The Coal Miners’ Whoopie Pie

Traditional cream-filled chocolate gobs are my favorite cookie. I don’t have these calorie-dense sandwiches often, but when I do, I travel back through time. I see my childhood self seated at Grandma Wolfe’s gold-flecked Formica table with its chrome legs stretching to the red-and-white checkerboard kitchen floor. Back then, with my short, chubby legs dangling from the Grandpap’s oak bench, I concentrated on smearing each bite of chocolate cookie with creamy filling.

Grandma Rita Wolfe left us two years ago at age 97, but we’re still connected through food, especially gobs. I can feel her energy in the hand-printed recipes I’ve collected in a black threering binder. She shared the ingredients and instructions with me in the mid-1980s, jotting personal notes in the margins about my cousins, steel mill closings, and unusual winter temperatures.

Although 200 miles of back roads separated my childhood home in Northeast Ohio from my grandmother’s house in western Pennsylvania, we were close. At least every other Friday of my preteen years—or so it seemed—my 20-something parents loaded my younger sister and me into the four-door Ford LTD and sped east to my father’s boyhood home in the uber-rural, time-forgotten farming village of Nicktown.

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We tumbled across the porch of the two-story white farmhouse and banged through the screen door. Grandma greeted us with hugs and food. Our challenge was to choose between freshly made seasonal fruit pie or homemade chocolate, chocolate chip, or oatmeal cookies.

The mother of 11 and grandmother of 26, my grandmother lived in her kitchen, cooking, baking, and preserving food to nurture the health and spirit of her clan. On weekends, her house buzzed with an assortment of aunts, uncles, and cousins who forged connections over homemade bread, hand-cut noodles, and handcrafted pickles. We hit the jackpot when she made gobs, not to be confused with that other sandwich cookie known as the whoopie pie.

Whoopie pies are a New England/eastern Pennsylvania deconstructionist riff on cake. They are flat, spongy cakes with a sugary frosting in the middle. They might predate gobs, but they’re not the same. Ask any western Pennsylvanian. Gobs are chocolate cookie-cake hybrids with a creamy filling.

Western Pennsylvania history posits that gobs were invented by a Johnstown, Pennsylvania, baker in this coal-mining center sometime in the early 1900s. To them, the chunky cookie resembled dark lumps of useless rock discarded on a mining site’s waste or “gob” pile. These gob rocks were dark, like chocolate, and thus the purist version of a gob cookie must be chocolate. None of that pumpkin spice stuff . As someone with two coalmining grandfathers, I’m a purist . . . so chocolate is the only true gob flavor.

Even the recipes for gobs and whoopie pies have differences in ratio of cocoa or the use of milk versus sour milk. For those who don’t want to make their own, gobs have migrated across the Ohio border with the Sheetz gas station brand and can be found with the other snacks. Of course, “storebought” as my grandparents derisively called them, are not as good as homemade. Nothing ever is.