Will the ‘twilight of the Twinkie’ usher in a new dawn of more deserving desserts?

Posted by
November 20, 2012

Is this the twilight of the Twinkie?

The thought of a world without Twinkies seems to have dominated the hearts and minds of many this past week. What could it be about a Twinkie that makes so many people so nostalgic? Perhaps that the Twinkie has always been there to shine as an example of the worst aspects of the American diet? Without Twinkies, or Ding Dongs or Ho Hos or even Wonder Bread for that matter, what will we have to point a finger at for our nutritional failings and junk food addictions (as actually happened in the course of a famous 1979 murder trial in which the lawyers for the defendant, a San Francisco politician charged with gunning down two other officials, claimed their client had overdosed on Twinkies, which was famously branded as the “Twinkie defense.”)

Even author Michael Pollan stands, in a way, behind the cake-like treat with the mystery filling, saying “A world without Twinkies would be a lessor place – we need them, if only to calibrate our scale of badness in food.”

But the Twinkie was not always the ‘crème de la crème’ of junk food. Once upon a time — 1930 to be exact — Charles Dewar, VP of Continental Bakeries, came up with the idea of a cream-filled sponge cake to utilize off-season baking pans. The Twinkie was an immediate success, due in part, according to Dewar, to its freshness.

Back then the Twinkie contained typical food ingredients such as eggs, lard and flour, giving it a maximum shelf life of three days. Dewar’s salesmen continually removed stale stock, keeping the Twinkie supply fresh and appetizing, and unknowingly planting the seeds for a market that would evolve into sales of over 500 million Twinkie snacks a year.

But if Twinkie consumption itself mirrors the proliferation of people who can’t do without their sweet-and fat-filled foods, so does the history of the product reflect our evolving food science, which made possible the Twinkie’s transformation into a little yellow cake with fatty goo in the middle that can remain “fresh” for nearly a month.

Twinkie science explained

Author Steve Ettlinger set out several years ago to get to the bottom of the 37 ingredients that make up the iconic confection, the popularity of which was officially recognized by the addition of a Twinkie to the Millennium Time Capsule by President Clinton.

In Ettlinger’s 2007 book, Twinkie, Deconstructed: my journey to discover how the ingredients found in processed foods are grown, mined (yes, mined), and manipulated into what America eats, he traveled far, interviewed many, and learned firsthand about “the alchemy of modern food science that turns recognizable commodities like corn and petroleum into anonymous white powders and viscous liquids and then turns those into yellow cakes with creamy filling…”

Ettlinger’s chose the Twinkie to be the mother ship for his mission to uncover and discover the origins and methods of the science behind modern food technology. “This journey – my journey,” he writes, “is the story of making convenience food, guided by science and commerce, just like the history of Twinkies themselves.”

When he first approached Interstate Bakeries Corporation to help with interviews and tours of the actual Twinkie plant, they declined, saying “its preference (is) to help writers who are merely reminiscing about their sweet childhood memories.” (I might have qualified for that, given my own recollections of making little figures from squished up Wonder Bread in grammar school).

So instead Ettlinger tracked the Twinkie ingredients like a secret agent, going down the entire processing chain to find the origins of chemicals such as high fructose corn syrup, polysorbate 60 and FD&C Yellow #5. “It became evident that the Twinkie is a dynamic, complex food system, “ he noted, asking, “Why don’t I need those ingredients (calcium sulfate, sorbic acid, coloring, etc.) in my homemade cakes? Sometimes it became difficult to relate the massive industrial and technical activities involved to making the ingredients for a simple baked good.”

Should this marvel of food-science evolution, which has earned the distinction of becoming America’s most recognizable form of junk food, disappear from store shelves forever,  would we be better off, or would another pseudo-pastry soon win our hearts and minds?  I’d like to think that the ‘twilight of the Twinkie’ will be followed by the dawning of a new age of appreciation for the old-fashioned pleasures of more deserving desserts, such as the ones that our grandmas used to whip up from ingredients such as butter, eggs, sugar and flour.