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May 23-30, 2007

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Steve Ettlinger

Twinkie, Twinkie, little snack: Author Steve Ettlinger deconstructs America's most infamous treat.

The Heart of Sweetness

Author and all-around food-lover Steve Ettlinger delves into the strange world of processed foods with his new book 'Twinkie: Deconstructed'

By Denise Vivar

'Wolde you bothe eate your cake and haue it too?" queried John Heywood in 1546. You can't have everything, he seemed to be saying, but then he wasn't American and probably wouldn't demand a fresh peach flambé following his bangers and mash. We as a nation are obsessed with having it all, and we want it to be easy and fast and cheap. In response we have created a huge industrial food machine to feed this hunger for commodities from far away lands, for produce out of season and for baked goods that require only the effort of plucking them from the grocery shelf. As a result, the composition of our foods has become increasingly processed and complex. Steve Ettlinger, author of Twinkie, Deconstructed, recently spoke at the Capitola Book Café about his foray into the world of food production and his interest in the Twinkie.

If you're like most Americans you have found yourself stumbling over the names of ingredients on food labels--sodium acid pyrophosphate, mono and diglycerides, polysorbate 60. It was this latter ingredient that planted the seed for Ettlinger's Twinkie, Deconstructed when his son asked "What's pol-y-sor-bate six-tee?" while reading the label on an ice cream bar. He was stumped, but as a good parent he sought out the answer.

His inquiry into the composition of polysorbate 60 led Ettlinger to wonder about the profusion of other unrecognizable ingredients in so many of our common foods--sauces, soups, condiments and crackers, to name a few. The Twinkie, stuff of urban legend and pop culture, weighed in with an impressive list of 39 ingredients, including all those commonly found in our processed foods--enough to fill an entire book. This ubiquitous snack cake is a veritable American icon, "the quintessential processed food" as Ettlinger calls it, and as such made it a compelling platform for his research.

Each ingredient on the Twinkies label commands its own chapter in his book, very nearly in the order of its prominence in the cake. Ettlinger takes the readers on one wild romp through the manufacturing and processing plants that create, mine, modify and manipulate compounds into what eventually become food ingredients. We get absorbing descriptions of the chemistry involved in basic as well as commercial food preparation. Along the way he enumerates the myriad other uses for these raw materials--among them explosives, building materials, paints, plastics and weed-killers. We also meet many illustrious figures including Ben Franklin, bin Laden and King Louis XVI.

The book cover may lead one to expect Twinkie, Deconstructed to be a treatise on how not to eat, but Ettlinger avoids the polemic. His focus is more on the portrayal of his fascinating field trip than a commentary about any hazards of the global complex that is our modern food industry. He admits having been taken to task for this approach but explains that he wasn't interested in "beating folks over the head with the obvious--buy local, buy organic." Then again, if you think you know everything you need to know about eggs, soy and salt, you may be surprised on how much information Ettlinger manages to fit in on these foods too.

When asked if he thinks Twinkies are bad for us, Ettlinger asserts that he was not able to find research showing that any of the ingredients in and of themselves are harmful. His personal approach is conscious, healthy eating most of the time and letting the body take care of the rest. With this in mind, for the first time in decades (and for professional purposes) I tested a Twinkie to consider his narrative:

"Take a bite, not a nibble, and you'll be hit, all at once, with sweetness, stickiness, and a rapidly dissolving texture.

"Then comes a second hit of sweetness. Explore the filling with your tongue. Notice the synergy of flavors that build--butter, egg, vanilla--then the creamy finish that lingers, sticky, sweet and thick. Appreciate the contrast and interplay between the smooth, cool filling and the delicate cake." Provocative, though I can't say I could detect any specific ingredients under all the sugar. But I do have a new appreciation for the chemistry involved, and with 500 million twinkies baked a year, at least some folks are having their cake and eating it too.

Twinkie, Deconstructed: My Journey to Discover How the Ingredients Found in Processed Foods Are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined) and Manipulated Into What America Eats,' by Steve Ettlinger; Hudson Street Press; 304 pages; $23.95 cloth

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