TWINKIE It is what it is Snack on this, oh haters of the little cream-filled sponge cakes: They are perfect, cannot be destroyed and will outlast us all.

April 14, 1997|By Steve Rhodes | Steve Rhodes,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

On May 26, 2045, revelers will gather at the Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio, to open a 50-year-old time capsule. And in Sandusky, in a scene that will be repeated throughout America for years to come, one of the items dug from the ground will be a Twinkie. A city official, corporate executive or everyday citizen will pull open the plastic wrapper with a pop, pull the golden, sandy cake from its moorings and shove half of it into a watering, wide-open mouth.

And it will be good.

It will be perfect.

It will be Good and Perfect. It will be Great.

This epiphany occurred to me while doing research on time capsules to be opened in the next millennium. The Twinkie is one of the most popular time capsule items, a fact confirmed by Paul Hudson of the International Time Capsule Society, and this in part contributes to the popular mythology that this is a food, loosely defined, that defies the notion of "shelf life."

Freshness-dating notwithstanding, the Twinkie, like nuclear waste, may be around forever.

This, of course, makes it a terrific item for a time capsule. But it doesn't begin to explain why the Twinkie is thought to be so important, so significant, such a cultural icon (not to mention a triumph of chemical processes), that it must be preserved for future generations to contemplate.

Like many others before me, I have searched for the secret to the Twinkie. I have interviewed the experts, studied the marketing, questioned the consumers, visited the Web sites. And yet the answers remained elusive. What makes the Twinkie endure? Why, after 67 years, does it continue to dominate convenience store shelves even as we head into the Millennium? How has it not only survived but thrived in an increasingly PC time of energy bars and Healthy Choices?

Now I know.

The Twinkie is Great and Perfect.

Always has been, always will be. It is a universal quality unaffected by the boundaries of time and space. Like original Coke, Wrigley Field and those sheets of packing bubbles that demand popping, the Twinkie is a Quality Experience.

I must confess this is not my theory. It struck me like a creme-filled bolt of lightning, though, in a new book called "Inconspicuous Consumption" by Paul Lukas.

Lukas is the publisher of the landmark 'zine, Beer Frame: The Journal of Inconspicuous Consumption, and a columnist for New York magazine. He has made it his mission to examine the beauty of everyday items usually taken for granted. He's an Everyman's Warhol.

His favorites include the Brannock Device, that oddly shaped slab of black and silver metal that measures your foot size, and the J.M. Galef money-changer that vendors wear on their belts. Ka-chunk!

Like the Twinkie, these are objects that have been perfected. They will never be improved upon. They are Plato's ideal. (Of course, not everyone is a philosopher; just this month a new "light" version of the snack cake has made a bow.)

"Inconspicuous Consumption's" foreword describes the phenomenon this way:

"Utility, beauty, art, permanence, and craftsmanship sometimes come bundled in one thing, and that thing is then Great and Perfect. Things that, through perfection in design, concept, and execution, are beautiful, do their job immaculately well, and continue to do so forever. They exist and we can know them."

The Twinkie, I submit, is just such an item.

Pop culture staple

The history of the Twinkie has been well-documented. But not the historical interpretation of Jack Nachbar, popular culture professor at Bowling Green State University, the nation's leading institution in developing unified theories of the universe around sitcoms and snack cakes.

Nachbar's reading of the Twinkie's history is Forrest Gumpish. You almost expect him to produce a photo of Nikita Khrushchev pounding a Twinkie instead of a shoe on that table at the U.N., or JFK serving them up at White House state dinners. But Nachbar makes a convincing case that the Twinkie's history has paralleled -- and influenced -- our own. Consider:

The Twinkie was originally a cheap dessert item suited to the Great Depression. During World War II, when banana use was limited to serve the war effort, the cream filling changed to vanilla. Howdy Doody hawked Twinkies on postwar television. In the 1960s, Twinkies became the symbol of everything the counterculture hated: "It was mass-manufactured, there were preservatives in it, it was high in calories and it was unnecessary," says Nachbar.

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