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80 and Still Fluffing

Marshmallow Fluff doesn't look its age.

October 25, 2000|KRISTIN EDDY | CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Substance? Boy, are you in the wrong place. Nothing but fluff here.

Marshmallow Fluff, to be precise; a creamy American confection with all the culinary credentials of Cool Whip, celebrating its 80th anniversary.

This is the stuff: Packed in glass jars, the spread has a texture like the inside of a marshmallow that's been toasted ju-u-u-st long enough to turn golden. People have been known to eat it straight from the jar, but it's been put to use more often in a marshmallow fudge named for Mamie Eisenhower (alternatively called Never-Fail Fudge), or in a sandwich fit for a king (if you're Elvis, that is) called the Fluffernutter. White bread, Marshmallow Fluff and peanut butter. What's not to like, especially if you don't have teeth?

Primarily sold east of the Mississippi, Fluff remains a fond memory for many.

"I grew up with Fluffernutter sandwiches; they're the classic," says Carolyn Wyman, a junk food authority (really--she has a syndicated newspaper column) and author of "Spam: A Biography" (Harvest Books, $15).

"At the school I went to in Rhode Island, your Fluffernutter people and your peanut butter and jelly people were about equal in number. You have to have it on white bread. It has to squish down in your lunch box. You can make a Fluffernutter that can practically not be seen by a microscope."

Wyman credits the kid-friendly appeal of Fluff to its blandness, as much as its sugar.

"And best of all, it's sticky!" she says. "It has the potential to create a real mess."

Boy, does it ever. Pictures of children covered in the stuff are posted on the Web site of Durkee-Mower, the company that makes Fluff.

That, in small part, may contribute to the "couple of million pounds" of Fluff sold at this time of year, says Donald Durkee, company president and son of one of the founders. The rest goes into candymaking, particularly the fudgy kind, which heats up during the holidays.

The Lynn, Mass., company, which has been around since 1917, is still a small operation with only 21 full-time employees; Durkee says they sometimes have trouble keeping up with the demand.

That the company is so old is sort of surprising, especially since Fluff seems like it is a totally artificial and purely modern foodstuff. (Marshmallow Fluff turns out to be perfectly natural, by the way. Look at the ingredient list: corn syrup, sugar, dried egg white and vanilla flavoring. No scary ingredients. Just food as God intended it to be eaten.)

But marshmallow creams and spreads have been used by cooks since at least the beginning of the last century.

Jan Longone, director of the Wine & Food Library in Ann Arbor, Mich., keeps what she calls "culinary ephemera," which includes old-time food advertisements, inserts and recipe books from manufacturers. In her stash are pamphlets that date to 1920 with marshmallow cream recipes, some originating from leading chefs of the day.

Some contemporaries of Fluff back then included Marshmallow Whip, whose booklet, in its second printing in 1920, features a picture of a woman holding a cake frosted with marshmallow cream. Suggestions for using the product include blancmange, apple roly-poly and "Mother's prune pudding."

The Marshmallow Whip company, based in Philadelphia, touted the Whip as being good for desserts "in any single instance where whipped cream could be used with just as good results. If any one knows of an exception to this rule we should be glad to hear of it."

Campfire Marshmallow Spread, out of Chicago, offered recipes from chefs including those at the Palmer House and the Lake Shore Drive Hotel. The Boston-based Cloverdale brand offered recipes for pineapple dandy and marshmallow ice cream in a pre-World War II package insert.

And Durkee-Mower, the Marshmallow Fluff people, had their very own "Yummy Book" of recipes; the 1947 version assures consumers that the product, which "removes easily from the jar, spreads smoothly, has a mild flavor and will not dry or harden," is made in "sanitary, sunny daylight kitchens" at the plant.

These days, only two companies make the marshmallow spread: Durkee-Mower and Kraft, whose Marshmallow Creme may be more familiar to West Coast residents.

Other convenience foods, such as packaged cake frosting and aerosol cans of whipped cream, have since replaced marshmallow spread's versatility in the kitchen. And homemade fudge has been largely nudged aside by baked goods in the gift-giving and bake sale sweepstakes. Marshmallow itself isn't exactly at the top of the candy hall of fame, competing with chocolate bars and caramel chews and one nut thing after another.

But if you had to live with some candy forever--OK, let's say you had to go to your eternal resting place entombed with the stuff--what could be more dreamy than floating on a cloud of Fluff? Makes you drowsy just thinking about it.

You can purchase Marshmallow Fluff by mail order from the Marshmallow Fluff Web site, http://www.marshmallowfluff.com. (You'll need to print out an order form, then mail it in with a check or money-order.) The Baker's Catalogue also sells tubs of Marshmallow Fluff; go to its Web site at http://kingarthurflour.com or call (800) 827-6836.

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