When most people think of Mardi Gras, they think of New Orleans, which does have the largest Mardi Gras in the United States. And most would think that the Crescent City is where the concept was started here, but they’d be wrong. It’s actually the quiet city of Mobile, Alabama, to the east, where the tradition started much earlier. In the 1700s, mystic societies were formed in Mobile. Think of these societies as equivalent to the krewes of New Orleans. These funky organizations brought old-world traditions to Mobile, as they held celebrations like parades and balls with themes for carnival. In 1704, the “Boef Gras” or Fatted Calf society was formed and paraded in Mobile from then until 1861. The modern mardi gras parade is given credit to Joseph Stillwell Cain, who in 1866, with some buds, decided Mobile needed a little Mardi Gras tomfoolery again and paraded dressed as Chickasaw Indians through the streets of Mobile.
Mobile has a fantastic Carnival Museum, with tours led by the talented L. Craig Roberts, a local architect, and the nation’s foremost authority and author on the history of Mardi Gras in the United States. It’s a must see along with the hundreds of National Register Historic homes in Mobile’s lovely downtown.
Today, more than 800,000 people take in the celebrations of Mobile’s carnival season. It’s more of a family oriented celebration than the rowdier New Orleans version, but the parties and pomp are as lavish and spectacular. Many generation wealthy families pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to have beaded costumes made for their sons and daughters to be queen or king of a mystic society.
It was actually natives of Mobile who formed New Orleans’ first Krewe, Comus, in 1856 that started the modern mardi gras in NOLA. Mardi Gras had been celebrated openly in New Orleans since the 1730s, but not with the parades as today, until the Krewe of Comus.
So what does Mobile have to do with MoonPies? Well, it’s their signature throw from parade floats during their Mardi Gras. And, as it turns out, the city of Mobile is the largest consumer of the MoonPies in the world. The delicious confection has been made by the Chattanooga Bakery in Tennessee, since 1917. Mobilers consume so much during carnival season that the Chattannooga Bakery makes special flavors for them during Mardi Gras, and then see if they sell to the rest of the market after carnival season. It’s a free test market.
For those Yankees north of the Mason Dixon line, who aren’t familiar – the MoonPie is a confection which consists of two graham cracker cookies with marshmallow filling dipped in a flavored coating like chocolate.
The MoonPie became a traditional parade throw in Mobile, in 1956, and spread to other communities along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Prior to the 1950’s traditional parade throws were hard candy, bubblegum, taffy, bags of peanuts and popcorn, and confetti and Cracker Jack. Cracker Jack was banned as a throw in the 1950s when thrown boxes were cutting people’s faces. In came the MoonPie, and it’s been a favorite since then.
There’s a Moon Pie Radius – where they’re thrown from floats during Mardi Gras -that extends as far west as Slidell, Louisiana, which has a parade thrown by “The Krewe of Mona Lisa and Moon Pie.” In Oneonta, Alabama, there’s even a moon pie eating contest initiated by Wal-mart employee John Love, when he mistakenly ordered too many of the delicious treats.
Now the MoonPie was created by a bakery salesman at the Chattanooga Bakery, Earl Mitchell Sr. (1884-1945). Chattanooga Bakery, Inc. in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was founded in 1902 as a subsidiary of the Mountain City Flour Mill. The bakery was added onto the mill’s building so flour could be transferred directly from mill to bakery. It’s original purpose was to use the excess flour produced by the mill. By 1910, the bakery offered over 150 different confectionery items. In 1917, the bakery developed a product which is still known as the MoonPie. Today MoonPies are Chattanooga Bakery’s primary product and the factory is can bang out over a million pies per day.
Earl is said to have visited a company store that catered to coal miners in his sales territory of Kentucky. He asked them what they would like for a snack. The miners had wanted something for their lunch pails that would be large enough to be filling and satisfying. Mitchell asked how big it needed to be. About that time, the moon was rising in the sky, and one of the miners held his hands up and framed the moon with them and said, “About that big.” So Mr. Mitchell went back to the bakery with an idea in mind. He also saw some of the bakery workers dipping graham crackers into marshmallow and laying them on the window sill to harden. So, he added another cookie and a heaping coating of chocolate and sent them back for the coal miners to try. The miners loved it, and so did others who were test marketedIn the south, there’s a tradition of eating a moon pie with an RC cola, another southern invention, created in 1905 in Columbus, Georgia. This is known as the working man’s lunch, and must have surely been appreciated local dentists! Songs have been written about this working man’s combo, launching it into early pop Icon status. Big Bill Lister wrote the 1954 song “Gimme An R C Cola and a Moon Pie, and more recently NRBQ wrote another song.
Now the MoonPie can be likened to a s’more because of it’s use of graham cracker and marshamallow. In fact, there’s a method of eating the MoonPie in the south, where it’s microwaved to become more gooey like a s’more. Some people will even take it apart and add toasted coconut or other adders before nuking it. But it’s the MoonPie’s use of a cake cookie that is also similar to another closely related confection, the Whoopie Pie. The whoopee pie is a much older Amish or northeastern tradition, with two devils food cakes filled with a creamy, sometimes marshmallow filling. Some old nicknames for these treats were ‘black moons’ – so there’s a possibility of a connection. They were also eaten as a lunch snack by the Amish in their work pales. But the Whoopie pie and its contested origin is another blog.
MoonPies come in four standard flavors – chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and banana. Chocolate and banana are the top sellers. They are about 4 inches in diameter, about the size of a typical American hamburger. They also come in a miniMoonPie version, about half the size of the standard. Double decker moon pies, where a third cookie and second marshmallow layer are added, for the hungrier-than-normal working man, come in lemon and orange flavors.
In 2014, the Salted Caramel Moon Pie was introduced for Mobile’s Mardi Gras. It’s described as ‘a wonderful marriage of savory and sweet in a way that tickles the taste buds.’ It became so popular that the company now sells it all year round. Unfortunately, last year Chattanooga Bakery announced that their other special Mobile Mardi Gras flavors Crunch Peanut Butter – a chocolate cookie with a rich, creamy peanut butter center , introduced for 2009, and Chocolate Mint – a thin mint cookie with a rich chocolate center, introduced for 2010, were no longer going to be available. As of today, though, these flavors are still available on the company’s website.
The most loved and most coveted throw at Mobile Mardi Gras, however, is the rare Coconut MoonPie, which was re-introduced for Mobile’s 2011 Mardi Gras at the request of Stephen Toomey, owner of Toomey’s Mardi Gras Supply in Mobile, which sells the most MoonPies in Mobile. The coconut flavor was actually introduced sometime in the late 1960s. It wasn’t a terribly good seller back then, says Chattanooga Bakery president, Tory Johnston, and it faded from sight in the late 1970s. It was brought back for limited time promotions since then, but faded into the sunset until recently.
Coconut is one of those flavors, like cilantro, that people either love or hate. But even non-fans of coconut say the Coconut MoonPies remind them of their favorite Southern cakes, like an Italian Cream Cake. The coconut flavoring is not owerwhelming and very light, almost an almondy flavoring that emanates each bite. At the time of their release in 2011, the Coconut MoonPie made up 20% of the sales, with chocolate and banana as the king sellers. Unfortunately they’re still only available during Mobile’s Mardi Gras season, so they haven’t yet made a national release for us Yankees, but a man can dream.
Mobile so loves their MoonPie, that since New Year’s Eve 2008, they celebrate “Moon Pie over Mobile,” where they drop a 14 foot flashing neon, mechanical, banana yellow MoonPie on cables from the RSA Bank Trust Tower to ring in the New Year. I love a community that elevates a working man’s snack food to celebrity status. And, it’s also used as a celebratory food to commemorate the Apollo 11 Moon Walk on July 20, 1969.
I think the Chattanooga Bakery should take a cue from what Lay’s is doing with their national suggestions of new flavored potato chips. Crowdsourcing might be the answer to boost sales of MoonPies and keep the coconut flavor year round. If I had my product development choice, I might suggest to the Chattanooga Bakery a Hummingbird Cake MoonPie, with pineapple and mandarin orange flavor, or a Red Velvet MoonPie for upcoming Mobile Mardi Gras seasons. I wouldn’t even charge a consulting fee for my ‘blue sky thinking’.