March 12, 2020

How the unlikely duo of RC Cola & MoonPies became the staple of the Southern working man’s lunch pail.

In the south, there are a few things that just go together: tea and lemonade, Laurel and Hardy, peanuts and Coke, (Duke’s) mayonnaise and tomatoes, beans and cornbread, macaroni and cheese, Johnny and June, shrimp and grits, and dad-gum biscuits and gravy. Perhaps lesser known is having a MoonPie alongside an RC Cola.

The inexorable bond between MoonPie and RC began sometime in the mid-1930s—a time when America was saddled with post-Depression reconstruction and was, unknowingly, approaching a second world war. While MoonPie had been sold for a nickel for years, RC followed suit with the hope of differentiating itself from both Coca-Cola and Pepsi. That one choice may well be the only reason MoonPies and RCs ever became the enigma they grew into. While it proved to be a sound decision for both MoonPies and RC, the decision was made solely in an attempt to sell more sodas for the Columbus, Georgia, company at the time.

That it gained a partner was strictly a study in economics/pricing strategy/differentiation in a soda industry fierce with competition. For consumers at the time, frugality was paramount. Dimes needed to be stretched into dollars and frivolous spending was strictly avoided. For the working class, MoonPies and RCs became a deal—that they were both “Southern” products was a bonus. To be able to buy one of each for the same price as just a Coke or just a Pepsi was enough to transform the two individual products into something of a combo; RCs were bought with MoonPies and MoonPies with an RC. Two for the price of one. Intentional, but not conspired.

As America shifted from reconstruction to manufacturing at the dawn of World War II, the MoonPie/RC combo saw enhanced sales as Southern factory workers traveled north for jobs and factory workers above the Mason-Dixon traveled south for similar reasons. To add to their appeal, MoonPies were mailed overseas to American soldiers for the first time. (This is still done today.)

Eventually, buying an RC with a MoonPie became known as “the working man’s lunch,” a testament to its appeal among the blue-collar workforce and a nod to the humble beginnings of the MoonPie and the miners of rural Appalachia. Eventually (as many things from the working class seem to), the “working man’s lunch” infiltrated country music. While Hank Sr. and Ernest Tubb sang sad songs about cheatin’ and whatnot, “Big Bill” Lister wailed about wanting a MoonPie and an RC Cola. Even though “Gimme an RC Cola and a MoonPie” never made it to number one, the song found fans across country music, further growing sales for both MoonPie and RC Cola and strengthening the appeal of the “working man’s lunch” across blue-collar workers nationwide.

While sales have tapered off for the beloved duo, millions of MoonPies continue to be made every year. RC Cola was able to piggyback off the success and popularity it saw through the middle part of the century to become an innovator in the soda market. RC produced the first 16-ounce soda, launched the first caffeine-free option, and even created the first sugar-free soda, Diet Rite. RC is still made, though it seems to be a bit more obscure these days than when “Big Bill” Lister was singing about it on country radio. If you look for it, you can find it.

It’s an unlikely story in modern times, the tale of two companies that created entirely different products finding their way together and becoming an example of the sum being “better” than the individual parts. What’s especially unlikely is the timing of it all. MoonPie started in eastern Tennessee in the late 1910s while the modern version of the RC didn’t find shelves until 1933. MoonPies had been sold to coal miners for nearly two decades before RC ever saw a shelf for the first time.

Modern companies look for ways to differentiate against their competitors in a very intentional manner. Occasionally, strategic partnerships are set into motion when two products make sense to be sold alongside one another, carving out a more unique marketing opportunity than might otherwise be had for each individual product. “The working man’s lunch” was the product of circumstance and, I would argue, came at the benefit of an intentional effort by the Chattanooga Bakery to market to a specific and focused demographic from day one. Social and economic pressures and pricing contrast allowed the two distinctly different items to become bigger as a pair than they were by themselves.

I’d not thought much about MoonPies and only rarely came across an RC until I walked past a small display of them, side by side, on a picnic table near the front of an “old is new” general store in a small town in western North Carolina. Memories of my youth came bubbling up like a dropped soda before I had time to contemplate them on my own. Almost immediately, COMI was transported back to the driveway of my grandpa’s house, below his waving American flag and in front of a half-opened door that led to a dusty workshop where he piddled with a handful of carpentry projects in various stages of completion.

His shiny silver Mercury sat with the windows rolled down just enough to let the howl of Bill Monroe creep from speakers pushed to their threshold. Where the windshield meets the dash sat a couple of MoonPies, steaming in the heat of midday sun, melting the three ingredients into one the way only a Southern summer has the power to do. My grandpa disappeared into the shop, still partly visible in the shadow of the doorway, and returned quickly with two blue-green glass bottles that began sweating immediately in the humidity of the Georgia summer air. Before Bill Monroe could finish singing about the color of the moon in Kentucky, we were both tearing into MoonPies warmed to the point where marshmallow isn’t a solid or a liquid and drinking RC Colas cold enough to burn the skin on the outside of your teeth. I can’t recall how my grandpa was able to keep his hands clean, but mine were always a combo of bottle sweat and some amalgam of MoonPie, milky liquid dripping from tiny hands.

Some things are better on their own, I guess. But there are undeniable combinations down here that have power with a partner that compels far more than it ever could on its own. For me, MoonPies and RC Colas are very much a reflection of that. The power of those flavors affects my ability to recall memories almost to the point of reliving them. There’s emotion that’s present in them: temperature and sound, movement and location, and the powerful reminder of time with my grandfather. When I set out to write this article, I couldn’t shake the image I had about the folks who grew MoonPies and RCs into the phenomena of “the working man’s lunch.” All I could see was my grandpa.

Written by Matthew Wallace

Food & Wine

Complete this form to find out more about what's happening at Palmetto Bluff.