Flash in the Pan 

Good riddance, Hostess

As we all know, Hostess is in bankruptcy. A lot of people are really upset about the loss of certain iconic brands of crappy baked goods filled with fake whipped cream. Not me. The gas station chocolate muffin is all I need.

I call them gas station muffins because I most often encounter them on the way to the bathroom after filling my tank. I eat them religiously, washed down with coffee, to help keep me awake during long drives, and they haven't let me down yet. But gas stations aren't the only place you'll find gas station muffins. You can find them just about anywhere junk food is sold.

Unlike the Hostess CupCake, the gas station chocolate muffin is not affiliated with any one company. In fact, it's often the only thing for sale at the gas station that's unique. While candy, drink, chip or other snack brands remain the same from place to place, it seems that each chocolate muffin maker is different, as if each town has its own chocolate-muffin bakery, or there is some extensive network of store-brand chocolate cupcake distributors that operates below my radar.

Whatever the true structure of the chocolate muffin cosmos, at least it contains a shred of truth-in-advertising. My ongoing side-by-side trials suggest that gas station chocolate muffins billed as "double chocolate" do indeed contain more chocolate than muffins called "chocolate" or even "chocolate chocolate."

A recent survey of gas station muffins within a two-mile radius of my house turned up three different brands: Deli Fresh and Brownie Bakers both make "double chocolate" muffins, and Bon Appetit makes a "chocolate chocolate muffin," which literally pales in comparison to the other two, looking more like "pumpkin pumpkin" and tasting like blueberry coffee cake with added chocolate.

What we're looking for, in addition to a deep ebony color, are the characteristics that one would expect to accompany that color—namely deep nothing-but-chocolate flavor with chocolate chunks. The ideal muffin's density and concentration of chunks add up to a formidable snack commensurate with the largest cup of cheap coffee the gas station has to offer.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX

Being a muffin, not a cupcake, the gas station chocolate muffin is devoid of frosting, but the better examples come with an artfully soggy cap, the consistency of which mimics frosting. Beneath that gooey cap, the interior should be relatively solid and dry, yet somehow remain moist and supple. This is achieved with the help of a long list of unpronounceable ingredients.   Sugar, being the most recognizable of these, might be the muffin's healthiest ingredient, too.

I like to accompany my gas station chocolate muffins with black coffee, even though I normally take cream and sugar. The muffin, masticated with sipped coffee into a homogeneous slurry, becomes the ideal combination of flavor and buzz that will last until your car's gas tank is empty again.

With these chocolate muffins so readily available, there's no need to mourn the Hostess CupCake. The gas station variety may not have frosting or Cool-Whip-like filling, but it's bigger, beefier and better. And hopefully it has chocolate chips.

You can mourn the demise of the Twinkie, if you must, in that no similar substitute is widely available. I've never understood what was appealing about Twinkies, so I won't be missing them. But if ever there were a junk pastry whose loss is truly worth mourning, that would be the personal-size pecan pies that have quietly all but disappeared from our nation's gas stations and convenience stores. Like gas station chocolate muffins, these pecan pies came in a variety of brands, though Bama was the dominant player in the market. Alas, in recent years supplies of personal pecan pies have mostly dried up. No more solid disk of corn syrup-cradled flaky crust that had shattered long before you opened it. The crushed pecans that give pecan pie its character have become so expensive that Bama has downsized its distribution of personal pecan pies to the company's core geographic regions: Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. If you're gassing up outside of those states, you're going to have to stick with chocolate muffins.

And that's probably for the best. While those pies disappeared in two or three bites, gas station chocolate muffins are built to satisfy the most intense bouts of munchies.

Hostess will be missed for nostalgic reasons, not because it offered anything of true value. And now that it's out of the way—and with the worthy personal pecan pie tragically following it toward oblivion—perhaps the humble, anonymous gas station chocolate muffin will finally get the attention and respect it deserves.

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