washingtonpost.com  > Print Edition > Weekly Sections > Food

Twinkies, 75 Years And Counting

By Candy Sagon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 13, 2005; Page F01

C'mon, admit it. You eat Twinkies. You love 'em.

Maybe you feel a little guilty about it, but you're not alone. Americans spent $47 million on them in the past 12 months.

Louis Browning, of Shelbyville, Ind., knows what he likes. He has eaten a Twinkie nearly every day since 1941. (Feature Photo Service / Fps)

_____Recipe Box_____

That's right. The junk food we love to ridicule.

We joke that they're made from so many chemicals that they'll last forever. We sneer about how college students dropped one from a six-story building and it was barely dented. We shake our heads at how one guy used them as a defense in a famous murder trial.

And yet despite it all, Hostess makes 500 million of them every year. And sales are increasing, according to Information Resources Inc., a Chicago firm that tracks retail sales and trends.

This month, the little cream-filled, yellow spongecake celebrates its 75th birthday -- and no, it's not because the same ones have been on the shelf for that long. That's just one of the urban myths surrounding the snack cakes that were invented in 1930.

Back then, James Dewar, manager of Chicago's Continental Bakery, wanted to find another use for his company's shortcake pans. He decided to fill the small, oblong cakes with a banana-cream filling and name them after the "Twinkle Toe" shoes he saw advertised on a billboard in St. Louis. Banana cream-filled Twinkies -- selling two for a nickel -- debuted as part of the Hostess baked-goods line. During World War II, when there was a banana shortage, the filling flavor changed to vanilla.

By the 1950s, Twinkies had become a school lunchbox staple. In 1999, President Bill Clinton and the White House Millennium Council selected the Twinkie to be preserved in the nation's millennium time capsule, calling it an enduring American icon.

Nutritionists scoff at them for being fatty and sugary, but that doesn't keep Hostess from turning out about 1,000 per minute. And just in case you wondered exactly how that happens, the cakes are baked for 10 minutes, then the cream filling is injected through three holes in the top, which is browned from baking. The cake is flipped before packaging, so the rounded yellow bottom becomes the top.

The Twinkie factory is still in Chicago, which also happens to be the American city with the highest per capita consumption of Twinkies. Chicagoans who want their Twinkies gussied up can go to comfort-food restaurant Kitsch'n for Twinkie Tiramisu. Or they can get a fat infusion at hot dog shop Swank Frank, which sells those state fair favorites, deep-fried Twinkies.

The cakes' sturdiness and longevity have led to the myth, say Hostess officials, that Twinkies have a shelf life measured in years, even decades. Roger Bennatti, a science teacher at George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill, Maine, kept one perched atop his chalkboard for 30 years. "It's rather brittle, but if you dusted it off, it's probably still edible," he told the Associated Press when he retired last year.

In reality, Twinkies' shelf life is more like 25 days, says Theresa Cogswell, who calls herself the Twinkie guru and is vice president for research and development at Interstate Bakeries Corp., the parent company of Hostess. She admits she got a good laugh out of the 30-year-old Twinkie story but says she wouldn't want to eat one quite that old. "You can eat older Twinkies, but they're just not as good as when they're fresh. Then they're awesome."

Still, a 25-day shelf life is pretty long. That's because Twinkies contain no dairy-based ingredients that could quickly go bad. Twinkies are basically flour, sugar (three kinds of it), oil, eggs and chemicals (mainly preservatives and stabilizers). They're 150 calories each, about a third of that from fat. Cogswell doesn't think that's so bad. "There's no bad foods -- just bad quantities," she says.

Lewis Browning, a retired milk-truck driver, has been eating one or two Twinkies a day for 64 years. "Had one for breakfast this morning with a banana and a glass of milk," he says in a phone interview from his home south of Indianapolis. The 22,000 he's eaten have earned him an appearance on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and a lifetime supply of Twinkies from Hostess.

A year ago, Browning was in a hospital intensive-care unit with pneumonia. "My wife asked the doctor if she could bring me some Twinkies. He said it wouldn't hurt me, so I even ate a Twinkie in intensive care," says Browning.

Others save their Twinkies for special occasions. Like weddings. Philip Delaplane, 50, a chef and instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, says he's loved Twinkies since he was a child. So does his wife, Pam. For their wedding last year, Delaplane built a four-tier wedding cake out of Twinkies and other Hostess snack cakes. "We didn't want anything too stuffy. We wanted something fun," he says.

Although he had back-up desserts in case guests balked at eating junk food, he needn't have worried. "They devoured the cake," he says. "I had used toothpicks to attach the snack cakes to Styrofoam forms and they just yanked them all out. It was the talk of the wedding."

While people like Delaplane maintain a nostalgia for the Twinkies of their youth, the snack cake has been linked to several not-so-sweet events.

When Minneapolis city council candidate George Belair served Twinkies and other refreshments to two senior citizens' groups in 1985, he was indicted for bribery in what the newspapers dubbed "Twinkiegate." Although the charges were eventually dropped, the case led to a Minnesota fair campaign act, popularly known as the "Twinkie law." The law was repealed in 1988.

And, of course, there's the famed courtroom defense in the 1979 trial of former San Francisco supervisor Dan White, accused of shooting the city's mayor and another supervisor. White's attorneys argued that he suffered from severe depression that had been exacerbated by junk food bingeing. Although Twinkies were only mentioned in passing, the term "Twinkie Defense" was quickly coined by journalists to explain the legal strategy that led to White's conviction on a lesser charge.

Having a product linked to such dubious outcomes might upset some companies, but Hostess officials seem unperturbed. "[Twinkies] are a constant in your life. They always come back around," says Cogswell, who's worked for Hostess for 20 years. "The way we look at it, sometimes you just need a sugar fix."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company