With deadline for this Funny Names in Food post looming, I thought it would be fun to honor the recent Twinkle debacle (they’re gone, they might return, they’re coming back, they’re here again). But Wikipedia tells us that a Mr. James Alexander Dewar invented these bullet-shaped cream-filled sponge cakes, and James Alexander Dewar, though amazing for having invented a classic snack cake, has a name unworthy of a funny names blog as official and important as this. What then, readers?
Imagine looking for a Twinkie and not finding one (a reality for those months between Hostess going down last November and July 24, when Twinkies returned to store shelves). You might just turn to the less-flashy snack cake sister: Little Debbie. Nutty Bars, Honey Buns, Oatmeal Creme Pies, Swiss Rolls, Zebra Cakes–snack cakes all and any one of them could hold its own compared to a Twinkie. Think flaky pastry, golden crumb, cream fillings, sticky sugar coatings. What were the chances they go one better than the Twinkie by having a funny name behind their creation?
Turns out chances were good, as one O.D. McKee built the company that launched the line of Little Debbie snack cakes we know today. O.D.’s son Ellsworth tells the story of his father meeting a cookie salesman back in the day and asking him about that particular line of work. The salesman said his company had an opening in Chattanooga, Tennessee and soon after O.D. was peddling Virginia Dare snack cakes out of his 1928 Whippet. Legend has it that O.D. removed the back seat from his Whippet while working during the week giving him more room to store his wares, then returned the seat for weekends.
It’s no surprise then that McKee is described on the McKee Food Corporation website as “far reaching, big dreaming, impatient, restless, and relentless in the growth of the business.” As well, O.D. “loved a challenge and didn’t mind taking a giant leap into the great unknown.”
His unknown was building the McKee Baking Company with his bride, Ruth King, and their sons Jack and Ellsworth. They started in 1934 with cookies and cakes, but it wasn’t until their Little Debbie snack cake line, introduced in 1960, that they turned a profit.
This sweet little product line was named for Ellsworth’s then 4-year-old daughter, though Ellsworth and his wife, Sharon, only discovered Debbie to be the namesake of the new brand when cartons were being printed. (Said parents were less than thrilled, not wanting their daughter’s image to go public.) It ended well, though, as Little Debbie and its iconic logo–drawn as a girl closer to age 9—made the company what it is today.
According to company lore, O.D. was constantly looking for ways to automate processes, develop new products, and streamline procedures. He worked with the company until his death in 1995 at age 90. We owe him much for the sweetness he and his family brought to our bellies.