Junk Food Journey

Twinkie, Deconstructed might leave you craving something more substantial.

By Nathalie Jordi

Whether the thought horrifies or thrills you, Twinkies, those perma-perky golden snack cakes on sale in every gas station, bodega, and drive-thru convenience shop in the country, are irrefutable, enduring American icons. Consider the foods that we believe function as a distillation of the land, a literal manifestation of terroir: farmstead cheese, say, or apples. Twinkies are the opposite—food that comes from both nowhere and everywhere, perfect metaphors for the history, progress, and ultimate triumph of the modern industrial food system.


Steve Ettlinger, author of such luminous texts as Beer for Dummies and the Complete Illustrated Guide to Everything Sold in Hardware Stores, has taken on as his latest project a pop-science chemical analysis of the Twinkie, using its ingredients list to form the table of contents. The book fulfills its expository promise of figuring out what, exactly, makes up a Twinkie, but forgoes, for the most part, deeper analysis that connects Twinkies to their context—in other words, making points about the information listed.

Michael Pollan has shown that the market for books that take a final product as a starting point and go backwards to find a story exists. Ettlinger’s failing is that, unlike Pollan, he never goes beneath the surface. We zip, chapter by chapter, from one ingredient to the next, from factory to quarry to lab, without ever learning anything beyond the list of operating procedures at each of these, or their chemical components. The book’s two main revelations—that war spurs technology, and that most of our food today is made from chemicals—will hardly shock readers.

Who, exactly, are those readers? It’s tough figuring out to whom Ettlinger is directing his prose. Real scientists might think he’s just casually skimming the surface, and feel sickened by some saccharine turns of phrase (“Little Miss Muffet was definitely onto something, I thought, as I ate the delicious curds sitting in my rented Chevy, eschewing a tuffet.”)

But the book is nonetheless too technical to absorb amateurs hoping for an engaging written version of the Food Network’s show Unwrapped. Ultimately, I came away from Twinkie less aghast at the modern food industry, as Ettlinger is throughout, than secretly impressed by it. The part where Ettlinger could have turned the thrust around and done some real commenting takes place in six insufficient pages at the very end, where his whole narrative struggle to answer his kids’ question about where Twinkies come from culminates in a rather wimpy “Twinkies come from an international nexus: the Twinkie nexus.”

Those looking for a primer on food chemistry may enjoy this in-depth dissection of one of America’s most popular snack foods, which does indeed, as we learn over the course of 256 fact-packed pages, have an inordinate number of components, from the animal (chickens, cows, bacteria, yeast, fungi) to the vegetable (corn, soy, canola, cotton, wheat, palm trees, olives, sugar cane, sugar beets, vanilla, trees) to the mineral (crude oil, natural gas, limestone, phosphorus, salt, gypsum, iron, sulfur), not forgetting the laboratory-born (my word count restricts me from elaborating!). But it’s ultimately too superficial to make a lasting impression.

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