Twinkies at 75: munch 'em, fry 'em, save 'em for years

The Twinkie just turned 75. Considering that 500 million of them are sold yearly, it seems obvious that Americans are crazy for these sweet, spongy, cream-filled snacks. The question is - why?

"The reason behind my loving Twinkies is obvious - they taste so darn good," says Debbie Rizzo, a publicist in San Francisco..

"Twinkies are simply my favorite food group," says Denise Dorman, a Twinkie connoisseur in Florida. "I craved Twinkies during my recent pregnancy, and we're having my newborn son's christening cake made of Twinkies."

OK, so some people think Twinkies taste great. But why have the squeezable yellow cakes endured as an American cultural icon?

"Great brands live on because of the emotional response they evoke as part of our [long-term] memory," says Tom Collinger, associate professor of integrated marketing communications at Northwestern University in Chicago.

Professor Collinger once thought of a Twinkie as the perfect food: "You could hold it in one hand. You didn't get crumbs on your fingers or your mouth. There were options to get at the filling inside - biting, licking, and slurping or sucking."

Phil Delaplane, a 50-something professor of American cuisine at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, N.Y.,, grew up eating Twinkies.

"Loving Twinkies is a nostalgia thing," says Mr. Delaplane, who recently made his wedding cake with Twinkies. "Where I work, there are pastry chefs all around. My colleagues told me a substantial wedding cake for 150 guests would cost $1,200."

So he decided to go with a Twinkie cake instead. Saving money wasn't really the motivation, he insists. "We wanted something fun that would bring back our childhood - not just for ourselves but for our guests as well."

The choice of cake has also had a continuing effect on Delaplane's life. "On our monthly 'anniversary,' I stop off at the convenience store and pick up a piece of 'wedding cake' to bring home to my wife, Pam. With Twinkies, you don't have to freeze the wedding cake" to enjoy it together later.

These days, you might think Twinkies would be a big no-no among nutritionists. But some don't condemn it at all.

"It's portable, individually wrapped, and has a lot of flavor and satisfaction if you are looking for a portion-controlled treat," says Madelyn Fernstrom, associate professor and director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Weight Management Center.

With 150 calories per Twinkie, Dr. Fernstrom says, it's a great choice for those seeking a "real dessert" without a lot of extra fat and calories - a Twinkie contains only 5 grams of fat, although it is high in sugar. She's not arguing that nibbling on a Twinkie is better than eating an apple. But if the choice is a piece of cheesecake or pie versus a Twinkie, she recommends the latter.

Chef Delaplane admits to watching what he eats, but he isn't concerned about Twinkies: "There are too many other things for me to worry about in this world - not necessarily what's in my Twinkie."

And what's in a Twinkie that causes its phenomenally long shelf life (rumored to range from years to decades, although officially it's 25 days)? Fernstrom attributes it simply to the absence of dairy products.

Some adults who loved Twinkies as kids and try them again as adults wonder what in the world ever attracted them to the snacks. Have their tastes changed, they wonder, or are Twinkies different now?

The ingredients for the Twinkie are the same today as they were when introduced, except for the filling, says a spokesman for Interstate Bakeries Corp.The original Twinkie contained banana creme filling. When bananas were in short supply during World War II, the company changed to vanilla creme filling.

Twinkies trivia

• Twinkies have been featured in major movies, including "Ghostbusters," "Grease," and "Sleepless in Seattle."

• In the TV series "All In The Family," Edith put a Twinkie in Archie's lunchbox each day.

• In 1999, President Clinton and the White House Millennium Council selected the Twinkie to be included in the nation's Millennium Time Capsule, representing "an object of enduring American symbolism."

• Chicago consumes more Twinkies per capita than any other city in the US.

• It takes 10 minutes to bake a Twinkie.

• Interstate Baking Corp. bakeries can produce 1,000 Twinkies in a minute.

• When Twinkies were first introduced, the price was two for a nickel. In 1951, a package of two cost 10 cents; in 1966, 12 cents. Today, the price ranges from two for 99 cents to two for $1.29.

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