Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, may be famous for its music and scenery but any Islander will tell you that the best thing about living there isn’t the views or the tunes - it’s the food!
Fat Archie cookies are Cape Breton’s culinary calling card. These oversized molasses spice cookies are easy to make, hearty enough for working folk in fishing boats, and perfect alongside a strong cup of tea. You’ll find them in school cafeterias, old-fashioned bakeries, and at community fundraisers. And thanks to the east coast diaspora working in the oil fields, you might just find them in Albertan homes as well.
As anyone who grew up in Cape Breton can attest, eating Fat Archies is an essential childhood experience. If you’re a local, no one gives much thought to the funny name but it definitely raises eyebrows elsewhere.
The origin of Fat Archies is usually summed up like this: Archie was a common name in bygone years, especially among Cape Breton’s Scottish communities. The cookies themselves are quite thick and plump. Clearly, they must be named after a man named Archie who loved them! But many people suspect the story runs deeper than that.
A now-inactive genealogy website for the history of the Poole family in Cape Breton shares a story told by Nelson Poole to Nova Scotia folklore enthusiast, Bessie Flanders. Poole recounted that: "In the Whycocomagh area, these or cookies like them, were known as ‘Dougall Archie's’. It seems that a Dougall Archie made the best molasses cookies around and his cookies became known, yes, as ‘Dougall Archie's’. Dougall Archie was never told about the name, but one day when he was visiting a neighbour, the kids came in screaming for ‘Dougall Archie's’! The lady of the house was highly embarrassed, but it seems Dougall Archie never caught on or pretended not to."
While it’s impossible to verify if this story (which must date nearly three-quarters of a century), it has a ring of authenticity. After I was fortunate enough to connect with Bessie Flanders to ask her if she knew for certain how these cookies got their funny moniker, she reported back that she didn’t know exactly how Fat Archies got their name – but added that they were still delicious! Given that Fat Archies are also sometimes called Pubnicos, Moose Hunters, Lumberjacks, and Long John’s, we may never know the precise origin of these beloved East Coast snacks but perhaps a long-forgotten man named Dougall Archie might just be the legend we’re all looking for.
Enjoying some of the deliciousness that Bessie and all Cape Bretoners know so well is easy to do at home. Each family’s recipe is unique to them, but this one is an excellent base to start with and then you can put your own spin on it, adding more spices or less sugar as you like. It’s worth noting that some recipes call for dough so soft that the cookies are made drop-style.
Others opt for a firmer approach and call upon a favoured biscuit cutter (perhaps a particular kitchen glass) to serve as a cookie-cutter. Some cookbooks require a finishing touch, perhaps a final dusting of flour or scoring a criss-cross pattern in the top using a fork.
Everyone agrees that the cookies must be thick, soft, and flavoured primarily with molasses. They must never be made to resemble gingersnaps in taste or texture. Fat Archies are sometimes served hot and fluffy with lashings of butter just like a scone but they’re not bad when slightly stale, softened with a quick dunk in the ever-present cup of Cape Breton tea. In any case, you can bet kids will come home from school, screaming for them by name.