“An RC Cola and a Moon Pie” is a phrase I’ve been familiar with all my life. It wasn’t until I became a working man myself, however, that I grew an appreciation for the South’s famous “working man’s lunch.”
Growing up in rural Gordon County, I’d heard about the perfect food and drink pairing for about as long as I can remember, but never gave the combination any more serious thought than any other quirky saying a small town boy hears batted around without explanation.
Born and raised in the middle of Southern cotton mill country during the time when once massive employers began barring their doors, I grew up on mill village stories the way my parents must have heard tales of the Great Depression and my grandparents absorbed stories of the Civil War and reconstruction.
The former mill workers I met during my childhood told great tales of textile baseball leagues and life in the area’s villages. No matter the mill discussed, I always remember great importance always being placed on a central location for mill workers and their children as they reminisced — the company store.
The most famous and universally mentioned memory of every company store I’ve ever heard talked about was the memory of folks taking a brief moment during a long work day to enjoy a delicious carbonated beverage and a sweet treat. For mill workers, miners and laborers in the South, a favorite combination was popular due to both respective portion size and affordability.
Both products were actually perfectly symbolic of the Southern worker. RC Cola was born out of a spat between a Columbus, Georgia, grocer and the Coca Cola company over the lack of a volume discount for his busy stores. The Moon Pie, as legend has it, was created specifically for the working man after a conversation with coal miners about their idea of a perfect snack.
RC Cola was developed by pharmacist Claud A. Hatcher in 1905 to supply his family’s chain of local grocery stores with an affordable soft drink. A dozen years later, the Moon Pie was created at Chattanooga Bakery based on feedback given to traveling salesman Earl Mitchell from working men on break while supplying a company store.
By the 1930’s the pair of refreshments had solidified their love affair and become inseparable all around the South and when the kids who grew up on the duo went off to fight in World War II, the RC and the Moon Pie followed behind in care packages for the men and women deployed to save the world from evil.
In the early ’50s, honky tonk country singer Big Bill Lister even recorded “RC Cola and a Moon Pie” on the Capitol Records label. He would have almost certainly performed this song many times during that period while traveling around the country with Hank Williams as his opening act. In the ’60s, Louisville-based rock band NRBQ had a minor hit with the song.
My personal rediscovery of the working man’s lunch came when I was around 22 in a Dollar General store. Ironically, the store sits almost exactly across the street from where the Echota Cotton Mill company store once operated. One day I went in for a midday stack on my lunch break and they had a special consisting of four cans of RC and a box of four Moon Pies. I instinctively snagged up the pair and enjoyed my very first official working man’s lunch once a day for the rest of that week.
When I was around 7,000 miles away from home in 2006 on deployment, I was picking up a snack at a small store on a base near Al Hillah, Iraq, and I bought and thoroughly enjoyed a small 80’s-style glass bottle of RC Cola with a screw-on metal cap AND that styrofoam label you can’t help but peel off as you drink. Though the label coloring and design was very familiar, the lettering was all in Arabic except the cap. I was slightly disappointed that there weren’t any Moon Pies for sale, but a jumbo Oatmeal Cream Pie was a suitable replacement that particular day.
Since then I’ve visited the Moon Pie General Store on Broad Street in downtown Chattanooga many times and buy the treats from time to time for nostalgic enjoyment at home. Neither RC or the Moon Pie seem to be the everyday household names they used to be when I was growing up in the 80’s, but I tend to be drawn to both each time I pass them on the shelf somewhere. I try not to enjoy as many full-size Moon Pies nowadays as I creep ever closer to 40 and my metabolism very evidently is not what it once was.
Recently, at most all the stores I frequent around the area, I’ve noticed boxes of Moon Pie Mini’s in chocolate, vanilla and banana. Each one only 110 calories — assuming I can keep myself to just one at a time. This much more reasonable portion size has allowed me a renewed interest in the traditional snack of my people and I’ll have an accompanying ice-cold RC whenever I come across one at the right time.
Today when I enjoy a working man’s lunch, I do not only do so to satisfy my very demanding sweet tooth, but always with the men and women who worked so hard in mills, coal mines, construction projects and who fought for freedom to the ends of the earth … all fueled on marshmallow cookies and carbonated syrup.
Why not spend a little extra time on the soft drink aisle this week while grocery shopping and seek out that old favorite that was so important a midday break for so many who came before us? Then head over to the sweets and grab a box marshmallow goodness as the perfect accompaniment … because food isn’t always just what we eat, but sometimes it’s where we come from.