Gobs: A western Pennsylvania culinary tradition is explained
By cody mcdevitt
JOHNSTOWN (AP) — JR Harris’ uncle told an employee a story about the origins of the gob. He said a worker for his family’s bakery was on break. They were permitted to make and eat anything they wanted to at the bakery.
“He had two small chocolate cakes and put icing in between,” Harris said. “And then the company saw what he had done and started doing what he did with the gob cake.”
The term gob was trademarked in 1927 by the Harris-Boyer bakery. Gobs are inherently part of the fabric of Pennsylvania’s culinary landscape. They are also part of New England’s food history, but the dessert is known as a Whoopie Pie there. The true origin of the treat may never fully be known, but the historical debate over it is fascinating.
Johnstown’s claim to its creation resides with the Harris-Boyer bakery, which used to produce gobs until it sold the rights to the Dutch Maid Bakery in 1980.
“There’s nothing but praise for the gob,” said Harris, a descendant of the original founder. “There’s a Facebook page that says you know you’re from Johnstown when. And there are a whole bunch of mentions of gobs. People speak of that far and wide. And it’s been part of Johnstown for a long time. They remember it fondly from their childhood. It’s a good snack and some would eat it for breakfast.”
The Harris-Boyer Bakery began with one oven on Boyer Street in Coopersdale in 1894, with it being opened by 30-year-old Clement Harris and his brother O.C. Harris. In 1900, Clement Harris joined with W.E. Rager to open a bakery on Broad street. A year later they had a third partner named E. Homer Boyer, which is where the bakery got half its name. They located themselves on Fairfield Avenue.
Harris baked his products at night and delivered them personally the next morning into sections of town that included Coopersdale, Morrellville, Cambria City, Minersville, Rosedale, Kernville, Moxham, Westmont and the central area of Johnstown, according to an article that ran in the Tribune-Democrat in the 1960s.
Clement Harris remained president of the company until 1934. Then Boyer served as president until 1952. James Harris, Clement’s son, took over and ran it until the grandson F. Clement Harris took over.
In the 1930s, the sailor-boy image associated with the Johnstown gob was developed for the wrapper. Gob can also be used as a synonym for sailor, though no one with any knowledge of the company knows if that was why it was given its original name. “Gob” was also used within the mining industry in reference to refuse coal. It is possible that miners gave the dessert its name in the region.
In the 1960s, more than 150,000 gobs were sold every month in western Pennsylvania by the Harris-Boyer Bakery. They were often included in the lunches of local school children and men going to the mill. And the company had branches in Maryland, West Virginia and near Pittsburgh.
William Woys Weaver, author of “Dutch Treats: Heirloom Recipes from Farmhouse Kitchens” and a few other books documenting the history of Amish food in Pennsylvania, gave an alternate history of the dessert. Weaver said that the Berwick Cake Co., in Massachusetts, developed the whoopie pie, which is the same thing as gobs, in 1926.
It got its name two years later after it was derived from the Broadway musical. Weaver said the company used the term that was covered by copyright until 1977 when the Berwick Cake Co. folded. However, there is also an evolution within Amish culture that should also be noted. The gobs that are sold by the Amish and other Dutch groups from Pennsylvania did not come to the state until the 1970s via Amish folks in Indiana and Illinois. It spread eastward from there.
Weaver said Maine residents have it wrong because they seem to believe the Berwick Cake, invented in Maine, is the basis for the cake part of gobs and Whoopie pies.
“The cake part is high ratio, meaning that there is almost twice as much sugar as flour; you can only get that to form into cake by using heavy machinery,” Weaver said. “This Maine thing is further confused by the name of the Massachusetts company: Berwick Cake Co., which also sold the Berwick Cake (a type of pound cake). The name of the guy who invented the Whoopie pie cake formula is known, so the Maine folks have leaped to the conclusion that their cake is the original, which it is not and this could be proven in court.”
But the folks up in Maine claim it began before their counterparts in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. The Labadie bakery in Lewiston, Maine, has been making Whoopie pies since 1925, according to its website. But it is unclear whether the food recipes in Johnstown and New England developed at the same time or whether they spread from one place to another. The owner of the Labadie bakery couldn’t be reached for comment.
Susan Kalcik, a folklorist and archivist in Johnstown, said the recipe for gobs traces back to Germany in the middle ages. She thinks the recipe was brought to the United States by immigrants. Regardless of where it was started, it was perfect for coal miners in Somerset and Cambria counties who didn’t want their lunchtime dessert’s icing to melt on the wrapper. Kalcik said gobs predate any bakery’s claim to have created it.
“The idea is an obvious one. Any cook can come up with it if they wanted to do it,” Kalcik said. “The other thing I wanted to say is that commercial enterprises adopt things that people develop. People wore ripped jeans and became cool and then companies sold ripped jeans for $500. Just the same, bakeries adopted this recipe and say they invented it. But they didn’t. This is a recipe that has been around a long time.”
Tim Yost, who owns Dutch Maid Bakery, which is now responsible for producing the gobs, said he is happy to carry on the tradition in Johnstown.
“It’s been around a long time. It’s a great product,” Yost said. “It’s easy to eat. It’s not messy. You can take it with a lunch. The gob is kind of the king in a way. It’s a local staple.”
Perhaps we end this article as we began it — no closer to the truth about the origin of whoopie pies or gobs, as the treat is known in western Pennsylvania. Regardless, Virginia Harris, who is the daughter of the last president of the Harris-Boyer Bakery, said that the food is as much a part of Johnstown’s heritage as anything else it’s famous for.
“I think it’s a part of Johnstown history,” Virginia Harris said. “I don’t know if a lot of people know the history of it. But they know it because it’s part of growing up in Johnstown.”
Information from: Daily American, http://www.dailyamerican.com