They’ve been lunchbox and snack-time staples for 85 years, but how well do you really know the cream-filled sponge cakes?
1. THE GREAT DEPRESSION INSPIRED A SNACKING PHENOMENON.
In 1930, James Dewar was managing Continental Baking’s plant in the Chicago suburb of River Forest, Ill. when he made snacking history. With household budgets shrinking, Dewar needed a new product to keep sales up. Dewar wasn’t one to back down from a challenge. The 33-year-old had started his career as the driver of a horse-drawn wagon delivering pound cakes and risen to his management post, so he was ready to solve this sweet riddle. As he later explained, “The economy was getting tight, and the company needed to come out with another low-priced item. I thought of a two-to-a-pack item for a nickel.”
2. SEASONAL STRAWBERRIES MADE THE SNACK POSSIBLE.
Twinkies aren’t made with strawberries, but without strawberries, there would be no Twinkies. Dewar’s plant had the machinery and pans to make spongy little fingers for strawberry shortcake, but since strawberries were only in season for six weeks out of the year, this equipment usually did little more than gather dust. In a stroke of genius, Dewar decided to start making little cakes filled with a banana cream. Since bananas were available year-round, he now had both the new snack he was looking for and a good use for the shortcake gear.
3. A BRAND OF SHOES INSPIRED THE NAME.
The memorable “Twinkie” name was also a Dewar creation. While visiting St. Louis on business he saw a billboard for Twinkle Toe Shoes and liked the name. He would later explain why generations of Americans have chowed down on Twinkies instead of Twinkles: “I shortened it to make it a little zippier for the kids.”
4. FILLING THE EARLY TWINKIES WAS A DELICATE TASK.
Early Twinkie production wasn’t automated. Bakery workers manually filled each cake with the banana cream using a contraption they pedaled with their feet. Hostess’s The Twinkies Cookbook contains a great excerpt from an interview early “Twinkie stuffer” Margaret Branco gave to the St. Louis Post Dispatch describing the process and a nice fringe benefit of the job: “You had to pump the pedal just right or too much filling would shoot out. If I oversquirted, the Twinkie would explode. Of course, that wasn’t so bad. I got to eat the crippled ones.”
5. MODERN TWINKIES ARE A PRODUCT OF WORLD WAR II.
The banana-cream-filled Twinkies were such a hit that Branco reminisced in the aforementioned interview, “We could hardly keep up with the demand. You’d think people had nothing to do but eat Twinkies. They sold like hotcakes.” After a decade of winning over snackers, World War II forced Dewar and his army of Twinkie stuffers to reformulate their cream. Wartime banana shortages meant the original recipe was no longer feasible, so Continental Baking switched out the banana cream for a vanilla version. Consumers didn’t revolt, and the vanilla version became the Twinkie standard with banana versions making periodic reappearances in the intervening decades.
6. AN ACTUAL KID STOOD UP FOR TWINKIE THE KID.
Snackers have a soft spot in their hearts for Twinkie the Kid, the anthropomorphic Twinkie mascot who naturally works as a cowboy. Twinkie the Kid made his debut in TV spots aimed at non-Twinkie kids in the early 1970s with a popular campaign promising kids “You Get a Big Delight In Every Bite.”
At least one kid who grew up with Twinkie the Kid was distraught when Continental Baking phased out the character in 1988. Thirteen-year-old Judd Slivka of Livingston, N.J. didn’t take the Kid’s forced retirement lightly. He rattled off a letter to Continental requesting the Kid’s reinstatement, complete with 135 signatures on a petition promising to boycott the company’s products “as long as our hero is kept away from the public.” The threat worked, and when Twinkie the Kid made his triumphant return in 1990, Continental Baking reached out to Slivka to let him know his pleas had hit home.
7. DEWAR WAS ALSO AN AVID TWINKIE CUSTOMER.
Unsurprisingly, the inventor of Twinkies was not a health nut. In 1980, 83-year-old Dewar told the Associated Press, “I eat Twinkies every day and smoke a pack and a half of cigarettes.” He claimed that his ongoing Twinkie consumption hadn’t affected his waist or his well-being, saying, “I weight 160 pounds, same as I ever did, and I feel fine.”
When Dewar passed away in 1985, his Los Angeles Times obituary featured another one of his classic rebuttals to Twinkie detractors: “Some people say Twinkies are the quintessential junk food, but I believe in the things. I fed them to my four kids, and they feed them to my 15 grandchildren. My boy Jimmy played football for the Cleveland Browns. My other son, Bobby, played quarterback for the University of Rochester. Twinkies never hurt them."
8. THE DEEP FRIED TWINKIE IS A RELATIVELY RECENT INVENTION.
Given how the deep fried Twinkie has become a staple of carnivals across the country, it would make sense that the decadent dessert was a down-home innovation. Instead, the credit goes to an Englishman in Brooklyn. Christopher Sells began deep-frying everything from candy bars to M&M’s after his restaurant, the Chip Shop, opened in Brooklyn in 2001. By 2002, he had so perfected the fried Twinkie that the New York Times was rhapsodizing its virtues: “Something magical occurs when the pastry hits the hot oil. The creamy white vegetable shortening filling liquefies, impregnating the sponge cake with its luscious vanilla flavor (sure, it's imitation, but nevertheless potent). The cake itself softens and warms, nearly melting, contrasting with the crisp, deep-fried crust in a buttery and suave way.”
9. THEY HAVE A SHELF LIFE ...
Despite persistent rumors that Twinkies will last forever thanks to their preservative-laden recipe, the cakes actually have a relatively brief shelf life of 45 days. Being able to survive a little over six weeks in the wild actually represents a major uptick in durability for Twinkies. Before the bankruptcy of parent company Hostess stopped production of Twinkies between November 2012 and July 2013, the longevity of an individual Twinkie was just 26 days. The reformulated recipe that rose like a phoenix from this financial fire added another three weeks of shelf life.
10. ... WHICH WOULD HAVE BEEN BAD NEWS FOR THE MILLENNIUM TIME CAPSULE.
When the Clinton White House set out to assemble the National Millennium Time Capsule in 1999, competition for a shot at immortality was fierce. In the end, the capsule included American icons like the works of William Faulkner and a recording of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet. The capsule very nearly included a Twinkie, which would have been over a century past its best-by date when the capsule was finally opened in 2100. Luckily for historians, staffers at the National Archives pulled the Twinkie from the capsule over concerns that mice would break into the box to pilfer the Twinkies before the historians of the future ever got close to it.
11. THEY WERE THE STAPLE OF ONE MAN'S DIET.
Lots of people like Twinkies, but it would be hard to find a bigger fan than the late Lewis Browning of Shelbyville, Ind. Until his death in 2007 at age 90, the retired milk truck driver was famous for having eaten at least one Twinkie a day in an impressive streak that dated back to 1941. What do you get for eating over 22,000 Twinkies? Browning’s commitment helped him find a quirky measure of fame that led to Jay Leno interviewing him on The Tonight Show and Hostess giving him a lifetime supply of the snacks.