Not deferential enough: In defense of Twinkies

Posted Wednesday, January 18, 2012 in Opinion

Not deferential enough: In defense of Twinkies

by Gina Hamilton

The times, they are a-changing. When I was a kid, my nanny, and sometimes my mother, used to make us homemade cookies and muffins as treats, as well as many other things that, in retrospect, were far healthier than the stuff we really craved, which were pre-packaged snacks by Hostess: Twinkies, Ding Dongs, Cupcakes, and especially Ho Hos, those delicately rolled chocolate cakes enrobed in chocolate icing, a buche de noel meeting a petit four, all with creme filling. How could an oatmeal raisin or an iced molasses cookie even hope to compete?

Now before you call the nutrition police on me, I know, perfectly well, that these things are not good for us. Twinkies especially have a particularly bad reputation. In the 1980s, Dan White, the guy who shot San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in cold blood, beat a murder rap by claiming that he ate too many Twinkies, and the refined sugars did something to his brain, rendering him incapable of controlling himself. Of course, that was nonsense, and everyone knew it, but nevertheless, White got off (and subsequently killed himself to save angry citizens the trouble). 

In later years, these sweet little cakes were banned from school lunches, along with just about everything else a child might actually eat without a gun pointed at his head: chips, peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches on sponge-like white bread, and even Elena's iced molasses cookies would become unwelcome in the little metal box. Chocolate milk was a thing of the past. Jell-O pudding cups? Forget it. 

The idea was ... and I am sure there are nutritionists out there who still believe this ... that if you give a child "healthy" food from an early age, he or she won't want sweets or fats. He'll be just as happy with carrot sticks as he would be with potato chips. She'll learn to enjoy white skim milk.

The problem is, that's not true. I think I can speak for most kids, because I still have, to my sorrow, what is known as a "child's palate." This is regrettable, because I would love to learn to like things that are icky, such as caviar and most cruciferous vegetables. My doctor would love it if I would start eating broccoli and cauliflower and could stand to eat fish, although she probably doesn't mind about the caviar. But in children, and in a small group of adults, the taste buds that detect sharp, bitter flavors and perceive them to be terrible-tasting never die. This stuff tastes like poison to us, and we quite rightly screw up our faces and spit it out when we are confronted with such things. The child's palate also doesn't care for odd textures. Cooked onions? Ick. Too many large tomato pieces in the spaghetti sauce? Gross. People with child's palate also don't appreciate odd combinations of things. Salads are one thing, you expect the occasional weirdness in a salad, but even with salads, there is a limit. Black olives? Anchovies? Eggs? Take it away, Winters. Who would put cabbage in chicken soup? Really?

And parents who try to get their kids to eat "healthy" snacks, by hiding the healthy bits inside otherwise innocent treats — say, by adding walnuts to chocolate chip cookies — soon enough find a small pile of walnut pieces (that texture thing along with the bitter thing), even if the kid has scarfed down the rest of the cookie.  It's why kids don't like whole grain breads, too.

This makes life with the average child ... and with adults who have a child's palate ... particularly trying for the cooks in the house. 

But it's why things like Twinkies were so appealing. There isn't much to a Twinkie, really. It's a tiny sponge cake with that creme filling (except of course, it's not real creme, it's some kind of sweetened vegetable oil beaten to look like creme) and no hard bits or bitter flavors anywhere about the thing. There is nothing in them for children to reject. Children would happily eat Twinkies all day, because they were designed to cater to a child's palate.

The problem is, they're so bad for us. 

American food companies have tried to make sure that the average American's palate remains childlike, by adding things like sugar to things that don't require it (even with a child's palate, the curious sugary taste of, say, SpaghettiOs was not pleasant, but perhaps that was because it was always twinned with the odd flavor of tin can). There is more sugar in "adult" cereals in the U.S., such as Special K, than there is in the same product sold in Europe. There is more sugar in soda in the U.S. than there is in Europe. There is a lot more sugar in most ketchup in the U.S. than there is in the U.K. Why this may be so is not clear. There is also more salt in these products.

Salt, of course, makes sense. What you do with salt is alter the flavor of foods that may not be quite fresh so that it seems perfectly OK. Naturally, large corporations that want a long shelf life for their product add salt as a preservative. Sugar, however, is a little more complicated.

The easiest explanation is that the change from cane sugar (which is comparatively expensive) to corn syrups (not only far cheaper, but also subsidized to a huge degree by the federal government) made it financially advantageous to put more sweeteners in things, and less of the ever-so-slightly more nutritious ingredients such as enriched white flour. Corn syrup also acts as a preservative, which is why Twinkies ... you remember Twinkies, we were just talking about Twinkies ... can last in a landfill for a thousand years.

Like most women of their generation, my mother and Elena had no fear of sugar. We got Kool-Aid on a regular basis all summer long, cookies and muffins, and for a special treat, my dad would bring home a dozen Dunkin' Donuts. He famously said of them that they couldn't possibly be fattening, because they went down so easily. I think the greater fear of Twinkies (and of Ho Hos, my particular favorite) wasn't the nutritional value, it was the monetary value. Twinkies were and are expensive. Ho Hos, even more so.

As parents wised up to the health concerns, however, schools also started forbidding these things for snacks and lunch, Hostess' market share plummeted, and this week, it filed for bankruptcy. But I think there's a place for Twinkies in the modern world. We all need a more or less innocent guilty pleasure. It could be a seven-dollar cup of coffee, or it could be a Twinkie. Which would you rather have?

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