Thursday, March 19, 2009

What's the big whoop over whoopie pies? I know; NYT doesn't

During a break while I was attending graduate school in Washington in 2006, I drove up to Pennsylvania, where my family took me to Shady Maple, a Mennonite-run buffet restaurant in East Earl, a township of Lancaster County. One of the dessert items was the pumpkin whoopie pie. I was so excited to eat it - because I hadn't had a whoope pie since leaving home in Maine - that I forgot to take a photo until I was half finished. Sorry.

The New York Times beat me to a story that I was planning for The Offlede. I was thinking about whoopie pies the other night, and when I woke up Wednesday, I saw that the homepage of The Times' Web site featured an article on the seeming American invasion of the hand-held, frosting-filled chocolate cake.
Published: March 18, 2009
The classic snacks are migrating across the country, often appearing in the same specialty shops and grocery aisles that recently made room for cupcakes.
But the story's erroneous references to the economy and the commercialization of a homemade snack with which I associate my childhood make it bittersweet.

In addition to fresh lobster, the whoopie pie is a comfort food that I miss the most from my home state of Maine. They're ubiquitous in northern New England. Grocery stores sell them by the bag. Bakeries aren't bakeries unless they offer whoopie pies. And if you walk into any Citgo, Irving (now Circle K) or Mobil gas station, you'll see a rack of locally made pies greeting you just inside the door; they come individually covered in plastic wrap.

For the most part, the Times report, which became Wednesday's most e-mailed article on the site, is accurate. I take issue, however, with how it draws a comparison of the whoopie pie's spread to a craze over cupcakes sparked by HBO's "Sex and the City." That's bogus: Cupcakes have always been popular in my book, and I have never seen an episode of that reprehensible show.

The whoopie pie's popularity is credited to people looking for "nostalgic," down-home comfort amid this economic recession. Why does everything have to relate to the economy these days? I, instead, credit the big whoop over the pies to their taste.

Another inaccuracy is to say that the cake is extremely dry. Contradictorily, The Times writes that the whoopie pie isn't good unless the cake sticks to the Saran wrap when it's pealed off. That stickiness is caused by moisture. You'll also find the cake sticking to your fingers when you eat a whoopie pie. They literally are finger-licking good. (Also, look at how moist the cake in the above photo seems.)

Sizes vary from the circumference of a Pringles lid to that of a Cool Whip top (they're circular). The frosting filler is usually French vanilla, but I've tasted peanut butter as well. The cake is traditionally chocolate, but I've seen red velvet. I thoroughly enjoy pumpkin, too, which I last had at Shady Maple, a Mennonite smorgasbord restaurant in Lancaster County, Pa. (The Times credits the Amish with inventing the treat.) When I lived in a whoopie-less Washington, D.C., I would sometimes visit family in Collegeville, Pa., where stores carry the pies. The craving was sometimes so unbearable that the three-hour drive just for a bite would have been worth it.

The whoopie pie's big leap to Maine, however, is largely unaccounted for. Like a broken record, The Times pins it on the economy, specifically the Great Depression. It names two possible sources: a recipe book published in the 1930s featuring Marshmallow Fluff, or a 1930s radio program for women.

Like many things created during economic hard times (SPAM comes to mind), the whoopie pie is now being exploited and bastardized as an expensive novelty item. Williams-Sonoma offers many-shaped whoopie pies in flavors of "rum, peppermint, Cointreau, raspberry and espresso." Ashamedly, they're made by a bakery in Maine. These are heart-shaped, called "Sweetie Pies" and cost $49 for a dozen. In the words of my generation, WTF? Only an elite media outlet would write about that.

There's a saying out there that goes something like, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." I'm grateful for the whoopie pie's spread, though I haven't yet seen it in Florida. But if bakers and consumerists are going to mess with an already good thing, I'd rather confine the treat to Pennsylvania and Maine for when I visit family. It would just make the taste that much sweeter.

Better yet, maybe I'll write home for Mom to send me a care package.


Anonymous said...

Are you sure that's not just a Little Debbie oatmeal cream pie?

Andrew Knapp said...

Don't be so ridiculous, Carrie. Though I love oatmeal cream pies, too.