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Just what is it about junk food that’s so appetizing?

Isn’t ‘junk food’ an expression that belongs among trash and debris? Among the rubbished and the discarded? Yet, the irony is that because junk food is so bad for us, we really want it. Take Twinkies, for example — those golden sponge cakes with creamy filling, as it says on the wrapper, that were introduced in 1930. A treat for the Depression.

It used to be a best-seller then and is still a best-selling item for Hostess, the company that sells 500 million annually of these iconic snack-cakes made of hydrogenated oils, artificial flavors and high fructose corn syrup — all deliciously unhealthy, all parcelled up in quintessential red, white and blue packaging to conjure the glossy nostalgia of retro-Americana.

Way back then, junk food represented American indulgence as an ideal. Because a box of Twinkies wasn’t just a snack. It was also a ticket. A ticket to assimilation — for countless immigrants who were making Post-war America their home — complete with a picket fence, a cocker-spaniel named Sky, and a long Cadillac for a second car. A golden cake, more golden than the hair they wished they had, stuffed with whiteness.

That whiteness was Twinkies’ original banana filling. The inventor, James A. Dewar, a baker for the Continental Baking Company, got the idea after seeing his machines (for punching cream-filled strawberry shortcakes) sitting idle when strawberries were out of season. So he conceived a snack with a banana filling that he dubbed Twinkie, naming it after a billboard he saw in St. Louis for “Twinkle Toe Shoes”.

During World War II, when the Government rationed bananas, the company switched to a vanilla cream which proved more popular. So popular, in fact, that it wasn’t until 2005, after a month-long DVD promotion for King Kong, that vanilla sales were challenged by the original before being permanently restored to the snack’s line-up in 2007.

As a gastronomical and cultural icon, Twinkies are a staple of popular culture. On their own, drizzled with chocolate syrup, served with a scoop of ice-cream, or frozen and deep-fried in batter at a county fair, they have been immortalized with cinematic dialogue, scientific experiments, field journalism, and some astounding urban myths, each more ridiculous than the last.

Like how Twinkies remain edible from anywhere between 50 and 100 years given the 39 ingredients they use (most of them preservatives). Or how a Twinkie’s shelf life is longer than the cellophane it’s wrapped in. Or how Twinkie’s use of a chemical in its ingredients is similar to embalming fluid. Or, best yet, how they’re indestructible and even capable of surviving a nuclear war…

Of course, that’s the hype. But ask a marketer and s/he’ll tell you that Twinkies are a story of mastery of shelf life (up to 25 days for a baking good), phenomenal distribution (60,000 sold every hour), and perfect uniformity. Day in and day out. So, digs aside, these golden creamy treats are more than what meets the eye.

Even their advertising strategy was remarkable. Tucked inside comic books, generations have followed addictive ads featuring Marvel, DC and even Archie characters battling foes with tasty Hostess snacks. “You get a big delight in every bite of Hostess® Twinkies” exclaims one of them, as America’s favorite comic heroes and heroines lift Twinkies in their triumphant hands like prized bars of gold.

But the ridicule is partly a result of unquestionable success. Even in our age of health-conscious consumers, weight-watchers and fitness gurus, low-carb diets and bottled waters, Twinkies have stood the test of time — going against no less than eight decades of wide-ranging trends. May be it’s because what they lack in dignity they make up in taste. While they are an icon of junk food snacks and guilty pleasures, and while they are nutritionally worthless, they are still irresistibly satisfying — having also made the cultural contribution of shifting sweets exclusively from dessert time to snacking anytime.

So imagine the pandemonium when it was announced that bankruptcy has doomed Hostess and that it’s twilight for Twinkies and other Hostess brands. An 82-year history cast away like a used wrapper.

Apparently, the demise has been a long time coming due to labor disputes with the unions. Whatever it is, if you come across a Twinkie before it becomes a relic, make sure you pause and pay your respects. Buy yourself a box. Have a taste of its sugar-shocked, fake, buttery-ish vanilla. It will take you back. It may just taste of memory. Or just keep it around for future generations — in case the rumors about it lasting forever are true.

Forever, that is, until reality bites.

 

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