Except that Twinkies aren’t merely a snack cake, nor just junk food. They are iconic in ways that transcend how Americans typically fetishize food. But ultimately, they fell victim to the very fervor that created them.
Despite the many urban legends about the indestructability of Twinkies — Did you know they are made with the same chemical used in embalming? Or that they last 5, no 15, no 50 years? — and the many sadly true stories about the atrocious ingredients used to create them today, these treats once upon a time were the real deal.
They started out back in 1930, an era when people actually paid attention to seasonality in foods. James A. Dewar, who worked at Hostess predecessor Continental Baking Company in Schiller, Ill., wanted to find a way to use the bakery’s shortbread pans year round. You see, the shortbread was filled with strawberries, but strawberries were only available for a few weeks a year.
So he used the oblong pans to bake spongecakes, which he then filled with banana cream. Bananas were a more regular crop.
Let’s pause so you can wrap your mind around that for a moment. Twinkies once contained real fruit. Twinkies were created because of seasonality.
All went swimmingly until World War II hit and rationing meant — say it with me — Yes! We have no bananas. And so was born the vanilla cream Twinkie, which was vastly more popular anyway. Even then, there was a crafted element to these treats. The filling was added by hand using a foot pedal-powered pump. Pump too hard and the Twinkies exploded. These days you only see that when teenagers post YouTube videos of themselves microwaving them.
It was around this time that American food culture did an about face. It was an era when the industrialization and processing of cheap food wasn’t just desired, it was glorified. Cans and chemicals could set you free. And they certainly set Twinkies free of the nuisance of a short shelf life. It’s not formaldehyde that keeps these snack cakes feeling fresh, it’s the lack of any dairy products in the so-called “cream.”