When folks talk about the South, things usually go one of two ways: either a sort of Scarlet O’Hara fantasy of simpler antebellum times or jokes about rednecks, hillbillies, and poor folks in general. Strangely enough, both of those ideas are summed up by a treat that is very much identified with the South: the Moon Pie, and there’s no better authority on the sweet than David Magee’s book Moon Pie: Biography of an Out-of-this-World Snack. Magee’s book is a slim, easy-reading volume that is nonetheless packed with information about the whimsical Moon Pie.
It’s a subject about which Magee is passionate, and he isn’t alone: Moon Pie testimonials are peppered throughout the book as people recall the first time they ate the “Original Marshmallow Sandwich.” As the story of the Moon Pie progresses, it becomes clear that there’s something a bit different about the Moon Pie, namely that it is still produced by the same bakery that invented the thing back in 1929. In this day and age of huge conglomerates that own multiple brand names, there’s only one Moon Pie, and those pies are the sole product of family owned Chattanooga Bakery in Chattanooga Tennessee. Originally a bakery formed by the Mountain City Flour Mill as a way to use flour that couldn’t be sold in stores, the Chattanooga Bakery has spent the last eight decades creating a snack that has become a symbol of the South itself.
Of course, no book about Moon Pies could be written without mentioning Royal Crown Cola, and Magee does a fine job of describing how folks with limited funds looking for the best deal possible were drawn to the portion size of both items (RC Cola in those days was 4 ounces more than Coca-Cola) as well as their price: one nickel a piece. The Moon Pie/RC Cola phenomenon is truly a populist pairing, “strengthened by a hit country song released by Big Bill Lister in 1951 titled ‘Gimme an RC Cola and a Moon Pie.” Chattanooga Bakery has never taken advantage of this co-branding (unlike that other Southern mixture, Ro-Tel and Velveeta), but if you say Moon Pie in the South, somebody is almost guaranteed to mention RC Cola at some point, even though the soda isn’t nearly as easily found these days (having been supplanted as the “Southern” soda for the most part by Mt. Dew.)
Chattanooga Bakery’s hard work and perseverance have paid off with a few lucky breaks, the first being Arkansas’ own Sam Walton taking an interest in the product after a Wal-Mart associate in Alabama mentioned customer complaints about the hit-or-miss availability – there are certainly worse things that could happen to a product than getting noticed personally by the CEO of the largest retail company in the world. The Moon Pie has also become a popular item to toss from Mardi Gras floats, especially in Mobile, Alabama, due to its combination of being soft, round (and delicious). The nostalgia factor of the marshmallow sandwich has helped out as well, with the Cracker Barrel chain carrying a “throwback” version of the Moon Pie in its “country stores” (see right). The throwback boxes use the old “Lookout” brand that the Chattanooga Bakery formerly ran all its products under, and remain a pretty inexpensive treat.
Magee’s love letter to the Moon Pie was an enjoyable read – I found myself craving one of the pies after I had made it about halfway through. Chattanooga Bakery has kept their product inexpensive and tasty for generations, without advertising, without selling out to large conglomerates, and without compromising quality. It’s truly a snack cake that can be enjoyed by anyone, whether you eat it out of the package, microwave it, or put them in the freezer to harden the marshmallow center (one of my personal favorites). It was enjoyable to learn a bit about a piece of my Southern upbringing, and here’s hoping there will be 80 more years of Moon Pies!