When I look back in fond nostalgia to childhood foods, I often remember the Syrian and Eastern European delicacies that my mother made for us at holidays. I can often almost taste the sweet fresh corn on the cob in the summer and the tangy mussels that would come in a bucket. I sometimes conjure steaming images of oversized potato knishes and hot pastrami sandwiches we used to get at the neighborhood deli. Perhaps my most sentimental memories are reserved for the turkey, stuffing and sweet potatoes we had at Thanksgiving.
My food nostalgia never includes packaged baked goods like Twinkies, Ho Hos, Ding Dongs and Wonder Bread: They never were very good, and certainly not as good as the corn rye we got at the bakery or that the various cakes and cookies my mother would make, sometimes without a package mix, or we would occasionally buy in the bakery. I stopped eating Hostess-type packaged junk sometime in my teens and never returned to them.
When I’m reminiscing about childhood foods with friends and family, no one ever mentions these Hostess products either, even though, regardless of their age, almost everyone I know ate them at one time or another.
Nevertheless, it didn’t surprise me that the news that Hostess may close down and that these baked concoctions of white flower, sugar or corn syrup, food coloring and lots of preservatives instigated collective moaning and hand-wringing by the mass media. Reporter after reporter have mourned the loss of these products (and they are more product than food) as if we had suddenly lost a part of our collective cultural heritage, akin to all the monuments in Washington crumbling or misplacing all the episodes of “The Andy Griffin Show” and “You Bet Your Life.”
Writer after writer has come forward with his or her own defense of Twinkies and dirge for their possible demise. Here are some examples:
“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 ultimately, they fell victim to the very fervor that created them.” (Associated Press)
“When news broke Monday that beloved treat-maker Hostess would not be forced to shutdown after all, Americans breathed a joint sigh of relief.” (Business Insider)
“If my insides are particularly well-preserved, it’s not because of the steamed broccoli crowding my dinner plate. No, it was the Twinkies. My longtime habit of consuming the famously imperishable cakes — with a preservative no doubt passed down from King Tut’s mummifiers — surely must have infused me with their elixir….Perhaps, it’s for the best that I wouldn’t have one last bite. They couldn’t live up to my gauzy memories of them. And maybe the Twinkie hoarders will pass them down like heirlooms to their children.” (Chicago Tribune)
“I don’t want to live in a world without Twinkies… The Austrians have their Strudel, the Italians their tiramisu, the French created crepes. But the Twinkie is an American original.” (Fox News)
“A world without Twinkies! How can it be?! I haven’t eaten a Twinkie since the third grade. But, when the demise of Hostess was announced last Friday, I, along with most of America, got swept up in Twinkiestalgia. Watching the six o’clock news, it dawned on me that my kids had never had and might never have a Twinkie in their young lives. What kind of life is that? What kind of mother would I be if one of those infinite-shelf-life treats never passed their lips?!” (The “Today Show” website)
“The Twinkie is an institution and a distinctly American one at that. It was the dessert that Edith packed in Archie’s lunchbox. It became part of legal nomenclature (the “Twinkies defense”). And its supposedly eternal shelf life only added to its stature as a pop-culture icon…No one, it seemed, had eaten a Twinkie (or Sno Ball) in years. Their affection for the brand was largely an exercise in nostalgia. The Twinkie took them back to their childhood – and knowing it was still there (and could be had at any time) meant there was always a comfortable (and cheap) portal to a time when life was safer, simpler and more innocent. It’s the Twinkie as, yes, Proust’s madeleine.” (The Wall Street Journal)
“Consider the Zen of the moment when you take a bite, that taste of something so simple yet decadent, Godiva for the everyman, and, for many, the savory hint of childhood and innocence. Can that small pleasure be had any longer without fear of diet-busting self-loathing?” (Baltimore Sun)
The common themes running through the commentaries are 1) nostalgia for what are imagined were simpler, better times and 2) defiance of what the reporters postulate are the food police who want to take away our every culinary pleasure and replace them with good food.
The nostalgia aspect is just weird: there are so many good things we can remember about the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and every other decade of the last century that it seems absurd for pundits to give bad-tasting food that was also bad for you a second thought. We all have individual memories and we also share in collective memories, both happy and sad. For example, people my age can reminisce about where we were when the first men landed on the moon (I am proud to write that I watched the first moon walk sitting next to my uncle, who led the team that engineered the fuel that propelled the rockets) or about the first time we heard the Beatles. But Twinkies?
When the mass media tries to create a collective memory for all of us, there is usually some ideological or business reason behind it, and that brings us to the second common theme in the encomiums to Twinkies: the assertion that there is a dichotomy between food that tastes good and food that’s good for you. The mass media often asserts this dichotomy: when discussing fast food, balanced diets, foods you can buy at state fairs, what to make at holidays or for Superbowl parties and what to feed your children. It’s a false dichotomy, but every time a writer makes it or assumes it, it helps to sell more of the crap. It also undercuts efforts to address our growing epidemic of unhealthy lifestyles.
I can see why someone might grab a package of Twinkies from the food vending machine for a late afternoon snack, even though I wouldn’t do it. And I can understand why parents’ might find it easy to slip a package of Ding Dongs into their kids’ lunch bag, although I never did. And certainly there are a number of people around who can’t distinguish between a Twinkie and a piece of fruit, some home-made cookies or even cinnamon and sugar sprinkled on a piece of buttered whole wheat toast.
But these instances do not make a case for elevating Twinkies, Ho Ho’s and the other edible dreck from Hostess into the pantheon of American culture. The very fact that these brands are threatened by poor sales suggests that they brands do not hold any special place in our collective hearts, at least not until the mass media starts to brainwash us with phrases about “pop-culture icons” and “savory hints of childhood and innocence.”