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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.

THE BALTIMORE 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.

From Archie Bunker's lunch box in the '70s to Superman's 50th birthday party in the '80s, the Twinkie's cultural status grew -- for better or worse. In 1978, the storied snack cake was accused of murder. In what became known as "the Twinkie Defense," lawyers argued that San Francisco politician Dan White wasn't to blame for the shooting deaths of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk because he suffered from "diminished mental capacity" due to the excessive intake of junk food. White was convicted of the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter.

Today, the Twinkie is the perfect post-modern artifact, a pop culture staple. Take a recent episode of "The Simpsons." An unruly customer at the Kwik-E-Mart tried in anger to twist and tear apart a pack of Twinkies, only to finally drop them on the floor and watch them snap back to their original position. Apu, the Kwik-E-Mart manager, watched in amusement. "Silly customer," he said. "You cannot hurt a Twinkie."

Not that Ralston Purina didn't try. The pet food company, which bought the Hostess empire in 1984, left well enough alone until a few years ago when it ran into financial problems. So Purina downsized the Twinkie. By 10 percent.

In July 1995, Interstate Bakeries Corp. stepped in and took Hostess off Purina's hands and immediately restored the Twinkie to its rightful size.

Silly Purina. You cannot hurt a Twinkie.

The mystique

"The Twinkie proves that anything can be studied in-depth," says Nachbar, who has brought the tasty treats into his classroom to prove the point on more than one occasion.

A quick look at the Twinkie's World Wide Web presence confirms it. Take the T.W.I.N.K.I.E.S. Project, the landmark research conducted by two Rice University students during the spring finals week of 1995. The students put the Twinkie through its paces in tests "designed to determine the properties of that incredible food," including resistivity, rapid oxidation, solubility, radiation -- even gravitation: "As soon as the Twinkie was released, it began to fall."

Or Twinkies In Space, which determined that a Twinkie has 11.3 "gravities." "A bit high for manned launch," the researcher concluded, "but certainly the right order of magnitude."

Or Momentum and Collisional Energy Considerations of Cryogenically Stored Twinkies, complete with a grant request for $312,630, including EPA Superfund money.

"We don't get offended," says Mark Dirkes, Interstate Bakeries' senior vice president of marketing. "I think it's pretty neat."

There's a marketer who knows free publicity when he sees it. But give Dirkes credit -- he knows that the Twinkie mystique depends on carriers of its myths, even if that means the spawning of urban legends about chemicals not found in nature that Twinkies must harbor.

"The brand personality for these products is all about having fun," Dirkes says.

dTC Even the folks at Twinkie Corporate note in their official fact sheet that it takes just 45 seconds for a Twinkie to explode in a microwave.

But just what is it about the Twinkie that elicits such behavior? Is it the alluring golden color, concocted from red dye No. 40 and yellow dye No. 5? Is it the 20 secret ingredients in the sponge cake? Is it the mysterious fluffy filling?

Upon taking guardianship of the Twinkie, Interstate commissioned the market research to find out. In part, Dirkes says, it discovered that the Hostess name in general, and the Twinkie in particular, evoked the kind of nostalgia that seems so crucial to baby boomer consumerism. At the same time, Generation X loves the Twinkie as it loves all things that evoke childhood, in a post-modern, ironic and kitschy way, of course. Like Farrah Fawcett T-shirts and "Three's Company" reruns.

But even that explanation seems insufficient.

"The Twinkie is the whole climax of Western Civilization," Nachbar ventures, unashamedly. "It's chemistry, physics, economics, even nutrition. You could do a four-year program on the Twinkie alone."

No, that's not it either. The answer isn't in marketing studies or sweeping theories. It's something far simpler, yet far more profound.

A few years ago, I recall, a Twinkies publicist told me: "It is what it is." And it occurs to me that that's essentially correct. The Twinkie is, as it says on its package, a Golden Sponge Cake with Creamy Filling. And, as we have learned, it's execution cannot be improved upon. It is what it is, and it is what we want.

Twinkie Web sites

The Twinkie Singularity: http: //www.callamer.com/ames/twinkie.html

The T.W.I.N.K.I.E.S. Project: http: //www.owlnet.rice.edu/gouge/twinkies.html

Twinkies In Space: http: //megadodo.com/articles/8R17.html

Twinkie Torture -- Collisional Energy Considerations of Cryogencially Stored Twinkies: http: //astl.spa.umn.edu/juan/twinkie-torture/procedure.html

Planet Twinkie (the official site): http: //www.twinkie.com

Pub Date: 4/14/97

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