This year, New England's classic marshmallow cream, known as Fluff, turns 100 years old. It's still made in the area—in Lynn, Mass. to be precise. As one of the founders of a festival focused on Fluff, Mimi Graney is the perfect person to celebrate the stuff's sweet centennial. Graney is the author of a new book, Fluff: The Sticky Sweet Story of an American Icon, published this March by Union Park Press.
Q: How did Fluff come to be?
Archibald Query invented marshmallow fluff in 1917, or that's as close as they've been able to approximate it, and that's the recipe being made by Durkee-Mower today. But there were other marshmallow cream companies in that era, in fact quite a number of them even just here in Massachusetts. There was Snowflake marshmallow cream, and a number of other ones—some that are just lost completely history.
Q: So marshmallow cream was a common product back then, but now it's basically synonymous with one brand, Durkee-Mower's Fluff. How did it get that way?
Durkee-Mower has just has been able to survive the ravages of time. Marshmallows were really trendy and hot around the turn of the century and around World War I. It was made popular by Fannie Farmer, who was a culinary educator and cookbook author and it's said that she never met a marshmallow she didn't like. She was the first one to actually talk about marshmallow cream, saying that it's a good shortcut for making frosting and candy and dessert. Based on that, some businesses started actually producing marshmallow cream as a product.
Q: Did the founders of Fluff start by just making it in their kitchen?
Archibald Query just started by making it in his kitchen like a lot of other businesses of that era where there wasn't necessarily a defining line between commercial space and residential space. In places like Somerville, places to work and places to live were all very tightly packed together. He had a home-based kitchen and started selling door-to-door. During World War I, he had to shelve his recipe because of sugar shortages. He also already had a full-time job working for another large candy company, the Walter Lowney copmany. It was while he was working there that he met Fred Mower, and Fred bought the recipe from Archibald and was able to start Durkee-Mower making marshmallow fluff again.
Q: How was Fluff able to scale from there? What was its big breakthrough?
They had a couple of big pushes. They were part of the vanguard of radio in the 1920s and one of the first companies advertising that way. That helped make them a regional brand. And then in the 1950s they worked on going national. Unfortunately for them that national push got the attention of Kraft. Kraft was trying to break into the marshmallow cream business. Kraft went and bought out a lot of the other regional producers, shut them down and took their market share. If you look back at some of the advertising it was very much like Kraft was coming in on Durkee-Mower's coattails. Their first packaging had the same color scheme as Fluff, with navy blue, royal blue and white.
But Fluff was able to survive, mostly because of their campaign for the Fluffernutter sandwich— because you can't make a Fluffernutter without Fluff. It helped them win the name game and then eventually Kraft kind of lost interest in their marshmallow cream. They still make another product now, but they basically left the marshmallow world for Durkee-Mower to have it pretty much to themselves now.
Q: And 100 years later, Fluff is still a family-run business, isn't it?
Yes it's still run by the Durkee family. Fred Mower died in the 1950s and then Allen Durkee, who had been his partner, he died in the 1960s. But then Allen [Durkee's] son Bruce took over the company. And then a couple years after that, [Bruce's brother] Don took over the company. And Don's still the titular head of the company, but the day-to-day operations are run by Don's son Jon.
So how has Fluff adapted to the modern era? Because in some ways it seems like it's pretty much the same as it always was.
Yeah, it survives because they just kept their heads down. The factory is almost identical to the “modern factory” in 1950s, so they're still whipping it up in individual batches, still doing a sort of vertical production, so they bring in liquid sugar and corn syrup and the egg whites into the basement, and then they pipe it up to the third floor where it's then whipped and then sent down a chute to the second floor where it's filled into jars and then it's sent over to their warehouse. So it really hasn't changed at all since before Allen Durkee died.
That's sort of both a blessing and a curse. It helped Durkee-Mower survive the tough years of the '70s, when a lot of other urban manufacturers were just burned out or crushed by their corporate competitors but it means that marshmallow fluff really isn't in a position to grow any bigger. It's a pretty simple product, pretty easy to steal, so the Fluff company kind of relies on their brand. They can't make much more than they do. It's only four ingredients. You can make it at home, but it's a little tricky—it won't stay shelf stable. But it is a secret recipe only because of the challenges of, how long do you whip it, what temperatures, how do you mix it—but it's not rocket science.
Q: How did you get into researching the history of Fluff?
I started it because of my love of the city of Somerville. ... I was really surprised at all of the major inventions that happened in the area that basically enabled marshmallow fluff and marshmallow creams to be born here.
Q: What is it about Somerville that made Fluff possible?
It wasn't just Somerville, it was the bigger Boston region. There were a number of different inventions. The eggbeater was developed in Cambridge at Dover Stamping—originally people used to just call it a Dover. The power mixer was developed in Boston. Granulated sugar started at the refinery in East Boston.
Boston used to be the candy capital of the world at the turn of the 20th century. And after World War I there were still some major manufacturers here. Walter Lowney had four major factories—two in Boston, one in Mansfield and one in Montreal. The Schrafft's company was the biggest candy company in the world when it was built. There was the Walter Baker company in Dorchester. Necco and Nabisco both started here. Before you could walk through Boston and smell lots of aromas of candy companies. But you can still smell the vanilla and egg whites in the air from Fluff.
Q: What's your favorite Fluff recipe?
I discovered Fluff, like almost everybody, as a child, and the first one is always the best one: just taking a big scoop of Fluff and putting it on the top of a cup of hot chocolate. I've since come to discover how versatile it really is. I had a Fluff empanada with chorizo and guava that was just extraordinary. My brother Mike Graney invented the tunafluffer, which is kind of an easier recipe to do at home. It's a saltine cracker with a layer of Fluff, tuna salad, yellow mustard, pickles, and a little hot sauce. I like it with capers instead of the mustard. It will cause skepticism but is amazingly delicious.
Editor's note: This story was updated March 14, 2017, to correct Fannie Farmer's name and Don and Bruce Durkee's relationship to one another.