Marshmallow Fluff you either love it or hate it.
How the sticky confection became fluffernutter-famous
Peer into a kid’s lunchbox anywhere in America and you’re likely to find one of a few classic sandwiches: As food trends come and go, ham and cheese and peanut butter and jelly remain enduringly popular year after year. In New England, though, such a search is just as likely to turn up a fluffernutter, the sweet pairing of peanut butter and Marshmallow Fluff slathered on white bread that’s long been a favorite in the region’s lunchrooms.
The Northeast has more than its fair share of beloved food traditions — think coffee cabinets and lobster rolls — and sweet, gooey Marshmallow Fluff stands proudly, if rather un-nutritiously, among them in the annals of the region’s culinary history. The fluffy white confection turns a century old this year, and after all this time, it remains popular not only as a sandwich spread but also as an ingredient for recipes ranging from fudge and Rice Krispy Treats to those weird pastel fruit “salads” that turn up at church potlucks.
Here now, a look at Marshmallow Fluff’s trajectory to nostalgic food icon, from being hawked door-to-door to blasting off to outer space to feed astronauts.
THE BIRTH OF A HOMETOWN CLASSIC
The earliest reference to marshmallow creme appeared in an 1896 cookbook from American culinary guru Fannie Farmer, The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book; it contained a recipe for “marshmallow paste,” which involved melted-down marshmallows as a shortcut for making frosting and candies. Once considered the candy-making capital of the U.S., Boston has been one of the country’s candy centers since colonial times; by the 1910s the area was home to numerous companies producing marshmallow creme.
The first commercial, shelf-stable marshmallow spread was called Snowflake Marshmallow Creme and developed by brother and sister team Amory and Emma Curtis — the great-great-great-grandchildren of American revolutionary Paul Revere — around 1913. (They were hardly the first to invent it, though: Credit for that goes to French pharmacists, who strangely enough, first created a creamy marshmallow concoction as a throat remedy.)
But it was Marshmallow Fluff, created by entrepreneur Archibald Query, who began selling it door-to-door in Somerville, Massachusetts in 1917, that would emerge as the iconic archetype of the sweet, spreadable concoction — thanks to the magic of marketing.
Boston candy company Durkee-Mower bought the recipe from Query in 1917 for a mere $500 (the equivalent of approximately 10 dozen tubs of Fluff today). The company was one of the first to advertise on the radio in the 1920s, grabbing some primetime spots before The Ed Sullivan Show and becoming a household name in Massachusetts. Durkee-Mower invested heavily in branding in the 1950s and ‘60s to become a national brand, recruiting the graphic designer responsible for modernizing the Quaker Oats man and an artist who worked on GI Joe packaging to create the logo and illustration that still adorns Marshmallow Fluff jars today. Containing corn syrup, sugar, vanilla, and egg whites, the recipe has remained largely unchanged over the years, too.
“Because it’s been around for 100 years, everyone can associate it with their own childhood,” says Mimi Graney, author of the forthcoming book Fluff: The Sticky Sweet Story of an American Icon. “And because the packaging hasn’t changed very much, people feel that sense of familiarity. It’s got that patriotic red, white, and blue label so it feels very American.” But it was a certain sandwich combo that would cement Marshmallow Fluff’s place in the all-American foods hall of fame.
THE RISE OF THE FLUFFERNUTTER
The original idea for a peanut butter and marshmallow creme sandwich was actually devised by Fluff’s erstwhile competitor, Snowflake Marshmallow Creme. Snowflake’s Emma Curtis first published the recipe during World War I, dubbing it a “Liberty Sandwich.” (Curtis’s other recipes included a marshmallow creme and olive sandwich that thankfully didn’t catch on.) Several different companies subsequently marketed the combination of peanut butter and marshmallow creme — but it was Fluff that capitalized on it in the 1960s with a clever marketing scheme, making the sandwich its own by coining the term “fluffernutter” and putting out commercials with a catchy jingle.
“It’s a recipe that every kid can make,” Graney points out. “For many kids, it was the first recipe that was easy enough to make themselves, so moms were fine with them making their own sandwiches.”
The fluffernutter has remained a New England childhood lunch staple for decades, eventually finding itself at the center of a heated debate in the Massachusetts legislature: In 2006, state senator Jarrett Barrios proposed an amendment to a school nutrition bill that would’ve limited school cafeterias to serving fluffernutters once a week. That struck a nerve in the statehouse: In response, an opposing bill was put forth to recognize the fluffernutter as the official state sandwich, and heated debates over the beloved sandwich occupied the legislature for an entire week. (Barrios eventually backed off.)
“Fluff is a quirky thing in that it actually has fewer calories [per ounce] than grape jelly, so a Fluff and peanut butter sandwich really only seems worse for you than a PB&J,” Graney points out.
Some like to offset the sweetness of the Fluff-peanut butter combo with add-ons such as sliced banana or bacon. Those with a particularly voracious sweet tooth can also try subbing Nutella for the peanut butter (though that veers dangerously close to eating pure sugar poured between two slices of bread).
THE FLUFFERNUTTER IN POP CULTURE
As a widely recognized symbol of childhood, fluffernutters have also been used in pop culture to represent adults who, in one form or another, are regressing: In HBO’s provocative prison drama Oz, the mentally handicapped Cyril requests a fluffernutter for his last meal before being executed. In season six of The Office, Michael Scott visits sacked Dunder Mifflin executive David Wallace at home to find him in his kitchen, unshaven and making a fluffernutter.
(Somewhat awkwardly, the fluffernutter moniker has also been adopted by a group of nudists who frequent one of Jamaica’s Hedonism resorts, which can make for some eyebrow-raising Google searches.)
And as further evidence of the time-honored pairing of peanut butter and Fluff, e-cigarette users can now puff on the nostalgic combo thanks to several companies that are producing Fluffernutter-flavored vape juice — though that’s unlikely to be turning up in lunchboxes anytime soon.
A FLUFFY LEGACY
Despite squabbling lawmakers and increased nutritional awareness in recent years — resulting in parents who would be horrified at the thought of feeding their kid a fluffernutter — Graney believes Marshmallow Fluff will endure: “There’s this sense that it’s the ultimate comfort food — it’s really soft and gooey and sweet, and it has that nostalgic, mom-in-the-kitchen childhood kind of thing [attached to it],” she observes.
Its gooey nature also makes it incredibly messy, which is why Fluff’s website has both a photo gallery of messy, Fluff-smeared children and instructions on how to remove Fluff from various surfaces — warm water is the key.
The city of Somerville, Massachusetts pays tribute to its sweet hometown hero with an annual “What the Fluff” festival: Now in its 11th year, Graney, the festival’s founder, says it attracts some 10,000 people annually for Fluff-themed games, music, and cooking contests (Fluff barbecue sauce or Fluff-avocado ice cream, anyone?).
Marshmallow Fluff also formed an alliance with another beloved New England sweet, which will undoubtedly help preserve its legacy: whoopie pies, the official state treat of Maine. A 1930 Durkee-Mower cookbook featured a recipe for an “Amish Whoopie Pie” that used Fluff in the filling, and the ingredient is frequently used in modern whoopie pie recipes.
Fluff is also now available in a strawberry-flavored variety, and at one time also came in a raspberry version, though that was discontinued in 2015. (Sadly, there will never be a chocolate-flavored Fluff: As Durkee-Mower explains on its website, “The butterfat in chocolate prevents Marshmallow Fluff from whipping.”)
Even if Fluff wanes in popularity on Earth thanks to the anti-sugar movement that’s grown in recent years, it may endure beyond our planet: In 2012 Marshmallow Fluff made it to the International Space Station, thanks to astronaut Sunita Williams, who couldn’t bear the thought of a 322-day journey without a fluffernutter.