Of Twain and Twinkies
Mark Twain and the Twinkie have something in common: reports of their deaths have been exaggerated. Mr. Twain lived through two premature death notices, in 1897 and again in 1907, before finally giving in to the real thing in 1910. The Twinkie was pronounced dead for the first time on November 21, 2012 when a judge declared Hostess bankrupt and U.S. production shut down. This set off the Ebay barometer of any consumer good’s actual value. Twinkie prices soared to the six figures and suddenly it seemed obvious to all that killing off the cream filled cake was bad business. Now, two investment firms have bought the bankrupt company. Twinkies have pulled a Lazarus.
What would Mr. Twain say? He once remarked that “the only distinguishing characteristic of the American character I’ve been able to discover is a fondness for ice water.” Perhaps he’d have reconsidered had he lived during the age of plastic packed snack cakes. But he didn’t. As Andrew Beahrs has revealed, Twain was a literary locavore. Like most Americans of his day, he enjoyed regional dishes based on local ingredients. Twain traveled a lot and wrote a lot and when in one place put his longing for the foods of other places into words: Philadelphia style terrapin (that’d be turtle); Hawaiian flying fish; San Francisco oysters; Illinois prairie hen. These days Americans are more likely to yearn for ethnically specific foods from their immigrant ancestors than they are for dishes based on local wildlife.
What the Twinkie’s dance with death revealed was a common nostalgia for that truly American great uniter: the junk food of our youths. When word is that sugar is the new tobacco all the tears shed for the Twinkie seem a little odd. Nostalgia though is about the longed for past—back when that Twinkie in your lunch box didn’t come wrapped in any complexes. Now we all know to be careful what we wish for. This accounts for the artisanal Twinkie at Brooklyn bakeries and the DIY Twinkie for creative cooks. Both let you have your snack cake and eat it, too. Mark Twain had a more serious problem when he longed for that prairie hen. By the time of his death, their nesting grounds had been nearly all plowed under to make way for amber waves of grain. In the heartland, prairie hens have nearly gone the way of the dodo bird. If it’s any comfort, the West Michigan Whitecaps baseball team plans to introduce a new regional food at their ballpark this spring: the Twinkie Dog. Yes, a Twinkie split down the middle will serve as a bun for the hot dog. One wonders if this was what Twain meant when he remarked that Americans “are called the nation of inventors.” The Twinkie is dead; long live the Twinkie.