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40 years later, Twinkie remains intact at Maine school

Posted June 20, 2016, at 6:32 a.m.
Last modified June 20, 2016, at 2:30 p.m.

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BLUE HILL, Maine — Twinkies and cockroaches.

Those two things stand out among items that, short of blunt force trauma, are rumored to be invulnerable to the forces of decay and habitat destruction, according to popular folklore.

An ongoing unscientific, four-decade experiment at George Stevens Academy is helping to feed that perception of the confection.

It was in 1976 when then-chemistry teacher Roger Bennatti took a freshly unwrapped Twinkie and, in a spontaneous moment of science education, placed it on top of a chalkboard in his classroom so he and his students could see how long it would take to decompose.

That question, however, remains unanswered to this day, with said Twinkie having outlasted both Bennatti’s teaching career and Interstate Bakeries Corp., the original company that churned out the cream-filled snack cakes from 1930 until it filed for bankruptcy in 2012. This is despite the fact that, according to NPR, the official shelf life of Twinkies (as stated by the company that now makes them) is only a few weeks.

Today, the same Twinkie unwrapped by Bennatti 40 years ago sits in a glass case on a shelf in the office of Libby Rosemeier, George Stevens Academy’s dean of students, looking a tad more ashen in color than it used to but nonetheless in one recognizable piece, except for a few crumbs that have fallen to the side.

But is it edible? That’s another question that appears destined to go for an eternity without a definitive answer.

Tatiana Heggestad, a sophomore at the school, said recently she would pass if offered the chance to take a bite.

“I don’t think I would [try a bite] because I am actually vegan,” she said. “But also for other reasons — just because it’s 40 years old.”

Heggestad was walking by a picnic table in front of the school, where Rosemeier was being interviewed earlier this month about the Twinkie, when she saw it and stopped in her tracks. The student said she knew of the Twinkie’s reputation and even had written a paper about it at a prior school she attended in Ojai, California, but never before that moment had she seen it in person.

“I thought it would be moldy because I am pretty sure Twinkies are, like, moist-ish,” Heggestad said.

Rosemeier said the possibility of tasting the ancient snack often is joked about, but so far no one has dared — either because at this point it is a famous pop-culture artifact or because they are scared of what it might do to them.

“Kids have said ‘Can I take a bite?’” Rosemeier said. “The most remarkable thing to me is that this is a piece food that is 40 years old and the shape is basically unchanged. Preservatives work, I guess, to some extent. I think it is dusty more than anything.”

Rosemeier, a George Stevens Academy graduate herself, was a student in Bennatti’s class in 1976, when the unscientific experiment began, she recalled.

“We were studying the chemistry of food. We went next door to the [ Merrill & Hinckley] store, bought Twinkies and we gave them to Mr. Bennatti and [asked him], ‘How many chemicals do you think are in something like this?’” Rosemeier said. “He said, ‘Let’s find out and see how long it lasts.’ He opened the Twinkie package, ate one, and put the other one on top of the [chalkboard].”

It stayed in his classroom for the next 28 years.

When he retired in 2004, Bennatti left the Twinkie in the care of Rosemeier, who became dean of students that same year. Rosemeier had her father make a glass case for the snack and, for the most part, it has been in her office ever since.

Bennatti, who now works as assistant director of Fort Knox State Historic Site in Prospect, said Tuesday that his “dream” is to have the Twinkie in a more prominent place at the school, so students can see it on a regular basis.

“I consider it an ongoing science experiment,” Bennatti said, chuckling at its longevity. “It’s important [for students] to realize that some scientific experiments don’t take 45 minutes.”

The former science teacher said that, when he first set the Twinkie on top of the chalkboard, he never could have predicted the fame it would achieve.

“I had no clue. None whatsoever,” he said. “It was just an innocent ‘let’s see what happens.’”

And now?

“The Twinkie is a story that will never die,” Bennatti said. Unless, he added, someone musters the courage to eat it.

“You might want to have some milk available [to wash it down],” he quipped.

According to Rosemeier, stories about other old Twinkies have trickled in to George Stevens Academy over the years but, to this day, they have not heard about any other that might be older.

“No one has challenged it really,” she said. “There was someone in Virginia or the Carolinas who called me and said ‘Hey I want to know how old your Twinkie is because I think I got one that’s older and it’s in the package.’

“‘My Twinkie is 23 [years old],’” the caller told her. “I said ‘Mine is 35.’”

Over the past decade or so, as the Twinkie has aged, its reputation has spread across the country, if not further. USA Today, The New York Times, and MTV News all have published stories on George Stevens Academy’s aged confection, and Rosemeier says she has taken phone calls about the Twinkie from syndicated radio shows and from the BBC.

The dean said the Twinkie’s fame at times seems to overshadow the recognition that the 213 year-old school or its students might otherwise receive, and that some people at George Stevens Academy might wish it would finally decompose and be discarded. The school’s boys basketball team won the statewide Class C championship this year, she said, but still it is the Twinkie that generates the most media inquiries.

“We have students going to really great colleges this year and people won’t know that, but they know about the Twinkie,” she said “It’s the Twinkie that gets the press. I think that says something more about this society than it does about anything else.”

Still, as far as she or anyone else knows, the Twinkie could remain in one relatively well-preserved piece for 100 more years or longer, Rosemeier acknowledged. Her 40th high school reunion is coming up next year, and she likely will retire a few more years after that, she said. Who the next keeper of the fabled treat might be has not yet been determined.

Even if some people at George Stevens Academy feel conflicted about the Twinkie’s fame, she said, someone surely will step forward to volunteer and the school community likely will let the Twinkie live out its remaining existence on campus, however long it might be.

“It’s a quirky kind of school [but] we’re all about heritage,” Rosemeier said. “We definitely are keepers of the flame here, even if it’s an old Twinkie.”

 

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