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Twinkies won’t die, but maybe they should
Hostess isn’t only baker of bad snacks
Let’s not panic. We all know that Twinkies, Ding Dongs, Wonder bread and the rest of Hostess Brands Inc.’s oddly everlasting foods aren’t going away anytime soon, even if the food culture that created them is gasping its last breath.
Yes, Hostess is shutting down, and odds seem to favor the roughly century-old company disappearing from our corporate landscape. But before you rush out to stockpile a strategic Twinkie reserve, consider a few things — namely, that Twinkies never die. You know full well that the snack cakes down at your corner 7-Eleven are going to outlive us all. Probably even after they have been consumed.
Then there is the acquisition-happy nature of the business world, an environment that increasingly prizes intellectual property above all. It is hard to imagine the fading-away of brands as storied and valuable as Ho Hos, Ring Dings and Yodels. Within hours of announcing the closure Friday, the company put out word that Zingers, Fruit Pies and all the other brands were up for grabs.
Even if production really did stop, how long do you think it would take for some enterprising investor intoxicated by a cocktail of nostalgia and irony for the treats Mom used to pack in his G.I. Joe lunch box to find a way to roll out commemorative Twinkies? Special-edition holiday Ho Hos? It’s just the nature of our product-centered world. Brands don’t die, even when perhaps they should.
But let’s pretend for a moment they did. What would we lose if Twinkies fell off the culinary cliff?
Few obesity-minded nutritionists would bemoan the loss. With some 500 million Twinkies produced a year, each packing 150 calories well, let’s just leave it by saying that shaving 75 trillion calories from the American diet sure could add up to a whole lot of skinny jeans.
Except that Twinkies aren’t merely a snack cake, nor just junk food. They are iconic in ways that transcend how Americans typically fetishize food. But they ultimately fell victim to the very fervor that created them.
Despite the many urban legends about the indestructibility of Twinkies — did you know they are made with the same chemical used in embalming? Or that they last five, no 15, no 50 years? And the many sadly true stories about the atrocious ingredients used to create them today, these treats once upon a time were the real deal.
They started out back in 1930, an era when people actually paid attention to seasonality in foods. James A. Dewar, who worked at Hostess predecessor Continental Baking Co. in Schiller, Ill., wanted to find a way to use the bakery’s shortbread pans year-round. You see, the shortbread was filled with strawberries, but strawberries were available for only a few weeks a year.
So he used the oblong pans to bake spongecakes, which he then filled with banana cream. Bananas were a more regular crop.
Wrap your mind around that for a moment. Twinkies once contained real fruit. Twinkies were created because of seasonality.
All went swimmingly until World War II hit and rationing meant — say it with me — “Yes, we have no bananas.” And so was born the vanilla-cream Twinkie, which was vastly more popular anyway. Even then, there was a crafted element to these treats. The filling was added by hand using a foot pedal-powered pump. Pumped too hard and the Twinkies exploded.
It was around this time that American food culture did an about-face. It was an era when the industrialization and processing of cheap food wasn’t just desired; it was glorified. Cans and chemicals could set you free, and they certainly set Twinkies free of the nuisance of a short shelf life. It’s not formaldehyde that keeps these snack cakes feeling fresh; it’s the lack of any dairy products in the so-called “cream.”
“Something about it just absolutely grabbed the popular culture imagination,” said Marion Nestle, a New York University professor of nutrition and food studies — and no fan of junk food. “It’s the prototypical indestructible junk food. It was the sort of height to which American technological ingenuity could go to create a product that was almost entirely artificial, but gave the appearance of eclairs.”
When Twinkies signed on as a sponsor of the “Howdy Doody” show during the 1950s, their cultural legacy was sealed. Taglines such as “The snacks with a snack in the middle” began etching themselves into generations of young minds, and it was considered perfectly fine that Twinkie the Kid would lasso and drag children before stuffing his sugar bombs in their faces.
By John R. Bolton
The president fiddles at his domestic altar while the world burns
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