BIRD-IN-HAND, Pa. — It consists of two round, textbook-thick, palm-sized chocolate cakes that sandwich a creamy vanilla filling to create one sinfully rich snack. It’s the whoopie pie, a snack so beloved that residents in two states have cooked up a good-natured tug of war over which place is its rightful home — Maine or Pennsylvania?
A state legislator in Maine whipped up passions when he introduced a bill in January to make the whoopie pie Maine’s official state dessert. Like a group of chefs tweaking a recipe, a legislative committee has since dropped “dessert” in favor of making the snack Maine’s official “treat.”
No matter — residents in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County say that’s just baloney. Those round mounds of cakey goodness originated from kitchens of the area’s Amish families, dating back generations, they say.
“We’ve had this thing going with the whoopie pie here for years and years and decades,” John Smucker, CEO of the family-run company that owns the Bird-in-Hand Bakery, said as kitchen workers busily put together a batch of red velvet whoopie pies. “And all of a sudden they try to enter into the picture … It’s just a bunch of nonsense.”
At the S. Clyde Weaver store in East Petersburg, staff piece together their version of the traditional chocolate-with-vanilla-filling variety.
“We do the original,” baker Nancy Rexroad said. “When something’s the original, you can’t improve on it.”
Maine state Rep. Paul Davis got things brewing with a bill to laud the whoopie pie. Davis got the idea from speaking with people at the Maine Whoopie Pie Festival, which last year attracted 4,000 visitors to Dover-Foxcroft, part of Davis’ district.
Amos Orcutt, president of the Maine Whoopie Pie Association, was one of the Mainers who lobbied Davis to make a stand. In a phone interview, Orcutt, whose full-time job is president of the University of Maine Foundation, said he got steamed after reading a New York Times story on whoopie pies in March 2009 that cited food historians on the likelihood that the whoopie pie got its start in Pennsylvania.
“Having grown up in Maine, I used that well-worn term ‘appalled and aghast,’ so I started looking into it,” Orcutt said. “A lot of our older alumni said, ‘Oh no, I remember whoopie pies as a child.”
Davis said he’s been told Maine whoopie pies may date back as far as 1925. The web site for Labadie’s Bakery in Lewiston, Maine, says bakers there started making whoopie pies that year.
About the time he read the Times story, Orcutt said a local high school’s mock legislature exercise proposed a “bill” to give the whoopie pie the official dessert designation.
“One thing led to another, and folks kept saying, ‘Well, gee, you’ve got to do something about it,’” Orcutt said. Davis estimates that about 400 to 500 bakeries — from commercial operators to small-town markets to individuals who sell kitchen-baked goods at farmers markets — sell whoopie pies.
Word of Davis’ bill reached the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitors Bureau in Lancaster, and organizers there decided to answer back. They touted a web site — www.saveourwhoopie.com — that likened Maine’s actions to “confectionary larceny.”
Area residents say Amish and other Pennsylvania Dutch families have passed down whoopie pie recipes for generations. Smucker said his bakery’s recipe dates back at least 50 years to his grandmother’s kitchen. Further west in Pennsylvania, the treats were also known in the Johnstown area as “gobs.”
Dan Neff, owner and president of the S. Clyde Weaver market, said he suspected that one possible origin for the whoopie pie was home cooks looking for a creation to replace cream-filled doughnuts, which would be difficult to make in a home kitchen.
Smucker relayed another story passed on in Bird-in-Hand about the origin of the “whoopie pie” name in 1958, in which one in a group of young Amish women exclaimed “whoopie” when checking on the progress of her cakes in the oven. (Several variations of the story have made the rounds.)
It’s also about that time, Smucker said, that whoopie pies started to become a more popular snack in the larger community.
Residents are backing their bakers. Visitors bureau spokesman Joel Cliff said about 1,700 signatures have been collected for an online petition “objecting to any other state, county or town claiming the whoopie pie as its own.”
The Hershey Farm Restaurant and Inn, in Strasburg, makes over 100 different flavors for its Whoopie Pie Festival which started six years ago — or several years before the Maine event.
And 21-year-old Josh Graupera of Lancaster got so worked up after hearing about Maine’s move that he and a friend organized a rally in downtown Lancaster on Feb. 19 attended by 100 people, including one person who carried a sign “Give Me Whoopie, or Give Me Death.”
“We thought we would organize as many people as possible to stand up and say, ‘You’re not going to take our heritage from us,’” he said. “This is a Lancaster County tradition.”
All sides say they’re turning up the heat all in good fun.
“They can have their lobsters,” Graupera said.