NOVEMBER 19, 2012
In my childhood, Hostess Twinkies stood for all that was out of reach. I was a dentist’s daughter, and theoretically not allowed to eat any sugar at all. Pillowy and sweet, Twinkies belonged to other children’s perfectly indulgent lives.
But a more recent, adult experience with Twinkies brought disappointment. Maybe it was at a highway rest stop, or on deadline late at night—I don’t recall when, but I bought a Twinkie. And it didn’t taste good, so chemical and stale it didn’t even satisfy my yen for sweet. I threw it away.
Now, with Hostess Brands just hours away from collapsing amid a union strike, I was being asked by my editor to eat and critique not just Twinkies, but also Ho Hos, Ding Dongs, and Zingers—sixteen cakelike products in all.
So I set out in the dark to my local Manhattan supermarket, which, I soon learn, does not stock Twinkies among the impulse buys at the cash register. Instead, there are chocolate bars from Madagascar and Ecuador in flavors like banana and cayenne, rose salt and lemon, mango and juniper. In fact, the store doesn’t stock Twinkies at all.
A few blocks away, I find that in the little bodegas up and down Amsterdam Avenue, too, Twinkies are similarly hard to find. More common are Hostess competitors like Lady Linda, Voilà!, and TastyKake. One place stocks only Mexican Bimbo confections, including Bimboletes con Relleno Cremoso, Bimbuñuelos, and Barritas de Piña. After no less than eight stops, I manage to collect eleven of the sixteen products in the Hostess Cakes line. Then I head home, the weight of my tote bag filling me with childlike anticipation at my Halloween-like haul.
TWINKIES ONCE represented the future: new modes of mass production, nourishing people with greater efficiency and convenience, apparently equal nutrition, and lower cost. “We needed a good two-pack nickel number,” James A. Dewar, the man who invented the Twinkie for Hostess in 1930, said in a 1980 interview. Dewar coined the name after he saw an advertisement for “Twinkle Toe Shoes.”
That same year, Hostess released pre-sliced Wonder Bread. The company had already pioneered the use of an additive called paniplus to keep bread dry enough to last on supermarket shelves, helping to convince housewives to buy mass-produced bread instead of making their own. The Hostess brand began to dominate as its parent company did what successful American food businesses have done over the centuries: adopt early technology and expand rapidly, taking over smaller operations (in this case, local bakeries) and new markets.
Most of what we see on our grocery shelves today is not, classically, food. Hostess has been a leader in producing unfoodlike things, but at some point, many people turned away from those things. Twinkies came to represent, instead of progress, the junkiest of junk foods—excessive sweetness, empty calories.
But my assignment is to taste, not to prejudge. I grab a pack of Raspberry Zingers, rip open the plastic, and bite gingerly. Between the slippery sweet creaminess on the inside and the raspberry-tinged coconut flakes on the outside, it’s like eating suntan lotion on a sugary sponge filled with a coarser version of Reddi-wip.
Next up, Ho Hos. My teeth sink through the thin chocolate shell, the soft cake within, and finally the even softer cream center. I’m impressed. “Come here,” I call to my boyfriend, and he bites off half. “Nice consistency,” he remarks, though notes that they’re too sweet—the unsurprising theme of tonight’s task.
Unlike Ho Hos and Zingers, muffins are something I know a bit about, so I open a packet of Blueberry Mini Muffins with confidence. These are also too sweet, but surprisingly fresh and realistic. Sure, the berries are tiny and desiccated, but flavorful, too, and the cake is full and moist. It’s kind of disturbing how well Hostess has pulled this off.
I nibble through Donettes (too-dry minidonuts), Ding Dongs (a needless cross between a Ho Ho and a CupCake), Honey Buns (pretty tasty, though you can peel off the sheet of frosting without it breaking apart), Fruit Pies (much too sweet), Apple Danishes (like the muffins, disturbingly realistic), CupCakes (nice, thick chocolate frosting, but with an acrid aftertaste), and Sno Balls (raspberry balls with spiky-coconut exteriors).
Last up is the Twinkie, which I rip in half to see the white crème filling that’s been squirted into the center of the yellow cake, all of it perfectly molded—an Americanized, factory-made éclair, an emblem as much as a confection. I put it to my lips. Nothing about it tastes good. Hostess’s characteristic creamy filling fails to redeem the dry, flavorless sponge.
But perhaps flavor is beside the point. When you eat a lot of Hostess cakes, or something similar, your tastes dull down and you get into a kind of junk-food-eating groove. It’s a sensation people crave—or, at least, a sensation people fondly remember from childhood.
“Wow,” the cashier at D’Agostino’s had said when I mentioned that Twinkies might cease to exist. “Wow, wow, wow,” she repeated, as the news sunk in, and she mournfully looked down at the conveyor belt where my Ding Dongs sat beside my CupCakes.
“I only eat ‘em when I get a craving,” she said, looking up. “But probably as soon as they’re gone, I’ll get that craving...”
Robin Shulman is a journalist and the author of Eat the City: A Tale of the Fishers, Foragers, Butchers, Farmers, Poultry Minders, Sugar Refiners, Cane Cutters, Beekeepers, Winemakers, and Brewers Who Built New York.