Fifteen years ago today…

…the world became a lot less beautiful.

Not a day goes by that I fail to remember her.  May she rest in peace.



Hostess, RIP (part 2)

I’ve been wondering about the demise of Hostess, and yet I have been quite unsurprised in some ways.

Let’s start with this:  the strike and the labor dispute might indeed have been the death blow to the company (not to mention the alleged misconduct of senior management giving themselves getting 300% raises  as they were preparing for bankruptcy ).  But that’s like discussing the behavior of those on the sinking Titanic.  The question is what made the Titanic sink.

So in this case, what was Hostess’s iceberg?

Well, I don’t know.

And why would anyone ask me?  I know very little about economics (other than the words “supply and demand”, which I learned from Father Guido Sarducci ).

But I like the pies.

So I do have some anecdotal evidence that might suggest an answer.

First, lets go to the most obvious factor of all:  much of Hostess’s product line was based on products that might have been innovative in their day, but which later encountered an onslaught of local competition.  Take Wonder Bread:  that soft, moist, fluffy white bread that must have seemed something incredibly different and special when it was introduced later became just another—more expensive—brand on the shelf.  Regional and local brands eventually learned to serve up a nearly identical product.  If you want soft, moist, fluffy white bread, why pay more money to buy it from Hostess?  And although Hostess used regional and local bakeries to do the baking, I can imagine that in the last thirty or forty years Hostess was constantly fighting against the perception that the local bread came from the local bakery (the one wear someone’s cousin works), and that Wonder Bread comes from Chicago.

(To digress completely:  I’ve long wondered how Frito Lay manages to keep such a large product line on supermarket shelves.  In Pennsylvania, where I come from, I always bought local brands of chips—with the exception of Fritos, of course.  And I can’t hardly recall seeing Lays potato chips at any of my friends’ or relatives’ houses.  I myself had one of those gallon sized Charles Chips cans; though, to be honest, it didn’t always have Charles Chips in them.  I kind of liked variety back then.  But even Charles Chips had trouble competing.  Why is that?  I mean, a totally different product—like Fritos, or like Pringles—can compete.  But how can Lays compete with the local, riffled potato chip when Charles couldn’t even keep up?)

That leaves me to the second, rather obvious point:  if Wonder Bread wasn’t going to be the flagship of the Hostess brand, then maybe the industrially made sweet snacks like Twinkies could keep it in competition; but how many moms have been trying to keep such nasty, unhealthy products away from their kids in the last 25 years?

I think there is something to this.  If you want a total sugar/fat/calorie bomb, just go to the bakery section of your local supermarket.  There you will find enough calories to keep the entirety of India alive for a day.  All sweet, all fatty, all delicious—and made with things like sugar, cream, butter, vanilla, and so on.  But if you want something with undefinable textures–gooey and sticky to the point of rubbery, sweet to the point of teeth-itching, indescribable flavors (like the non-coconut parts of a Sno-Ball)—then you must reach for the industrially produced sweet snacks.  To put it succinctly:  your local bakery can’t produce a Twinkie.  They can come close, but they can’t achieve it.  Twinkies are unique. Industrially unique. And I suspect that Healthy Mom has been more likely to reach for the appearance of “local and fresh” than “industrial and unique” over the last several years.  That is, when she wasn’t reaching for carrot or celery sticks.

The third point is not obvious at all, and it regards my special expertise:  Hostess pies.  Hostess pies had become increasingly difficult to find.  For some reason, I seldom (if ever) found them in supermarkets during my last, say, ten trips to the States.  You had to know where to look.  Truck stops were a good choice.  7-Eleven was nearly a sure bet.  But other outlets—like Sheetz stores (remember, I moved to Germany from Pennsylvania)—switched over to other brands.  (The last time I bought my cherry pies from a Sheetz, I bought 10 cherry pies made by JJ’s.  Only six made it into my freezer here in Germany. )  Meanwhile, the supermarket chains tend to have either their own brands (like Safeway) or alternative brands (like JJ’s or Drakes (which is owned by Hostess—nothing like competing with yourself, huh?) or Little Debbie).

And listen to this:  although I have visited large portions of the United States over the last decade, I have personally never seen a Hostess Cherry Pie at a Wal-Mart.

Think about that.  An industrial, nationally produced food product that isn’t distributed through Wal-Mart.

This amuses me because of the dreams I talked about in a previous post.  My dreams in which I’m frustrated because I can’t seem to find a Hostess pie are not simply referencing the fact that I can’t buy the pies in Germany; they are also a reflection of the fact that I have also had difficulty finding them in the United States in the last decade or so.

So my own suspicion is that Hostess has—for probably two decades—been the victim of its own management.  Its own management didn’t know how to face up to regional and local competition, didn’t know how to keep increasing sales on distinctively unhealthy products as the demand for healthier products increased, and it didn’t know how to maintain a reasonable distribution of at least some of its products.


Hostess at home?

OK, OK, the obvious question is:  what about home-baked pies?

Lots to say on this one.

First, I ain’t no baker. Give me a skillet and some vegetables and spices and I’ll whip up something tasty.  But cookies, cakes, pies?  I’ve never been good at it.  My sister is a wonderful baker.  That’s one of the reasons I always liked to go to her house on Thanksgiving.  But I digress.

The second point is that I actually prefer the Hostess Cherry Pie to all other forms of baked pies.  I absolutely LOVE pecan pie.  Love it love it love it.  And if I were being given my last meal on death row, I’d probably eat both.  But if otherwise forced to choose, I’ll go for the Hostess.

This leads to a second obvious question:  what not try to bake Hostess-style snack pies at home.  Well, see #1.

But don’t think that I haven’t tried.  Not a hundred times, but twice.  Still, the two failures—while not quite culinary catastrophes (we ate them and enjoyed them well enough; though I was thoroughly disappointed)—showed me that there are two inherent problems in attempting to produce them at home:  the crust and the glaze.

My assumption (and this might sound disgusting) is that factory-level baking uses ingredients—stabilizers, emulsifiers, preservatives, and so on—that streamline the factory processes and minimize costs and result in an improved flavor to that which we can get at home.  This is why so many home cooks make the outrageous and absurd claim that their “copycat” recipe is superior to the original product.  Nonsense, hogwash, and bullshit.  Their product is different, and while the goody-two-shooed “I just love baking wonderful things for my loving family” attitude might be praise-worthy, it ain’t gonna help me to get the Hostess Cherry Pies I crave.  They’re all tease and don’t put out, if you know what I mean.  Nudge nudge wink wink.  The crust isn’t a result of finger-tip skill in working the fat into the dough and rolling it out with experience and precision:  it’s some kind of recipe that allows the dough to be kneaded in gigantic vats and then rolled out onto conveyor belts.  The glaze isn’t a result of the perfect proportions of AAA quality whipping cream with a dash of butter, simmered with a vanilla pod in a small saucepan while gently sifting and whipping powdered sugar into the mix: it’s some kind of thin, non-dairy, industrial food paint sprayed onto the pies as they proceed down the conveyor belt after being baked.

Nonetheless, I do think that the following recipe looks like its worth trying:  Hostess Copycat Pies.

I’m thinking of trying it out for the Thanksgiving holiday.  I’ll let y’all know.


Hostess, RIP

What I miss most about the States is twofold: going to baseball games, and American food. And although I’d like to start throwing around a bunch of fancy, gourmet-sounding favorite dishes, the truth is that I crave things like chili dogs, Fritos, and…Hostess products. My favorite is the Hostess Cherry Pie. I’ve talked about it before, but I can hardly come close to telling you how deep my craving is. I literally dream about the darn things.

And the most re-current dream I have about them is that I can’t get them. This probably happens to me once per month. I’ll dream that I’m in the US visiting family, and that I’m roaming a Wal-Mart in frustration trying to find cherry pies to no avail.

I even had this dream only recently (within the last two weeks): I was at some kind of convenience store buying a pie. And the guy at the counter said, “that’ll be $1.47.” So I get out my coin purse and start digging through it. I only have dimes, nickels, and pennies, so it’s gonna be close. And the guy keeps taking the coins as I put them on the counter and putting them in the register. I finally count out $1.47 out to him, and he says, “You’re thirty cents short.” I say, “no I’m not.” He says, “yes you are. So I pull out my wallet and hand him a $20 bill and say, “well, then, just take it from this.” And he takes the $20 bill and puts it in his register and says, “you’re still thirty cents short.” I am aghast. I say, “Sir, you take the $20 bill, subtract the thirty cents from that, and give me back my $19.70 and give me that pie. Please.” The man says, “what $20 bill?” He then gave me a violent grin, and I realized (remember, I was dreaming) that if a convenience store clerk wants to steal from you, he or she can do just that. Ain’t nothing you can do. So I left the store, woke up, and felt violated.

Now I find out that Hostess is closing down.  My inability to get those damn pies might well be permanent.  (Here’s a link, for posterity’s sake:  Hostess )

That saddens me.

I suppose that they might sell off Twinkies and HoHos and Sno-Balls to other mass-produced-bakery-product manufacturers. That’s what they say they intend to do. But the pies?  With most major supermarket chains offering a similar (but inferior!) product, why buy the brand?

And I did find a very tasty pie that I liked very much (though Hostess it wasn’t) called, “Cutie Pies”. And sure, I realize that I don’t live in the States anyway, so at least part of the horror of such a dream is that I can’t just wake up and trot down to the 7-Eleven or Sheetz or whatever and buy a pie to satisfy the urge. It’s an urge I can seldom satisfy.

Drake’s Twinkies, anyone? Entenmann’s Ding Dong’s?

Let’s hope so. But mostly, let’s hope someone buys the recipes for those pies and starts distributing them INTERNATIONALLY! Yoo Hoo! Yippie! Huzzah!

Right.  That ain’t ever happening in my lifetime.

And even if it did, I’d still have to worry about the local convenience store owner saying, “What €20 bill?”


For Petra (or: why Jeff the crybaby doesn’t feel so bad about being a crybaby tonight)

Today I read something my sister wrote, and started crying uncontrollably.

This is something I do.  Not often.  But it’s still a bit different, I think, than what other people do.

The key word here is:  uncontrollably.

I do not wail and sob.  I do not get hysterical.  My eyes just get wet and the tears start…slowly…dripping down my face…

…and they don’t turn off.

So by “uncontrollably” I mean that I can’t turn them off.  Nothing dramatic.  I just can’t turn them off.

When I was much younger, I thought that maybe this had to do with my mood.  I’m feeling down and something upsets me?  I cry, and I can’t stop because I was already feeling down.  As an adult I’ve blamed other things, like alcohol.  I’ve been drinking and something upsets me?  I cry, and I can’t stop because I’ve been drinking.

But over the years I’ve learned that feeling down or drinking alcohol has nothing to do with it.  I could be exceptionally happy, and primed with no other liquids than a gallon of coffee, and if something hits me just right, I start crying.  And I can’t turn the tears off.

Now, for better or for worse, Billy discovered this recently.

It was ten in the morning, and Billy wanted to show me a couple of videos.  He’s addicted to the Ellen show (an addiction which I might have encouraged, because I once told him—based on a handful of clips from her show—that I love Ellen.)  But Billy has watched more than a handful of clips.  Billy has watched dozens—if not hundreds—of clips from the Ellen show.  And now and then he insists on showing me a clip that he found particularly interesting.  So on this day, he showed me a couple of clips that…ah…uh…hm?…well…moved me.  No need to go into which clips (I may be writing a blog, but I still wish to preserve some privacy; what makes me cry is my business), but we’ll say this:  it turned on the faucet.  I managed to use tissues to stem most of the flow, but he noticed.  Next thing I know he started calling up videos in a similar vein.  More tissues.

This went on for about an hour.

I complained to Billy that I didn’t want to watch any more, and kicked him out of my room.  Then he started emailing me videos.  One of them I simply refused to watch (OK, I don’t want to relinquish my privacy, but it was some clip from the Ellen show about a woman who used to be deaf (but can hear now) going to the Ellen show and hearing Ellen for the first time).  If I know it’s gonna start the flow, then I simply won’t go there.  Because I can’t control it.  But then Billy kept asking me whether he could watch the video with me.  It seems that this was destined to become one of his new pastimes:  let’s see if I can get Jeff to turn on the faucet.  Let’s see Jeff the crybaby.

But I digress.

Now to the point of this post:  my sister wrote a touching and beautiful eulogy for a friend she just lost.  And I haven’t been able to turn the faucet off since.

But this time I think it’s OK.  It’s not some clip from Ellen.  It’s not the final scene of a sports movie.  It’s not Paul Pott stunning a theater full of people with extraordinary talent.  My sister lost a friend who had a beautiful, supportive soul and who wanted to live a little bit longer than Fate would have it.

So I don’t really feel embarrassed or stupid.  I’d just like to make my own, very brief tribute:

Petra, my tears are for you.  Thanks for being in our world.  Thanks for being there for my sister.


Apple Sucks. (But maybe not really.)

Here’s the story.

I hate laptops.  I don’t need to explain.  But I hate them, and I have enough experience using them to know that I hate them.  Nuff said.

I love touch screens.  I found my iPod touch to be a wonderful thing.  But my son Billy basically stole it.  OK, I could have resisted, I suppose.  But anyone with kids knows how difficult it is to deny one’s children something that they find so useful.

But that means I needed a replacement for web surfing when someone is using the computer.

Meanwhile, I need my own laptop for classroom use.  I’ve borrowed one up till now, and that has so many disadvantages that it isn’t even worth the bother to list them.

Then I visited my parents in Hong Kong in August.  My mother has an iPad.  I fell in love with the iPad.  The concept addresses many of the things I dislike about laptops.  Not only that:  it addresses some of the things I hate about laptops in the classroom.  I absolutely despise Powerpoint.  (Hate it, hate it, hate it, HATE IT!)  And I hate someone making a presentation fiddling with a keyboard, too.  I hate someone looking at their laptop screen rather than me.  I hate just about everything when it comes to using laptops in the classroom.  And the iPad seemed to address some of these points.  It couldn’t mitigate all the difficulties of using a computer when presenting material, but conceptually it is far superior to a laptop.


I can hold it in my hand while moving around the room.  I don’t have to break eye contact for more than a second while I simply touch “videos” and then touch the video I want to play.  Simple, clean, minimal time lost—no fiddling with a mouse on a desk while the class waits, bored.


So I set about researching whether I could do this.

First answer:  no.

The iPad doesn’t have all the regular ports that a laptop would have.  That’s OK.  I can respect that.  It doesn’t have a VGA-out, for example.  But I found an HDMI to VGA adapter online, and respected a blog account of using it, so that problem wasn’t the biggest deal.  Of course, in order to be wireless I would have to purchase Apple TV.  Again, not a big deal.  At this point I would be spending at least TWICE the money as I would spend on a suitable laptop, but—hey!, I’m getting what I want, and I’m getting those advantages of using a tablet.

So second answer:  yes.

I just need to buy an iPad, Apple TV, and a Kanex ATV Pro HDMI/VGA adapter.

So I went out and bought it.

But does it work?


The iPad works.

The Kanex adapter works.

BUT:  Apple TV doesn’t work in a classroom.

It comes down to this:  for Apple TV to actually boot up, it must be logged on to a Wi-Fi network.  To log into a Wi-Fi network is problematic, because Apple TV doesn’t have a browser.  (Of course not.)  But Apple TV ought to have a way to set up secure Wi-Fi accounts BEFORE it boots up.  But it won’t do that unless you do this:  you MUST download an APP called “Apple Configurator”, and you MUST use it on a MAC (not an iPod or iPhone or iPad), and you MUST plug in the Apple TV with a micro-USB cable (which I didn’t have; I have some mini’s, but didn’t have a micro), and THEN (supposedly—I don’t know, since I don’t own an Apple computer (I only own an expensive iPad and Apple TV and a Kanex adapter))—you could set up Apple TV to work on my university’s Wi-Fi network.

Did you catch that?  I MUST OWN an Apple computer to SET UP EQUIPMENT I’VE ALREADY BOUGHT!

It’s basically like this:  what Apple wants is for you to make a religious conversion.  You should confess your sins, throw away all your non-Apple stuff, and buy everything new again.

Except that wouldn’t actually work, either.  Because I STILL would have to have the Kanex adapter to get from HDMI to VGA.

And that’s not even the end of the story.

Sound?  Speakers? Bluetooth?

The story goes on and on.  The iPad doesn’t work in a classroom unless you spend a ton of money and completely re-equip those classrooms to be Apple-friendly.

Nice fantasy, Apple.

Like I can do that.