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3Qs: The origins of a sweet treat

The whoopie pie — whipped cream or frosting sandwiched between twin chocolate cakes — has a glorious but muddled history as a favorite treat throughout the northeastern United States. Several regions claim to be the cookie’s birthplace, including Lewiston, Maine; Pennsylvania Dutch Country; and Roxbury, Mass. On Thursday night at The Berwick Cake Factory in Roxbury, the Dudley Square Main Streets organization hosted a celebration of whoopie pies, an event sponsored in part by Northeastern University. Distinguished Professor of History William Fowler’s knowledge of both local history and snacks puts this topic squarely in his sweet spot.

So where was the whoopie pie invented?

We’re not going to know that unless we get some whoopie pie to talk. Who was there to record the first one? We’ll never really know, just as we’ll never know who wrote the first declaration of independence or who invented baseball or the Internet. Similarly, Woodman’s, a restaurant in Essex, Mass., claims to have invented the fried clam in 1916 — someone supposedly dropped a clam in a vat of oil while cooking French fries — but fried claims were on the menu of the Parker House in Boston during the Civil War. What it’s really all about is putting out a good press release.

Does it matter where “the first” something happened?

It certainly matters if you’re in the Chamber of Commerce. Everybody’s always got a little kernel of truth that they grow into a magnificent sequoia. It always starts with something somebody heard. Then it gets to be a popular story, and who’s going to argue then?

As a historian, when you’re talking to an audience and that hand shoots up quickly at the back of the room, you know you’re in it deep —because you just crossed someone whose grandmother told her a different story. The words I always avoid are “first,” “most,” “biggest” and “last,” because there’s always someone lurking in the bushes.

Doesn’t it drive historians crazy to have competing versions of the truth floating around?

Oh, it happens all the time. Once it gets engrained in the culture, you can’t get it out, like grease on your shirt. After a while, you just throw your hands up. Does it do any harm? Not usually. History’s filled with untruths. That’s why it keeps getting rewritten.

How depressing would it be if the first person who wrote a book on a subject got it entirely correct? It was once said that only God and historians can change history. In the scheme of all the prevarications, this isn’t bad. If I’m in Roxbury, then the whoopie pie was invented in Roxbury.

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