Do you remember the episode of Seinfeld where Elaine opened a store that only sold muffin tops (leaving a mountain of muffin stumps that even the homeless wouldn’t eat)? Imagine if those muffin tops were made out of delicious moist chocolate cake and two of them were used to sandwich a thick layer of sweet, fluffy, creamy, whipped something. If you still can’t quite imagine it, think Hostess Suzy-Q—only infinitely better.
In late August 2004 I had my first Whoopie Pie when my partner took me to one of his favorite places on earth—Monhegan Island, Maine. The cat is already out of the bag about Monhegan, but it is a place that is so special that we try and play it down. We selfishly don’t want to increase the relatively modest tourist traffic that plies the island in the summer.
This past August we were again privileged to stay on Monhegan. Our lodging of choice is the lovely, unpretentious Monhegan House. With no television, cozy cotton bedspreads, and a large communal bathroom on the second floor, the Monhegan House is the perfect place to get away from metropolitan life (although you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone reading the New York Times). Aside from the sheer beauty of the island, we were most looking forward to the Whoopie Pies available at The Novelty attached to the back of the Monhegan House. The Novelty has the best Whoopie Pies available anywhere in Maine, perhaps the world.
Sue, The Novelty’s master baker, food goddess, and all around wonderful person makes a Whoopie Pie that will knock your socks off. Before we left Monhegan we told Sue we were going to need a half dozen of them to take home with us (why God did we only ask for six?). I emptied out my Dopp kit which has a rigid structure, trying to ensure that they would make the trip unharmed. We were momentarily worried that the TSA might think that the cream in the middle of the Whoopies constituted a gel that would be confiscated before we boarded our flight back to Washington. We vowed to eat every single one before passing through security if necessary. But then we thought that no Mainer, TSA agent or not, would be so cruel as to deprive us of our Whoopie Pies. Although we did imagine a scene that would involve having to bribe one of them with some of our WP booty.
We confirmed Sue’s Whoopie Pie prowess when we spent subsequent days traveling through Maine trying every WP we came across. None of them even came close. Even with my sweet tooth, these lesser WPs went unconsumed after the first bite. We don’t know Sue’s last name, but we do know that she makes the best Whoopie Pies anywhere. She also makes fantastic pizza and amazing oatmeal raisin cookies that have a bit of orange flavor and a hint of salt on the outside.
Although I love to bake, I am not going to attempt to recreate Sue’s WPs at home. No doubt there is more to Sue’s genius than a mere recipe.
The recent deaths of writer and urban planning iconoclast-turned-icon Jane Jacobs and feminist godmother Betty Friedan has me pondering how four women altered the contours of American life. I realize that the conversations I have had about these four women and this post are not particularly original thought, but bear repeating anyway. For one other discussion of the topic (minus Julia Child) see this article in the The Nation.
Jane Jacobs (1916-2006)
When journalist Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961 she helped pull the urban planning profession from its darkest days of “slum” clearance and the worst excesses of 1950s urban renewal. Originally decried by planners of the day, Jacobs’ view of what constituted the components of a healthy neighborhood and a healthy city is the standard by which they are still judged today. Jacobs’ description of her Greenwich Village neighborhood and the ways in which it nurtured its residents provided a powerful example in favor of mixed-use, mixed-income, walkable neighborhoods that are the mantra of virtually every municipal planning department today. Like the other three women discussed here her work is not without its flaws. But, like the others, her clarion call woke up a sleeping nation and defined the terms of discussion for going on fifty years now.
Rachel Carson (1907-1964)
The marine biologist/zoologist, professor, and author’s 1962 book Silent Spring stood the US and the world on its ear about the connection between chemical pesticides and the degradation of the environment. Her book woke up America and kicked off the modern environmental movement. Of course she has her detractors even today (not being a scientist I am not going to try and wade through the arguments), but the fundamental truth is her work put environmental issues firmly on the policy table and in the minds of the American public.
Betty Friedan (1921-2006)
The 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique ushered in the modern feminist movement. Despite the book’s somewhat limited prospective of the white, college-educated, middle class woman (i.e., the typical Smith graduate), the notion that the sexist, conformist expectations of the times had trapped most women into a life of unfulfilled potential had near virtual universal application. (One could also argue that suburban sprawl contributed greatly to the imprisonment of women in the 1950s, but that is the topic for another post.) Friedan’s writing and her co-founding of the National Organization of Women (NOW) and National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) set the U.S. on an unstoppable path toward the as yet unfulfilled equality of women in America.
Julia Child (1912-2004)
When I was a child in the 1970s the whole family would gather around the TV on Sunday afternoons to watch The French Chef with Julia Child on PBS. We never made any of her recipes but we sure liked watching. Her show, which began in 1963, and her contribution to the popularization of TV cooking shows is not the most impressive change she brought to American life. Julia introduced Americans to recipes and ingredients that were anathema to the post-World War II salt, pepper, and paprika school of American cooking. When her show began Americans were gorging on TV dinners and canned vegetables. Thanks to Julia and others in her circle or under her influence, we have so much to choose from today when we head to the grocery store. Not all of the “food” created by scientists but those fabulous ingredients that no one had heard of thirty years ago.
For you big fans out there, you must check out her kitchen which on display at the Smithsonian in Washington DC. I’ve been there five times myself.
Porches are good places to eat chips and dip (and share recipes). This one goes out to my pals at the (in)famous Anarchists Book Club. To the rest of you, you really should try this dip, especially with summer picnic season upon us. It is so fresh and tasty. Oh, and for those of you suffering through the pain of Phase I of the South Beach Diet, make this with low fat cream cheese and dip your celery instead of chips. Tip o’the hat to Mary Feehan in Houston, Texas who originally got a version of this published in Gourmet magazine.
CREAMY PICO DE GALLO DIP
1 small tomato, coarsely chopped, about 2/3 cup
3/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
1/3 cup coarsely chopped red onion (I always add a bit more)
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped pickled jalapenos
8 oz cream cheese softened (lowfat works quite well)
1/2 teaspoon salt (be careful, the chips add salt as well)
Pulse all but cream cheese and salt in food processor until everything is minced. Add cream cheese and pulse until everything is blended well together. Taste and then add salt accordingly. Put it all in a serving bowl, cover, chill for about one hour until slightly thickened.
Serve with chips.