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From Moon Pies: Mardi Gras in Mobile
During the month-long Mardi Gras season in Mobile, the birthplace of Mardi Gras in America, more than thirty parades roll through the downtown streets, each featuring a dozen floats. And at every parade, off of every float, the prized catch is a MoonPie, a traditional southern snack made from graham cookies and marshmallow that comes in a variety of flavors. Parade crowds chant and clamor for MoonPies. “You can throw a MoonPie at a two-year-old child and a fifty-year old will knock them out of the way to get it,” says city councilman Fred Richardson. “If you run out of MoonPies, you might as well just lay down on the float. You can throw beads for a little while, but the people will start calling for MoonPies.”1
MoonPies missed in the air are still in play upon hitting the ground. As Mobilian Carrie Dozier explains, her MoonPies “aren’t caught in the air, but by scraping my fingernails like a rake on the pavement. It didn’t hurt! All that mattered was that I got a MoonPie!” Dozier even claims that MoonPies “from the parades have a different taste. These are the real things!” And when MoonPies land “tauntingly outside the traffic barricade,” notes parade goer Kim Kearley, they are retrieved “by savvy children able to perform the fluid ‘under the barricade leg scissor.’ ” Others bring rakes.
MoonPies were first produced in 1917 at the Chattanooga Bakery, founded in Tennessee in the early 1900s to use leftover flour from the Mountain City Flour Mill. The MoonPie traces its origins to a sales call in a Kentucky coal mining region, where workers toiled “all day long in soot-soaked underground shafts, chiseling the coal into chunks and loading them into waiting carts, which were whisked away one after another in an endless, monotonous ritual,” writes MoonPie chronicler David Magee. “When the break whistle blew, these mining men wanted a hearty snack, not a small package of lemon cookies or ginger snaps.”2
When the commissary manager showed no interest in Chattanooga Bakery products, company salesman Earl Mitchell approached a group of miners to ask them what they did want. One miner replied that they wanted something solid and filling for their lunch pails, then held his hands up to the sky so they framed the moon and said, “about that big.” When Mitchell returned to the Chattanooga Bakery, workers were dipping graham cookies into vats of marshmallow and setting them on a windowsill to harden and dry. With the miners in mind, Mitchell put two graham cookies together with marshmallow in the middle and chocolate on top. He took samples of the new snack back to the miners and received a positive response. At the time, MoonPies were one of two hundred confection items made at the bakery, but they quickly became a top-selling product.
The MoonPie was more than four inches in diameter and sold for a nickel. Because it was affordable and filling, it was especially popular among the working class. Similarly, in 1934, the Royal Crown Company in Columbus, Georgia, began selling RC Cola in sixteen-ounce bottles instead of the usual twelve, also for a nickel. With the MoonPie as the biggest snack cake for a nickel and RC Cola as the biggest soda, together they became a popular ten-cent combination, especially as a workingman’s lunch. Though neither company made any effort to link the two products, the phrase “an RC Cola and a MoonPie” became well-known across the South, bolstered by the 1951 hit country song “RC Cola and Moon Pie” by Big Bill Lister.
Transportation improvements in the 1950s, including new state and federal highways, more road-worthy vehicles, and more gasoline stations, “served as a boundary breaker for the MoonPie.”3 The snack was soon sold and consumed nationally, though it was still most popular in the South and in areas with high numbers of southern emigrants including Detroit and Chicago, where the MoonPie was a staple snack for industrial workers. By the late 1950s, the MoonPie had become so popular that the Chattanooga Bakery produced nothing else.4
Around this time, MoonPies made their debut as throws in Mobile Mardi Gras parades. Early Mardi Gras throws, dating to the 1800s, were French bon bons or trick prizes like small bags of flour that burst when caught. These were eventually banned, and throws reached a lull until post–World War II, when they became an increasingly integral part of Mardi Gras parades. In the 1940s and 1950s, taffy candy and serpentine (rolls of unraveling confetti) were the most common throws, and it was considered a feat to catch a whole roll of serpentine. “Throw me a whole roll, mister!” became a common parade shout.
In the late 1950s, city officials banned serpentine claiming that people choked on it, but some Mobilians insist the serpentine actually choked the gutters and was a chore to clean up. To replace the missing serpentine, float riders began throwing new items like rubber balls, beanbags, candy kisses (chocolate, molasses, and peanut butter), doubloons (coins bearing mystic society insignia), bags of peanuts, bubble gum, hard candies, and Cracker Jacks.
The thrower of the very first MoonPie is up for debate, and several local legends have sprung up around it. Complicating the issue is the fact that many of the legends’ “first” MoonPies were actually local bakery versions of the Chattanooga Bakery’s MoonPie. Even more perplexing is that all of the legends are probably true. By the 1960s, the Mardi Gras season was two weeks long and featured seventeen separate parades, each with numerous floats, making it highly likely that different people on different floats in different parades began throwing MoonPies (or versions of them) at the same time.
MoonPies’ real popularity as throws came in the early 1970s when the city of Mobile banned Cracker Jacks (the then favorite Mardi Gras throw) because the sharp box corners were injuring spectators. MoonPies perfectly filled the Cracker Jack void. They were soft, easy to throw and catch, affordable, and had been a southern favorite for decades. They were an instant Mardi Gras hit. “Oh, to catch a MoonPie!” writes Marie Arnott, who attended parades in the 1970s. “Something that was actually edible and sweet! They were doled out sparingly and the chant in the crowd was always for MoonPies.”5
Over the next few decades, MoonPies grew into a Mobile Mardi Gras institution. Today, each float rider throws roughly nine hundred MoonPies during a single parade, estimates Stephen Toomey, owner of the primary Mardi Gras supply store in Mobile.6 Toomey’s alone sells 4.5 million MoonPies each Mardi Gras season. And though the streets are littered with beads at the parade’s end, there are usually no MoonPies to be found. For months after Mardi Gras, Mobile children find MoonPies in their lunchboxes and trade each other for favorite flavors. Local newspapers print MoonPie recipes. In 2003, Doris Allinson Dean published Death by MoonPie, a cookbook full of creative ways to consume post–Mardi Gras MoonPies. Though desserts make up most of the book (Dean pairs ice cream and MoonPies in several), the book also features recipes for dressings, salads, and sandwiches, including a vanilla MoonPie, ham, and pineapple melt.
Parades have always been the greatest access point to Mardi Gras for the masses, and as the MoonPie quickly became the beloved Mardi Gras throw, another parade tradition, also centered on the public Mardi Gras experience and also unique to Mobile, took root.
Emily Blejwas is author of the novel Once You Know This and director of the Gulf States Health Policy Center in Bayou La Batre, Alabama.
1. History of the MoonPie Rise drawn from interviews with Barbara Drummond, Steve Mussell, and Fred Richardson, 2009, Mobile, AL.
2. Magee 2006:29–30.
4. Historic information on the MoonPie drawn from ibid.
5. Personal email from Marie Arnott, January 25, 2010.
6. Personal interview with Stephen Toomey, 2009, Mobile, AL.