THE STREETS OF Dover-Foxcroft, that of Piscataquis County and that itself of Maine, are packed with people. A colorful human theatre fills East Main Street here, an undulating mass moving and swaying in response to some tidal-like force. Somewhere, a band launches into song—all swirling synths, buzzing guitars, and questionably tuneful vocals. It's not until the chorus that I recognize it as Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf" and it hovers there, just above the murmuring din of the crowd, mingling like a mist with the scents of fried dough, French fries, and cheap ketchup.
Here, then, is the Maine Whoopie Pie Festival, the tenth iteration of such held on June 23 in this year of our Lord 2018, and it is an elbow-to-elbow, belly-to-belly gastronomic spectacle.
Somehow—inexplicably—my daughter finds me in the crowd, emerging in the wake of a five-foot volunteer wearing a handmade whoopie pie costume. She needs more money for whoopie pies, she says. I reach into my pocket and produce a handful of bills. When I do, my smartphone camera lenses fall to the ground. I reach down for them, and when I stand back up, she's gone. Sucked back into the vortex.
The Whoopie Pie Festival brings in about 7,000 attendees annually, nearly doubling Dover-Foxcroft’s population in a single afternoon. The vendors adorning the streets here have come from all over New England to display their wares. People jostle and shuffle in long lines to get samples of the dizzying array of whoopie pie styles: there’s traditional, and devil dog, mint, blueberry with bacon and maple, Moxie-flavored ("Good for what 'ales' you"). There’s red velvet. Chocolate chip. Goose jelly. And there are shortcake pies, cannolis, eclairs, chocolate cream buns—if you can stuff cream in it, it's fair game.
To my right I spy a stack of massive whoopie pies, each one easily as big as my head. Further down the line, I stop to grab a photo at the Whoopie Pie Cafe booth, a baker that I recognize from Bangor. The crowd is surging the booth, clamoring for samples. The attendants scurry frantically to satisfy the reaching mob. These people have all come for this thing, this simple thing, this whoopie pie, this quintessential symbol of Maine culture, and it has driven them nearly mad.
Two weeks later I'm standing in the stainless-steel kitchen of the Whoopie Pie Cafe. It’s much calmer here. James Gallagher, the cafe's owner, is mixing a bowl of batter for a small batch of whoopie pies, and I’ve been allowed to watch.
At its core, the traditional whoopie pie’s chocolate cake (or "cookie," depending on your preferred parlance) is simple: flour, baking soda, brown sugar, egg, vanilla, cocoa powder, salt. But James warns me that for every whoopie pie baker, there are an equal number of variations of ingredients and specific ratios thereof.
(The filling, he says, is pre-made here in large batches for economy—on any given day, he makes about 100 whoopie pies, and anyway, it's difficult to make a good small batch.)
Once the batter is complete, spoonfuls of it are dolloped in rough lumps in a 4-by-6 pattern onto a flat plan coated with parchment paper (not wax paper) and placed in the oven for a fairly precise 14 minutes. Overbaking creates a drier cake, says James; underbaking, a moister one. There are fans of both. It's like a science, he says—an intricate, temperamental one. For many, it's easier to just buy them from a baker.
He got into the business of whoopie pies by happenstance. He didn’t come from a big “whoopie pie family,” though his great-grandmother baked them (he still uses one of her recipes today). He opened the Whoopie Pie Cafe in 2012 as a young entrepreneur looking to break into the food business. In the beginning, the shop served traditional cafe fare and just four whoopie pie flavors. Over time, as the whoopie pies became more popular, the business segued into featuring them predominantly (though it still sells cafe fare). James’ whoopies regularly win awards and distinctions at festivals.
Today, the Whoopie Pie Cafe sells about 65 different varieties of whoopies throughout the year. Of those, the traditional chocolate cake with vanilla filling is the most popular. “Traditional," however, is in the eye of the beholder: some contend that peanut butter filling is actually the traditional variant. Others contend that whoopie pies aren’t native to Maine at all. And, as it turns out, some are very passionate about the subject.
Outside of the northeastern U.S., whoopie pies are virtually unknown. At best, they border on culinary curiosity. But to say that they’re woven into Maine’s cultural fabric is an understatement.
They're found at most corner stores from Fort Kent to Kittery, originating in both local kitchens and big bakeries alike. They're often mentioned in the same breath as lobster, Moxie, and red hot dogs as symbols of the Pine Tree State. In 2011, the Maine State Legislature designated the whoopie pie as Maine's official state treat. Many Mainers grew up with parents and grandparents who made them in their own homes. Simply said, whoopies are in the state's DNA.
The true history of the whoopie pie, however, is shrouded in mystery. It's said by many that the whoopie pie originated in Maine. According to one legend, a woman working in a commercial bakery in Bangor in the 1920s found herself with extra batter from a batch of cakes. Rather than waste the batter, it's said, she baked spoonfuls of it in the oven and stuck them together with leftover frosting. Voila— whoopie pies.
On the other hand, Labadie's Bakery in Lewiston, Maine, claims it sold Maine’s first whoopie pie in 1925 (but a fire in the 1960s destroyed the records and the proof). Regardless, the bakery is still making them to this day.
A few states away, Pennsylvania ardently claims whoopie pies as their own. As the legend goes, Amish women invented them as treats for working men and school children. When they'd open their lunchboxes to find the sweet treat, it's said, they'd yell out "Whoopee!" in excitement. Today, Pennsylvania hosts its own Whoopie Pie Festival (in fact, the nation's first).
Even Boston lays some claim to the whoopie pie, with varying legends of its own.
Despite the claims, however, no solid evidence has yet been produced to definitively verify the whoopie’s origins. At times, it creates a passionate conversation.
James says he frequently sees the whoopie pie passion firsthand. Sometimes, it borders on rivalry. Customers from Pennsylvania will drop in "just to see how ours compare," he says. "No matter where you are, someone always has a story about a whoopie pie. Theirs are better than yours, or their mother's or grandmother's [whoopie pies] are better. There definitely is an almost cult following."
In fact, he says, some customers are ready to fight for whoopie pie ownership. "At an event in Boston, we had a disagreement between two very different groups of people thinking that they knew whoopie pies better than the other. They were connoisseurs and they had tried them all over the country. With some customers, it's kind of like a diehard following."
But the bakers? Not really, he says. "We love our products, but we don't get together and talk about it. We just bake."
In Dover-Foxcroft, I make my way through the crowd past the Whoopie Pie Cafe's booth, past the Dominican Republic Medical Mission, the Ashes to Ashes Pet Crematorium, and various craft vendors and whoopie bakers to a booth set off in the corner. The crowd is thinner here. Behind the table sits a woman displaying a modest spread of traditional and other flavored whoopie pies.
I eye the selection. "Do you sell these in stores?" I ask.
"No," she says, "I mostly make them locally and sell them to friends and family."
"What makes these traditional?"
"They come from a traditional family recipe," she replies.
Fair enough. I buy one.
It’s a whoopie pie.
And it’s delicious.
Originally written for Maine-based literary publication Maine the Way.