sweet as an extra-special treat, a heaven above lowly stuff homemade. Clearly, marketing strategies reached me, even though I didn’t really care for Howdy-Doody, where a sponsorship investment in the cartoon cow-cake ‘Twinkie The Kid”character rocketed a marginal Midwestern brand into national super-stardom.

My Gramma would stock up when Twinkies went on sale and store the surplus in paper grocery bags in the basement. One day, inspired by strategies I learned from another cultural cornerstone, MAD Magazine, I patiently slid a table knife under the pointy tips of a whole sackful of Twinkie wrappers, meticulously unfolded each package, scraped the cake residue off each two-pack’s distinctive slippery white card base, and dug that luscious cream filling out through the three wee holes in the bottom of each cake with the (very nice to lick off) handle of a fork – and then folded them all back into their packages, which I secured with bits of tape.

This is the kind of memory that transforms a commodity item (poetically called a “little suet-filled sponge cake Crisco log” in a three-part Spy Magazine 1989 expose) into a social phenomenon – and yields impassioned responses to the item’s potential “extinction.”

Can we say the same about the Heath Hen, a species of Grassland Grouse (think “prairie chicken”) endemic to the Island of Martha’s Vinyard? I recently interviewed noted wildlife photographer Noppadol Paothong, whose work you have surely enjoyed in Missouri Conservationist magazine, about his ten-year production of a stunning coffee-table book about this threatened bird extended-family. He realized during this decade of unpaid love-labor that he was likely documenting them just before they disappear. Due to another type of wipe-out, blandly referred to as habitat loss. One of Nop’s especially poignant stories is conveyed in an image of his own hand holding a black-and-white photo of Booming Bob, the last of his kind, who lived alone for three years in his island habitat after his mate died . . . and then he died, and his kind was gone.
That was the real deal of extinction. No potentially reviving buyers. And where was Spy Magazine’s spread on Booming Bob?

As a media blitz of visions swirl in my head – of Twinkie the Kid and his relatives Suzy Q, Captain Cupcake and King Ding-Dong – I imagine a future scene when some middle-aged babe like me reminisces about her lost childhood icons:

“ . . . and everything was individually wrapped in plastic. You could just toss that stuff, and people DID – even out your car window! Back when we all drove around in cars . . . “

Talking about Twinkies, my boss and I recalled the same personal process of eating a Hostess Ho-Ho: you bite off those ridgey chocolate ends – put ‘em aside for later – and you peel back the chocolate sheet from around the whole thing. Then you unroll the cake, lick off the (luscious top-secret recipe vanilla) cream filling, nibble the cake and only then eat the chocolate from the outside. A snacking process we both enjoyed, was surely part of Ho-Ho’s mass appeal. You could work through the parts. Or you could just snarf it.

Or you could just enjoy – and maybe work to protect – the booming of a prairie chicken, before every kind of their kind goes extinct, for real.

Hear Jean Ponzi’s Green radio conversations on Earthworms, Mondays 7-8 p.m. on FM-88 KDHX, and on Growing Green St. Louis, Sundays 1-2 p.m. on the Big 550-AM KTRS. See www.nopnatureimages.com to learn more about Grassland Grouse.