Twink, Twink

November 18, 2012

With the Thanksgiving holiday coming up later this week, the newspaper is chock full of food stories. In addition to the obligatory turkey jokes, there’s an item in the Lansing State Journal on food-related business incubators, and another on the completion of a lawsuit over contaminated meat. However, one of the most alarming stories comes from J. M. Hirsch, Food Editor at the Associated Press. It raises the specter of a Thanksgiving without Twinkies. As I’m sure all my robot readers know, Twinkies were served at the original Thanksgiving celebration between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. We know that it occurred in 1621 because some 17th century graffiti artist hacked that date into a big rock on the shore at Plymouth, Mass.  But history has lost track of some key details that are essential to this event—like was it the Pilgrims or the Wampanoag who brought Twinkies to the first Thanksgiving? Although I would like to devote today’s Thornapple blog to resolving this important question, even my research is inconclusive.

The case for a Pilgrim-led first Thanksgiving Twinkie is quite weak. Although there are exhaustive logs of materials that were brought to the North American continent on the Mayflower, there is no mention of Twinkies in these logs. One scholar, Heinous T. Balbriggen, speculates that consumables might have been left off the log altogether, but his speculation is refuted by numerous references to smoked meats and hardtack. It is, however, possible that the entries for hardtack in the Mayflower logs actually were references to Twinkies. The main reason for this is that both the traditional cracker-like hardtack made from flour, salt and water and the Hostess Twinkie, a spongecake filled with a non-dairy vanilla cream, are putatively indestructible. Although the literally infinite durability of these foodstuffs is doubtful, both have been shown to have useful shelf lives of several years with no detectable decline in quality.

If Twinkies had been brought to the Thanksgiving feast by Wampanoag, there are crucial issues that are virtually inexplicable. How would the Wampanoag get the vanilla-cream filling into the sponge cake? Hirsch’s AP story notes that in the early years, the Hostess Company inserted a series of different fillings (fruits and banana creame) into the spongecake fingers one at time using small nozzle on a foot-controlled air pump. No one has ever offered a satisfactory explanation of how the Wampanoag—known for their proficiency in farming practices—would have developed the dexterity needed to gently cradle the small spongecake fingers in their palms while feathering the foot pump in order to achieve just the right velocity for vanilla cream to saturate the center of the cake without causing it to explode.

And if the nightmare of exploding Twinkies were not enough: Although the Wampanoag were potentially capable of acquiring sufficient quantities of cellulose by dissolving hemp fibers in alkali, there is no record of them ever extruding the viscose thereby obtained through a narrow slit, or of washing the thin film of viscose in a bath of sulfuric acid and sodium sulfate. Hence, there is no reason to suppose that any foodstuffs manufactured by the Wampanoag could have been wrapped in cellophane. We also have no archeological evidence of cellophane in the middens around the Plymouth region. There is, however, a brief reference to Plymouth colony governor William Bradford singing the lyric, “A human being’s made of more than air, With all that bulk, you’re bound to see him there, Unless that human bein’ next to you, Is unimpressive, undistinguished. You know who…” during a skit performed at the first Thanksgiving in order to kill time while the gravy was thickening. Since the modern chorus to this lyric goes on to reference “Cellophane, Mr. Cellophane,” many scholars presume that Bradford was inspired the numerous discarded Twinkie wrappers littering the table.

Hirsch writes that the Hostess Company, manufacturer of Twinkies since the 1930s, is being dissolved after declaration of bankruptcy. Trademarks for their iconic food items are up for sale. (There’s actually a serious labor story to tell here, but frankly I’m not up to it this morning.) Readers who have not already done so should rush to the corner market for their Thanksgiving Twinkies this year, as there will be no more manufactured until some other giant in the industrial food system steps in to fill the void.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

 

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