What the Fluff?: The History of Your Favorite Sandwich Confection
Somerville is celebrating the marshmallow treat that was created there in 1917.
Mimi Graney knows everything there is to know about Fluff. From the ingredients, to the history of the white, marshmallow-y substance, she could talk about it for hours.
That’s why she’s in charge of Somerville’s Fluff Festival, which is kicking off its eighth annual celebration this weekend in Union Square under the title “What the Fluff?”
“It was my crazy brainchild,” said Graney, executive director of Union Square Main Streets, the group that hosts the festival in conjunction with ArtsUnion and the Somerville Arts Council. “Everyone feels like Fluff is part of their childhood. Whether born in the 1940’s or ’50s, or ’60s, or later—everyone feels nostalgic for Fluff. I think New Englanders in general have a particular fondness for it.”
Fluff got its start right in Somerville’s Union Square, the site of where the festival will bring out around 10,000 fans to eat—and even play in—the substance.
A confectionary shop owner named Archibald Query, who made the original recipe in his kitchen, and then sold it door-to-door to customers, was the first to whip it up in 1917. Following the war, however, there was a serious shortage on some of the supplies used to get the mixture just right, and the sale of the sweet spread slowly dissipated.
Graney said not long after, around 1920, two entrepreneurs looking to get into the business scraped together the cash they had left, and joined forces with Query, to create what they called “Toot Sweet Marshmallow Fluff.” But Query’s two business partners later bought the recipe from Query outright. The story goes that Query sold off his invention to the tune of $500 to H. Allen Durkee and Fred L. Mower. To this day, nearly 100 years later, Durkee-Mower Inc. still owns the Fluff name. There first retail sale was to a lodge in New Hampshire, where they pawned off three tubs of the marshmallow mix for $1 a gallon.
Rumor has it, after selling off his stake, Query later wished he hadn’t, according to Graney. “Archibald and his wife stayed in the area, and sort of regretted pulling away from the business.”
Over the years, the Fluff fortune evolved, with the original owners leveraging their venture by introducing a cookbook in the 1940’s called “The Yummy Book” to customers, filling it with ideas on how to use Fluff in different ways.
Later came the “Fluffernutter” sandwich, which was trademarked by the company in the 1960’s, and then the eventual collaboration with Rice Krispies to create Rice Krispies Treats.
Based on Fluff’s success, other companies started to invest in the melted-marshmallow market in order to corner the customer base. Fluff already had a stronghold, however, and even though in the 1970s, the Kraft company bought up a bunch of smaller marshmallow cream manufacturers to compete with Fluff, but Durkee and Mower’s product stood out ahead. “Kraft bought the others out in the 1970s and started closing them systematically, and then found that it wasn’t as profitable as they thought,” said Graney. “It came so that Kraft slowly killed all the other marshmallow crème companies.”
To this day, while there are parts of the country that don’t have Fluff, it has spread its name internationally, and is still manufactured in Massachusetts. “Most people have never even heard of the company, but pretty much everyone knows the name of the product,” said Don Durkee, son of Fluff’s original cofounder, in a 2006 interview.
While for the most part Fluff is a fan favorite, it has found itself in some rather sticky situations.
In 2006, Senator Jarrett Barrios tried to ban the gooey sandwich spread from being served up in state schools every day after his son was offered a heaping portion of Fluff as a meal regularly at lunch. The idea was an amendment to a pending junk-food bill being considered on Beacon Hill.
The proposal came at the same time another elected official, State Representative Kathi-Anne Reinstein, was championing for the “Fluffernutter”—the famous mixture of peanut butter and fluff squished together between pieces of bread—to become the official state sandwich.
A battle ensued over the iconic food’s place in the state, but neither legislative push made it past the committee hearing stage on Beacon Hill, and the discussions were quashed. To defuse the rivalry between legislative officials, Garney filled a tub full of Fluff for the first-ever Fluff festival, and dared the duo to partake in a tug-of-war where the loser would go face-first into the food. “Neither one showed up. But eager volunteers were all about it,” she said.
Graney admitted that while Barrios’s anti-Fluff proposal may have overshadowed his time in office, he was right in thinking the coveted confection should be taken in moderation. “I thought he was totally right, Fluff should be a treat, not an everyday thing, and in Union Square we try to have a balance. We promote healthy eating,” she said, adding that the festival happens in the same spot that there are weekly farmers markets. “You don’t have a Fluff Festival everyday, and you shouldn’t have a Fluff sandwich everyday.”
But when you do have one, it should be celebrated accordingly, said Graney. “Almost every business in Union Square gets involved in some sort of way for the festival. I am always impressed with the creativity.”
Even though the food is rich in history—and sugar—Fluff owners have slightly distanced themselves from the annual celebration. Graney said it’s likely because the festivities feature Fluff girls flapping their legs in burlesque costumes, and events where people get hands on with the food, and things get messy.
But, that’s not to say that Graney—and the city of Somerville—haven’t been cordial in incorporating the owners of Fluff. Year after year, they invite them down to partake in the celebration. “I haven’t seen them there yet. If they have [come] they have come incognito,” she said.
- Saturday, September 28 (Rain date Sunday, September 29)
- 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.
- Union Square, Somerville