"Some people were just nuts about them. And they also have a mystique around extraterrestrial stuff."
The Moon Pie is an icon in the American South, where both its image and its taste evoke memories of country stores and their agrarian worlds. If we Google Moon Pies, 3,060,000 (currently the number is 40,500,000) references appear on subjects that range from art and literature to festivals, recipes, and astrology. In his entry on “Moon Pies” in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Tom Rankin explains that the Chattanooga Bakery in Chattanooga marketed the product as “the original marshmallow sandwich.” The delicacy consists of “one quarter inch of marshmallow sandwiched between two cookies about four inches in diameter.” The sandwich is then “coated with chocolate, banana, coconut, and vanilla frosting.”1
Earl Mitchell invented the moon pie in 1919 when he worked for the Chattanooga Bakery. While visiting a company store at a coal mine in Kentucky, Mitchell asked miners what kind of cookie they would like in their lunch pails. They said they preferred a big one. Mitchell then asked what size the cookie should be, and the miners pointed to the moon. His son Ed Mitchell Jr. recalls:
To explore how the Moon Pie has shaped the lives of southerners on a personal level, a few years ago I spoke by phone with several friends who generously offered their thoughts about the tasty treat and its importance in their lives.3
I have always loved them. We always ate them as children, and when I think about them I have fond memories. We took our lunch to school, because we never had school lunches. And we had a lot of Moon Pies in our lunches. We took them on car trips because they were all wrapped up in their little wrappers. At a certain point, when everybody in the car would start getting really loud, we would get out the Moon Pies.
In Maine, we noticed an enormously popular thing that is regarded as a particularly “Maine” item: the Whoopie Pie. A Whoopie Pie looks like a giant Moon Pie. They are the size of a small cake—not real high like a layer cake. It has two fairly dense chocolate layers with a mixture in between that is very like the mixture in a Moon Pie. There are several famous roadside diners that specialize in their version of the Whoopie Pie.
Over the years, Mr. Campbell, the president of Moon Pies, would send me big cases of Moon Pies in New York. I introduced a lot of New Yorkers to the marshmallow treat. I have a novel [Magic Time, 2006] that is set in Mississippi, and I have a minor incident involving Moon Pies that I couldn’t resist putting in because it is just such a part of a backdrop, it has become a cliché.
How do you infuse clichés with meaning? That has become my entire job as a cartoonist. Moon Pies are one of those things that we all think we know. I try to do that in the cartoon and in the novel.
It was funny in the Northeast, in New York, to see the reaction because they had never seen Moon Pies. I had Moon Pies falling from the sky, which was inspired by [the cartoonist and satirist] R. Crumb. It is kind of like kudzu. It has a mysterious, mystical quality. It is like a Rorschach test. I am attracted to these things as a professional purveyor of metaphors and symbols. These are all larger than life, more than the sum of the parts. They are more than marshmallow and cake.
My new novel is set in the Civil Rights period in Mississippi, and I have one of the main characters, a guy who is down from Detroit, become addicted to Moon Pies during his stay. It is a bit of color that takes on significance as the story is told.
I personally have never been interested in being a Stuckey’s of the comic strip. Like somebody who is cataloging southern eccentricities. But because it is part of our backdrop, you need to acknowledge it. I see these things as part of our marinade. I am not interested in celebrating it, like those places that have the “Forget Hell!” signs. I am more interested in chronicling. I am revolted by a kind of minstrel-show-“Aren’t-we-quirky?” image of southerners. It is kind of what Hollywood does to the South.
But I am interested in being authentic. There were hot tamale stands in Mississippi. People did eat Moon Pie. But if we report it, it seems grotesque. And yet for us it is our backdrop. That is what we lived, and it was no big deal. It was just like the heat and the kudzu, just there.
So the Moon Pie sounds like a cliché, but actually I do like the pies. I always feel a tug when I go through the Harris Teeter. I feel I really should not be eating those. I do not like the health food version. I want the straight up pie. I like the ones with the yellow dye number two, the ’nana flavor.
I have known the Moon Pie since I was a kid. I grew up in a little town in Western Kentucky. I used to go in this little grocery store in Cadiz, Kentucky, where I grew up. It was called Albert Wallace’s. Mr. Wallace was sort of a no-nonsense guy. He kept close watch on things. You could go in there and get a wedge of cheese and crackers and bologna. He had fly paper hanging from little strings on the ceiling and an old oak floor. He had a drink box that you opened the top and slid a bottle down by its neck and slide it to the end and pull it up.
Back in those days, any kind of store-bought snack was along the lines of bologna and cola and peanuts that you dropped down into the bottle. Along that same line was the Moon Pie. R.C. Cola and a Moon Pie. The actual combination of those two, which I believe were both made in Chattanooga. I think the company was called Double Cola. They were just a wonderful little treat. Double Colas and R.C.s and Dr. Pepper, as well as Coke, all these southern soft drinks, which is where practically all soft drinks came from. I guess it was because people were so thirsty in the pre-air-conditioning climate that it was necessary to invent stuff like soft drinks and ice tea. I cannot imagine those things happening in New England.
I remember a few years ago they had become a phenomenon in the Far East, in Japan or China. Some people were just nuts about them. And they also have a mystique around extraterrestrial stuff. They are just a wonderful little item.
I will tell you one thing, it meant a lot to me and to my kids. That is what they had back in the 1950s, and I think before the ’50s. They were a snack thing that they had everywhere, like in the service stations and grocery stores. I remember at first they all had chocolate. They had a chocolate covering. And in the late eighties and nineties they came out with a cream cover. The inside was crispy like a cracker.
I got them at country stores in Bynum and in Carrboro [both small North Carolina towns]. The stores had a little bit of everything, you know. The beans were in a wooden barrel. They picked them out with a scoop and weighed them on a scale. The scale hung down from the ceiling. That was the same thing with the things you plant, like the beans and the corn and the wheat.
The country store is important. We talk about it all the time, the older generation like me. Today you go to the freezer and take things out. But in the country store nothing was boxed up. Even the salt was in a barrel, and they picked it out. It was covered up, but the beans were not covered. You would just walk in the store and see them. And the meat hanged up in the loft of the store, the ham, and the shoulder, and the strick o’ lean.
It smelled good because even the candy was laying out. The peppermint sticks were not wrapped up, . . . and the Mounds was three times as big as they are today. I remember we swapped eggs in the country for our goodies.
It is something else just to sit back and think about it. My papa sold his ham, and we sold chickens. We would catch the chicken and put them in a crate, six chickens in a crate. The crate was about three feet by three feet. And in Carrboro, he would stack them up on the back of the store. So if somebody wanted a chicken or a hen, they would go out there and catch him. Pick him out of that coop and take him home. They would pick him and cook him. He sold a lot of chickens through the store in Carrboro.
That was before we had all this refrigeration.
Let me tell you about the country store. Everybody knew everybody. We would ride to town on a wagon. People would sit outside, and they could tell time by that shadow. Papa could too. When dinner time came, he would say, “Well, the bell is gonna ring in a little bit.” And that shadow would be real small, you know. Old people could tell the time of day with the shadow. People today do not know about it anymore.
I love a Moon Pie. I would eat one now if I had it.