An excerpt from THE STORY OF ALABAMA IN FOURTEEN FOODS by Emily Blejwas

The Story of Alabama in Fourteen Foods will be available July 2019

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.

Photo by Evan Amos

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.

3. Ibid.:45.

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.

Intern Spotlight: Megan

Working at The University of Alabama Press has been an eye opening experience and a great delight. When much of the world thinks of publishing a book they assume that the writer does all the work, but, in fact, half of what makes a book the product you see on your shelf comes from the dedicated work of a publishing team.

When I first came to the University of Alabama, I knew that I wanted to work with books as a future career but I was uncertain what direction that would take. Being both an English major and an avid reader, I churned through books from classics to contemporary fiction learning to read with a scholar’s eye and a veteran’s familiarity. But this only offered a glimpse at one side of what makes books so remarkable.

It was the September of my Junior year of college that I first received the opportunity of working at The University of Alabama Press as an editorial intern and pulling back the curtain on what was then to me the mysterious process of book publishing. Little did I know, joining the Press would be one of the best experiences of my college career.

Thinking about my time at the Press, one of the things that stands out most to me is the great teamwork and comradery that we have with each other. Every part of the Press, and the book creation process, is deeply entwined. I have been lucky to have such wonderful coworkers and mentors within the Press. They have helped me from the beginning with learning the Chicago Manual of Style to answering the trickier questions of in-depth indexing and rooting out the elusive typo. Whenever I find myself with a question, I never feel uncomfortable nor hesitate to ask.

Beyond editing, my time at the Press has been deeply influential in helping me to find what direction I will take in my future career. I am currently a senior as I write this and will be graduating at the end of this semester. My coworkers are a great help in giving me advice and the insight I need in making this next step. I intend to continue on in the book publishing industry and one day I hope to find myself publishing books of my own.

To my peers at The University of Alabama Press, thank you for your help and the experience I have gained these past two years. I look forward to all the books to come.

Megan McCarter

Intern Spotlight: Sydney

My name is Sydney Evans, and I am currently a senior at the University of Alabama studying English. My interest in publishing came about two years ago when my passion for reading was sparked again. I previously read constantly when I was younger, but in high school and the beginning of college my interest in reading had drastically waned. It was my rediscovery of YA fantasy and beautifully written literary fiction novels that led me from reading only one book in a year to devouring almost one hundred. I had found something that I loved to do, and I began to wonder what having a career in the publishing industry would be like. I knew little to nothing about the logistics of it, but my friend who had previously interned at UA Press encouraged me to apply. She said her time at the Press was valuable in that it helped her decide if a publishing career would be the right choice for her. I am now spending my third semester here as an editorial intern.

My experience at the Press has been very eye opening. My concept of publishing and all that it entailed was quite different from what I have experienced hands-on, and getting the opportunity to discover what it is like day-to-day has been invaluable. As an editorial intern, I have been introduced to the different stages of editing that a book goes through, from copy-editing to proofreading, before it is finalized for print and placed on the shelves. I never realized how many different steps go into working on a single book, and it makes me appreciate every book I read that much more. Although my focus has been in the editing division of the press, I have been exposed to many different departments, such as acquisitions, business, and sales as well. Many people have taken the time to explain what their day-to-day work looks like, and they all have been open to explaining concepts or answering any questions I may have.

After I graduate in May 2019, I hope to move forward and have a career in the publishing industry. I am interested in acquisitions and having the opportunity to meet with authors, help them in the early stages of their book, and to travel. I am passionate about the editing process itself and knowing that I am helping an author to make their book the best it can be. I have enjoyed copyediting as well, and I would gladly take a position copyediting or proofreading for a company. Certain books I have read in my life have shaped me as a person, and knowing that I could play a small role in helping a reader discover a book that would do the same thing for them inspires me to learn how to edit to the best of my abilities. My dream is to one day make it to New York (whenever the funds for living in one of the most expensive cities in America would become available) to work in trade publishing. I would like to work with young adult novels, because they are what inspired me to love reading once again. UA Press has given me great experience and exposure, and it has helped me to realize that this is exactly what I want my future to be like. I would not be nearly as confident or knowledgeable about the publishing world if it wasn’t for my time interning here, and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity and experience.