Setting the gold standard

Wednesday, June 1, 2005
Twinkies are cut in half and layered into a baking pan.

A few years ago 50 baboons somehow managed to escape at once from the wildlife preserve at the Kings Island amusement park near Cincinnati. Zookeepers, sensing that this development was not good for business at the park, scrambled to lure them back, using a variety of devices. It took four days to get the job done, and though a tranquilizer gun was instrumental in the process, a far more effective tool was the Hostess Twinkie.

Those clever primates could not resist that squishy, creme-filled sponge cake, what the dean of the Florida Culinary Institute calls the "gold standard" of snack foods, any more than we humans can. In fact, statistics show that someone in the United States eats a Twinkie every six seconds, which is why Hostess has to spew them out at the rate of 1,000 every minute or 500 million every year, wrapping them in some 40,000 miles of cellophane along the way. And they've been doing it now for three-quarters of a century.

The Twinkie was invented 75 years ago in Chicago (still the nation's Twinkie capital in terms of per capita consumption) by Jimmy Dewar, the manager of the Schiller Park bakery there. (And no, contrary to rumor, there are no leftovers from the original batch still on store shelves.) Trying to find an alternate use for the stacks of shortcake pans he had on hand and which were used only during strawberry season, Dewar landed on the idea of using them for sponge cakes which he then would inject with banana creme filling. (A shortage of bananas during World War II necessitated the switch to the vanilla creme filling still standard today.) A St. Louis billboard for Twinkle Toe shoes gave him the name for his new product which he sold for two for a nickel. Before long they were showing up in lunchboxes across the country.

But as it celebrates its diamond anniversary, the Twinkie has become far more than a lunchbox treat. It is a veritable American icon. Thus, recently a photography show in Pittsburgh revolved around Twinkies as objets d'art. Among the exhibits was "The Last Snack," inspired by DaVinci's famous painting. Moreover, in 2000 the Twinkie was chosen as "an object of enduring American symbolism" and placed by President Clinton in the millennium time capsule along with a piece of the Berlin Wall.

"Twinkie" has even become part of our vocabulary, usually employed disparagingly. Perhaps the most notorious example is the so-called "Twinkie defense" mounted in 1979 by attorneys defending San Francisco supervisor Dan White against the charge of murder. They claimed his behavior was caused by depression fueled by bingeing on junk food. Similarly, in 1986 when Minneapolis city council candidate George Belair was indicted by a grand jury for serving Twinkies and other refreshments to citizens groups in violation of fair campaign practices, the case was dubbed "Twinkiegate" and the new policy which resulted became known as the "Twinkie law." Likewise Paul Tsongas coined the term "Twinkie economics" during the 1992 presidential primary campaign to refer to policies which please voters but fail to address fundamental economic problems like the deficit.

Yet such talk does not seem to have diminished enthusiasm for the Twinkie itself, even among gourmets. For example, Phil Delaplane, an instructor at the famed Culinary Institute of America, had his wedding cake made out of them. Restaurateur Christopher Sell, who trained as a French chef, created the fried Twinkie.

No doubt Twinkies will be around another 75 years. We know they're junk food, but like those apes, we can't help ourselves.

Twinkie-misu

This is what you get when you substitute Twinkies for the conventional ladyfingers in the classic Italian dessert, tiramisu.

Ingredients:

18 Twinkies

2 tablespoons instant coffee

1 tablespoon sugar

1 cup boiling water

1 pound cream cheese

2 cans (14 oz. each) sweetened condensed milk

16 ounces whipped topping

2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder

Directions:

Slice Twinkies in half lengthwise. Line the bottom of a 9-x13-inch pan with half of the split Twinkies, filling side up. Dissolve coffee and sugar in boiling water. Brush 1/2 cup of coffee mixture over Twinkies. Beat cream cheese until smooth. Blend in condensed milk. Fold in whipped topping. Spread one half cheese mixture over Twinkies. Place remaining split Twinkies over top of cheese mixture, filling side down. Brush with remaining coffee mixture. Cover with remaining cream cheese mixture. Dust with cocoa powder. Chill at least five hours.

Listen to A Harte Appetite at 8:49 a.m. Friday on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Write A Harte Appetite, c/o the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699 or e-mail tharte@semissourian.com.

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