A Decade of Somerville’s ‘What the Fluff?’ Festival

How the celebration of all things Fluff helped put Union Square on the map.
Fluff

Photo by Kelsey Cronin

Not long ago, Union Square was a sleepy place—and then a blizzard of marshmallow ooze rolled in. Now, every September, thousands flock to Somerville for “What the Fluff?”, our very own annual event devoted to the sugary sandwich spread. They gorge upon culinary creations far more adventurous than Fluffernutters (candied-bacon-and-Fluff-topped sweet potato fries, anyone?), watch costumed Flufferettes perform burlesque, and gleefully “joust” with goo-slathered pool noodles. Eagle-eyed attendees might even spot the Fluff Fest’s patron saint: historic confectioner Archibald Query, as cosplayed by longtime volunteer Mike Katz. With this year’s installment taking over the neighborhood this weekend, it’s clear that the event—and Fluff itself—has become a hallmark for the square. And it’s done all of that in a mere 10 years.

Though Query first invented Fluff in Union Square in 1917, the fete for this century-old foodstuff didn’t get started until 2006. Hoping to perk up the neighborhood, Union Square Main Streets executive director Mimi Graney had started experimenting with initiatives to revitalize the area—and the Fluff Festival was the one that really stuck. “Everyone associates Fluff with their own childhood,” Graney says. “It’s fun to play with, and it really lends itself to creativity.”

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As the festival has grown, so too has Union Square. Few of the the 800 spectators who attended the first Fluff Fest could have anticipated that a decade later, the attendees would skyrocket to nearly 10,000. Nor would many Union Square residents have predicted that housing prices per square foot would increase by 52.79 percent and rental costs by 30-40 percent, or that the square would soon host 70 more businesses than it did in 2006. The Union Square Main Streets-created farmers market, which Graney estimates started with 400 people in 2005, now attracts more than 3,000 shoppers every Saturday. And with the possibility of the MTBA Green Line Extension lurching back to life, more explosive growth may be on the horizon.

“The festival pays tribute to the invention of Fluff 99 years ago, and today once again, Union Square is a home and destination for inventors and innovators,” says current Union Square Main Streets executive director Esther Hanig. The Fluff Festival itself continues to innovate, too. This year’s event, dubbed “Fluff U: A Sweet Education,” debuts a photo scavenger hunt: Revelers must scour Union Square shops for the collegiate-looking Fluff crest.

What will get the Fluff treatment next? Graney may have given up her marshmallowy mantle in 2015, having left Union Square Main Streets to found Relish, a consultancy aimed at doing “placemaking activities in other communities.” But it seems she can’t quite wash her hands of the sticky stuff: “I’m working on a book about Fluff because its 100th anniversary is coming up,” she says. “Like Union Square, Fluff’s had its ups and downs, and I want to dive into that more.”

The What the Fluff? Festival takes place Saturday, September 24, 3-7 p.m., in Union Square, Somerville, flufffestival.com.