This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode What the Fluff is Marshmallow Creme?, first released on September 26, 2017. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
CYNTHIA GRABER: I just saw someone walk by with french fries and Fluff and caramel sauce on top. Fluff dessert poutine.
NICOLA TWILLEY: Uh, Cynthia, where on earth are you?
GRABER: Just down the street from my house, in Union Square in Somerville, at the What the Fluff Festival. That’s right, it is a festival dedicated entirely to Marshmallow Fluff. Because of course.
TWILLEY: See, my response would be, because why?
GRABER: Well, it is the 100th anniversary of the invention of Fluff! And why Somerville? It was invented here. Source of pride.
TWILLEY: Oh well, now I understand. Not. Cynthia, I think we’re going to have to do a bit more explaining.
GRABER: And that is just what we’re going to do this episode. You’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Cynthia Graber.
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And this episode, we are all about Fluff. Like, what the hell is it?
GRABER: And what does it have to do with the advent of high-tech innovation such as egg beaters and the radio? As well as the rise of domestic science?
TWILLEY: And, not to sound a like a broken record, but I’d also like to know: what the hell is a fluffernutter? This episode is a real journey of discovery for me.
TWILLEY: Our guide to the magical world of Fluff this episode is going to be Mimi Graney. She literally wrote the book on the stuff. It’s called…
MIMI GRANEY: Fluff: The Sticky Sweet Story of an American Icon.
TWILLEY: But really, I’m serious: what is Fluff?
GRANEY: So it’s just whipped egg whites and corn syrup and sugar.
GRABER: It’s spreadable marshmallows, basically. But that leads to another question. What really is a marshmallow?
TWILLEY: Originally, a marsh mallow was something made from mallow plants, which grow in marshes and other damp areas. The stem of the mallow plant is the part you use.
GRANEY: I think of it as it’s a little bit like okra, it’s very sort of slippery and gooey that way, and it had been used medicinally for sore throats and for sort of dryness.
GRABER: We don’t know exactly when humans started using mallow plants, but it’s at least four thousand years ago.
GRANEY: Early on it had been sort of food for the gods by the Egyptians. Then was mixed with sugar and used for sore throats and lozenges and kind of gooey things to make you feel better. But then eventually the apothecaries who were making the mallow treats started realizing, these actually kind of taste delicious if you put enough sugar with them. And they started creating marshmallows with egg whites instead, and creating them as treats.
TWILLEY: In fact, in the 1800s, French confectioners gave up on the idea of medicinal benefits altogether and replaced the mallow sap with gelatin instead.
GRABER: Why bother with the plant? The new confection is delicious. The gelatin helped marshmallows hold their shape and confectioners added a dusting of cornstarch or powdered sugar to keep the treats from sticking to everything else.
TWILLEY: And these lovely new marshmallow candies were popular. Super popular. Especially in Boston.
GRABER: Let’s take a step back in my current hometown, back a hundred years or so. Boston was the Silicon Valley of candy making.
TWILLEY: OK. Why?
GRABER: First because of sugar. Boston was one of the centers of the sugar trade with the Caribbean. Granulated sugar was invented in Boston.
TWILLEY: Before the invention of granulated sugar, refined sugar had to be sold in solid chunks. You used a special tool called a sugar nipper to break off what you needed, and then you grated it or ground it to cook with. The East Boston Sugar Refinery figured out that if you raked the freshly refined sugar on a giant steam table, you could dry it and separate it into individual crystals. A huge leap forward for sugar and sugar fiends everywhere.
GRABER: Another reason Boston was so central to candy making was the temperature here—it’s cool, so it was easier to make chocolate. In 1764, the first commercial production of chocolate in America began here. Boston was also the center of the ice trade. All this made it easier to deal with the stickiness of the business. And so Boston was the center of candy making nationally. You get treats such as the Charleston Chew, the Mary Jane bar, I’ve had plenty of those, and the Squirrel Nut Zipper, which I’ve never heard of.
TWILLEY: But with a name like that, you know it had to have been good. Plus don’t forget the Necco wafer, a.k.a. the most disappointing sweet I’ve ever tasted. It’s like sugar paste and cardboard.
GRABER: Don’t tell Bostonians. The Necco factory is still a landmark here in Cambridge.
TWILLEY: Sorry. But it’s true. But it’s not just the weather, the ice, and the sugar that made Boston a hub for confectionery innovation. There’s also disruptive technology like…. the egg beater.
GRABER: This is hard to believe, but the egg beater was a surprisingly late invention.
TWILLEY: Mimi told us that humanity had managed to invent the steam train, color photography—even the machine gun before it got around to the humble egg beater.
GRABER: Maybe that’s because the egg beater was something that, really, women needed.
GRANEY: I love seeing some of the really old recipe books back in the day, where you know it was women trying to make fluffy recipes for angel food cakes and fluffy cakes that were literally calling for whipping batters for four hours. And they would say helpful things like how to deal with, you know, arm strains. And they were whipping eggs with things like branches and spoons and knives and fingers. And obviously it was not so good at aerating. So right around the Civil War, tinsmiths started formulating sort of the whisks that we know today.
GRABER: These early designs were the starting point for the Dover Stamping and Manufacturing Company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, down the street. They started thinking about all the gears in the steam engine, and how these gears could be intertwined. And they developed the standard hand-cranked egg beater, with a handle to turn the gears that then powers the whipping mechanism.
TWILLEY: The women of America were overjoyed. In her book, Mimi writes that one cookbook author in Chicago declared: “As long as there are eggs to beat, give me Dover or give me death!”
GRANEY: And because of the egg beater, and then later on once that became powered by first steam and then electricity, all these great recipes that incorporated air became really popular. So when you think of not just marshmallows but angel food cakes and lemon meringue pies and it became all the trend.
GRABER: So suddenly whipping air into eggs for marshmallows is amazingly easy. And so, Nicky, as you said, marshmallows become super popular, especially in Boston.
TWILLEY: But as with any consumer revolution, it’s not just about the technology. You need an influencer, too—just to keep with the Silicon Valley speak. And that influencer was Fannie Farmer.
GRANEY: One scholar I read said Fannie Farmer never met a marshmallow she didn’t like.
GRABER: Fannie Farmer is a Bostonian, too, and she wrote a groundbreaking cookbook called The Boston Cooking School Cook Book. For generations of Americans it was the cooking bible.
GRANEY: Fannie Farmer was part of that vanguard of women who were really looking at how to look at the science of food. So Fannie Farmer was foremost a culinary educator and she worked for the Boston Cooking School and she approached it with great academic prowess. So for example, she was teaching organic chemistry at Harvard, when women weren’t allowed to even be students there, and so talking about that aspect of food science. And was educating women who were running major institutions, hospitals, schools, hotels, running the food programs.
TWILLEY: And Fannie Farmer, like Mimi said, had something of a sweet tooth.
GRANEY: She would put sugar and marshmallow creams into almost everything, like if you just look at her salad dressings they’re like, crazy sweet. So she was the first person that appreciated—she called it initially marshmallow paste. And in her version she would actually take marshmallows and melt them down and that would be a quick frosting, or quick thing to create marshmallow toast. It was basically a saltine crackers with the marshmallow cream and a cherry on top and that was dessert.
GRABER: This is the very first recipe with Marshmallow Fluff. Or as Fannie Farmer called it, marshmallow paste. Which doesn’t sound nearly as appealing.
GRANEY: Then it got renamed as marshmallow creme. And because of her role writing these great cookbooks that became heirlooms, especially for New England cooks, and because she was teaching so many women both from major institutions, folks that became educators themselves, she was a major tastemaker, and really passed her love of marshmallow creme and all things sweet on to New Englanders.
TWILLEY: Like Mimi said, at first, Fannie melted marshmallows to arrive at her paste or creme. But soon Bostonians were competing to develop recipes to make marshmallow creme from scratch.
GRANEY: Marshmallow creme is closer to a meringue rather than like a marshmallow itself, so they’re kind of slightly different. You can make marshmallow creme without gelatin. You need more of a firming agent to make the actual formed marshmallows.
GRABER: A bunch of companies, and not just in Boston, they all hopped on the marshmallow creme bandwagon. There was the Marshmallow Whip from Whitman’s.
TWILLEY: There was May’s Marshmallow Cream, which promised in its advertising that it had none of the fishy taste and odor of other emulsions.
GRABER: SIblings Emma and Amory Curtis in Melrose, a suburb of Boston, they created Snowflake Marshmallow Creme. And, by the way, they were also the great-great-great grandchildren of Paul Revere.
TWILLEY: But the next hero of our story is really the awesomely named Archibald Query.
GRANEY: He is the inventor of marshmallow fluff. He was born in Canada around Quebec and moved to Franklin, Massachusetts, when he was about seven with his family and became a young candy man. The secret of Archibald query’s recipe is: how is this froth able to hold the shape for so long?
GRABER: Archibald lived right near where I live now in Somerville, and he made confections in his home. He sold small batches of them to local stores and also door-to-door. Which sounds lovely. But then other companies got bigger than his, and new requirements for federal income tax for small businesses just made it too hard for him to keep going solo.
TWILLEY: And then along come two childhood friends from the North Shore, just outside of Boston: Fred Mower and Allen Durkee.
GRANEY: So they were two friends. They had been schoolyard chums in Swampscott, Massachusetts. And they both served together and cemented their friendship from serving in the foxholes of France during World War One.
TWILLEY: When they got back from the war, they were looking to make their fortunes. And as it happens, Fred was working alongside Archibald in his day job in a chocolate factory.
GRANEY: And most likely Archibald told them about this recipe that he had lying around. So Allen and Fred decided to open a company together. They bought the recipe from Archibald.
GRABER: They paid Archibald five hundred bucks for his marshmallow fluff recipe. That’s about $6,000 dollars in today’s money—still not a huge amount.
GRANEY: There probably was some resentment among his family that maybe he should have sold his awesome recipe for more than 500 bucks. But he lived a really happy life.
TWILLEY: Allen and Fred launched their new company, the Durkee-Mower company, on Valentine’s Day 1920, and their star product—actually, their only product!—was Fluff.
GRABER: They first called their new product Toot Sweet Marshmallow Fluff, because they served in France together, but luckily they dropped the Toot Sweet pretty quickly. The local paper wrote about the “new firm in town,” and how these two hometown boys are back from the war and ready to fight their way into the business world. Their friends, apparently, were convinced they’d succeed.
TWILLEY: And they did! All thanks to Archibald’s recipe. After a decade Allen and Fred did branch out and buy a chocolate milk company.
GRANEY: The biggest they ever got in terms of product line was two. And then eventually they closed down the chocolate milk company and just stuck with Fluff as their only product.
GRABER: So the recipe they bought from Archibald, the competitive advantage he sold them, was that his fluff held its shape much longer than the other creams. But why? What was his secret?
GRANEY: Archibald Query came up with this recipe 100 years ago so it is no high tech. It seems like it’s a space age food. But there’s nothing all that space age about it. It’s more of a steampunk type thing. And the secret is held with Durkee-Mower.
TWILLEY: And it’s still a secret today. But that secret does not lie in the ingredients. Those are really simple: egg white, sugar, corn syrup, and vanilla. Mimi suspects the secret is in the process—the temperatures and the timings.
GRANEY: A lot of companies will change the gauges on their equipment so you don’t know what the temperature is. You don’t know how long they whip it for. So even the workers who work at Durkee-Mower, they just press a button and the machines go for a certain amount of time. They don’t—unless they timed it themselves. I mean they could probably figure that out, but the room is kept at a certain humidity, a certain temperature. So I’ve clued you in on some of the secrets but I don’t know what those calibrations quite are.
GRABER: We’ll never know. One thing that’s mostly not a secret? The flavors. Durkee-Mower has played with a few different flavors over the years.
GRANEY: So Durkee-Mower makes a strawberry Fluff. And for a period they made a raspberry Fluff and there was a very secret caramel flavored Fluff only available in Europe. You will never see a chocolate Fluff.
GRABER: Why no chocolate Fluff? The answer is in cooking science.
GRANEY: Anybody who’s made a meringue at home has followed the recipe meticulously where they talk about making sure you have a fat free environment for whipping the eggs. So oftentimes the recipe will call for even using vinegar on a paper towel to wipe it out. Because the oil that might be left on the utensils will denature or break down the the bubbles. So if you think of cocoa butter that’s in chocolate will basically flatten your meringue, so it will flatten your marshmallow cream.
TWILLEY: So: no chocolate fluff, Archibald’s secret endures, and Durkee-Mower’s one and only product does end up making Fred and Allen’s fortune. Next, after the break: how Fluff got big. Clue: it involves singing, dancing, and peanut butter.
GRABER: Now back to Fluff. We already talked about one woman, Fannie Farmer, who helped make Fluff popular in New England. And now it’s time to introduce the second key woman in this story.
GRANEY: Marjorie Mills, I feel like I always want to wear a feathered hat when I talk to her, because she was famous for wearing these very flamboyant hats. So she was the first female reporter for the Boston Herald Traveler, which now folks know as the Boston Herald, which was one of the major newspapers in Boston back in the day, and has continued on till today. And she became the editor of what was known at the time as the women’s pages. And she was really well known as just being really personable and got to know everybody in Boston. So she was writing the gossip column, writing recipes, talking about restaurants that were opening, giving advice about, you know, shortcuts for your own recipes. And because she was a leader in media in Boston, was called upon as radio developed in Boston in the 1920s.
TWILLEY: Just like Fannie Farmer’s marshmallow boosting was assisted by a technological leap forward in egg beating, Marjorie Mills got on the Fluff train just as radio was picking up.
GRANEY: So she initially was a guest on shows and then came to be a host of her own all the way until like the 70s. I think of her as a little bit like an early Martha Stewart. Because she was a woman in the media and personable and connected with a lot of people, she was called upon to endorse a lot of products. So she endorsed everything from Nestle’s chocolate to King Arthur Flour and famously, Marshmallow Fluff. And she became a close friend of Durkee-Mower. Every year Fred and Allen would recognize the anniversary of their company and a number of those anniversaries where they would cut a cake, there’s Marjorie Mills in her hat in the back, beaming away.
GRABER: Durkee-Mower launched their product in 1920. And you know what else happened in 1920? KDKA Pittsburgh became the first radio station to receive a commercial license from the government.
GRANEY: So Durkee-Mower were part of the the very first ones of trying out this new medium. Durkee-Mower was advertising in print mediums, but they realized they could so much more effectively spread the word and much more cheaply through radio. Allen Durkee had actually been a radio operator in World War One. So he was a little familiar with the medium. And their ad man was Karl Frost who had served in the Coast Guard, which radio initially was mostly tied with obviously ships.
TWILLEY: So Marjorie Mills is pimping Fluff on air. But she’s not alone. Meet the Flufferettes.
(SOUND OF FLUFFERETTES)
GRANEY: So in the early days of radio, because it was noncommercial they couldn’t do a straight commercial. So the performers would be named after the products that were being sponsored for that fifteen minute block of programming or so. So for Durkee-Mower, their band was known as the Flufferettes. And even after radio went commercial and they could do a legitimate ad on on the air, the Flufferettes continued to be the highlight of their fifteen minute show. And they continued all the way into the very beginning of TV, so all the way into the early 1950s, with their radio programming.
GRABER: The Flufferettes became an institution and lasted for decades. But obviously the line-up changed.
GRANEY: So they had—a number of different performers took on the name of the Flufferettes over the years. Some of those performers came to be big names like Joe Rines and Horace Heidt. So folks might know the song “The Hut-Hut Song,” which was such an earworm it was known as a national disease.
GRANEY: And it became popular—folks have seen the Christmas Story movie—The Hut-Hut song is in that. The father is singing it maniacally. Over the years, Durkee-Mower would have just sort of lots of different songs. They did try doing a radio drama at one time and spent a huge amount of money for this radio drama. So they invested I think it was like a million dollars in radio advertising that year. It was epic.
GRABER: They sponsored the Ed Sullivan show when it was on the radio. They sponsored live coverage of the Red Sox and the Boston Braves. These were big deal advertising buys. But as Durkee-Mower raised their profile around the U.S., they were also being threatened by Kraft.
GRANEY: So some of their push in the early 1950s got the attention of other national competitors. There were other small marshmallow cremes around the country. Kraft Foods was the ones that really sort of looked at how can we take down these young upstarts? and could buy them out. So Kraft was buying out other small marshmallow creme companies around the country, shutting them down, and taking their market share.
TWILLEY: Kraft had even launched their own marshmallow creme in 1957, although their process was different—they used a slightly different method, that made for a more uniform product but one that didn’t hold its shape as well. Archibald’s secret technique still had the edge there.
GRABER: Kraft wanted to take over Durkee-Mower, too.
GRANEY: At the time, Fred had just passed away and there was no way they were going to say no to this company that they had built.
GRABER: Allen and the rest of the team weren’t about to sell Fred’s legacy out. But then how could they compete with such a massive corporate behemoth? They came up with a secret weapon: the fluffernutter.
TWILLEY: Just to be clear, for people like me who managed to remain ignorant of this iconic New England culinary delight until just now: a fluffernutter is simply a peanut butter and Fluff sandwich.
GRANEY: For a long time the pairing of marshmallow and peanut butter sandwiches had been promoted. And then Kraft came out with these full page ads in magazines promoting this type of sandwich. But it was the genius of the advertising team at Durkee-Mower who called it a fluffernutter and it sort of felt like mic drop at that one. Because you can’t make a sandwich with marshmallow creme and peanut butter and not call it a fluffernutter. So it really claimed the name as their own.
GRABER: At the same time as Durkee-Mower came up with the fluffernutter, radio and TV were finally allowed to air real commercials. Durkee Mower hired Richard Manoff, who actually founded the first Jewish-owned advertising agency on Madison Avenue.
GRANEY: And I think he’s just like Don Draper where literally he was working on the Lucky Strike campaign. And was kind of—I think he’s most famous now for coming up with really good jingles. So for example he did the Bumblebee tuna fish ad. So folks might know the “Yum, yum Bumblebee Bumblebee tuna,”
(BUMBLEBEE TUNA JINGLE)
GRANEY: That came out of his campaign.
GRABER: I am—I’m very familiar with that!
GRANEY: And they also were the ones that came up with the Fluffernutter jingle.
GRABER: And obviously you can’t use any other company’s product for it—it’s not a marshmallow-creme-nutter. It’s a FLUFFernutter. Like the jingle says, you need Fluff Fluff Fluff to make a Fluffernutter!
TWILLEY: But, like Mimi said, the peanut butter and marshmallow creme combo had been around for a while. In fact, remember Emma and Amory Curtis, the great-great-great grandkids of Paul Revere? Emma is actually the genius behind the first documented pairing of marshmallow creme and peanut butter in a 1914 recipe. At first, she called for them to be layered together on a cracker, but a couple of years later, she switched to bread, and christened her creation the Liberty Sandwich.
GRABER: Nobody knows quite why she called it the Liberty Sandwich—maybe because of Paul Revere, maybe because eating peanut butter during World War One meant more meat would be freed up for the soldiers. In any case, the name “Liberty Sandwich” was not nearly as catchy as the fluffernutter.
TWILLEY: And the Fluffernutter is what saved Durkee-Mower’s bacon, if that’s not too much of an Elvis-kind of combination.
GRANEY: Yeah, I think if marshmallow creme and Fluff didn’t hide in its partnership with peanut butter, it would not have been saved.
GRABER: Fluff, and the Fluffernutter, become so famous in America that they show up in some rather unlikely places in pop culture. There’s this pop song from the 1970s called “Love You” by The Free Design.
TWILLEY: And then there’s a slightly less sunshiney appearance in the ultimate mafia tragedy.
GRANEY: My favorite one is the one from The Sopranos because I feel like it really captures Fluff in all its complexity. So that was a scene where you’re one of the lieutenants in the Mafia has just killed the man he believes killed his father. And thinking of his lost childhood, from losing his dad at such a young age. So he goes to visit his mother, and he’s in the kitchen with his mom and isn’t going to tell her what he just did but asks her for a Fluffernutter.
(CLIP FROM THE SOPRANOS)
TWILLEY: And she can’t make it for him, she doesn’t have the ingredients. Which symbolizes everything about his loss of innocence and how he can never regain that simple happiness.
GRABER: And then there’s what’s probably Durkee-Mower’s least favorite pop culture appearance of Fluff.
GRANEY: So on the Howard Stern Show, because he’s renowned for all kinds of antics, some man’s dying wish was that he wanted to wrestle naked woman in a pool of Fluff. And so they had contacted Durkee-Mower to get a large supply. Durkee-Mower respectfully declined, but Howard Stern’s producers managed to not so inventively go to the store and buy their own couple of containers of Fluff. And apparently it was spread on a stripper’s body and the man was able to lick it off her body.
TWILLEY: The pinnacle of Americanness, in all its glory, right there.
TWILLEY: But despite all that exposure, Fluff has remained a really geographically-focused product.
GRANEY: Most of the Fluff is sold here in New England.
GRABER: Seriously—more than 50 percent of all Fluff is sold in New York and New England.
GRANEY: We are the obsessed one. So I think of it about the same way, you know, Australians are love their Vegemite and, you know, the Scots love their haggis. Like other people maybe eat it but not with the same enthusiasm as we do in New England.
GRABER: I live in New England but I didn’t grow up here. So, Nicky, neither of us had ever tried a Fluffernutter before.
TWILLEY: Which up till now I’d not seen as a problem. But there was no making this episode without getting our teeth coated in the sweet stuff.
GRABER: We planned a tasting for right before our second live show this year at the Boston Museum of Science.
TWILLEY: So hey Cynthia, am I going to bust out the Fluffernutter ingredients, you’re recording?
GRABER: Now I am.
TWILLEY: We’re good? OK?
GRABER: It’s time for Fluff.
TWILLEY: It’s time for Fluff.
GRABER: We were hiding downstairs in an office. It was the two of us, the staff from the Museum of Science—Lisa Monrose and James Wetzel, my mom who’d come up for the show, my partner Tim, who was maybe even more excited about the Fluffernutter than our live show…
TIM BUNTEL: You’ve got the Fluff. You’ve got the Fluff!!
TWILLEY: And of course our lucky live show on-stage guests, Deborah Blum, Carla Martin, and Lisbet and Chris Crowley.
GRABER: So Chris, did you eat this when you were a kid?
CHRIS CROWLEY: Oh yeah I know them and when I was a kid I used to do—I remember, peanut butter and jelly and Fluff. I did the trifecta. And it’s delicious. I mean, I just love it.
GRABER: Wait, you had jelly and Fluff and peanut butter in there?
CROWLEY:And occasionally bacon in there too.
CROWLEY: I’m serious.
TWILLEY: And he’s still alive, that’s amazing.
CROWLEY: I’m not that healthy but…
TWILLEY: Some people had fond childhood memories of Fluffernutters. The New Englanders, basically.
GRABER: But for some of us, this was going to be a new experience.
CYNTHIA’S MOM: I am Cynthia’s mother and I never heard of a Fluffernutter and she never had it because it was not in my home. I have never had it—I didn’t know what it was. And I don’t like peanut butter so therefore it’s kind of useless.
TWILLEY: I don’t even know what to expect.
GRABER: Nicky has never had Fluff before.
TWILLEY: Yes, I’m about to lose the Fluff virginity right here and now.
TWILLEY: And then, the tasting commenced.
BUNTEL: Cynthia has a rather unpleasant look on her face.
GRABER: No. It’s too sweet for me for a sandwich.
TWILLEY: I mean, to me, I would take the jelly over the Fluff if I was pairing with peanut butter. Sorry. I hate to disappoint. I mean it’s OK. It’s OK.
GRABER: Me too. Me too.
BUNTEL: You know I love you but this might be a stretch, this might be testing things.
GRABER: I’m now testing our relationship here apparently.
TWILLEY: Deal breaker.
BUNTEL: All I can say is more for me.
TWILLEY: So Cynthia and I, yeah, not really Fluffernutter fans. But Deborah Blum — so she was reluctant at first.
DEBORAH BLUM: Actually, this isn’t bad. I think the salt of the peanut butter cuts the sweet of the Fluff—now I sound like a complete restaurant critic here—and I think it’s pretty good.
GRABER: But Nicky, you and I are not alone. Not everybody thinks the Fluffernutter is so awesome.
TWILLEY: In fact, about a decade ago, there was a Fluffernutter debacle in the Massachusetts state legislature. The media called it a Kerfluffe. Of course.
GRABER: My state representative at the name was a guy named Jarrett Barrios. And he was pretty great. He was really progressive. And he wasn’t a big fan of junk food in schools.
GRANEY: So there was a junk food bill and at that time Senator Barrios’ son reported that he was eating Fluffernutters every single day at school. Now it wasn’t because it was officially part of the meal program, but it was sort of the standard, if you didn’t like the Sloppy Joe today you can have a Fluffernutter. If you don’t like, you know, the chicken fingers you can have a Fluffernutter. And the lunch ladies really liked it because they are shelf stable products, the kids will eat it. There’s some nutrition in that peanut butter—done. So Jarrett Barrios thought this was rather excessive, especially since his son was not allowed to eat Fluffernutters at home. And so reasonably said, Massachusetts schools can only serve Fluffernutters once a week. And you would swear this man had literally taken candy from a baby. There were actually death threats to his office. He became a laughing stock worldwide.
TWILLEY: Really, Jarrett might as well have declared war on Christmas.
GRABER: Another state rep, Representative Kathi Reinstein, raced to the Fluffernutter’s defense with a bill that would make the Fluffernutter the official state sandwich.
GRANEY: So actually within a year senator Barrios resigned from the Senate and left, sort of, elected office. I don’t know if it was directly attributed to it. But it was a really damaging thing to his career and made him a laughing stock even though it was incredibly reasonable thing to do.
GRABER: Sorry, Jarrett. Miss you! But back at the same time, in 2006, Mimi had her own ideas about Fluff.
GRANEY: He doesn’t quite believe me I don’t think, but I had already come up with the festival before the Fluffernutter bill came in, but it was very good for my publicity. As you can imagine. And I jokingly for that first festival challenged him, Senator Barrios, for his anti-Fluffernutter bill, and Representative Reinstein, with her Fluff-as-a-state sandwich, to a duel with a tug of war over a pool of Fluff. Which neither of which showed up, which I wasn’t all that surprised with, but I did have a pool of Fluff and a tug of war rope. So it became a neighborhood tug of war which was the highlight of the event.
TWILLEY: That’s right, as well as having written the book on Fluff, Mimi Graney is the founder of What the Fluff?, the one and only Fluff festival.
GRANEY: So it started in 2006, as part of a whole series of festivals that happened in the neighborhood where we were working to bring economic revitalization to Union Square in Somerville, Massachusetts.
GRABER: Union Square is a tangle of streets that looks a little rundown, frankly, if you just drive through it. But it’s a pretty awesome little neighborhood, a great combination of immigrant stores and hipster coffee shops. That is, that’s what it looks like now. Back then, it was still sort of a work in progress.
GRANEY: So that neighborhood, kind of scrappy and gritty, had been sort of we thought of it as the eye of the development storm. A lot of other neighborhoods were being reborn because of transit and high tech. And Union Square had a lot of local businesses, a lot of immigrants, lots of interesting little food businesses, some makers, but wasn’t quite kind of taking off. So that first festival was really meant to be a one-off. But between the Senator Barrios kerfuffle, and between people just really embracing it with such rigor, that first year it was really just a lot of people standing around in a parking lot waiting in line for T-shirts, waiting in lines for eating the tuna fluffer, waiting in line to—we had some little science fair things. But people had a great time. Culminated with the tug of war over the pool of Fluff. And we had the Flufferettes for the modern age, we brought back the radio thing but we made them as burlesque girls with great pompoms and—G-rated burlesque girls.
TWILLEY: And this first What the Fluff? festival was such a hit that Mimi decided to do it again, and again, and again.
GRANEY: It’s now become a phenomenon, about 10,000 people come every year. It takes over the whole neighborhood. It used to just be a little part of a parking lot and now they shut down all the streets nearby. And one year we had such an impact on traffic and all the nearby highways and streets that the state police almost shut us down. But we have now got it down to a science and everybody knows all things must stop for the What the Fluff? festival every year.
TWILLEY: Of course, the main activity at the Fluff festival is eating Fluff. In pairings that make the Fluffernutter look very reasonable indeed.
GRANEY: At the Fluff festival we have a booth called the The Fear Factor where we see what kind of combinations people will consume with Fluff. And it was inspired because in the very first Fluff festival, as part of the activities that year we did a science fair. So my brother showed up calling himself the Tuna Fluffer, and had a couple of boxes of saltines, big tubs of tuna fish salad, pickles, mustard, hot sauce and Marshmallow Fluff. And you would think it is disgusting, but it is surprisingly delicious. And I thought well, if people stand in line to eat that, let’s see what other things they’ll do. So at the festival you can try it on broccoli, and with anchovies, and baba ghanoush, and some turn out better than others. The great thing about the festival is a lot of the business is the neighborhood look at incorporating Fluff into their recipes and because it’s an international neighborhood, people do some great things. Like Fluff pizzas, Fluff empanadas, Fluff cocktails, Fluff poutine, and I’m always amazed at how surprisingly and wonderful and delicious they are.
GRABER: This year was the 100th anniversary of the invention of Fluff, so there was an epic celebration planned for September. Of course, I went. The day had gotten pretty hot and it was insanely crowded and there were long lines for food. A lot of the food was the normal offerings from local restaurants, Venezuelan arepas or Peruvian chicken. But then they’d bust out things like arepas with nutella and Fluff, cocktails made with Fluff, pierogi with peanut butter, Fluff, and bacon, and bratwurst with a cheese and Fluff sauce.
TWILLEY: Tell me you didn’t eat that.
GRABER: No. I love the restaurant—it’s called Bronwyn—but the Fluff cheese sauce did not sound appealing to me. Still, I wanted to get into the spirit of the event, so my mom and I went over to the Fear Factor station.
GRABER: So I’m a little confused about what’s going on here… oh.
GRABER: There are these toppings you can put on your Fluff. You have a cracker and you can put Spam, tuna, capers, corn, green beans, ginger, and Lucky Charms. There’s also chocolate syrup, Tabasco sauce, mustard, salsa, and ketchup, all with Fluff. Okay, I have mustard, Fluff and corn, and my mom has salsa, Fluff and —
MOM: Salsa, Fluff, and corn. It’s just a little sweet. Mostly I feel the salsa and the corn.
GRABER: It’s like a way too sweet salad dressing, kind of?
TWILLEY: I’m actually not super jealous that I didn’t get to try that one. But how about the famous Fluff tug-of-war? I’m picturing a Howard Stern-type situation here, with you sliding around in a pool of Fluff. Except probably not naked, right? Unless I underestimated you.
GRABER: No tug of war, and no, I did not get naked in the middle of Union Square. But I did see a very cute competition where some kids from the audience were chosen to go up on a stage. They had Fluff smeared on their faces. The whole point was they had to race to move small, furry, marble-sized balls from one table to another. And they couldn’t use their hands. So at one table, they stuck their little Fluff-covered noses into bowls to pick up the balls Then they ran over to the other table and scraped the ball off their nose into another bowl. Back and forth, with the Fluff as glue, racing to move the balls from one bowl to the other using just their sticky faces. I think the kids just had fun because there was Fluff smeared all over their them. And of course they licked it off.
TWILLEY: People said it couldn’t be done, but we did it! We made an entire episode on Fluff!
GRABER: But we couldn’t have done it without Mimi Graney. Her book is called Fluff: The Sticky Sweet Story of an American Icon. She’s also been really central in local Somerville life, which obviously I’m a huge fan of.
TWILLEY: And thanks to our guinea pigs at the Museum of Science. I cannot think of a nicer group of people to lose my Fluff virginity with.
GRABER: We’ll be back in two weeks with a scoop: a behind-the-scenes look at one of the biggest stories in food this year.
OSCAR FARINETTI: Is same Colosseo. Is same El Duomo Milano. Is same for you—you are American—Disneyworld.