Two years ago, I went to the States for Xmas. I decided, to the delight of the Europeans I work with, to bring back a selection of typical famous American food for them to try, much of which they had heard of from various movies and TV shows that they had seen throughout their lives. I decided to bring back a selection of what I considered to represent both the best and the worst that the States had to offer and, to make it extra fun, I told them that they would not know which category the items fell in until after they had tried them all.
We set out a large table one day at lunch and they had a great time trying all of the strange and highly processed food. The lunch was even more fun than they had predicted, as heated arguments ensued as to which food fell into which of the two categories. Not one item was unanimously placed in either category, and I had a great time watching them argue for or against each of the things I had brought.
Among the contenders were Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup (made with milk), Kraft mac n cheese, strawberry Pop Tarts (both toasted and not), white cheddar popcorn, spray cheese on ritz crackers, Lucky Charms, Cheerios, Reese’s peanut butter cups, Hershey’s kisses, Twizzlers, Red Hots, Sour Patch Kids, string cheese, Spam and, of course, the most famous American food of them all, the Twinkie.
Everyone there had heard of Twinkies from various movies and TV shows, but no one there had actually ever tasted one. Many of them had also heard the urban legend that Twinkies last for eternity, that they will be the only thing to survive the nuclear apocalypse alongside cockroaches. The Hostess website, of course, says that this is rubbish, and that Twinkies definitely expire.
But we’re scientists, so of course we wanted to put this to the test. Everyone agreed that, given their reputation, we would have to keep one Twinkie in its wrapper in the office, and see how long (if ever) it took to show signs of deterioration.
I bought that Twinkie in December of 2014, it arrived in the office on January 2015, and it has been sitting on a top shelf in an office with no air conditioning, through hot summers and cold winters and all levels of humidity around it. Last week, I personally brought it to its new home in the new building. It is now well over 2 years old, so, what does it look like today?
The Twinkie has definitely dried out. It is as hard as a candy bar, but other than that, the Twinkie itself looks perfect. There is not a single spot of mold on it, and the spots of white cream which poke out of the bottom have not even gone yellow, or gray. It might not be very tasty if we decided to eat it now, but it definitely has not gone bad.
As we watched the beads of sweat form on the inside of the plastic package during the hot and humid days of the first summer, and then the second, without making the slightest fungal colony grow, everyone who had eaten a Twinkie on that day started to regret their decision. While I was the most familiar with the killer preservatives used in American processed food even I was a little surprised to watch it practically cook in its wrapper without any visible effect. I joked that future archaeologists will develop a method for dating American human remains based on the amount of Twinkie residue that they will be able to detect in them. My colleagues thought it was funny in a horrifying way.
But this is just how scientists think. It was inevitable, given the legends surrounding them, that a Twinkie would reside in our office until it got too gross to look at. Will that day ever come, though? How long will we keep it, how many generations of PhDs and PostDocs will be handed down the responsibility of keeping this Twinkie, until we finally get our answer? Or will it outlive us all?
Next update will come in 2018. As of now, though, the odds on it having finally gotten its first spot of mold are getting quite long.