This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in North Shore Sunday in February 2007.
When state senator Jarred Barrios tried to have the Fluffernutter sandwich banned from school lunches last year, he elicited howls of outrage, and for a good reason.
The Fluffernutter sandwich is more than a beloved memory of childhood, it’s a local tradition. Wikipedia lists it as an example of New England cuisine, alongside the noble baked bean and clam chowder. It’s even more local than that for the North Shore, because the active ingredient, Marshmallow Fluff, is made in Lynn by the Durkee-Mower company, which was started by two Swampscott High graduates, H. Allen Durkee and Fred L. Mower.
A little digging reveals that there’s more to Fluff than meets the eye, however. The Fluff people didn’t invent the Fluffernutter (just the name), our Fluff is not the only Marshmallow Fluff, and at one time, marshmallows were a health food. Take that, Senator Barrios!
Tastes terrible, cures everything
Our story begins with the humble marsh mallow, a flowering plant whose sap swells and forms a slippery gel when it is mixed with water.
Sound appetizing? The ancient Egyptians thought so; they mixed marsh mallow juice with honey to make special candy that was reserved for the pharaohs and the gods. The Roman scholar Pliny believed that a daily drink of marsh mallow juice would prevent all diseases, and if you were already sick when you got that news, it would also cure most illnesses. While not going to quite that extreme, doctors and healers prescribed the slimy juice to soothe sore throats and irritated skin well into the 20th century.
The change from health food to junk food occurred in Paris in the 1850s, when pharmacists began whipping up the juice with sugar and egg whites to make a light, foamy cure for sore throats. People liked the new product and started eating it like candy. By the end of the century, gelatin had replaced the marsh mallow juice, and the world began enjoying mallow-free marshmallows.
So, just as Grape-Nuts contains neither grapes nor nuts, Marshmallow Fluff is lacking a title ingredient.
In the early 20th century, a time when people believed any food could be improved by a white sauce, marshmallow frostings and sauces were popular dessert ingredients. Home cooks made their own marshmallow crème, either by mixing up the marshmallow ingredients from scratch or by melting down store-bought marshmallows and combining them with a sugar syrup. Neither method was quick or easy.