February 6, 2011

MAINE COMPASS: Whoopie pies not representative of Maine, won’t create jobs

I applaud the efforts of Rep. Paul Davis, R-Sangerville, to support the food industry in Maine, particularly bakeries, with his sponsorship of a bill to declare an official “state dessert.” Unfortunately, I think he may be misguided in his attempt.

 I am a chef, as is my brother. Another brother is a baker, and my grandfather was, for a time in the 1970s and ’80s, one of the presidents of the American Bakers Association. My family settled in Somerset County (just south of Skowhegan on U.S. Route 201) in 1771. We have a long heritage here in Maine, and we care deeply about our history and traditions.

That said, whoopie pies are not representative of Maine.

Our claim to it dubious; I’ve traveled from Maine to California and back quite a bit, and I’ve seen whoopie pies for sale in many other places.

Add to that the fact that whoopie pies employ chocolate (or, more accurately, cocoa powder) in their production, and we have the beginnings of a problem. Hawaii is the only U.S. state that can produce cacao, and cacao farmers in Central America have been exploited and unfairly treated. Particularly those who produce the lesser-quality cacao beans, such as those that end up in powder form and, ultimately, inside whoopie pies.

It may be a big mistake for a state that rests 30 degrees north latitude of where the chocolate is actually grown to declare a chocolate product as its state dessert.

I love chocolate, don’t get me wrong, and the cacao trade is improving, but to recognize it as the “official” anything of Maine is just not right.

Further, the notion that this bill will increase jobs is absolutely wrong, and I can say this with certainty as a member of the food-service industry.

Whoopie pies are the easiest item a bakery can produce, and even if demand for whoopie pies doubled, we would see very little increase in labor needs.  Anything short of a 150 percent increase in whoopie pie demand would require little to no augmentation of labor needs.

The food cost of a whoopie pie is great — about 20 percent of what you might get selling one — but that doesn’t translate to particularly much, when a whoopie pie sells for between 99 cents and $2. These are not the bread and butter, so to speak, of a bakery. They are items that pad profits, nothing more.

Advancing in my argument, we get to what we should really be supporting — farmers. They need more help than anyone I know, and considering my association with both bakers and farmers, I know what I am talking about.

Bakers have had steady work since prehistory. Literally.

Farmers, on the other hand, especially in Maine, which was once the breadbasket of the East Coast, need much more propping up.

Taking that into account, why are we choosing as our state dessert a product that has not one ingredient (unless the bakery uses local flour, which is unlikely) that was grown in Maine?

Blueberries, for instance, exist almost exclusively here. Maple syrup, rhubarb, apples and loads of other treats are much more important to the Maine economy. Why shouldn’t we choose a dessert composed of some of these items?

Maine would be much better off trying to attach ourselves to blueberries in the national eye. I know that many people in Arizona and Texas have no idea where blueberries come from. If we’re looking for some sort of commerce boost, or to increase our identity in association with a Maine-made product, blueberries would be a much more beneficial choice.

Finally, we both know that this bill is almost entirely symbolic. As such, we should choose a symbol that is represents Maine to its very core. The one you have proposed, unfortunately, does not.

I believe my arguments are sound. I don’t know how the parliamentary procedure works down there in Augusta, but Davis should withdraw this bill before more taxpayer money is spent on it. A couple of hundred whoopie pie fanatics may be let down, but thousands of Maine farmers, bakers and chefs will understand, as will most of the general population.

Davis should do ome research on the Internet about the cacao trade. I believe this alone will impress upon him the importance of this issue, even if it is just about a dessert.

If this bill is passed, for now and all posterity, Maine will declare two chocolate cookies sandwiched around shortening-based frosting as the best we have to offer. We shouldn’t let this happen.

Joshua Weston of Madison has been a sous chef at Lakewood Inn Restaurant in Madison during the spring/summer season for the past four years. He has worked with farmers and other food industry professionals in Somerset County and the rest of Maine, and has advocated the importance of local food production and keeping the money we spend on food here, where it belongs, rather than sending it away.

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