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.

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.

Vienna Sausages

Can of Vienna Sausage in from of a mountain range flanked by two Austrian buildings. This is another indestructible food.

The littlest link…

It’s hard to find a food more ubiquitous than sausage. Every country has their versions, because sausage was developed to do something important: save food from being wasted. Got a pile of tiny trimmings left over from slaughter time? Got a length of spare intestine? You’re in business. Sausages all around! They can be smoked or cured, steamed or grilled, but they always turn a pile of scraps into a meal.

Sausages should have been a low-class food. They are, after all, made from leftovers. Richer folks could afford to eat big pieces of meat like hams and pheasants and roast beef, but they wanted sausage. It’s not hard to understand why. The balance of fat, protein, and salt in a sausage made it a perfect comfort meal. Soon, butchers and delis and families and whole countries were working to make fancier sausages. They experimented with novel spices and processing methods. A pile of scraps no longer, sausages became a source of pride. 

Not to be outdone, the United States threw its hat in the ring with a product called Vienna Sausage. Bursting upon the sausage scene in 1903, these short lengths of forcemeat were smoked and canned in aspic or chicken broth. They had almost nothing in common with European vienna sausages which were long, thin hotdog-like creatures. American Vienna Sausages were their own thing, man. Made of beef, pork, and chicken (the turducken of sausage?!) they became a phenomenon. 

Advertising did a lot of the heavy lifting when it came to promoting these little links. A 1904 Libby’s print ad shares that “Vienna Sausages are served extensively at home and abroad, on transatlantic ships and in dining cars.” In 1954, the ads had shifted tone considerably, now claiming the little sausages to be “a real wife-saver.” By 1990, the ads were talking about ingredients, informing the public that the links were ALL meat. NO filler. So, whether you were a traveler, an overwhelmed housewife or just completely obsessed with meat, Vienna Sausages were for you. Luckily, recipes were everywhere, encouraging creativity and innovation with these canned wieners. Pigs in a blanket! Tiny Corndogs! Wieners with Sauerkraut! Hors d’oeuvres! The possibilities seemed truly endless.

But if canned Vienna Sausages were a uniquely American invention, they certainly did not stay here. We talked about this a bit in relation to Spam, but it is worth repeating here. Vienna Sausages spread as many indestructible foods did: with conquest, colonialism, and war. Elaine Castillo frames this beautifully in her article, Colonialism in a Can. What often started as survival food for interlopers in unfamiliar settings, was enriched and elevated by locals who made it part of their cuisine. 

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, Vienna Sausages are part of the rich tapestry of preserved meats. They might not have the panache of prosciutto, but they have kept folks filled and earned some fans along the way. Not too shabby for a tiny canned sausage. 

Jello

Indestructible food: A box of Jello stands on a cake tray above two fancy jello molds.

From royal banquets to hospital rooms…

People have been eating gelatin for ages. Foods suspended in gel were hallmarks of elite dining as far back as the 15th century. One of the reasons these dishes inspired such awe was that if they were on your table, it probably meant that you had a kitchen staff. Not just a someone-cooks-my-meals kitchen staff, but a I-have-enough-folks-working-for-me-that-I-can-spare-someone-for-hours-and-hours-to-boil-carcasses sort of kitchen staff. Gelatin jells due to collagen obtained from skin, bones, and connective tissue of animals. And obtaining that collagen took some serious time.

Over the centuries, gelatin dishes remained popular with wealthy folks. In 1845, a carpenter named Pearle in Leroy, NY was using some time-saving powdered gelatin to mix up cough medicine (as a carpenter generally does) and stumbled upon something closer to a dessert. His wife, May, was like, “That’s a dessert! Let’s call it Jell-O!” -because adding an -O to the end of words was really popular at the time, and May was brilliant. Anyway, Pearle didn’t have the money or experience to successfully market this new dessert, so he sold it. It changed hands a couple times because it wasn’t immediately popular.

“But why?” you may ask. “If people loved gelatin desserts, why weren’t they enraptured with an easy-to-make, beautiful, fruity invention such as Jell-O?” Because new stuff is easier to love if you know why you’re gonna love it. Jell-O’s new owners had a plan. They sent an army of salespeople out into the world to hand out samples. They brought Jell-O desserts to church picnics and town gatherings. They took out ads claiming that it was “America’s Favorite Dessert.” (It wasn’t.) And they thought of something new. They printed and distributed cookbooks filled with Jell-O-centric recipes. People could actually see all of the possibilities for the product in their everyday lives. It suddenly seemed incredible that they had been without this miracle food for so long!

Jell-O gained popularity throughout the early 1900s, allowing women to create “dainty” dishes cheaply and quickly. It also gave them a way to hide leftovers in something a little more refined than a goulash or a hash. That old tuna fish took on a new life when viewed through the lens of lemon Jell-O. This economy and the ability to stretch a food supply came in pretty handy during the Great Depression. When World War II hit and brought its attendant food rationing, Jell-O let families have something sweet without using up the precious household sugar supply. During hard times, the jelly really earned its place in the American kitchen.

The convenience and utility was super, but there was a problem. In the 1950’s, women were valued as homemakers. And making a home just kept getting easier. Appliances made chores quicker. Processed foods cut down on prep time and the skill required to make something tasty. Some women started avoiding (or feeling guilty) about buying convenience foods. Luckily, the big food brands had a solution: View our products as a shortcut, but always add your own spin! Only you can create something unique and beautiful! Your family and friends will be stunned! 

And so a classic era of foods that should never have been suspended in Jell-o was born. Hard boiled eggs, olives, ham, celery, shrimp, PIECES OF HOT DOG?!… Nothing escaped the enterprising homemakers. A select few were rewarded for their gelatin-powered prowess when their recipes were published on packages and in cookbooks. In the 60s, Jell-O even released a line of savory gelatins for use with meats and vegetables (it didn’t last very long).

By the 1970s, Jell-O sales were falling. Folks were no longer all that enamored with jellied salads. They were eating plain vegetables again. While the company tried to reinvigorate the brand (Jell-O pudding pops! Bill Cosby! Jell-O Jigglers!), it was never really the same. 

But if it isn’t the sweeping success story it once was, Jell-O certainly hasn’t vanished from the national plate. In hospitals, prisons, and school cafeterias it is standard fare. It’s Utah’s state snack. Jell-O shots are a rite of passage for countless teens and young adults. Today, surveys suggest that 1 in 4 Americans still has a box of Jell-O in their pantry, which means that the next round of gelatinous culinary innovation could be just around the corner. 

Spam

A can of Span sits surrounded by flowers and decorative elements.

In which Spam becomes a global phenomenon.

Spam was invented in 1937 as a way to use pork shoulder, a cut of meat no one wanted at the time. It had some popularity in the US, but it spread widely during WWII. Getting fresh meat to soldiers was near impossible, but Spam was shelf-stable and lasted forever. Problem solved! And as soldiers were eating their Spam (Hormel kept a file of military complaints about it) so were an awful lot of civilians. WWII brought Spam to the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii, Japan, Great Britain… and the list goes on.

In the coming years, Spam would continue its march around the planet (aided by American colonialism and various wars). And an interesting divergence occurred. In some places, Spam was a temporary food staple. It surfaced in response to an urgent need, and receded when the need was gone. But in other places, Spam was more tenacious. People experimented with it and came up with smart ways to use it. They made the product an ingredient. Spam wove itself into these cuisines.

You may ask “What caused the difference in Spam uptake? Why is Spam popular in some places and ridiculed in others?” Good questions. And complicated ones. One answer I’ve seen is rooted in economic circumstance. In places where economic hardship was widespread for a short time, Spam was tolerated. It was a food of necessity, and folks tended to want to (and be able to) distance themselves from it as soon as possible. In places where economic recovery came slower, cooks found ways to use the ingredient to its best advantage. It was around long enough not to be associated with any particular economic trauma. It was food. And if you prepared it well, it was remarkably good.

Each country has its own story when it comes to Spam. You’ll see stories about hardship. And war. And colonialism. And family meals. And silly merchandise. And comfort foods. This post is not long enough, nor am I knowledgable enough to cover all of the complexities of Spam. There is a whole lot to learn. 

Instant Mashed Potatoes

A towering box of Idaho Spuds sits in a snowy landscape. A child on a sled glides by.

A longer-lasting potato…

Potatoes are a celebration food, and they became popular, in part, because they take so long to go bad. But during WWII, the government was greedy, and they decided to push for an even longer shelf life by dehydrating potatoes into granules. Which were then made into extraordinarily gummy and awful mashed potatoes for the soldiers. Like many wartime innovations, there was in interest in making these reconstituted mashed potatoes into a consumer product. They just had to be a little less terrible.

A major turning point was the realization that “flakes” beat “granules” as far as mashed potato texture went. A government facility in Wyndmore, PA developed a process called “The Philadelphia Cook” This involved precooking potatoes, cooling them, cooking them again, and then drying them. Into flakes. Obviously. These new instant mashed potatoes were less terrible than before and saved the hassle of peeling potatoes forever and boiling a towering cauldron of water. A big win!

I hope you are celebrating this season with special foods. And if Christmas is your kind of holiday, I hope it’s a jolly one.