Don't tell Al Gore or George W. Bush, but the real issue on American minds apparently isn't the economy or education.
Just ask Heather Holmes. During a union strike in the Northeast last week, she was forced to eat her favorite snack cake hiding in the bathroom. The reason: Her husband is a member of the Teamsters union, which was supporting a strike against the company that makes the lozenge-shaped cakes.
She is six months pregnant and says that Twinkies are a "valuable part of my diet." The Middleborough, Mass., resident, can eat them freely again now that the walkout is over.
The week-long picketing that emptied shelves along the eastern seaboard of baked goods revealed two things: Not only that Americans are publicly willing to admit they eat Twinkies, but also that whoever chose apple pie as the food that best represents this country may have been mistaken.
With the exception of Spam, few foods illicit the mix of fascination and disdain that Hostess's cream-filled sponge cakes do. Long before the great "Twinkie Famine of 2000" - when boxes were (and still are) being auctioned on eBay and discussions of airlifting packages to New England were common - the Twinkie was influencing society even more than the Internet.
"Jay Leno has made a career out of making jokes about Twinkies," says Mark Dirkes of Interstate Bakeries Corp. in Kansas City, Mo., which makes Twinkies.
Celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, the Twinkie has moved well beyond the lunch-box crowd and is contributing to the disciplines that make this country function: art, science, and the law. Hundreds of Twinkies, for instance, are used weekly in the theater performances of the Blue Man Group.
"Everybody from a certain age on knows what a Twinkie is, unless they've been living in a jungle or something," says Manuel Igrejas of Blue Man Productions in New York. The New York production (it also runs in Chicago, Boston, and Las Vegas) resorted to Little Debbies when it couldn't get the Hostess cakes last week.
In a further repudiation of the "apple-pie theory," the Twinkie will be represented in the National Millennium Time Capsule, a prototype of which is on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
High school seniors from Shoreline, Wash., wanted it included, calling the Twinkie "an object of enduring American symbolism." When the capsule is unsealed in 2100, it will offer a rare opportunity to test the longevity of Twinkie mythology as well as the ingredients of the cream filling.
Not that the physics of the pastry hasn't been tested already. In 1995, two students at Rice University in Houston were procrastinating during finals and performed a series of experiments on the snack cake (see www.twinkiesproject.com).
They doused Twinkies in water. They dropped them from tall buildings. They electrocuted them. Among their conclusions: Microwaving the cakes is a "bad idea," though they did find Twinkies "could be an acceptable substitute for firewood in some situations."
It was about at this time that the Twinkie became a catalyst for budding filmmaker Chris Smith. His first film was an animated short he created for a Hostess contest in honor of the Twinkie's 65th birthday. He used the prize money to make a film that was accepted at the Sundance Film Festival.
Of course, the Twinkie hasn't always been used for the forces of good. In the late 1970s, the "Twinkie Defense" was used in a San Francisco murder case to suggest the defendant could not control his actions when he killed two people because he was depressed and too full of junk food, including Twinkies. He was convicted of manslaughter, rather than first-degree murder. Murder rates during the strike last week have yet to be released.
Last week's strike will add another chapter to the Twinkie timeline. On Saturday, the celebration of the Twinkie's 70th anniversary will move forward with the unveiling of a cake made up of 25,000 Twinkies at Chicago's Navy Pier.
That number might have sounded a bit excessive to the people of the Northeast seeped in "famine" last week. But now, Mr. Dirkes says the celebration is a chance to show that the days of dearth are over: "We are hopeful it will be a good sign."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society