This year marks the 100th anniversary of Marshmallow Fluff, the sweet spread on which generations of local children have been raised. Nine million pounds of Fluff are churned out each year by the family-run Durkee-Mower company in Lynn, and despite Fluff’s global distribution, half of that sweet, marshmallow-y goodness is consumed right here in New England. The Fluffernutter is an enduring lunchbox staple. There was even a movement afoot to make it the official state sandwich.
Packaged in a stout jar wrapped in a patriotically hued label that hasn’t changed much since Kennedy was in the White House, Marshmallow Fluff has an extremely loyal fan base. Like Vegemite for Australians, Fluff inspires an affection among New Englanders that outsiders will never quite understand. Marshmallow Fluff has embedded itself into the region’s culinary DNA — and the fact is, it couldn’t have been invented anywhere else. Fluff owes its existence, and its popularity, to a confluence of local inventions and personalities.
Massachusetts has had a craving for sugar since its earliest days. Colonists created drinking chocolate by roasting and grinding imported cacao beans, which they would then mix with water or milk and sweeten with imported sugar, domestic honey, or maple syrup. In 1764, Boston became home to the nation’s first commercial chocolate producer, the Walter M. Baker Company. This was made possible by the region’s abundance of mill power and cooler climate (heat and chocolate don’t exactly get along). Soon after opening, the company — located along the Neponset River in Dorchester — got a boost when revolutionary-minded colonists filled the Boston Harbor with imported British tea. Needing a new morning beverage to express their political discontent, Bostonians embraced drinking chocolate as a matter of resistance.
Nearly a century later, Boston was the setting for a massive change in the way sugar was made. The region’s strong transportation network nurtured two sugar refineries, one in Revere and one in East Boston. Previously, refined sugar was prepared for sale by packing it solidly into barrels or shaping it into loaves or cones, and a sugar nipper or auger was used to break off quantities as needed. In 1853, the East Boston refinery revolutionized this process by raking the moist, refined sugar over a big steam table to dry and separate the crystals. The loose sugar could then be easily packed into precisely weighed sacks.
Granulated sugar was easier to use: It didn’t need to be ground first, and it could be measured accurately for recipes. It was also more highly refined. Sugar in cones or barrels was refined enough to stir into tea or put in a cake, but not for candy making. Home cooks and confectioners previously had to do the final steps of purifying the sugar themselves. And sugar was highly susceptible to contamination by manufacturers and merchants, who might throw in sand to add weight or bluing agents to make it sparkle and appear more pure. Such practices continued after the birth of granulated sugar but became easier to spot. Snow white, smooth marshmallow cream required the purest sugar possible.
Granulated sugar was just what Boston’s nascent 19th-century candy makers needed. Thanks to a newfangled assortment of machines with Willy Wonka-like names, such as the Kiss Knocker and the Champion Candy Crimper, confectioners were rolling, cutting, and dipping treats in greater quantities than ever before. Perhaps the most famous of these machines was the first: the lozenge cutter, produced by the Chase Company, which evolved into NECCO. Chase’s Hub Wafers became NECCO wafers; the lozenge cutter was also adapted to make things like conversation hearts. Another machine, the starch mogul, made possible the manufacture of candies with gooey centers, such as gumdrops and jelly beans. Charlestown’s Schrafft’s built its business on spearmint leaves — mint-flavored gumdrops shaped and colored like green leaves. Boston was officially Candyland, USA, the capital of American confectionery. It would remain that way until after World War I.
Doing the whip
Meanwhile, Boston-area inventors were hard at work trying to modernize the kitchen. In Cambridge, the Dover Stamping and Manufacturing Company improved the lives of cooks everywhere with a hand-cranked eggbeater that would become a household standard. The model conjoined two balloon beaters with double-sided cast iron gears that allowed the interlocking whisks to revolve in opposite directions. The Cambridge company’s hand-operated egg beater was so pervasive that, for decades, an eggbeater was colloquially called a “Dover.” Members of the culinary world, their arms limp with weariness, were positively ecstatic at this groundbreaking improvement. In 1875, one cookbook writer in Chicago went so far as to melodramatically declare, “As long as there are eggs to beat, give me Dover or give me death!”
Power mixers followed quickly on the heels of the Dover, and Boston was once again the backdrop when Rufus Eastman invented the first one in 1885. His patent details motorized beaters that, when placed “in a suitable vessel,” mixed creams, eggs, and liquors. This new ability to efficiently whip liquids meant that once-grueling recipes calling for volumes of frothed egg whites became all the rage. Marshmallows, for instance: They rely upon a multitude of beaten egg whites. By the turn of the 20th century, marshmallows and marshmallow creams were a hallmark of American ingenuity.
Fanned by Fannie Farmer
In addition to local technological advances that made marshmallows (and eventually Marshmallow Fluff) possible, it took a Bostonian to make the confection popular. Fannie Farmer, the 19th-century doyenne of domestic science, never met a marshmallow she didn’t like. Farmer recommended them as an easy way to lend sweetness and volume to both sweet and savory dishes, adding them to recipes for beverages, desserts, frostings, candies, and even salad dressings. Dog-eared, stained copies of her 1896 tome, “The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book,” were (and still are) lovingly passed on as family heirlooms. The thousands of students graduating from Farmer’s cooking school went on to professional culinary careers. Throughout the 20th century, those acolytes created recipes that regularly appeared in newspapers, cookbooks, and on the radio (another burgeoning field), embracing and promoting Farmer’s love for all things marshmallow.
Armed with new technology, spurred by growing demand, numerous commercial producers of marshmallow cream sprang up across the country in the early 20th century. In Massachusetts, Emma Curtis’s Snowflake Marshmallow Creme predated Durkee-Mower’s Marshmallow Fluff and was a primary competitor for several decades. But Durkee-Mower has since reigned supreme, surviving takeover attempts from corporate titans like Kraft and the nation’s shifting ideas about nutrition. The world changes around it, but Marshmallow Fluff remains the same, a uniquely local piece of edible nostalgia.
Mimi Graney is the author of “Fluff: The Sticky Sweet Story of an American Icon” and the founder of Somerville’s annual What the Fluff? festival. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.