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by Grace Allen
There is no painting in our collection that oozes sticky, sweet indulgence better than The Battle of Goo Goo Moon (2014) by Denise Stewart-Sanabria. This work of southern nostalgia never fails to take me back to happy childhood memories of afterschool snacks and summer camp canteen. The title, of course, refers to two of Tennessee’s most famous treats: the Goo Goo Cluster made in Nashville, and the MoonPie made in Chattanooga. Though some might try to say otherwise, there is no battle between these two treats. They are very different, but equally delicious. One is a snack sandwich and one is a candy. Of course, if someone tries to bait you into choosing one, don’t be fooled. Choose both!
The Battle of Goo Goo Moon by Denise Stewart-Sanabria (Tennessee State Museum collection 2014.66)
There are a few tall tales surrounding these snacks and their origins, and for good reason. After all, the Goo Goo Cluster was the first ever combination candy bar, and the MoonPie was the brainstorm of a hungry coal miner. These delectable confections are more than staple treats, they have become symbols of state pride in Tennessee.
The Goo Goo Cluster predates the MoonPie by only a few years. It began when Howell Campbell founded the Anchor Candy Company in 1901. He was only 19-years-old, but had already decided to commit to the candy business. Two years later he renamed it the Standard Candy Company. In the early days, he only had about 12 employees and two copper kettles for manufacturing candy. The company made a variety of candies including Belle Camp fine chocolates, marshmallows, and suckers. Up until this point, candy bars were made up of only one type of candy like chocolate. In 1912, the concept of a candy bar completely changed when Campbell and his plant supervisor Porter Moore created something new – a cluster of marshmallow nougat, caramel, and roasted peanuts, topped with milk chocolate. The first combination candy bar was born.
King Leo Candy Tin made by the Standard Candy Company, c. early to mid 20th century (Tennessee State Museum collection 86.72.6)
The amalgamation may have been ingenious, but Campbell and Moore struggled to come up with a fitting name. According to legend, Campbell was talking to passengers on a streetcar on his commute to work about his young son’s first words: Goo Goo. A fellow passenger and teacher by trade knew Campbell was still searching for a name for his candy. She remarked that Goo Goo would be the perfect name. Kids would ask for the product from birth. The name stuck, but it was a while before the product was packaged and sold outside the Nashville area.
At the time, the Goo Goo, like most other candy, was sold unpackaged. Unfortunately, this also made it difficult to know if the candy cluster under the glass was a legitimate Goo Goo Cluster, or an imitation. To print and hand package each item was simply unfeasible for most producers aside from the much larger companies like Hershey Chocolate Company. Instead, the customer’s selection was placed in tins or wrapped in foil for each customer by the vendor. The Tennessee State Museum has several tins and boxes like these in our collection. This Standard Candy Company box, though from the 1930’s, is an example of boxes that were used to carry home chocolates and candies. Though Goo Goos weren’t individually packaged, its clear from the box that the Standard Candy Company was popularizing their name in other ways.
Belle-Camp Paper Box, c. 1930-49 (Tennessee State Museum 2006.113.8)
By the 1920’s the Standard Candy Company did begin packaging their Goo Goos individually, which allowed the treat to reach a wider market. Most notably, it was sold at the Grand Old Opry, which was first broadcast in 1925. This was the beginning of a mutually beneficial relationship. From 1966 until 2006 the Standard Candy Company became one of the main sponsors of the Opry. This sponsorship brought the candy name recognition as customers from all over the country listened to Grand Old Opry stars sing “Go Get a Goo Goo, It’s Good!” Some people assumed the candy was owned by the Opry and that Goo Goo was an acronym for Grand Old Opry. It was simply a coincidence. Despite the confusion over the name, the sponsorship cemented the Goo Goo’s reputation as a uniquely southern treat and its connection to Music City.
The MoonPie hit the market in 1917 only a few years after the Goo Goo Cluster. It was produced by the Chattanooga Baking Company. Like the Goo Goo, it wasn’t the first product the company produced, though it soon became the most popular. Originally started in 1903 as a way of using remainder flour from the Mountain City Flour Mill, the company made a wide variety of over 200 baked goods. This included the popular Lookout Biscuits which appeared frequently in local newspaper ads. But by 1917, sales slowed down in East Kentucky. The bakery needed something new to sell, and so entered the MoonPie.
The story goes that the general manager of Mountain City Flour Mill, Earl Mitchell, traveled to East Kentucky to ask miners what kind of product they would buy. One coal miner said he liked the combination of marshmallow and graham crackers. It could not skimp on size since the miners had to have enough food to sustain them for their entire shift. They worked long hours and their work prevented them from going and coming for lunch. In one version of the encounter, the miner stated he wanted the treat to be “as big as the moon.” Another version of the story says the miner circled the rising moon with his fingers and thumbs and remarked, “Why don’t you make it that big?” However it happened, it seems the miner equated the size of the treat with the moon. When the Chattanooga Bakery developed the sandwich, they fittingly named it the MoonPie. It wasn’t long before the MoonPie outsold all the other products the bakery produced. During World War II it was sent as a comforting ration to troops abroad and by the 1950’s the Chattanooga bakery dispensed with their other products to focus solely on the MoonPie phenomenon.
MoonPie split in half
If you are from the Southeast and you hear the term “working man’s lunch,” than you might be picturing a MoonPie and an RC Cola. It’s unknown when people started pairing this sugary duo. Unlike the association of the Goo Goo Cluster and the Grand Old Opry, RC Cola and MoonPie have never worked together in any official capacity. The best guess is that these treats were known for their value, quantity and availability. Both RC Cola and MoonPies could be bought for five cents and were slightly bigger than other competing snacks and beverages. During the Great Depression and World War II it was a quick and cheap option that remained relatively stable during periods of food scarcity. The tradition likely trickled down to the next generation and onward, finally settling into the modern collective of southern snack consciousness. In 1994, the town of Bell Buckle started its annual RC Cola-MoonPie Festival to celebrate the 75th anniversary of “the original marshmallow sandwich.” It’s become one of the state’s most popular annual events.
The Goo Goo Cluster, like most other candy bars, was also peddled as “nutritious lunch for a nickel” for kids in the early and mid-twentieth century. Today the brand has distanced itself from this kind of health claim and it is not marketed to children. Though most people would balk at the claim that candy bars are nutritious, in the early twentieth century, this kind of claim wasn’t so outlandish. In the years after World War I, the patterns of American life continued to pick up speed. Lunch became a hurried affair, something sandwiched between work or school. Unlike the past, there was no longer time to go home for the mid-day dinner meal.
Goo Goo Packaging for a box of 24 candies, c. 1935-45 (Tennessee State Museum collection 2004.21.69)
With the relatively new introduction of nutrition labels at the time, more emphasis was placed on getting enough calories in a meal rather than the other nutritional components. In that line of thinking, candy bars like the Goo Goo Cluster were indeed a “nutritious lunch.” Prepackaged candy bars were inexpensive, high in calories, and fed the American predisposition for sugar which made them increasingly appealing. Some bars capitalized on the trend of meal replacement by going as far as using phrases like “lunch bar” and even “chicken dinner” in their names. If you think about it, it isn’t too far off from the contemporary American routine of consuming breakfast bars.
The past few decades have seen a revival and celebration of both the Goo Goo Cluster and MoonPies. In addition to the boost the RCCola and MoonPie Festival gave the Chattanooga Baking Company, the 100th anniversary of the Goo Goo Cluster in 2012 gave the Standard Candy Company an opportunity to refresh their brand. They made the candy “cleaner” while staying true to the original recipe and opened a successful retail store. There you can purchase limited edition Goo Goos created by local chefs. MoonPie’s social media has also made many customers laugh and generated renewed nostalgia for the unfussy snack. In 2017, its comment on a retweet went viral, beating all but one other food brand for the most popular tweet of that year.
Lol ok https://t.co/lobyuNOkee
— MoonPie (@MoonPie) August 21, 2017
Lol ok https://t.co/lobyuNOkee
MoonPie's viral comment on a Hostess cupcake tweet in 2017
Today the Goo Goo Cluster and the MoonPie have shown they can stand the test of time as some of the oldest snack brands in existence. The Battle of Goo Goo Moon is less about choosing one sweet over another, and more about the state pride that comes with having two fantastic traditions. To many Tennesseans, they may be mouthwatering treats, but they are also something more. They represent the mountains, the musicians, and the workers that call Tennessee home. They serve as a link to generations before that enjoyed them and remind us of family and home.
Grace Allen is a Tennessee State Museum educator
Dickson, Ron. The Great MoonPie Handbook. New Orleans: Pelican Publishing Company, 2010.
“History.” Goo Goo Cluster Website https://googoo.com/about/history
“History Never Tasted so Good,” MoonPie Website https://moonpie.com/about
Irwin, Ned L. “Chattanooga Bakery Company”
Logsdon, David R. “Standard Candy Company,” Tennessee Encyclopedia
Kawash, Samira. Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure. New York: Farrar, Staus and Giroux, 2013.
Rankin, Tom. “Goo Goo Clusters,” in The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 7: Foodways,
167-168. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
Sauceman, Fred. The Place Setting: Timeless Tastes of the Mountain South, From Bright Hope to Frog
Level. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2009.
News and Podcasts:
“Beth Sachan and Goo Goo Clusters Marketing,” Lipstick Economy Podcast by the Brand Wise Collective
“Goo Goo Clusters No Longer Opry Sponsor.” CMT News, February 13, 2006.
Maseena Ziegler. “How MoonPie Became the Unexpected Social Media Brand of 2017,” Forbes Website, December 20, 2017.https://www.forbes.com/sites/maseenaziegler/2017/12/20/how-moonpie-became-the-unexpected-top-social-media-brand-of-2017/#508a26875886
Osborne, Mike. “Grand Ole Goo Goo Sweetens Fans Old and New,” Nashville Public Radio, August 4, 2012. https://www.npr.org/2012/08/04/158090777/grand-ole-goo-goo-sweetens-fans-old-and-new