Marshmallow Fluff

Black and white illustration of Marshmallow Fluff: and Indestructible Food.

There’s nothing better than a door-to-door Fluff salesman…”

Long before Massachusetts became a launchpad for innovation in biotech, the state’s most creative minds were working on an even more important issue: the overall lack of gaiety in the course of an average American diet. People were eating things like boiled dinners and stew and porridge and however nutritions those things may have been, they didn’t inspire unadulterated joy. 

Luckily, we had just as many wildly intelligent residents then as we do now, and with ingenuity and grit, they made truly staggering progress in the field of novelty foods. Over the years, Massachusetts has been enriched by the invention of Necco Wafers, Toll House Cookies, Hoodsie Cups, Deviled Ham in a can, Cape Cod Chips, and our focus for today, the incredibly cheerful Marshmallow Fluff.

To explore the history of this remarkable confectionery condiment, we’ll travel back in time to ancient Egypt where folks were using the mallow plant for a variety of medicinal purposes. The mallow plant grew in marshes (hence the term “marshmallow”) and had a high mucilage content. This viscous quality made it great for soothing irritations of the mouth, throat, and digestive tract. It also served as an excellent thickener in foods. That meant that when Egyptians mixed decadent confections of nuts and honey, they added mallow sap to help hold the mixture together. The result was so delicious that only pharaohs got to eat it, which is the real reason that pharaohs never had sore throats! 

Fast forward a couple thousand years and marshmallows had arrived in France. Small confectionery shop owners whipped the extract of mallow root with egg whites, sugar and water, cut it into bars, dried it for a few days, and sold it in the form of a lozenge. It was medicinal. It was delicious. It was also an awful lot of work. Something had to change! That change came in the form of the starch mogul.

When I think of a starch mogul, I imagine a potato wearing a monocle, but the starch mogul that makes marshmallows is a little different. It’s a machine in which trays of cornstarch are stamped with shapes to make a mold and then filled with soft candy. Once the mallows set, you dump them out and recycle the starch. Brilliant! Marshmallow shaping made easy.

But there was another problem: that fussy marshmallow sap. It was hard to get and hard to work with. Yeah, I know, it’s the whole reason for the name, but it turned out that you could get a more stable, cheaper, soft, sweet, marshmallow pillow using gelatin. So, goodbye mallow sap! Thanks for the memories!

As marshmallows became easier to make, they spread far and wide. Let’s be real, they were a pillow of sugar. What could be better? By the early 1900’s they had arrived in the United States, converting citizens one by one into screaming marshmallow maniacs. (It was like the Beatlemania, but sweeter.) The atmosphere was ripe for the next logical step in marshmallow metamorphosis.

Up until now, marshmallows were individual treats. Lozenge-shaped or pillow shaped or log-shaped, but by 1910, Paul Revere’s great-great-great grandkids Emma and Amory Curtis were mixing up marshmallow creme in their basement in Melrose. They were offering people the opportunity to spread marshmallow flavor on anything!!! By 1913, they built a factory to produce it. By 1915, Snowflake Marshmallow Creme was a hit nationwide. (At this point, you could rightfully assume that all of that work that went into making the starch mogul was wasted, because people just wanted spreadable marshmallow anyway, but I will set your mind at ease by telling you that the starch mogul could also be used for things like jelly beans and gummy bears.) 

Here’s where the story gets interesting for Somerville residents such as myself: In 1917, a local fellow, Archibald Query, developed his own recipe for a version of marshmallow creme, and began selling it door-to-door. Listen, if you can imagine anything better than opening your door to find a man hawking buckets of Fluff, write to me and let me know. Unfortunately, World War I arrived to rain on his parade, causing sugar shortages that made it impossible to continue his one-man quest for marshmallow creme dominance. He found another occupation, and sold the recipe for $500 to a pair from Lynn, H. Allen Durkee and Fred Mower, in 1920.

The pair had a sack of sugar, a great recipe, an old Ford, and a marshmallowy dream. They cooked Fluff at night and sold it door-to-door by day. It was grueling. It was sticky. But it paid off. Soon, Fluff was on local grocery store shelves. By 1927, they were advertising it in Boston newspapers. They opened a new factory. They hired some folks, and they did something really smart. They started paying a lot of attention to marketing.

You see, Marshmallow Fluff is delicious, but it certainly isn’t a necessity. In hard times, you NEED beans. You don’t NEED Fluff. Durkee and Mower recognized this, and began building their marshmallow spread into a fun, relatable brand. Something that brought joy, not just sustenance. 

They bought a radio slot just before the Jack Benny show. This “Fluffarettes” radio show featured music and comedy sketches, as well as some creative reimagining of early American history. At the end of the final program, the show introduced a book of recipes that you could make with Fluff. They earned a ton of fans and sailed through the great Depression unscathed. 

When World War II began, and sugar shortages reared their ugly heads, Durkee-Mower cut production, and their advertising budget went to promoting Victory gardens, and cheerleading for the Navy. Fluff was solidly team USA.

Once the war ended and sugar was plentiful again, our marshmallow pals decided the time was ripe for a new jar design. They sent out a survey, asking customers how a new Fluff jar should look. It turned out that folks wanted a short, wide jar that they could store leftovers in. They also wanted a way to open the jar more easily. (Y’all know that a lid glued down by Fluff is a mighty challenge.) The new design featured a wide mouth, a short profile, and those little bumps around the top and bottom for better grip. Folks were psyched on the redesign and proud that their feedback was listened to.

Fluff was becoming a tradition. Customers associated it with humor and fun: a little something sweet that you could generally afford once in a while, even when times were tough. This teeny New England Brand had grown to dominate the Marshmallow Creme sector. Plus, if you used it to make fudge, it would never fail!

Fluffernutters (sandwiches made from Fluff and Peanut Butter) are their own story that we’ll circle back to in a future article, but I will say here that my public school proudly served them as an alternative to hot lunch. If you wanted to pass on the Salisbury Steak thank-you-very-much, you knew that you wouldn’t go hungry. 

There is justifiable hometown pride for this creamy confection. We love Fluff, or we don’t, but we delight in telling our friends that it was invented here. We feel a sense of ownership over this sticky-sweet invention, and every year, near the end of September, the community gets together and we celebrate the fun of something completely unnecessary that we cannot live without. 

PS: Looking for even more Fluff facts? Check this out!

Vegemite

Black and White illustration featuring an IndestructibleFood: Vegemite. Allso pictured is flying toast.

“A Tale of Two ‘Mites”

In our last chapter, we talked a bit about how British troops were eating Marmite in the trenches during WWI, but you know who WASN’T enjoying Marmite during WWI? Australians. The War disrupted the supply chain of British goods, and the whole nation was left bereft of yeast-spread. It was a grave emergency, and something had to be done. 

Canned good purveyor Fred Walker stepped up, asking chemist Cyril Callister to make a spread from spent brewer’s yeast. It was certainly meant to take the place of Marmite during the supply chain disruption, but it wasn’t a straight knock-off. Cyril had integrity, and he was determined to create something distinct. First, the texture of his product was different. Instead of being syrupy, Vegemite had a pasty/creamy consistency. The flavor was also unique. Although rich in umami and salty, Vegemite was even more intense than Marmite and had a bitter note that was missing in its predecessor. The product seemed promising.

In 1923, Vegemite hit the shelves. Australia had finally taken its place as a player in the international yeast-spread market! Now they just had to convince people to buy it. The first ad campaign focused on the product’s benefits for children (Vegemite had the same rich B-Vitamin profile as Marmite.) People were not psyched. They loved Marmite. This was not Marmite. As the supply chain opened back up, and Marmite became available in Australia again, people flocked back to it.

The lesson that we learn here is that the health of children was not a good enough reason for people to abandon a much-loved product for an alternate version. Especially if children were just as healthy eating the original. So Vegemite tried something different: a name change. Vegemite became…Parwill. If you think that was a bad idea, listen to this: The new tagline was “If Marmite, Parwill.” Get it? No? Right, no one really did, because it was a belabored and clumsy attempt to say that Vegemite, excuse me, Parwill, was better than Marmite. Literally no one was convinced, and soon, Parwill was Vegemite again. 

At this point, you’d be forgiven for asking how in the world Vegemite overcame early resistance to become the cultural phenomenon it is today. What caused Australians to forsake Marmite? The answer, surprisingly, is processed cheese.

In 1925, Fred Walker had started a new venture, the Kraft Walker Cheese Company. (Yes, THAT Kraft cheese!) After buying rights to James L. Kraft’s processed cheese patent, Fred Walker assigned our old chemist pal and Vegemite inventor Cyril to figure out an Australian arm of Kraft cheese production. He did. It was a big success. 

So when Vegemite failed to take off, Fred Walker did the only logical thing: He used his successful product to save his struggling one. Every Australian Kraft cheese purchase came with a coupon for free Vegemite. Even folks who had been resistant were willing to try Vegemite for FREE, especially when it was presented in conjunction with something as cool as processed cheese. Sales began to pick up speed, and by the time Australian troops joined the fight in World War II, they were carrying rations of Vegemite. After the war, they kept buying it. It was at this point that Vegemite finally surpassed Marmite as the most popular yeast-spread in Australia. 

The spread’s success never faltered. Vegemite is now a beloved symbol of Australia. It’s present in 90% of Australian homes. Fans eat it on toast, sure, but they don’t stop there. You’ll find recipes for cheese scrolls, spaghetti, beef pies, gravies, and even brownies. It has woven itself seamlessly through cuisine and culture. It is a product to be proud of.

I’ll leave you with a few entrepreneurial lessons from our friend Fred Walker: 1) Don’t be ashamed to make a new version of a beloved product. A new take on an old favorite can be a hit…eventually! 2) Hire experts. Chemist Cyril Callister figured out the recipe for Vegemite AND the best way to produce Kraft cheese in Australia. Whatever he was paid, it was a deal. 3) If people don’t like your product, try every scheme to change their minds. Name changes! Fancy jars! Medical endorsements! Catchy jingles! Do whatever you need to do, just don’t give up. 4) When nothing works, a free coupon can really make a difference. (When I worked in advertising, I had a boss that would always shoot down ideas by saying “It’s a coupon.” He meant that we had come up with a fancy way to give people a product for free or cheap, which was obviously not creative or interesting. I wish I would have known the story of Vegemite then, because I might have told him to chill about coupons. Sometimes a coupon can turn a struggling product into a national treasure. It doesn’t always have to be “clever” to work.)

A postscript from the author: 

Researching these articles, I’ve become increasingly curious about the lack of small-batch yeast-spread products produced by local breweries. You have spent brewer’s yeast! If y’all made artisanal Marmite/Vegemite would they not be a sensation? I must know someone who’s willing to take this on. Anyway, if you do, write to me, and I’ll illustrate your product for free….to use on your promotional coupons.

Marmite

Black and white illustration of an Indestructible Food: Marmite.

“A Tale of Two ‘Mites…”

I saw a jar of Marmite at the grocery store, and I was like, “MARMITE! I should look into that!” Then I began to fear the hate mail that would surely follow from Vegemite fans. I decided that the obvious solution was to feature these yeasty buddies in a two-part post, and we’d all be better for it. Buckle up, it’s going to be an exciting ride. 

Part One: Marmite

Marmite, for those of you who don’t know, is a dark, sticky goo made from yeast. It’s generally spread on buttered toast. One reviewer said that “It tastes like salty beefy fermented soy sauce.” So…basically an umami-rich salt spread? Amazing! Other reviewers said it was “fishy” and “doesn’t taste like food,” which is a bit less encouraging. Love it or hate it (that’s the slogan, by the way) Marmite is important to British cuisine…but how’d that happen? 

Justus von Liebig is the man who made Marmite possible. He’s widely considered to be a principal founder of organic chemistry, but he was also wild for nutrition. He developed a healthy baby formula, a meat tea to nourish the poor, and most importantly for this story, he found out that you could concentrate brewer’s yeast, bottle it, and eat it.

A few years after his breakthrough, an international team of enthusiastic fellows got the idea over the finish line. Frederick Wissler, George Huth, and Alexander Vale, found that they could take spent brewer’s yeast from the beer-making process and create a rich, flavorful spread. It was recycling! It was inventive! It was a symbiotic sensation! In 1902, the first Marmite factory opened, sourcing their yeast from the nearby Bass brewery. The spread caught on quickly (probably because it added a lot of flavor to food cheaply) but an even bigger selling point was on the horizon: vitamins! 

By 1912, there were several discoveries involving micronutrients, and the general consensus was that human beings needed some small amount of these to maintain their health. Scientist Casimir Funk (which is an amazing DJ name) called them “vitamines.” And you know what marmite had an awful lot of? You guessed it. Vitamins. B Vitamins, to be exact. Now Marmite could be sold not just for flavor, but also for health. It could be used to treat certain kinds of anemia and malnutrition! Take that, jelly!

In 1914, Great Britain began fighting in World War I, which meant that many British troops were standing around in stinking trenches full of water under heavy bombardment. The circumstances were horrific. To help with morale and to stave off nutritional deficits, Marmite was included in rations for the soldiers. I’ll say here that our brains process emotion pretty close to where they process taste and smell, so memory and food go hand in hand. Giving soldiers something to eat that they loved at home was a very good idea.

It’s a mistake, however, to imply that all British folks love Marmite. (Remember that “Love it or Hate it” slogan?) It actually appears that equal numbers of folks love and hate it. The rest don’t really care. Fair enough. Like most things, it’s pretty easy to tell if you like it: just try it! OR, you could make it much more difficult and newsworthy, which is just what Marmite’s ad agency did in 2017.

For this campaign, Marmite worked with scientists to develop a genetic test that would tell if someone was a “lover” or a “hater.” A quick cheek swab could be analyzed and tell you if you had the Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms that predisposed you towards enjoyment of the spread. The research was basically just done for a funny ad campaign, but it also showed that although certain flavors might be pleasant or unpleasant to us (I’m looking at you, cilantro!) our circumstances can overcome our tendencies. It also showed that the British have a great sense of humor about their strange foods.

In closing, always remember that while Britney Spears loves Marmite and Madonna hates it, Men at Work are Vegemite all the way…

Join us next week for the thrilling final installment of the Tale of Two ‘Mites.

 

Kraft Mac & Cheese

Black and white illustration of an Indestructible Food: Mac &Cheese

“A meal that can be ready before things get any worse.”

Everybody has a killer mac & cheese recipe that they want to brag about. I get it. I really do. Y’all are grating 100 cheeses, and blending silky-smooth roux, and sprinkling everything lavishly with breadcrumbs. Your mac & cheese is second to none. You are the comfort food champion… 

Now that we’ve established your superiority in all things cheesy, let’s be real. Some days you work 14 hours. Some days there’s a sinkful of dirty dishes. Some days the kids are about to mutiny. This reality demands a different kind of comfort food: the kind that comes in a cardboard box and only needs a little butter and a splash of milk–a meal that can be ready before things get any worse. There are a million brands of boxed mac & cheese, but it was Kraft that invented the category, so let’s talk about how they took a labor-intensive culinary classic and transformed it into a meal for tough times.

The story of boxed mac & cheese really begins with the cheese. Or maybe we should say “cheese,” because the cheese in a box of mac & cheese is not quite the same as the cheese in your fridge. Cheese itself is an innovation. It takes highly perishable milk and turns it into something that can be consumed at a later date. But as most of us know, cheese still goes bad, and not always in the blue-cheese-is-delicious kind of way. In 1911, two Swiss cheese fellows named Fritz Stettler and Walter Gerber were working on just this problem. They found that by heating shredded cheese and adding sodium citrate, they were left with a smooth cheese product that did not spoil. The first processed cheese had arrived. Huzzah!

Meanwhile, in the USA, James L. Kraft was making a solid living as a cheese distributor. In 1914, he opened his own cheese factory. By 1916, he had secured the first patent for a method of making processed cheese. Not only would this new cheese-food stay fresh, it was also incredibly cheap to make, since it used scraps of fresh cheese that would otherwise be trash. It was a big couple of years for Mr. Kraft, but he was just getting started. In 1917, the United Stated joined the first World War. The troops needed to eat, and the United States Army treated them to 6 million pounds of Kraft’s processed cheese. (Soldiers were supposed to eat 4000 calories a day, so they obviously needed plenty of cheese.)

Never one to rest on his war-time laurels, Kraft continued his experimentation, eventually developing a powdered cheese product. By 1937, the company launched its shelf-stable macaroni & cheese. In one box, you got plenty of macaroni noodles, a pouch of powdered cheese-food, and instructions for making the fastest mac & cheese ever. It was a major achievement that came at the perfect time. The Great Depression was still weighing on the country, folks didn’t have much money, and a meal that could feed a family for 19 cents was pretty irresistible. 

In a few short years, WWII began, and with it came new challenges. First, meat and dairy were rationed. That meant that you probably weren’t gonna have what you wanted for dinner. And by the way…who was going to cook that dinner? Many women homemakers had joined the war effort and were working long hours. That meant that quick and easy meals (without meat and dairy) were essential. You could get 2 boxes of Kraft Mac & Cheese for one ration stamp, and it took just 10 minutes to prepare. Life just kept throwing us problems and Kraft Mac & Cheese just kept solving them.

You can follow the story of this handy mac & cheese up through the present day just by looking at the taglines of their ads. They tell of financial hardship (“Eat well in spite of it all.”), a crunch on time (“You are a cool 10 minutes away from a hot meal.”), and picky children (“You know they’re going to like it.”) These issues resurface again and again, meaning that there is always a good reason to buy a box of mac & cheese. 

It turns out that if you develop a food that lasts forever, is super cheap, and tastes pretty good, you can earn a spot in the hearts and shopping carts of pretty much everybody…even if they CAN make a much better version from scratch.