If you grew up in eastern Pennsylvania, chances are you lived on Tastykakes, baked somewhere around Philadelphia and sold everywhere the way Hostess cakes are sold up here. (We had Hostess, too, and Dolly Madison cakes — GooGooss, Razzies, and Zingers — as well, but Tastykakes were our mainstay.) We always had a few boxes in the house, rotating flavors. We'd all be crazy about one particular kind for weeks or months (not necessarily the same kind) and then we'd eventually move on to another. There are enough varieties to last a Pennsylvanian a lifetime.
Our favorites included the chocolate or — even better — the peanut butter "Tandycakes":
and my long-time high school addiction — milk chocolate-iced "Juniors":
Tastykakes went into nearly every lunch my mom packed for us and every single lunch my my dad packed for his shifts at the steel company. He was really into their cherry pies for a year or two, as was I.
I saw a Tastykake truck here in Back Bay the other day, and it made my heart sing. And suddenly I desperately wanted a two-pack of their chocolate cupcakes filled with "creme" and frosted with a thin slab of sugary vanilla buttercream with a stripe of chocolate frosting down the middle. Like this:
After all, these are the cupcakes featured on the side of that truck.
Tastykakes are tasty in a wholesome way; while they aren't exactly something the Amish would bake (and Amish people are sugar fiends, trust me), there's something authentically old-fashioned and decent about them. They aren't cheap and flashy, like Little Debbie Swiss Cake Rolls and Ring-Dings. It took me a long, long time to realize that they are actually junk food.
For years after I moved up here, my parents sent me care packages of Tastykakes so I wouldn't go through withdrawal. They'd arrive in my office in a big packing box and I'd be popular for days. I also stocked up whenever I took trips home. (Until my metabolism stopped letting me live on cake, cookies, burgers, fries, and cheese and also wear a size 4, that is.)
You can buy Tastykakes individually or in six-packs in a flimsy cardboard carton As a kid, I was adept at sneaking a package of cello-wrapped Tastycakes out of an unopened carton. Years later, I was on the phone, reminiscing with my dad, and he told me how hard he tried to make sure there were really six packages of cupcakes in every carton he bought — but often he'd open it at home and find only five. I confessed, and when he stopped laughing, he thought I was pretty clever. That's his idea of a practical joke. Note that it never occurred to him to stop buying Tastykakes even though he thought they were cheating him out of his rightful Krimpets. (And I have no idea why I sneaked them out of the box — to give my dad a laugh 15 years later?)
According to my dad, he had to walk somewhere between five and 200 miles back and forth to school each day, including a miserable round-trip at lunchtime. He claims that he'd be so tired and late when he got there that he only had time to eat a Tastykake before he had to turn around and hike back to school. I have some doubts about this story, because I believe my grandmother would have cooked him a decent meal. And our family has always been unusually talented at walking and eating at the same time. (We can even walk, eat, and argue with each other at the same time.) But I've since learned that Tastykakes have been around since 1914, which makes them exactly as old as my dad. So his story is possible.
I was very happy to find this magnificent Tastykake display in the Back Bay Shaw's today, even though I think it's silly to make sugar-free cupcakes. I know they've sold a few varieties in the past, but now they've apparently got 'em all. Those round, bright-orange stickers on some of the boxes say "TRY ME!" That's the kind of old-fashioned advertising that belongs on this wonderful, old-fashioned product.