Food & Nostalgia, or Why We Care About Twinkies (We No Longer Eat)

Like music, food is amazingly transportive. One lick of a lemon ice takes me right back to my front yard in summer, standing barefoot and breathless after chasing down the ice-cream truck; one bite of a pork roll and cheese sandwich and I’m back in my school cafeteria on Tuesdays, a.k.a. Taylor ham day. Humans are sentimental beings, and the power of memory is strong—and decidedly rosy in color, which explains why I can easily overlook pork roll’s insane saltiness on the rare occasions I eat it now.

Twinkies, a Hostess product
Photo by Larry D. Moore, used under a Creative Commons ShareAlike License

For this same reason, countless Americans are now mourning a snack food they haven’t eaten, or even thought to eat, for years: the Twinkie. When its parent company, Hostess, made the announcement last week it was filing for bankruptcy—possibly signaling the end of such U.S.-grocery-store icons as Wonder Bread, Twinkies, and their ilk (not to mention the loss of 18,500 jobs)—my Facebook and Twitter feeds lit up with grief-stricken sentiment:

“No more Twinkies?! OMG!!” “NOOOOOO!” “It’s a sad day in American history.” “Wonder no more.” “R.I.P. Hostess. #sadface”

As some have pointed out in the ensuing tsunami of media coverage, if everyone grieving for Twinkies et al. had actually been buying them regularly over the years, there’s a good chance the company wouldn’t be in this position now (the recent labor strike is only “the final blow”). But while clearly some people in this country never stopped depleting the packaged-cakes aisle, plenty of others have cut back, wisely relegating Hostess’s highly processed products to once-in-a-long-while treats—or they’ve eliminated them altogether. Unlike the hidden bad-for-you ingredients in, say, certain breakfast cereals, there was no disguising Twinkies’ well-documented 39 ingredients as anything less than a nutritionist’s nightmare.

(To be fair to the Twinkie, when it was invented in 1930 as a sponge cake with banana-cream filling, it was made with good old butter, eggs, and milk. Later, a “vanilla” cream composed of cellulose gum (used in hair gel and, famously, rocket fuel) and shortening—partially hydrogenated vegetable oils or beef fat—proved more conducive to the snack’s now famously long shelf life. *Shudder.*)

But it’s funny how nostalgia clouds the mind. Nostalgia—defined by Merriam-Webster as “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or return of some real or romanticized period or irrecoverable condition or setting in the past”—doesn’t discriminate against the known evils of high-fructose corn syrup. During what simpler, idealized time of your life—at slumber parties, roller rinks, Grandma’s house on weekends—did your Twinkies play a supporting role? Chances are, the mere sight of those boxes is all that’s needed to call up a host of (strictly positive) childhood associations you’d rather hold on to, thank you very much.

The intersection of food and nostalgia is a popular topic among anthropologists and other scientists, whether they’re studying immigrants homesick for their cultural foodways or the emotional distress that may underlie poor but comforting food choices. On this very website, the regional, traditional foods that we seek to document and contextualize around the world are often the same kinds of nostalgia-inducing foods as Twinkies and their ilk, on a micro-regional scale.

Take, for example, the MoonPies of Tennessee.

The MoonPie, a snack born and beloved in Tennessee

We thought the s’more-like sweet—a round cake of soft marshmallow sandwiched between two chocolate-coated graham-cracker cookies—was good, but could only imagine the sacred cultural significance it might have to a native Southerner.   

Same goes with New Orleans’ beloved 99-cent Hubig’s Pies, which experienced its own outpour of support when its factory burned down in July of this year, temporarily halting pie production.

Hubig's Pies and Big Shot soda, two iconic snacks from New Orleans, Louisiana

Recently glimpsed on Hubig’s Twitter feed: “More upset about the @HubigsPies factory burning down than I will ever be about Hostess. Regional allegiance to fruit pies, dammit.” (@the_boy)

These foods aren’t always packaged, of course. We can understand that not everyone will fall for New York City’s black-and-white cookie or Detroit’s hot fudge cream puff (pictured below).

Sanders' hot fudge cream puff, a Detroit snack

But that’s not to say a native of either wouldn’t miss their respective homegrown snack should it suddenly disappear.

Outside the U.S., let’s consider Mexico’s super sweet, Slurpee-like raspas, peddled in zócalos around the country. Montreal’s Orange Julep. Amsterdam’s famous street krokets (see below) and sausage frikadels: cheap, deep-fried fare sold from coin-operated automats.

Automat kroket, or croquette, from a FEBO stand in Amsterdam

Broadly speaking, these might all be considered junk foods that locals—whether they indulge in them frequently or avoid ’em like the plague—nonetheless have a soft spot for. Because they played a role in their pasts, in their hometowns. Because they’re somehow theirs.

The U.S. can certainly do better than Twinkies when it comes to calling a food its own, but there’s no denying its role in our collective junk-food past. And while I was never much of a Twinkies fan myself, I can understand the instinct at play here—I might feel similarly sentimental if all Cheetos or Kit-Kats or Spaghetti-Os were pulled from grocery shelves forever. Fortunately, those are safe…for now.

What favorite snack from your childhood would you miss if it disappeared forever? 

Published On: November 21, 2012

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