Saturday, September 30, 2017

Mambo Americano

I enjoy authoring this blog for many reasons, not the least of which is the freedom to write about anything that crosses my somewhat spontaneous, freewheeling mind. Not long ago, I submitted my blog to an automated ad-generating tool, which said that it needed a theme on which to base ads. It was stymied in that it could find no common topic thread among all the posts I've written since 2004. Therefore, it is my belief that I have succeeded in my mission.

Today, I'd like to write about something which is near and dear to (some of) our hearts. Others think it is an overrated food item, but I'm here to set the story straight, because I have done my homework. I'd like to talk about the humble Moon Pie, alternatively known as the "marshmallow pie," and some of its notable imitators.

First off, if you're not familiar with Moon Pies (which I totally understand, what with some of you hailing from places far removed from the American South), a little introduction is in order. Moon Pies are a treat consisting of two graham cracker wafers sandwiching a layer of marshmallow creme, with the entire assembly being dipped in chocolate or other flavors, chocolate being the most common. As of this writing, pies also are available in vanilla, strawberry, banana (surprisingly good), lemon, orange, and salted caramel flavors, but in my opinion, the chocolate is still the real deal. Official Moon Pies have been made in Chattanooga, Tennessee, since 1917, which makes them exactly one hundred years old. They were originally developed as a portable snack for Kentucky coal miners who had asked if the bakery could produce a treat "as big as the moon."

In Southern tradition, it is quite common for a Moon Pie to be paired with an RC Cola, although the origin of this practice is unknown. "Big Bill" Lister, a honkytonk country singer of the 1950's, actually released a hit song during that era which was titled "Gimmee an RC Cola and a Moon Pie." (I just had to throw that in to prove that I'd actually done my homework.)

When I was a child, my parents referred to marshmallow pies as "mambo pies." (That term is magical to me, so if you don't mind, I'm going to use it for the remainder of this article.) A mambo pie could be any of several brands of marshmallow pies on the market at that time, including Bremner's and Lara-Lynn, in addition to the Moon Pie. Bremner's was a fairly well-known imitation of the Moon Pie, and just a few days ago, I saw their pies pictured in a 1959 advertisement from a Delaware grocery store, confirming what I had always guessed, that they weren't a strictly Southern treat. I absolutely loved getting a new box of mambo pies -- there was something magical about slicing open the white wrapper to the box, viewing the individually wrapped mambo pies begging to be eaten while binge-watching cartoons.

You'd think that over the years, as my tastes expanded to include all kinds of regional and international food, the appeal of a humble mambo pie might be somewhat diminished. Not so. I retain that fondness for domestic mambo pies, but I've also found some wonderful alternatives manufactured outside the United States. This didn't happen intentionally.

One day years ago, while shopping with my daughter Hannah at a local H-Mart, a gigantic Asian supermarket, we happened to notice this shiny gold box over on the side of the store, on a rack all by itself. Upon closer inspection, we found that the treats contained within were known as "Choco-Pies," and that they were made in Korea. We bought the box and brought it home with a mix of anticipation and caution. When we opened it, we found each pie individually wrapped in foil, presumably for freshness, and when we sampled the contents, we were delighted. The Choco-Pie was every bit as good as the original Moon Pie or any of its imitators, and it was of sufficiently superb quality to be referred to from that point forward as a genuine mambo pie. We might not have been able to read the ingredients list, but it didn't matter.

Earlier this week, I was visiting for the first time an international gourmet market in Alpharetta, Georgia, only five miles or so from our house. As I perused the aisles, my excitement built when I saw endless variations of sugar wafers, another of my vices. And then, to my sheer delight, I spotted it: yet another variation of the Moon Pie, this one also in a shiny gold box. These pies were produced by a company called √úlker from Turkey and were named "Chocolate Halley." Of course, I bought a box and brought it home.

The Chocolate Halleys were stacked together and not individually wrapped, but they were placed in a nice snap-fit plastic tray to keep them fresh. On my first bite, I noticed that this pie featured more crunchy graham layers, reminiscent of the original Moon Pies that we used to buy back in the day. As I recall, the remainder of the pie was excellent, as I consumed the entire thing in less than a minute.

Indeed, my experiences with mambo pies in general have been rewarding, except for one minor incident. One stressful workday afternoon in the late 1980's, I purchased a double-decker (three layers of graham cookie and two layers of marshmallow creme) Moon Pie from a company vending machine. I noticed on the package that it said the pie would be delicious if microwaved, and in my mind, this seemed like a good thing. I opened the microwave and inserted the Moon Pie, then set the recommended cook time and pressed the start button. What emerged from the microwave at the end of that period can only be described as tragic. The chocolate coating was reasonably intact, but the marshmallow creme had oozed out the sides, transforming my much anticipated treat into a volcanic mess. The pie was as hot as the surface of the sun, and once it had cooled, it was just a blob. I ate it, of course.

For those of you who pooh-pooh real Moon Pies, I understand where you're coming from. It's true that the graham cookie layers seem a wee bit drier than they were in the 1960's, but hey, the company is still in business after one hundred years, so that says something. What with the plethora of offshore options available these days, I envision a bright future for mambo pies. In fact, if I have room left tonight, I may down another Chocolate Halley. Truly, there is hope for the future.