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A world without Twinkies? Parting is such sweet sorrow

The news sparks more than just nostalgia for Christopher Sell, who sells 300 deep-fried Twinkies a week.

PATTY YABLONSKI | Times (2002)

The news sparks more than just nostalgia for Christopher Sell, who sells 300 deep-fried Twinkies a week.

What food will we beat up on if we don't have the Twinkie to kick around anymore?

It's difficult to imagine a world without the spongy cake with the dab of fluffy cream in the middle, but that could happen now that Hostess is going out of business. The maker of Twinkies, Ding Dongs, Ho Hos and Wonder Bread, which had sought bankruptcy protection last December, announced Friday that labor strife is forcing the shutdown and loss of 18,500 jobs.

Another outcome is that some of the sweet treats could find new life under a different owner, once the company begins an auction of its brands and assets.

For the better part of the last four decades, the Twinkie has been so much more than a sweet something to toss in a kid's lunchbox. From humble beginnings 82 years ago in a Chicago bakery, it has become a national symbol of weak-willed noshers, with some 500 million produced annually. It's a sign of a food system gone terribly wrong, filled as it is with chemical preservatives that give it infinite shelf life.

And, it got a murderous rap that the Ding Dong and bubble-gum-pink Sno Ball never had to deal with.

In the late 1970s, San Francisco City Council member Dan White's attorney played the junk food card when he said his client's overindulgence on sweets was to blame for his killings of the city's mayor and another council member. The "Twinkie Defense" was born. In White's case, the jury didn't buy it, but the label stuck.

Steve Ettlinger's 2007 Twinkie, Deconstructed used the Twinkie's 37 ingredients as a springboard to study the processed food that crowds the nation's pantry. At twinkiesproject.com "scientists" record the results of all sorts of testing on the Twinkie. That would include 10 minutes in a microwave oven at full power.

And there are more ways the Twinkie has become a negative character in modern culture, including crude Twinkie jokes in the 2009 movie Zombieland.

But in today's vast pantheon of supersized convenience foods, the four-bite Twinkie almost seems quaint. A single Twinkie has 150 calories and 5 grams of fat. A Starbucks pumpkin spice latte with 2 percent milk and whipped cream has 380 calories with 13 grams of fat. The chocolate glazed cake doughnuts that your co-worker picked up at Dunkin' Donuts this morning? Just one has 370 calories and 24 grams of fat.

Enter the deep fryer and the further cementing of the Twinkie's iconic place in pop culture.

Ten years ago, the deep-fried Twinkie jumped on the fair circuit when it was battered and boiled in oil, following the lead of Christopher Sell of the ChipShop in New York. Sell made a name for himself, via an article in the New York Times, by experimenting with a variety of food in the fryer at his fish-and-chips shop. M&Ms? Didn't work. The Twinkie? Oh, yeah.

How much deeper could fair food wander into the world of really, really unhealthy fare? That was just the beginning, and now it's not uncommon to see things like mac-and-cheese and even butter being battered and fried on the midway. Still, it's the deep-fried Twinkie we remember.

Do a Google search for "deep-fried Twinkies Janet K. Keeler" and you'll get 10 pages of links, all leading to a recipe for home cooks that I developed in 2002. A phone discussion that year with Sell, who is still selling this concoction and other deep-fried delights for $3.50 each, guided me on my quest to replicate the arguably fatal fair food.

On Friday, social media sites saw an explosion of reactions from users. A Twinkie page lit up Facebook and hundreds of Twinkie items were listed on eBay.

Sell said he was "in shock" thinking about the demise of the Twinkie. He sells 300 deep-fried Twinkies at his two shops each week and has about 100 unfried Twinkies in stock. Both Tastykake and Little Debbie make a similar product to the Twinkie, but Sell said it would be disingenuous to use them even though it's unlikely customers could tell the difference.

"My first thought was to go out and buy as many as I could," he said Friday by phone from New York. "But then I heard a box was going for quarter of a million on eBay. Maybe I'll just sell what I have and retire."

Sell, a native of Britain, likened the legendary status of Twinkie to that of a star soccer player.

"Like a great footballer, you retire the shirt," he said. "Maybe I'll just redo the menu so it says 'Long Live the Twinkie.' "

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8586. Information from Times wires is included in this report.

A world without Twinkies? Parting is such sweet sorrow 11/16/12 [Last modified: Friday, November 16, 2012 11:41pm]

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