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The disappearing snack cake

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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

24 comments Add your comment

Praveen

January 30th, 2012
7:02 am

Have my tastebuds changed so much or have Twinkies and Hostess Cupckaes gotten more chemical infused as the decades have passed? Or a little bit of both?
I remember sorta liking Twinkies as a kid and loving Hostess Cupcakes. Now I find both vile, especially Twinkies which have a remarkably horrible chemical aftertaste.

Baltisraul

January 30th, 2012
7:12 am

Praveen……….you find them both vile, do you. You sound like a real stand-up guy.

rebelliousrose

January 30th, 2012
8:41 am

When I was recently in Pennsylvania, to my horror, the Tastykake company had been sold and was no longer making the Chocolate Kreamies I have craved and worshipped since childhood. They changed the recipe, so the once soft-but-textured cake with the cream spread between two ladyfinger style cake planks is now dense, flavorless, and tastes only of sugar. My heart was broken.

Back off Steve

January 30th, 2012
9:08 am

I agree with Praveen. The aftertaste and the oil that’s left on your tongue is a definite turnoff. Blech! Maybe as a kid, I just overlooked it.

Tarheel

January 30th, 2012
9:44 am

In NC it was a MoonPie. Still a pretty good treat.

ab

January 30th, 2012
9:48 am

John – I’m with you…yodels and devil dogs! Drake’s is absolutely the best ever!

beth

January 30th, 2012
10:37 am

Zingers were always my favorite, though I haven’t had one in over 20 years.

1164mgc

January 30th, 2012
10:54 am

Great piece! Twinkies were a “kind of snack of last resort” in our house too. I won’t be sorry to see them go (if they do). I wonder had OUR mothers had the choice of getting granola bars and nutty fruit things if they’d have done so instead of getting snack cakes. Still…. we didn’t have the overweight epidemic then that we do now.

Jim R

January 30th, 2012
11:37 am

Any one who has never had a fresh Ho-Hum right out of the oven at the old Colonial bakery on Moreland has missed the highlight of fourth grade.

JimmyZ

January 30th, 2012
11:39 am

http://freshchocodiles.com/hostess/orange_cupcakes.html
Nothing better than Hostess Orange cupcakes….seriously, when I was a kid, I hunted for these things. I actually bought one the other day. The fake orange apparently masks the chemicals-it wasn’t half bad.

Reds

January 30th, 2012
12:05 pm

I don’t think I’ve ever had a twinkie. We weren’t allowed little debbie type stuff, and while in college i had an affection for the oatmeal cream pies, that didnt last long.

John Kessler

January 30th, 2012
12:24 pm

Reds – You jogged my memory. I, too, had a brief fling with oatmeal cream pies. Think it must have been late high school…

Edward

January 30th, 2012
12:29 pm

I still have a weakness for a couple of Little Debbie offerings, namely the Oatmeal Creme Pie and the Raisin Creme Pie. I rarely buy them, though, as I’m trying to limit my snacking to fresh fruit. But, sometimes I just can’t resist that trip down nostalgia lane.

Reds

January 30th, 2012
12:41 pm

JK — they are especially delectable frozen. :)

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Lori

January 30th, 2012
1:55 pm

Never been a Hostess fan. Little Debbie Swiss Cake Rolls are the only snack cake that I like. And oh boy, do I like them!!!! Yummy :-)

M.Johnson

January 30th, 2012
2:09 pm

You brought back memories. Mom gave us Twinkies and Zingers on our birthday cakes when we were little. At the time, I thought it was a special treat designed just for me.

As we got older and cut costs, she started stocking up on Little Debbie oatmeal pies and brownies. When we moved to Hawaii, we finally got a reprieve in the form of brick-hard granola bars.

My love for Twinkies subsided after college, and I still won’t touch a Debbie cake. But granola bars are always on standby. I prefer their new granola thins, which aren’t as hard.

You can’t go back home again, but I do enjoy the way creative pastry chefs try to recreate those old favorites.

Lorenzo

January 30th, 2012
2:24 pm

These snack cake things were staples in my classmates’ Partridge Family lunchboxes. It wasn’t until I was about 12 that my mom finally relented and allowed, if I recall, Yodels and Devil Dogs, into my lunch bag. I imagine I would still find them enjoyable. Better living through chemistry.

ziza

January 30th, 2012
3:43 pm

i loved funnybones as a kid – chocolate outside, chocolate cake and then a filling of peanut butter. they where shaped like yodels. i never did like twinkies even as a kid. and now very rarely have any little debbie or anything like that although i still do love moon pies which i will indulge in 1ce every few years or so…..

Art

January 30th, 2012
5:13 pm

When I was growing up in another large Southern city that shall remain unnamed, my Dad would drive home from work everyday to have Ruth’s Pimento Cheese on toasted white bread and a Little Debbie oatmeal cream pie. To this day, I think of him each time I see those pies in the grocery store. I was always partial to those Pecan Spinwheels… more of a breakfast thing. We were never into Twinkies; they smelled funny coming out of the wrapper.

wooleybare

January 30th, 2012
9:00 pm

In my pre teen years and family was living in PA, i used to ride my bike to the nearly gas station for tastykakes!!! i wasnt partial to any particular flavor—i loved them all!!! maybe with the apparent impending demise of hostess bakers, tastykakes will come to GA….

Philly in Atl

January 31st, 2012
8:53 am

Wooleybare — Tastykake is, and has been, here! Both Kroger and the Philly Connection shops have routinely carried some kinds of Tastykake. It should only get easier now since Tastykake went bankrupt and was bought by Georgia’s own Flowers Foods. When I was a kid, it was a split decision – lick off the frosting of the butterscotch krimpets (and mostly toss the bland cake) or gobble up peanut butter kandykakes. The peanut butter kandykakes (like a reese’s cup but with a little yellow cake) remain a worthy once a year taste treat and are even fun straight out of the freezer like thin mints.

Jenn P.

January 31st, 2012
9:02 am

Tastykakes are already here in Publix stores.

Rodney

January 31st, 2012
10:10 am

Man, have I mauled through some Oatmeal Cream Pies in my younger days. I think they were used to stem “the munchies”, if you take my meaning.

Never been a fan of the Twinkie. My Mom never let that kind of stuff in the house – not that she was so anti-sweets or whatever, it was just considered something of a luxury item and, to quote Sophia from The Golden Girls, “We was po.” So no extra money for those kinds of things.

Oddly enough – for the past few years my Dad has cultivated quite the sweet tooth in his late 60s. Every year now for his birthday he gets a shopping bag filled with Little Debbie’s, Tastykakes, whatever junky sweetie food we can find. In his eyes, the cheaper, the better.

I guess he’s trying to eat enough foods with preservatives so he can “preserve” himself and live longer :) Kinda like my Aunt Rozzie who drank enough whisky to pickle herself and lived to be 90!