It should no longer come as a surprise when I see them — the stacks of crinkly plastic-wrapped miniature fruit pies and chocolate pastries, all stamped with a blue logo, piled in a wire rack at pretty much any gas station or convenience store along the Northeast roads on which I grew up driving.
I spent my childhood in Pennsylvania and now live in New York, so I have more than a quarter-century's experience with these stores and their typical merchandise. In fact, I can picture it in my head — the standard Tastykake shelf, almost always located just inside the doors or sometimes near the cash register.
Despite the fact that Tastykakes have become a staple of my convenience store-shopping life, it never fails to give me pause when I walk into a Peanut Butter Kandy Kake-stocking establishment and immediately feel my breath catch in my chest.
It's hard for me to admit this as an urban green juice drinker who takes pride in the lack of gluten in my diet, but here is the truth: The sight of a Tastykake pastry gets me downright emotional.
My meaningful relationship with the snack food company is rooted in both geography and family history. Tastykake was founded in 1914 in Philadelphia, where the company still has its headquarters. Upon some additional research, I learned that the brand is distributed primarily along the East Coast, with only gradual expansion elsewhere — news that both distresses me on behalf of the rest of the country and explains why Tastykake played such a special role in my own Pennsylvania childhood.
My dad was born and raised in a suburb just a short drive outside of Philadelphia. Like any good Philly kid, he grew up loving cheesesteaks, the Jersey shore, and the city's sports teams. One of my earliest memories is of sitting in the back seat of Dad's car eating a Philly soft pretzel — a treat he would often pick up to bring home to me after a long shift at the city hospital where he worked.
As much as I still love a good soft pretzel, it's the Tastykake that really tugs at my heart, and it's also thanks to my dad.
Bonding Through Assorted Pastries
By the time I started first grade, my parents had been divorced for a few years. I spent school days with my mom and got to see my dad on alternating weekends. At that time, he was a newly minted doctor, working long hours that often kept him at the hospital overnight. He arranged his schedule so that we could maintain our time together on the weekends, during which he took me to the movies, taught me to ride a bike, and — in a way only a patient "girl dad" can — tolerated hours of my favorite board game, Pretty Pretty Princess.
Like any child of divorce, I struggled with saying goodbye to either parent when it was time to go see the other. I typically stayed at my dad's on Sunday nights, and he or my stepmom would wake me up early on Monday so that we could make the drive to school, which was closer to Mom's house. Eyes still clouded with sleep, I'd grab my lunchbox and hug Dad goodbye. I hated watching his car pull out of the school parking lot, most often on its way back to Philadelphia for another long shift at work.
The first time we went through this routine, I realized as I walked to my classroom that my Lisa Frank lunch box (it was the '90s, after all) felt fuller than usual, as if the flimsy zippers were on the verge of snapping right off. There were strict rules in our class about keeping our lunch boxes closed until it was time to go to the cafeteria, so I promptly forgot about it and went about my morning of phonics and addition.
When it was time for lunch, I joined my classmates at our table. All 30 of us somehow managed to squeeze our little bodies onto two long benches. The lack of personal space meant we were all deeply invested in whatever our neighbors would be eating that day.
"Whoa!" the boy next to me said. Something in a clear plastic package had sprung up out of my unicorn lunch box as soon as I'd unzipped it. "You got Tastykakes?"
Perched on top of my foil-wrapped sandwich and bag of baby carrots was a pair of Tastykake Chocolate Cupcakes, slightly flattened by the weight of the lunch box, but still looking to my 6-year-old eye like the world's most perfect food. As always, I could see that the magicians at Tastykake had managed to create a flawless cap of chocolate frosting, which (luckily) was only minimally damaged from being stuffed into my lunchbox. The frosting was my favorite, so much so that in my years of eating Tastykakes with my dad, I'd developed a habit of eating the cupcakes upside down so I could save the best part for last.
I nodded at the boy next to me and began unpacking my food. As soon as I removed the cupcakes, I found a folded piece of lined paper. Inside, written in pencil in my dad's neat, doctorly handwriting, was a note.
Share with your friends. Have a good day. Love, Dad.
Keeping the Tradition Going
Over the next few years, I could count on a similar surprise packed in my lunch most Monday mornings after I'd spent the weekend with my father. Dad knew Chocolate Cupcakes were my favorite, so they were represented most often, but he'd occasionally throw in other Tastykakes like Peanut Butter Kandy Kakes, Powdered Sugar Mini Donuts, or Chocolate Bells.
No matter the snack, he'd include a note encouraging me to share — without fail, I didn't — and have a good day. The latter instructions were self-fulfilling, because just knowing that I had a treat from my dad waiting for me at lunch made everything better.
Our Little Secret
We never really talked about the Tastykakes. It was an unspoken ritual, one that made me feel special and reassured as I went back and forth between my parents from week to week. Like my dad, the treats and notes were consistent, thoughtful, and endlessly dependable. I knew I could rely on them.
Twenty years later, seeing the Tastykake packaging — even in the unsentimental light of a gas station — reminds me of the efforts my father made to show me that he missed me when we couldn't be together. The fact that the treats packed a mean chocolate punch (and represented a piece of his own Philadelphia childhood) was really just an added bonus.
Are you from my area? Do you also have an emotional tie to these adorable little snack cakes?