Unlike many of the people I hang out with on a regular basis, Elizabeth Campbell is one of the nicest, well-mannered young Southern women you’ll ever meet. She is also the 5th generation of Campbells to run the Chattanooga Bakery, and therefore has a lot of MoonPie stories from growing up right there in the middle of it all.
I don’t know how many old, rattling F-150’s she rides around in, but she did not seem to mind the smell of fish bait still lingering from the day before when I’d taken Lemuel Earl and Hawky Jones fishing outside Fort Payne, Alabama at a secret creek where we caught absolutely nothing. I’m not sure why it is a secret beyond it being a terrible place to fish.
Okay, I’m off the track here, back to Elizabeth. She has been around MoonPie baking her entire life and I love to hear her stories. So I’m going to get out of the way and let her tell a couple.
“You have to understand that we’re a family business,” she said, “not a big, faceless corporation. And we’ve been a family business for 100 years.”
As she talked, the wind from a warming May afternoon blew through the open truck window and through her hair, doing the job of my broken air conditioner.
“When I was 3 or 4,” she said, “after visiting my dad and grandfather down at the Chattanooga Bakery office, my mother would drive me up to the plant where I’d sneak in the side door near the wrapping machine, barefoot and wearing a smocked dress. I held the hand of one of the supervisors as we walked over to get a fresh MoonPie off the line before it went into the wrapping machine. I loved fresh MoonPies – I still do – because the cookies are just baked and crunchy and the marshmallow is fresh and oozey. In today’s food manufacturing world, this would NEVER be allowed. Can you imagine? A barefoot, no-hairnet toddler scooting around all of that equipment would be an SQF nightmare!”
But you got one of those fresh MoonPies.
“Yes I did. And I wish everyone could taste one of right off the line. It is so amazing.”
I agreed and urged her to keep going.
“A couple of years later, around age 5 or 6, there was a MoonPie Eating Contest in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Oneonta, AL,” she smiled, remembering the day fondly. “I’m not sure if this was the inaugural contest or not, but my parents loaded us in the car and we headed down the road to check it out. Not really knowing what an eating contest meant, my younger sister and I said we wanted to enter. So we got right into it, sitting there at the table while people stuffed MoonPie after MoonPie into their faces as we each took a few bites before we were full. It was crazy. People can eat a whole lot of MoonPies when they have a prize staring at them. I still laugh thinking about how we must have looked to those people. I believe we were the only contestants that day in matching pink dresses, but we wore our neon pink MoonPie hats proudly!”
“You have to tell me about the limo story I’ve heard your dad talk about,” I said.
“Okay,” she said. “In the late 1990s, MoonPie purchased a used stretch limo – I’m not exactly sure the reason for this, but my Dad always says, “It was cheaper than a plane.” He had it decked out to the max with bright colors and obnoxious MoonPie graphics, and they drove it to trade shows, NASCAR races, and Mardi Gras parades. Well, when July rolled around, instead of loading up the family Suburban for our road trip to Williamsburg, VA, he decided that he wanted to drive the big old goofy looking Moonpie limo – with my mother riding shotgun. A thrill for him, I’m sure. Us kids took over the back like we were movie stars, spread out with pillows, blankets, and video games to entertain us for the 12-hour ride. As you can imagine, a MoonPie stretch limo sticks out like a sore thumb in rural Virginia, and we got lots of stares and gawkers, from everyday folks and VA State Troopers alike! Oh yes, daddy got the attention of a state trooper. He got more than that. Can you imagine what was going through that officer’s mind when he pulled over a MoonPie limo? At the time, you couldn’t turn right on red in the state of Virginia. Maybe that’s changed now. But we don’t have the old limo to find out.”
Since we were in Virginia by now in our long, storytelling drive, I pulled up to a red light, right next to a state trooper. Timing is everything.
“No, Mike,” she said curtly. “No.”
“Let’s find out if that’s still a law,” I said, staring through Elizabeth’s open window at the lights on the police car’s roof.
“Are you crazy, Mike?” said Elizabeth. “He’s staring right at me. And he’s IN the right lane! You’re in the middle lane. You’re as crazy as daddy says. That’s definitely got to be against the law!”
About that time the trooper turned right on red. I smiled. Elizabeth shook her head.
“Tell me another story,” I said as I drove towards the mountains to another MoonPie eating contest. Elizabeth would be so surprised. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I’d entered her as a contestant just for old time’s sake.