By Daniel Meyer
The third-to-last of the nearly 40 ingredients that make up a Twinkie is listed on the package as “sorbic acid (to retain freshness).” It’s the only ingredient that comes with an explanation of its purpose, as if it’s essential for us to understand that this Twinkie is as good as it was when it was made.
While Twinkies themselves may not degrade much over time, their cultural weight certainly has. They’re no longer a lunchbox staple or an American icon, and as of last week (as Mark writes here) the Hostess company (maker of Twinkies) has filed for bankruptcy protection yet again.
James Dewar, a baker for the Continental Baking Company, invented Twinkies in 1930. He noticed that the machines and pans used to make the company’s cream-filled strawberry shortcake were only employed during strawberry season, so he conceived of a shortcake filled with banana cream that could be made and marketed year-round. So Twinkies were born out of the hard-and-fast limitations of seasonality.
Continental switched from banana cream — originally made with real bananas and real cream — to vanilla cream during World War II, when bananas were rationed. While the “original” version is occasionally reintroduced, vanilla “cream” Twinkies are the ones that charmed their way into the heart of American culture and diet.
In the ‘50s we watched Buffalo Bob Smith “make” Twinkies on “Howdy Doody,” clumsily combining the pasty white ingredients in a pan, and “alakazam presto” emerging with a pristine plastic package of “golden sponge cake with creamy filling.” In the ‘70s we let “Twinkie the Kid” lasso our children all the way to Twinkie Town, and in the ‘80s we learned that Twinkies were not only wholesome, but slightly sexy.
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