Ode to Twinkie

Steve Ettlinger's smart, fun food sourcing book.

Steve Ettlinger’s smart, fun food sourcing book.

Sometimes it’s interesting to try to go back to the moment of inception, to that cognitive instant of synapse-firing when an idea is first born. I’ve often tried to go back and remember the instant when I first came up with and decided to do the When Coffee Speaks odyssey. There must have been a single instant when I said, “I’m going to do this,” but I can’t for the life of me remember it. Maybe I was sitting on the B train. Maybe I was in ballet class in the middle of a pirouette. Maybe I was taking my first sip of morning deli coffee. I will probably never remember.

The things I can trace, however, are the trains of thought that lead me to even have a “this” to decide to go do. In the endnote of When Coffee Speaks and in here on the blog I’ve cited Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals as being one of the catalysts for the form of the project and book. It certainly was. His premise of being a non food industry person looking at the meat/poultry/fish industries from the candid perspective of an outsider and presenting his finding with lots of verbatim material from lifetime industry workers heavily influenced the format of my book.

But the influences of my inquiry don’t start with Eating Animals. If we follow Joseph Gordon-Levitt way, way, back through the layers of dreams or concentric elevators or whatever they are, if we go all the way back to the series of moments that lead up to the inception, if we trace the synaptic trail of thought, it leads to an ice skating rink in Central Park in December 2006. At that time I was a freshman at NYU and worked as an America Reads tutor in a 6th grade classroom at a public school near Stuy Town. The entire 6th grade was taking a field trip to Wollman rink, and on the fifteen minute bus ride to the rink I sat with one of the parent chaperones, who to me was just “Steve, Chelsea from 601’s dad.”

In our quick conversation he mentioned that he was a writer and was almost done with a book titled Twinked, Deconstructed, an exposé of every single ingredient in a Twinkie. This was precisely why I loved working in NYC public schools; the students were infinitely interesting and unique because their parents did stuff like write investigative non fiction. It sounded like a neat book, and I told myself to remember to look for it when it came out, not because I had any interest in food sourcing, but because I thought it would be very cool and very New York to read a book by an author I’d not only met, but one who I’d gone ice skating with and tutored the daughter of.

I forgot about the book until 2011 when I was writing my Tasty Tuesday articles about “green” food for my Manhattan Green Living channel on examiner.com. I thought it would make good train reading. I ordered it on Amazon and a few days worth of commutes later when I’d finished it, I was pretty dumbfounded. The book did just as the subtitle said, it took readers on a “Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Food are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined) and Manipulated into What America Eats.” It talked about the industrial process of generating things like high fructose corn syrup, baking soda, and Yellow No. 5.

I knew that things like polysorbate and hydrogenated oils were the product of mysterious and probably unsavory industrial processes, but flour? Baking soda? I had spent countless hours of my childhood baking with my mother and those ingredients seemed as innocent and pure as any. By no means am I an expert baker, but I considered myself a fairly informed one. I knew that baking powder is not used in the same recipes as baking soda, and that the “real” name for baking soda is sodium bicarbonate. I knew you could use it with vinegar and hot water to unclog drains or with lemon juice to scrub scale off tubs and sinks. But where it came from? I didn’t have the slightest idea.

Steve Ettlinger’s Twinkie, Deconstructed made me realize that there were many complicated mysteries hiding in plain sight. Just because we interact with something every day doesn’t mean we really understand it. I could tell you where baking soda comes from about as well as I could tell you how a photocopier works. I knew how to use both in my daily life, but I certainly didn’t really understand them.

I learned a lot in 6th grade that year, and it seems like most of it was the product of field trips. A few months after the skating outing, I accompanied the same students to the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, where I saw my first coffee plant in the tropical room. That was another synaptic moment making When Coffee Speaks inception possible. I stared at the green leaves and the red berries in awe. “My coffee comes from this? How did I not know that? How did I never wonder where coffee beans come from?”

Twinkie, Deconstructed never received any of the hullabaloo that surrounds Michael Pollen’s articles and books and films/documentaries like Fast Food Nation and Food, Inc. Twinkie is not as self congratulatory as Omnivore’s Dilemma and not nearly as scandalous as images of bleating cattle being mercilessly slaughtered by underpaid illegal immigrants. I say it deserves all the hullabaloo in the world because it surveys the ingredients that don’t even make it on our radar (like Vitamin B3. Where does one get isolated Vitamin B3 and how does one tack it on to flour for the purposes of enrichment?)

I compiled When Coffee Speaks in light of a long lineage of food sourcing literature. Twinkie doesn’t usually get a mention in the food sourcing canon but it most certainly should. It interestingly parallels Eating Animals in that both authors’ investigations were prompted by their children (not to mention that both authors are New Yorkers!) Jonathan Safran Foer had just had a kid and wanted to decide whether or not to raise him vegetarian. Steve’s kids asked him what polysorbate was. We don’t like not having answers to the questions we ask ourselves or those asked by the people closest to us, so we go find out.

Onward, as we keep asking questions about food and keep finding whatever answers we can. And let’s keep reading books by people—other than just darlings of the New York Times Magazine—who’ve given thorough answers to some of those questions. I’d suggest starting with Steve Ettlinger’s awesome Twinkie, Deconstructed. You never know what synaptic domino chain it will set off.

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One thought on “Ode to Twinkie

  1. Pingback: Raising the Snack Bar | W h e n . C o f f e e . S p e a k s .

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