“The sweetest comeback ever.” That’s what the billboard said as my wife and I were heading back into Chicago last summer from a trip to the country vet. The Twinkie was back after an extended absence, having been reintroduced to the market a few months prior. No one had told me. It isn’t that I had missed Twinkies a whole lot. In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time I had one. My early twenties? But, the mere thought of the absence made my heart grow fonder.
The billboard was enough to spark our conversation though. “The Twinkie is back,” I say.
“Really? We should stop and get some,” my wife says.
My wife is the last person in the world whom I would think of to suggest making a “Twinkie Run” on a Saturday afternoon in Chicago. It isn’t that she doesn’t like sweets. She does. She isn’t, however, the Dolly Madison or Hostess type, but rather a woman who is a connoisseur of high-end pastries with a European flare or fresh baked goods from a local baker – the kind that are still warm from the ovens. So the mere fact she even suggested getting a Twinkie was testament to how we long for that we cannot have.
The Twinkie is legendary in American pop culture. The billboard had Twinkie the Kid riding another Twinkie just over the Chicago landscape. A Twinkie riding another Twinkie seemed wrong to me – sort of like a horse riding another horse or a tuna going deep sea fishing. But, Twinkie the Kid had been wrangling those soft cream-filled sponge cakes since 1971. He was always my favorite as a child, save for King Ding Dong whose name did not escape the humor of grade school boys. But, I still remember those animated cartoons and the subsequent hunger (and kitchen raid) that followed them…along with my mother’s lecture on subliminal advertising.
My wife asks me, “Did Hostess open back up again?”
“I don’t know.” This was enough of a prompt to get me digging around on Wikipedia and soon I was reading it aloud – a quick tour through the history of the Twinkie. Oddly enough, we were riding through the Northwest side of Chicago while I am reading about how the Twinkie was invented in River Forest back in 1930. River Forest is right next to Oak Park – home of Frank Lloyd Wright and Earnest Hemingway.
“You suppose Hemingway ever ate a Twinkie?” I ask.
No response from my wife on that one. She’s grown immune to these questions over the years – my frequent wonderings and perpetual curiosity no longer intrigue her…or maybe they never did if I’m remembering right. I briefly conjured up a picture Wright and Hemingway eating small cut up Twinkies off a silver tray while drinking martinis in a prairie style home. Doubt that ever happened…
“Can you imagine what it would have been like to invent the Twinkie?” I offer. Once again, my wife refuses to be baited into this conversation. Like a stoic, she continues to drive, no doubt thinking deeper thoughts than I.
Twinkies were invented in 1930 by a man named James Dewar who worked for the Continental Baking Company. The bakery, in an attempt find a way to put shortcake pans to use after strawberry season, had begun making just plain cakes in the now-familiar shape of a Twinkie. Dewar developed an idea to inject the shortcakes with a banana cream filling. This was the birth of the Twinkie in form. The name – as legend has it – was adopted from a billboard sign Dewar spotted on a business trip to St. Louis entitled “Twinkle Toe Shoes.” A shortage of bananas during WW2 caused the replacement of the banana cream filling with just plain cream filling. And thus the modern version of the Twinkie and a legend was born. Well not quite. It’s unclear as to when it happened, but Dewar suggested the cream filling be injected in three spots using three injectors rather than a single spot using one injector. This ensured a better distribution of the cream filling and was a major “design decision.”
It’s a rabbit hole for me to think about great inventions and inventors – people who are essentially designers. What would it be like to have invented something as great as the Twinkie? Or what about items we would find it hard to live without today? The windshield wiper, the tumbler lock, water taps, the hydraulic elevator and the list goes on. But what about designs and inventions, unlike the Twinkie, where there is no clear inventor known to history. Shoe laces, for example, can be traced back to 3500 BC. But, no one is really sure who invented them. What about cheese? Who was brave enough to curdle some milk, let it sit for awhile and then taste it? How about the written language? Who was the first human to represent an utterance with a symbol representing a group of sounds? So much is lost to history. And yet so much is not.
I suppose the Twinkie pales in comparison to the written word. But there was a chained event that occurred in my tiny little mind and I still can’t get the whole thing out of my head. The sadness of these great designs being lost to history and that history being lost to the universe did not escape my meditation on the subject. There is something very satisfying about a well-designed product. Sitting in a chair that was crafted meticulously for the human form, tasting the perfect pastry, reading the words of a great novel, admiring the prefect photograph – all of these are perfect because they were designed as such.
In 3.5 billion years, humans may not still be alive. The great Twinkie along with Twinkie the Kid may have gone the way of the Dodo. But, around that time – give or take a million years – the sun will boil the oceans, melt the ice caps and wipe out all life on the planet. The Twinkie will be lost to the history of the universe…unless aliens do pay us a visit, in which case I would like to think they would abduct Twinkie the Kid along with Coca-Cola to share with other life forms. This chain of events plays out in my mind like some sort of existential torture. It doesn’t matter how many great inventions or designs we come up with. All will be lost eventually – forgotten in a cosmic cloud of dust never to be recovered again. Who will ever know we were here, the great things we achieved or the wonderful things we made?
Somewhere billions of years from now, no one will know I ever existed. The Zen philosopher in me wants to be consoled with the thought that there is no “I.” But, this thinking still tumbles me down the rabbit hole into an existential crisis, no matter how much I try to resist it. And it all starts with single thought: Somewhere billions of years from now, there is a child who will never know the sweetness of a Twinkie coupled with a fresh glass of milk on a summer afternoon while reading a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
To me, this impermanence fosters a sense of urgency to enjoy and appreciate design and beauty surrounding us each and every day – whether it is a dinner, art or something as simple as the sound of nature on an early spring morning.
James Dewar lived until 1985 and swore he ate a Twinkie ever day. He was well known for his invention and it is said his house was frequented on Halloween because everyone knew he would be giving out Twinkies. The Twinkie lived until 2012 and was resurrected in 2013 – a year later. I bought a box and while they did not taste as good as they did when I was a child, the little sponge cakes still brought back some wonderful memories. But, does anything ever taste as good as it did when we were children? Perhaps it’s nostalgia. Or maybe a child’s mind is more open to appreciating the simple pleasures in life without putting as much thought into them as I apparently have.
Nothing lasts forever, which is why we have to absorb the beauty around us as it unfolds. But, when all does seem lost, there is always the chance of “the sweetest comeback ever.”