Many popular desserts often have convoluted histories. This is no better illustrated than in the Pennsylvania Dutch icon foods like Shoofly Pie (named after a famous nineteenth-century boxing mule) and the now ubiquitous Whoopie Pies. Most people assume that Whoopie Pies are an Amish invention, but in fact they are an Amish adoption originally invented many miles away from the Dutch Country.
The real story of Whoopie Pies traces back to the Berwick Cake Company of Roxbury, Massachusetts. In 1925 bakery owner William Parks and his master baker decided to create a new type of cake which they dubbed a Devil Dog (still being made by another company). It was a chewy brownie-like cake with a marshmallow filling. So popular was this cake that it inspired Parks to think of something else: thus the Whoopie Pie was born.
Interviews with original bakery employees in 1988, many of whom have since passed away, helped piece together the progression of events that led up to the invention of Whoopies. Essentially what happened was this: the Berwick Cake Company, which had purchased the recipe for a famous pound cake made in Berwick, Maine, reinvented the cake formula so that it could be reproduced with machinery. The amount of sugar in the cake batter far exceeded the amount of flour, thus it would hold together only under certain industrial conditions. This is known in the baking business as a “high-ratio” cake, desirable for its moisture and sweetness made possible only with an oversize amount of vegetable shortening.
William Egan, another company employee, invented the cream filling which is what made the original Whoopies so popular. Again, this was a special formula that could only be replicated with heavy-duty bakery machines. It was pure fondant boiled at 240 degrees, then rolled mechanically to achieve the right texture. This is something that cannot be accomplished in home kitchens, so the later Amish versions of the cake are look-alikes with a much different taste and texture.
While the idea of sandwiching a cream filling between two pieces of cake was not new and has its counterparts in Old World pastry baking, the special chocolate mix in the cake part and the unique fondant filling made Whoopies stand apart from the crowd even when they were initially sold for five cents apiece. But once the recipe was perfected in 1926, what to call the invention?
In 1927 Eddie Cantor came to Boston to star in the Broadway musical “Whoopee” and as a stunt, the pies were tossed into the audience while Cantor sang the famous tune “Making Whoopee.” Overnight, this gave the pies their famous name with a slightly different spelling for patent purposes and sealed their fate as one of the most popular packaged cakes sold in New England. The Berwick Cake Company closed in 1977 thus ending the firm’s long-standing connection with the pies, but the story does not end there.
Various baking companies tried to replicate the cakes but with little success because Berwick went after them with lawyers for patent infringement. Just the same a home-made version of the cake was promoted during the early 1950s by the manufacturer of Marshmallow Fluff, a product that could stand in as the filling. Marshmallow Fluff –and the little pamphlet cookbooks that accompanied it — made their way into the Amish communities of Illinois and Indiana during the 1960s and it is during this same period that recipes for Whoopie pies appeared in Amish publications in that part of the Midwest.
From there the pie moved eastward via Amish networks, making its first appearance in Pennsylvania among the Big Valley Amish of Mifflin County. In the early 1970s not many people in the Dutch Country knew what Whoopie Pies were; today they are everywhere. And while the original pies were essentially chocolate cakes with cream filling, inventive Amish housewives have created multitudes of new flavor combinations, even adapting red velvet cake to the recipe. I think my all time favorite is a Somerset County version using maple cream in the filling and chopped hickory nuts in the cake part. With a cup of hot coffee in one hand and that cake in the other, can Whoopies get any better?
Dr. William Woys Weaver is an internationally known food historian and author of sixteen books including A Quaker Woman’s Cookbook, The Christmas Cook, and more recently, As American As Shoofly Pie, which is an analysis of Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine. Weaver has been featured on such national programs as “Good Morning America” (with Julia Child) and NPR’s “Fresh Air.”
Dr. Weaver has also been the subject of special articles in Americana, Food and Wine, The New York Times, and Country Living. He’s served as Visiting Professor of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences of the University of Pennsylvania, as well as a consultant for a wide variety of culinary projects.
Dr. Weaver received his doctorate in food studies at University College Dublin, Ireland, the first doctorate awarded by the University in that field of study. He lives in the 1805 Lamb Tavern, a National Register property in Devon, Pennsylvania. On the grounds of the tavern, Weaver maintains a jardin potager in the style of the 1830s featuring almost 4,000 varieties of heirloom vegetables, flowers, and herbs.
Connect with Dr. Weaver: Website