Monday, February 28, 2011

Whoopie

We were at Wilson Farm in Lexington on Saturday. We hadn't been there since we'd gotten our Christmas tree. Along with fruit, vegetables, Irish soda bread, and other lovely things, I bought an orange begonia. (I made sure to choose a cat-friendly plant because I suspected that Snalbert would find a way to eat it. And he did — before I had a chance to put it safely on the mantel in its silver pot.)

While we were in the bakery section, we spotted free samples of cut-up whoopie pies, piled on a platter We helped ourselves and, when the baker turned his back, we helped ourselves again.

As we stuffed our faces with whoopies, I started thinking about the current whoopie pie controversy: Did the whoopie pie originate among the Pennsylvania Dutch or is it originally from Maine?

The answer is obvious to me, a Pennsylvanian. I absolutely love Maine, and I'd move there in a heartbeat. But there is no way that Maine is the birthplace of the whoopie pie.  The more you think about it, the more ridiculous it seems.

Nutritionally speaking, the whoopie pie is a truly terrible idea — two oversized, rich cookies glued together with too much, too-sweet frosting. Terrible but luscious items, like the whoopie pie, are indigenous to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, home of the Amish and Pennsylvania Dutch. These are the people who gave the world shoofly pie, which is an excuse to eat piecrust, molasses, and brown sugar. Then there's funny cake, which is basically a cake in a piecrust with fudge sauce. This is acceptable as breakfast food. We ate shoofly pie for breakfast, too.

The Pennsylvania Dutch don't mess around at mealtime. They believe in butter (also lard), bacon, and sugar (also molasses and corn syrup), and if they can incorporate all three ingredients in the same dish, they'll do it, especially if it can be fried and topped with gravy. (Or how about some hot bacon dressing, anyone?) They eat all parts of the pig, hence scrapple, pickled pigs' feet, and other treats. They also love cabbage, which you might imagine is healthy... but not after they've poured bacon fat and sugar all over it. 

The Pennsylvania Dutch are also serious about fritters, dumplings, and doughnuts. These are not considered dessert; these are just "food." Another memorable dish: chicken and waffles. For dessert, they bake amazing cakes with tons of frosting and they also bake pies, some of which actually have fruit (usually buried in a sugary sauce).

Then there's "church spread." We didn't have this in my town, but I just read about it, and it's a staple in Lancaster County. It's made of peanut butter, marshmallow fluff, and corn syrup or molasses, and it goes on bread. Anticipation of it after services helps churchgoers to be patient.

Mainers wouldn't eat that. Some Mainers consider maple syrup the ultimate in decadence, but they wouldn't dream of putting it on bread. 

I'm not criticizing Pennsylvania Dutch cooking, gosh no. It's great; I grew up with it. But you won't find much that's similar in New England. Except for the whoopie pie, which somehow wandered north to Maine from an Amish kitchen. I'm sure it raised New England eyebrows all along the way. Because the whoopie pie is completely alien to the Maine character.

Think about Maine cooking. It's wholesome. It's lobster. It's clam bakes. It's seafood, which is healthy. It's blueberry pie for dessert. Or blueberry crumble. Or apple-blueberry crumble, if you get my drift. Maine cooking is thrifty: food comes out of the sea or is picked off bushes on the sides of mountains. Mainers also eat chowders, beans, and potatoes. They would not deep-fry lobster in bacon fat and serve it with blueberry waffles and dumplings the way the Pennsylvania Dutch might. The Dutch would find a way to make lobster gravy.

The Maine culinary tradition is too sensible and simple to have spawned the whoopie pie. Then there's the name. "Whoopie pie" is pure Pennsylvania Dutch. First of all, they give things silly names. They have towns called Bird in Hand, Paradise, and Intercourse. Second, they like to call things by the wrong name: see "funny cake," above, which is, in fact, pie. Come to think of it, "funny cake" is as stupid a name as "whoopie pie," which proves my point nicely, doesn't it? On the other hand, Mainers tend to be dry-humored, if not serious. They would be appalled by the implications of "whoopie."

Imagine a rosy-cheeked Pennsylvania farmer's wife saying, "Whoopie pie!" as she frosts her seven-layer fudge cake. That's not much of  a stretch, is it? Now imagine a taciturn Maine housewife in some windswept coastal village saying it as she guts her husband's catch of the day. Nope, it's not a Maine kind of word, "whoopie." It's a Maine tourist kind of word, and that's who the bakers in Bar Harbor and elsewhere are pandering catering to with their whoopies.

We controlled ourselves at Wilson Farm and didn't buy whoopie pies. I have come a long way from Pennsylvania, where they are probably an acceptable breakfast food these days. But I saw a lonely six-pack of mini whoopies at Trader Joe's today and succumbed. They taste like home. 

They do not taste like Maine.

3 comments:

  1. Please find a copy of the March issue of "DownEast" Magazine. You will appreciate the cover and the article on Maine comfort food. Our local A1 Diner gets two mentions! My mom-in-law makes thick molasses cookies and my mom makes a moist blueberry cake and doughnuts that are anticipated treats. Those hot doughnuts shaken in a paper bag of sugar were a staple of my childhood. There is a Whoopie Pie Festival in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, but you can read more in the magazine. Enjoy. MaineMom90

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  2. Thanks, MaineMom, I look forward to finding that issue and hearing the Maine side of the story!

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  3. We're on to you now. No more samples for you. hehe

    Glad you liked the whoopie pies, and that Snalbert enjoyed the begonia.

    Stop by any time - next time you're in we'll set you up with a whole pack of whoopie pies. Mmmmm

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