My siblings and I each had our favorite snack cakes during the early 1970s. My sister liked her girlie Hostess Sno Balls, with their springy jackets of coconutty pink marshmallow encasing devil’s food cake and a center of white cream. My brother was partial to Butterscotch Krimpets from Tastykake. These snack cakes were flat, with corrugated edges and a generous layer of frosting over a crumbly yellow cake.
Me, I was a Drake’s Yodel kid, which in my mind was vastly superior to its near-twin, the Hostess Ho Ho. The Yodel I loved was a roll of dense chocolate cake and white cream encased in a hard chocolate shell. They came wrapped tightly in shiny foil and stacked in the box, like cigarettes. My mom would let me have one when she got back from grocery shopping. I would sneak more when she wasn’t looking.
We weren’t really a Twinkie family, though there was usually a box somewhere in the kitchen as a kind of snack of last resort. I was never a fan for several reasons: 1) The cellophane wrappers weren’t particularly friendly to young fingers. 2) The Twinkies I recall had a pungent smell that belied their bland nature. 3) The two little cream injection holes on the bottom always kind of freaked me out. 4) The not-quite-salty aftertaste was something I’d learn in later life to recognize as “chemical.”
The recent news that Hostess Brands has filed for bankruptcy protection has made people who haven’t eaten snack cakes since the Carter administration try and imagine a world without Twinkies. The company says it faces no imminent danger of interrupting supply lines. But the ground swell of nostalgia has started, and you can be sure the producers of “Mad Men” are stockpiling a few cases of Twinkies, Ho Hos and Ding Dongs just in case.
The fact is the snack cake itself is already disappearing from American life. Many of the major producers (Hostess, Drake’s, Dolly Madison) have long consolidated their operations, and fewer choices appear on supermarket and convenience store shelves. The food vending machines at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution offer only one true pastry-and-icing snack cake – Mrs. Freshley’s Swiss Rolls, which appear Yodel-esque.
By the late 1970s, Entenmann’s pretty well pushed the last remaining snack cakes out of my mother’s kitchen. She started to replace those boxes of Yodels with Entenmann’s soft chocolate chip cookies, which never hardened no matter how long they sat on the counter.
My mother died in 1983, and over the years that immediately followed my siblings and I checked in regularly on our dad to make sure he was eating well. From the looks of things, he seemed to subsist primarily on frozen dinners, Special K cereal, cottage cheese and Little Debbie snack cakes. There was something kind of hard-core scary about those Little Debbie doodads, with their machine-perfect stripes and layers and their brittle shells of frosting.
“Dad, don’t eat this stuff!” we implored. “It’s not good for you.”
That must have been around the time when packaged snack cakes became the epitome of processed junk food at its worst. The “Twinkie defense” had been a phrase in parlance for several years, dating to the sensational 1979 trial of Dan White, who shot down San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. White’s lawyers argued his consumption of sugary snacks was a symptom of his debilitating depression. However, the public soon took it to mean that a diet of junk food will make you go crazy.
The myth of the infinite shelf life of the snack cake must have taken root around that time as well. A Twinkie, they said, could last decades. Hostess denied this, though the idea continues to hold currency. Who can forget the scene in
“WALL-E” when the pet cockroach discovers a deliciously creamy Twinkie that happens to be centuries old?
The idea that packaged snack cakes are the worst of the worst seems almost second nature to many people now. It is no wonder author Steve Ettinger chose the iconic cream cake as the representative subject for his 2007 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” (Hudson Street Press).
I’m sure that more than a few of these 37 foodstuffs and chemicals also constitute the energy bars that I now stock in my own pantry. I have never once – not ever, ever, ever – brought a snack cake into our house. (I wouldn’t let my kids eat those!) But when the sweet tooth strikes, they can choose from the various peanut butter granola bars and almond-fruit slabs we keep on hand.
I know, however, these bars have none of the pleasures of snack cakes. Sometimes you hanker for something brittle and crunchy, other times only soft and creamy will do. But, really, can anyone turn back the clock and satisfy this latter need with an amalgam of refined oils, refined grains and chemical preservatives in a shelf-life-extending petroleum wrapper?
Of course not. When the mood strikes, we get cupcakes.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog