Twinkie Half-Life: Not the same guy who once loved 150 calories’ worth of Americana 

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There were four of us that night at the Bayou: men, past their prime, looking for camaraderie and beer bottles with fanciful labels.

Without our wives to moderate the repartee, the waitress was vulnerable—and outnumbered, four geezers to one. She gamely traded quips with men her father’s age. We laughed. She laughed, too.

After a forgettable dinner, as she cleared the plates, we asked her to recommend a dessert. Without so much as a pause, she replied, “Deep-fried Twinkies.”

We gasped in disbelief.

Twinkies! Deep-fried! How could it be? Noisily, we struggled to reconcile the solecism of sponge cake, cream filling and boiling oil. The waitress retreated, plates in hand. She returned a few minutes later no less adamant. “It’s the most popular dessert.”

We were rapturous. The mere mention of Twinkies had opened a wormhole to a golden age of spam, spudnuts and Deeburgers, five for a dollar. There, on a lucky day, a Twinkie nestled in your school lunch bag, extravagance wrapped in waxed paper.

But fried? No way! Beery exclamations animated the table. Perverse! Confounding!

“Delicious,” she said.

She was too young to remember that Edith Bunker packed Twinkies in Archie’s lunchbox every day. She wasn’t old enough to know about the “Twinkie defense” that got Dan White off a double-murder rap in San Francisco in 1979. (White’s attorney convinced the jury that White, a junk-food junkie, was too depressed to premeditate so he got seven years for manslaughter.) And, no, she hadn’t heard that a package of Twinkies was sealed in the National Millennium Time Capsule in 2000. When opened 92 years hence, her great grandchildren can view the Twinkies alongside other artifacts of the Carbon Age in America.

Her patience waned, so we ordered four forks and two fried Twinkies. They arrived looking more like corn dogs than Twinkies. We sampled them daintily, hoping to be transported back to the days of Keds and crew cuts. But the Twinkies-fueled time machine failed.

The damned things are nasty, we announced. The waitress shrugged. We flushed the oily residue from our mouths with hot coffee and left a big tip. She was not sorry to see the geezer foursome shuffle out, still reminiscing about Twinkies and the good old days.

A few months later, I read that Interstate Bakeries Corporation, the producer of Hostess Twinkies, had filed for bankruptcy protection. I wondered if profits had been swamped by an upswell of slow-foodies, vegans, locavores, shopping-cart nutritionists and buffed Baby Boomers. It’s a coalition that could have influenced the market, and if they didn’t, they surely intend to. I witnessed thousands of them in Abravanel Hall applauding as food maven Michael Pollan disparaged Twinkies and other “edible, food-like substances.” I felt like a sinner in a revival meeting.

Interstate Bakeries asserts that Twinkie sales are solid, unaffected by “fads and trends.” A spokesman assured me that the Twinkie is “an icon of Americana that has become part of our popular culture.”

So I went in search of the icon. At the University of Utah Bookstore, a cashier named Ralph told me that some people buy Twinkies every day. Even a recent price hike didn’t hurt sales, he confided.

In Orem, at gas-station mart, I found an empty space on the Hostess rack between cupcakes and donettes. I told the attendant there were no Twinkies. She was apologetic. “Some people buy four packages at a time.”

Bypassing Whole Foods, I chose a Sugar House convenience store where the clerk reported that Twinkies was a favorite treat of young and old alike. “A lot of people buy them for breakfast,” she said.

I must say I was surprised. The results of my survey were in line with Interstate’s claim that 500 million Twinkies are consumed each year. Some fried. Some with morning coffee. Some no doubt with VitaminWater!

I bought a package and continued on to Sprague Library. There, I found Twinkies, Deconstructed, a book by Steve Ettlinger. I read that the “archetype of all processed foods” has a reputation for being so full of preservatives that a package of Twinkies has a 25-year shelf life. Ettlinger cited a Doonesbury comic strip which floated the notion that Twinkies are made only once a year. I thought of the time capsule. The 20th Century Twinkies might just prove to be edible!

I waited until I got home to open the Twinkies. It was the first package I had bought in more than 35 years. I ate them slowly, respectful of their iconic status.

The truth is that they weren’t as good as I remembered. Tasting the cream filling fell short of the transformative effect of hearing a Beatles song. I remained stuck in the present with oily fingers. However, I take full responsibility. I’m not the same guy who once loved Twinkies. I used to hate asparagus—now I don’t—and my taste buds are unreliable, as worn as my knees. Icon or no, when choosing 150 calories’ worth of Americana, this geezer will pass up the Twinkie for a glass of California wine.

Mullen is on vacation.

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