Food has an incredible way of connecting us to our past, in so many ways. But I admit I hadn’t thought of some of them until reading Fluff: The Sticky Sweet Story of an American Icon by Mimi Graney.
Now, in case you’re not familiar with Marshmallow Fluff, it’s a sweet, sticky, spreadable, fluffy mixture made of just four easy ingredients: eggs, vanilla, corn syrup, and sugar. Durkee-Mower started producing Fluff in Somerville, Massachusetts in 1920, and it’s become iconic in New England. In fact, 50% of the sales are here. If you live in other states, you might only find it seasonally, or not at all.
But since I’ve only lived in Maine and Boston, I never realized I lived in a “fluff bubble.” Too bad that bubble can’t expand!
Even if you’re not familiar with it, though, the history might help you think about different ways food connects us to our past.
You might be the sort of person with lots of gadgets around your kitchen. Coffee grinder… food processor… Instant Pot… immersion blender… garlic press… stand mixer… and more. Or you might have a couple of pots and a microwave and call it good.
Either way, you might not think a lot about how people prepared foods in the past, without electricity or the benefits of those tools. And how difficult and time-consuming it was.
Consider beating egg whites. It takes a while to get them aerated, which you’d only know if you were making something meringue-like, or perhaps angel food cake. These days, if you’ve got a stand mixer, it’s not a problem, because you can leave it beating while you do other things.
But what about earlier times? People weren’t making Fluff, but they were making meringues as far back as the 16thcentury. Sometimes using bundles of twigs to beat eggs! (Not recommended, by the way.)
And according to the book, “Recipes from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries detail cake batters requiring beating times of three hours.”(p. 68 – emphasis added)
Hand-cranked egg beaters didn’t arrive until the 1850’s, and the first power mixer in 1885.
Like me, maybe you’ve taken these and other kitchen gadgets for granted. But next time you use one, or eat something that requires a lot of mixing, you can think of how wondrous they really are. And I know I feel much more empathy for the women in earlier times who spent all that time beating eggs.
Access to certain foods
Another thing it’s easy to take for granted is our access to foods – including sugar, for better or worse. You can walk into a store and easily get granulated sugar, or brown sugar, or sugar in the raw, or various other options.
But white sugar has an interesting history. And a somewhat ironic one, given the current focus on sugar as “toxic.”
For instance, did you know that “until the mid-nineteenth century, people used sugar for medicinal purposes. They believed sugar could cure almost every ailment, from ulcers to headaches to the pain of childbirth.” (p. 59)
What a difference to today! It’s funny that time-travel stories focus so much on technology and fashion, but not much on thoughts and opinions about food, or what people were able to even get.
Unfortunately, refining sugar is incredibly labor-intensive, which is why a dark part of its history included slaves being forced to do that labor. But mechanization helped. The first sugar refinery opened in New York City in 1689.
And in 1853, the Boston Sugar Refinery first produced the granulated sugar we know today. Before that, sugar was molded into shapes and people had to break off a piece and grate it themselves. (Though I’ve had my granulated sugar revert to this solid state.)
Since sugar can now be processed more efficiently, it’s become much more common. And even though it might be too readily available, and added unnecessarily to many foods, it helps me knowing the history. I can appreciate it more deeply, and be more mindful when I have it.
Recipes and traditions
But of course, the most immediate way food connects us with the past is through special recipes and traditions.
Take Marshmallow Fluff. I always associate it with Grammy Bartlett, my dad’s mother, because she used it in her delicious peanut butter fudge.
It’s also a feature in another iconic Maine food – whoopie pies. In fact, I pretty much only buy Fluff now when I’m making one of these two desserts.
But for many people, the Fluffernutter is the biggest connection to their past. If you’ve never had one, they’re super easy to make. It’s just a sandwich made with peanut butter and Fluff. They’ve even been eaten on the International Space Station! (Although there they used tortillas instead of bread to avoid crumbs floating around the station.) (p. 206)
And you don’t want to mess with the Fluffernutter.
Massachusetts state senator Jarrett Barriors found this out the hard way in 2006. As a Latino who grew up in Florida, he had no childhood associations with Fluff. So when he found out that in Cambridge, his sons could get a Fluffernutter every day as a lunch option, he was concerned.
Barriors proposed an amendment to a school junk food bill that would restrict Fluffernutters to be on available only once a week.
It didn’t go over well. His office got flooded with calls and letters, including some death threats.
But the situation also revived a lighthearted, childhood spirit for many. Legislators, reporters, and the general public reminisced about Marshmallow Fluff, sharing stories form their childhood. In fact, the Fluffernutter kerfluffle helped sales of Fluff.
Why all the fuss? As Graney puts it: “Marshmallow Fluff has, through its longevity, transcended time, forging a personal connection with each successive generation. No matter their age, everyone relates Fluff to their own childhood.” (p. 208)
And these days, most of us are happy to find something so unchanged after nearly a century, simple and sweet, that evokes childhood innocence.
What about you? What foods make you feel this kind of connection to your past and childhood? I’d love to hear your stories.
As for myself, I may need to make another batch of my grandmother’s fudge soon.