O.D. McKee and son Ellsworth bring Little Debbie to the table

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?

Oh the sugary gluttony of it all. Thank you, O.D.!

Oh the sugary gluttony of it all. Thank you, O.D.!

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.

would you buy a cupcake from the backseat of this car?

would you buy a cupcake from the backseat of this car?

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.

yeehaw, little cowgirl!

yeehaw, little cowgirl!

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.

Food for Fun

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About Liz

Owner of deLizious Food Communications. Projects include recipe development, editing, and formatting; food writing and editing; nutrition analysis; public speaking and cooking instruction. Past and present clients: General Mills, Green Giant Fresh, Hormel, Minnesota Beef Council, Minnesota Soybean, Minnesota Pork Producers, Norwood Promotional Products, Pillsbury, Tad Ware, and Weight Watchers Publishing. Mother of two young girls.
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18 Responses to O.D. McKee and son Ellsworth bring Little Debbie to the table

  1. Dave says:

    O.D.

    Quite the “first name.” I do like the fact that his names rhyme though.

    Liz, can I make a confession that may startle you? I’ve never had a twinkie. Or any other hostess snack. Ever. In my entire life. The closest I got was playing the Twinkies level in the Dikembe Mutombo’s 4 1/2 Weeks to Save the World game.

    • Liz says:

      a bit of irony there what with potential for ODing on sugar snacks 🙂 Tried to hunt down what those initials stood for, but no luck.

      You’re not alone in not having had a Twinkie (though maybe in the minority at least here in the US) and you’re certainly healthier for it. Definitely a childhood treat. I like the concept, but they don’t really taste all that good. DIY versions would be more delish, I’m sure.

      Ah yes, the save the world game–I remember that 🙂

      • Dave says:

        I’m guessing the O would have to be Oscar or Oliver, unless he’s super cool and his name is Othniel or Outerbridge, but perhaps that’s asking too much! D could stand for a lot of things. Perhaps the mystery is more fun than knowing what the letters actually stand for!

  2. amb says:

    Hi Liz! Here for my morning coffee, as usual! 🙂 Pay no attention to this giant soy latte I brought with me, it will disappear in about two seconds.

    I have to say, my latte and banana are seeming awfully boring and protein and potassium filled right now, and lacking in sugar and saturated fats and delicious, delicious red dye number 40 …

    We don’t have all of these McKee products in Canada, I feel like I’m missing out !!!

    • Liz says:

      you’d better watch it my emulous friend–too much of that kind of “complaining” and I’ll be forced to send another care package 😉

      I’ve always known them as Little Debbies, so the McKee name was new to me. When Hostess sold off its brands after bankruptcy, McKee snagged their Drake product line, which according to the ‘net includes tasties such as Ring Dings, Yodels, Devil Dogs, Yankee Doodles, Sunny Doodles and Drake’s Coffee Cake. Giggle galore there. Do you know Sunbelt? Those are McKee as well and the web has those listed for Canada. Jokes aside, I’ve always found the food business world fascinating. So much psychology goes into what folks buy and the products that succeed or fail.

      Enjoy the latte 🙂 (oh, you’re right–already gone)

      • amb says:

        Gosh, no, that wasn’t my plan at all … teehee. I’m teasing. You have to let me have a turn with the care packages before you start spoiling me again!

        Those snack names are all hysterical, and yet I’m sure you’re right, a ton of time and research and $$$ went into selecting those specific names. It IS fascinating!

        Sunbelt isn’t ringing any bells, but then again, mom was pretty strict with that stuff when Shutterbug and I were growing up. They day we were actually allowed to have a pilsbury toaster strudel for breakfast felt like it should be a national holiday!

  3. wdydfae says:

    Another Lizean triumph!

    I always preferred Hostess Cupcakes to Twinkies.

    But Little Debbie almost rivals the Morton Salt girl for cuteness.

    “Would you buy a cupcake from the backseat of this car?”

    More amorously suggestive phrasing from the BoFN crew.

    I swear. What is it about you guys?

    • Liz says:

      thanks, diddy. Enjoyed learning more about Little Deb and found it interesting that her parents weren’t keen on her being on all of those boxes. Compared to the parents who push their kids into the spotlight, that seems more sensible. (but yet it still went forward–wonder if that would have happened today)

      And holy cow you may not believe this but I didn’t even see that (suggestive) cupcake joke! Too tired to pick up on even my own innuendo. This is why I don’t like going off that grid–too much catch up (not just blogs, also a lot of work work) and I can’t even appreciate my own funnies. Guess BoFN is just that kind of place. You may have missed the murder and sex earlier, but you were first in line here!

  4. “Would you buy a cupcake from the backseat of this car?” One of our neighbors when I was a child was a Hostess delivery driver. Every Friday afternoon the neighborhood children would wait in his driveway for the left over Twinkies, Cup Cakes and Ding Dongs…

    He was very popular. 🙂

  5. ksbeth says:

    he is a genuine hero

  6. Pingback: another funny name in food and how the cookie crumbles | food for fun

  7. Pingback: Crescent Dragonwagon, etc: The Summer Slide Edition | The Blog of Funny Names

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