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Hostess Twinkies are shown in a studio photograph, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012 in New York. (Mark Lennihan / AP Photo/Mark Lennihan / AP Photo)
Hostess Twinkies are shown in a studio photograph, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012 in New York. (Mark Lennihan / AP Photo/Mark Lennihan / AP Photo)

The perverse pleasures of the Twinkie Add to ...

You’d be forgiven if you thought the happiness of a Twinkie is all in the childhood memory. Food and memory are closely intertwined as anyone who finds comfort in eating their mother’s apple crisp knows. For many, news earlier this month that Hostess Brands, the makers of Twinkies and other snacks such as Ho Hos, Sno Balls, Ding Dongs, Suzy Q’s and Zingers, had filed for bankruptcy protection was like learning that a childhood friend was deathly ill. Twinkies accompanied them through episodes of Gilligan’s Island perhaps. Or maybe they always showed up in their lunch box or waited for them on the counter when they came in from their paper route.

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But the pleasure of the snack goes beyond the memories it triggers. Twinkies are injected with more than oily cream.

“If you look at any food, its history and what it means changes over time,” says Ken Albala, professor of history at California’s University of the Pacific and author of several books on food, including Beans: A History.

“In the fifties, Twinkies became a quintessential food of modernity – something that was clean and white and sterile. People understood it was junk food but they didn’t understand why it was awful. It didn’t have a negative stigma.”

Novelty is happiness, in other words.

Then with the trend of healthy eating, Twinkies became bad. Still, that brought its own kind of pleasure. “Twinkies became the quintessential mass-manufactured ersatz food,” Prof. Albala says. “It’s the very symbol of a food that people shouldn’t eat because it’s so bad, and in reaction to that a lot of people thought, ‘Well, I’m going to eat it anyway.’ ”

There’s happiness to be found in being subversive, as we all know.

But let’s not forget Twinkies’ invitation to bite into a slice of American culture, once revered and now ridiculed – “middle-class, really boring, WASPy, American conservative families. Like Beaver Cleaver,” as Prof. Albala points out. “They’re the exact opposite of ethnic food, which is interesting and soulful. … Twinkies are the complete icon of bland America.”

Consuming them is a statement in kitschy irony – a very urban, non-middle-American thing to enjoy. (Just in case you’ve any doubt as to their ironic clout, remember that Twinkies had a cameo in the famed seventies sitcom All in the Family. In one episode, Archie Bunker berates his wife, Edith, when she didn’t put some Twinkies in his lunchbox. “It’s the white man’s soul food,” he deadpans.)

To help digest the real (and perverse) pleasure of a Twinkie, here are some notes on the snack that’s been called “the perfect postmodern artifact.”

· In 1999, along with Ray Charles’s sunglasses and a map of the human genome, Twinkies were put forward for inclusion in the Millennium Time Capsule to be stored at the U.S. National Archives and opened in 2100. They were called “an enduring American icon.” Alas, a concern about mice derailed the plan.

· Lewis Browning was dubbed the Twinkie King of the World – thanks to the myth-making machine of Hostess. The 89-year-old retired milk truck driver ate at least one Twinkie a day for 61 years – a habit that puts his consumption of Twinkies over 22,000.

· It all began with a fellow named James Dewar. In the thirties, he had the brilliant idea of making better use of his shortcake pans. Up until then, he had used them only during the summer to make shortcakes with fresh strawberries. But what if he shot the cakes full of gooey cream filling? He got the name from a billboard in St. Louis advertising Twinkle Toe Shoes. Original price: two for a nickel.

· Twinkies has a cookbook all its own. You, too, can learn how to make Twinkie sushi. It involves green fruit leather and dried mango as garnish. Who said Twinkies didn’t have sophisticated, up-market aspirations? Or was that recipe ironic, too?

· Homer Simpson may have said you cannot harm a Twinkie. But, officially, it has a shelf life of 25 days.

· In his 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, Steve Ettlinger discovered 39 ingredients in one Twinkie. Among them: corn dextrin, a cornstarch and thickener that in other uses is a glue found on the back of envelopes. There’s also cellulose gum, which gives the cream filling its smooth texture. “It’s in a lot of low-fat salad dressings, ice creams, and it’s used in rocket fuel to give [it]the slightly gelatinous feel,” he told ABC.

· Twinkies have spawned other scientific investigations. Roger Bennatti, a science teacher at George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill, Me., left an unwrapped Twinkie on his blackboard for 30 years to “marvel at the miracle of [its]engineering.” It dried out but didn’t fall apart. He even thought it might still be edible if someone dusted it off.

· In 1979, the “Twinkies defence” became part of American legal lexicon during the trial of Dan White, a San Francisco supervisor accused of murdering Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, a fellow worker. The defence team argued that Mr. White was not fully responsible for his actions because he was depressed, as evidenced, in part, by his “bingeing on Twinkies,” according to a psychiatrist. The result? A lesser charge of manslaughter rather than murder. That some people consider Twinkies criminal took on a whole new meaning.

Who would have thought that a Twinkie could contain so many cultural bits and pieces? Maybe Hostess should reconsider its marketing strategy if Twinkies return after the company restructures. Forget the idea that the snack is simply a return to mindless, happy childhood. There's so much more for the consumer to chew over. Embrace its cultural complexity! Start a campaign of mindful Twinkie eating! Sell it as 80 years of weird and wonderful happiness in one very bland white cake.

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