A summer fluff piece: telling our Whoopie Pie stories
Eva Murray. Sunday, Aug-01-10
The whoopie pie is a Maine tradition, but let's not get ridiculous about it
A little girl was in here, examining the big shiny steel rack of sweets and breads just inside my kitchen door. "Hey, what're those?" she asks, pointing to something big and chocolate. Ah, not from around here. "Those are whoopie pies."
Experience has taught me to wait a moment.
It is so much easier when they are children.
In July and August, I am a full-time baker. I wake up in the dark, prepare various goodies for many hours, live well-dusted with flour (probably breathing more of the stuff than some carb-conscious people eat in a season,) hair hauled back under a bandanna so I look like the graveyard shift office cleaning lady while the tourists with their cameras think it's cute to snap photos of me working. (Note to you folks: this is not Disneyland. You really think you want a photo of some strange woman in a head-rag and a white-floured T-shirt, kneading bread and scowling at your repetitive abstract questions about island life? Fine. It is good manners to ask first though, and no, I am not honored.)
It's a troglodytic existence, a cave-dweller's summer, rarely out in the sunshine (although this year, not much loss, I admit.) The garden is a pathetic example of neglect and I am regrettably not in swimming, that is not I reading in a lawn chair, and don't bother asking me about the condition of the walking trails. There are people who want cinnamon buns, and doughnuts, and cookies, and whoopie pies, and it is my job to satisfy them. No summer vacation for me; like so many on the coast of Maine, this time of year is work time, double time.
I enjoy seeing people smile as they enter my kitchen. They assure me "It smells good in here!" hundreds of times a summer. Glad to hear it. It feels very good being the provider of the blueberry coffee cake, the purveyor of the sticky buns, and, as what's-his-name put it, "master of the mud pie" (DownEast magazine, August 2008. Please send me my complimentary copy.) I do wish that fellow had told us he was writing a story about Matinicus; instead, another freelancer posing as a random tourist. Lesson learned. It's been a long summer.
As I write, it is late August; the summer's almost over. Soon, no more people immaculately dressed in white will be shoving photocopies of the Tuckanuck's old hand-drawn map in my face and asking about roads and trails that do not exist. Soon, no more sincere but exasperating queries such as "What do you people do all winter" or "You mean people live here in the winter?" Soon, no more yachters ranging around in my very industrial and under-maintained dooryard looking for seating among the welding practice because the concept of my bakery being only "take-out" doesn't quite register.
Soon, no more customers pointing to the large chocolate sandwiches stuffed with vanilla filling and asking, with accents most diverse, "So, what's those things?"Ł
Those are whoopie pies, I say. They just look at me. Uh huh. What idiot
thought that up? It's bad enough explaining the etymology of "anadama"
all summer. I will not speculate on "whoopie pie." Two unrelated
cookbooks claim that "these are so good they'll make you say "śwhoopie!'"Ł
That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard.
I sell quite a few of them, just the same.
Evidently, the whoopie pie, with straight face and no quotation marks, is well-known only in northern New England and in Pennsylvania. A recipe very much like the one I use appears in "From Amish and Mennonite Kitchens" by Good and Pellman, a great "comfort food" cookbook, by the way. I always assumed they were simply called by different names in other parts of the country but I've been told that no, they are sort of a local specialty. I'm assuming I don't need to explain to my readers exactly what this particular pastry tastes like. Are you reading this from away? It's sort of like a homemade "devil-dog," only round and considerably larger.
The ubiquity of the whoopie pie in the convenience stores and diners of
Maine does not indicate that all whoopie pies are alike, or even equal,
I have had some odd whoopie pie customers this year. One assured me that she had introduced the whoopie pie to Okracoke Island. One lady sidled up to me, as we stood beside the bakery rack, and asked in her best tight-lipped, spy-movie voice: "is that filling...the real kind?"Ł
Beats the stuffing out of me. I suppose that depends on where you live.
There are whoopie pie lovers, whoopie pie afficianados, and, I fear at least one whoopie pie fascist out there. "I," said he, fresh from his pleasure boat, "am checking out all the whoopie pies to see which ones are the good ones." OK, put the pressure on. I hope I passed muster. Has he been to Red's Eats? Has he been to Moody's Diner? Anyway, mine are most assuredly not the "gourmet" variety, and yes, there is such a thing. My own summer-trade recipe makes use of a structurally sound white filling which is basically an artery-clogging goop of confectioner's sugar, top-quality real vanilla, and some of that politically incorrect partially-hydrogenated you-know-what. Yes, it tastes wonderful if you use real butter, but when the customer intends to toss the thing into the day-pack, walk around in the sun for a few hours, go to the beach, maybe have a nibble of it, eventually go back to the rental camp or the sailboat, leave the whoopie pie around until it is remembered later and then eat it, the filling holds up better if it's made with...Crisco. Sorry. It's that indestructibility thing.
No, don't think of that lesson with your eighth-grade science teacher and the 20-year old Twinkie. They aren't that indestructible. The filling may not be hand-churned butter but it contains not one speck of marine colloids. This is the whoopie pie of the Middle Path.
These get mailed to boarding school, and to Maine Maritime, and soon to
college, wherever that may be. They go to haul. They get quartered and
frozen and rationed over days. They need to be tough.
I had a few special requests this summer for whoopie pies with ice cream in the middle; these were judged an undisputed hit, but I'm not sure that's still really a whoopie pie. If you are making them off season, for home consumption, or trying to raise the tone of the place just a little, indeed, do go for real butter n the filling.
Some recipes specify a marshmallow "Fluf"-based filling. I don't care for the stuff, but some people think that's the "real" recipe; your call. Don't think I'm being elitist; I didn't like Fluf as a little kid, either. That's just me. I had a beer the other day with a few of the local air service pilots and one of them asked me if I might make some whoopie pies with marshmallow. Yeah, I might.
There is a small baking company based in southern Maine which sells very elegant mussel-shell-shaped "gourmet" whoopie pies with a wide array of specialty fillings. You can get these mail-order, suitable for even the most glamorous of occasions...weddings, garden parties, coronations, Martha Stewart's visit, whatever. I got just a bite of one of these once, and they are excellent. Are they "authentic?" I say, wrong question. To insist that they must be the usual shape and filled only with the usual stark white stuff slips into the same snobbery as any who says the fancified version is "better." Do not, as I tended to warn my children, stoop to that level. There is no "better," assuming we aren't even talking about cheapo industrial pastries made with artificial chocolate flavor and a filling that resembles Sheetrock mud.
One summer visitor asked me if I would consider an order for 50 whoopie
pies. "Sure," I said, a bit too soon. She continued: "...a year from
September, to be sent to Louisiana for John's wedding. They're having a
sort of a Maine theme."
I explained that the lack of real express mail, next-day-air, or UPS off Matinicus Island, where weather easily confounds all such things, might result in some rather expensive hockey pucks being served, unfortunately representing both Maine and my little island business. She'd be better off engaging a mainland baker. Maybe they'd like to try those fancifully-shaped "pies" made from eggs laid by happy chickens and flavored with Myers rum. I sure would.
My nameless little operation is a nostalgia-inducing, comfort-food, low-on-the-sophistication-scale sort of bakery, offering lard-fried doughnuts, blueberry pies grandma-style with no unexpected elegant touches, and American-style soft loaf bread which, when sliced, fits in the toaster. My whoopie pies surprise nobody. That seems to be what my customers like.
I think I will try making a few with the specialty fillings off-season, though. Research and development, don't you know. It's a rough life.
Eva Murray first came to Matinicus as the teacher in the island's one-room school. She is a freelance writer, an EMT, runs a small seasonal bakery from her home during the summer, is married to the island's electrician and has raised two children on Matinicus.