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Desert Companion

Funeral for a Twinkie

I’m witnessing the near-death experience of the iconic Twinkie with a mix of sadness, satisfaction and schadenfreude. In case you’re living under a bed of kale: In January, Hostess filed for bankruptcy and announced plans to shutter its factories after years of plunging revenue; now management is huddled in mediation with employees in a final attempt to avoid liquidation. Company chiefs blamed runaway labor costs thanks to an entrenched, stubborn union, but a more likely reason: It’s a Sisyphean task peddling Ding Dongs in a Clif Bar age. To be sure, I’m not saying we Americans have grown up and gotten wise to the fact that Hostess sells stuff that can make Paula Deen look like a paragon of temperance; we’re faaaar from any velvet revolution in which Americans swap their Big Macs for Boca Burgers en masse. But — totally baseless cultural observation incoming — it seems we’ve started asking that our junk food flatter us with at least a gesture to being derived from an identifiable food source. Go-Gurt has yogurt; even Fruit by the Foot has a nominal nod to stuff that grows on trees (first ingredient: “pears from concentrate”). But Hostess products have always been eerily ex nilio creations that seemed spawned from an inscrutable alien intelligence right out of a Stanislaw Lem novel. Consider the streamlined Zinger, the brute, pucky Ding Dong, dense and loglike Ho Hos (“so sweet we had to name them twice”): like nothing from nature or human ingenuity, born not of soil or oven, which adds an extra, phantasmal sweetness: There’s a bit of oblivion in every bite.

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I’m not judging. I’ve got plenty of chocolate on my own hands. As I was growing up, Hostess was the spongy, cream-filled base of my food pyramid. (Before you go all Child Protective Services on my wonderful parents: Showering their brood with sugary treats was a misfired, protective reaction to their own Pennsylvanian poverty, in which chicken-foot soup was a luxury to swoon over.) And I scattered that sugar beam through my own social prism. In the cafeteria at John C. Fremont Middle School, I was a cartel kingpin when it came to lunch trades, leveraging my collateral of Suzy Qs, Twinkies, Shasta sodas and Fritos for maximum French fries, Styrofoam-framed slabs of gooey pizza and a hamburger dubbed the Big Virginian (which we predictably renamed the Big Virgin). Of course, I housed more than my fair share of Hostess, too, and have the fillings to prove it.

But aside from the snack cake empire’s two-pronged assault on my teeth and pancreas, the other, more abstruse problem was that I developed a palate that was about refined as sandpaper. That took years to remedy, and it wasn’t just a matter of developing an appetite for something other than sugar bombs filled with sugar blobs. The real battle was learning to eat slowly, mindfully and attentively.

I have Las Vegas restaurants to thank for aiding me in that, whether it was the freshman tingle of curry on my tongue, an obsessive sushi phase that lasted for years, or even my first foray into sea urchin or osso bucco. This year’s Restaurant Awards (p. 54) reflect, as always, the continued excellence of Las Vegas’ culinary artists, whether they’re on the Strip or in a strip mall. But it’s about more than great food. It’s about something almost subversive: Amid the attractors and distractors of this frenzied city, our best restaurants demand from us moments of exclusive, total and sustained sensory focus, thoughtful and engaged consumption. By no means am I saying I’ve since developed anything near a foodie’s palate; there’s plenty of sandpaper left to scrape away. But, at a Strip restaurant, I recently had a bowl of chilled almond soup with chunks of crab and plump green grapes, and I’m grateful to have been able to recognize it as something wholly unusual, subtly riotous and freakily sublime. I could have easily been piggy and gone for seconds, but I wanted to leave room for what surprises came next. Restraint for the sake of adventure: Talk about a zinger.

* * * * *

If you’re an early riser, be sure to watch for my talking-face appearances on “Wake Up with the Wagners” on KSNV Channel 3, which airs weekday mornings at 4:30 a.m. Four days a month, I riff with the impossibly charismatic Dana Wagner, spotlighting cool stuff in the current issue of Desert Companion. Slept in? Find archived clips at mynews3.com.

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