Sometimes a taste, sound, scent, or memory tightly ties two places or things together in your life in a way you’d least expect. Such is the case with me. The common bonds?…coal regions and whoopie pies.
Followers of my blog know that I grew up in and spent the first 40 years of my life in Schuylkill County, the southern most tip of the Anthracite Region of Pennsylvania. After leaving PA and spending 18 years in New Hampshire, fate brought me to Johnstown, Pa. – the Bituminous coal region.
The ties that bind
The similarities to my beloved Coal Region of “home” quickly became apparent to me once settling into Johnstown; polka fests, church ethnic events, street fairs, and the plentiful offerings of the food I loved and had grown up with. One such culinary connection is the whoopie pie.
For those not familiar with this Coalcracker treat, a whoopie pie is made with two soft cake-like cookies with a fluffy filling sandwiched in between. The most common flavor is chocolate with a vanilla filling, but whoopie pies can be made in several variations including the popular seasonal favorite; pumpkin with cream cheese filling.
I did…no, I did.
The invention of the whoopie pie is hotly contested with a couple areas staking a claim on this perennial favorite. Long found throughout Pennsylvania and New England (Maine in particular), research seems to bear out that whoopie pies were, in fact, a contribution to America thanks to German immigrants who became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. Today, these hand-held treats are becoming increasingly popular across the country.
It is believed Amish, Mennonite, and Pennsylvania Dutch cooks made them as a way to use left-over cake batter. According to folklore, the whoopie pies were wrapped and placed in the lunch boxes of children who exclaimed, “Whoopee!” when discovering them in their lunch pail. Whoopie pies have been a staple in Amish and Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine for generations.
Gobs of whoopies
In Western Pennsylvania, specifically Johnstown (a small city about an hour drive east of Pittsburgh in bituminous coal country), they have their own special moniker — “gobs”.
As a Coalcracker who grew up in the Coal Region with “whoopie pies” surrounding me at farmers’ markets, bakeries, and road-side stands, the first time someone asked me if I wanted a “gob” here in Johnstown, I politely deferred, turned to my husband, leaned into his ear and whispered, “What the hell is a gob?” He was as clueless as I was.
Turns out a trip down a local grocery store aisle finally solved the mystery; it was a whoopie pie. Seems Johnstown has a claim to the term “gob”, or at least Tim Yost of Yost’s Bakery does.
“Gobs” is a trademarked name owned by the Dutch Maid Bakery of Johnstown. Yost bought the name, the formula and the manufacturing process in 1980 from the nearby Harris-Boyer Bakery as it went out of business. Yost’s Gobs are so popular, the bakery often ships them to ex-pats across the country who long for a taste of “home”.
Everyone who makes them in the Johnstown area refers to them as “gobs” and they are plentiful! They can be found at almost every food event, fish fry, ethnic fest, bakery and even as restaurant dessert offerings. Yost has every right to protect his registered trade name, but has not yet chosen to take legal action against those who use “gob” when referring to any whoopie pie.
So, why “gobs”? Susan Kalcik, a folklorist with the Southwestern Pennsylvania Heritage Preservation Committee in Johnstown gives this theory, “I’m convinced that the name gob is related to the coal mines. Lumps of coal refuse were called gob piles (culm banks in the Anthracite Coal Region). These working people adapted the name to the dessert.”
Or it could simply be that “gobs” of batter are deposited onto pans which then bake into these morsels of happiness for your taste buds. Sometimes, the mysteries of life remain unsolved for eternity.
Maine’s love and claim to fame of whoopie pies is not to be dismissed. Labadie’s Bakery in Lewiston, Maine, first started selling whoopie pies in 1925 with the opening of their bakery. The Labadie’s Bakery remains in the same location today.
Whoopie pies are so tied to Maine culture and history, the whoopie pie is the official state treat of Maine (not to be confused with the official state dessert, which is blueberry pie).
New England whoopie pies traditionally include a filling in which the product “Marshmallow Fluff” is used. This tradition is attributed by some as being due to a 1930’s cookbook called “Yummy Book by the Durkee Mower Company”, the manufacturer of Marshmallow Fluff. In the cookbook, a recipe for Amish whoopie pies was featured using Marshmallow Fluff in the filling, a product whose origins go back to 1917. Pennsylvania Dutch/Amish whoopie pies traditionally use a shortening-based filling.
Portable and popular
The popularity of whoopie pies in general is likely a result of their portability in lunches for both children and adults; miners and factory workers have enjoyed these treats for decades although you might not find grown men, sitting deep inside a damp, dingy mine or in the bowels of a steel mill shouting, “Whoopee!” when they open their lunch box to find this iconic snack…then again, maybe you would. The work was dangerous and back-breaking; perhaps these little treats added a bit of enjoyment to their grueling day.
Whip up some whoopies
You might be lucky enough to be in an area where you can get your favorite whoopie pies, but if you are not or would like to make your own, this recipe would be a good place to start. Whoopie pies freeze wonderfully; simply wrap them individually in plastic wrap, place in a zip top freezer bag (or wrap each again in foil) and freeze. Either thaw to eat or enjoy them semi-frozen.
Schuylkill County proud
This recipe for the traditional chocolate cake and vanilla cream filling version of whoopie pies was a prize-winning submission to the 2018 Pennsylvania Farm Show held annually in Harrisburg, PA. The baker, Darlene Noll, is from Schuylkill County.
Festivals that celebrate whoopies
Visit A Coalcracker in the Kitchen for the recipe and instructions!