BOSTON — The Fluff war of 2006 began innocently enough, when 8-year-old Nathaniel Barrios asked one of his daddies to make him a Fluffernutter, his new favorite sandwich from school.
State Sen. Jarrett T. Barrios was indignant. He and his partner run a healthy household. Since when was one of their two sons eating peanut butter and Marshmallow Fluff?
When the Democratic legislator filed a measure to limit the amount of marshmallow spread that Massachusetts schools can serve at lunch, the Fluff flap broke out in full force.
The sugary spread known as Fluff is a native product, born nearly a century ago in the kitchen of Archibald Query in Somerville, a town in Barrios' district.
State Rep. Kathi-Anne Reinstein, also a Democrat, was one of two legislators who instantly retaliated with bills to make the Fluffernutter the official state sandwich.
"We have a state doughnut," Reinstein reasoned, tongue firmly in cheek. "The commonwealth has an official soil. There is a state shell and a state beverage. We have a state muffin, a state dessert, a state cookie, an official state children's book, a state polka song, a state ceremonial march -- why not make the Fluffernutter the official state sandwich?"
A message board on the Boston Globe website nearly burst its cyberseams as Fluff fans recalled their childhood affection for a substance that looks remarkably like Styrofoam. Others assailed Barrios for his legislative priorities.
"Saugus' sewer system is falling apart, Everett's school system is corrupt, and THIS is what he chooses to speak out about!" railed a poster going by the moniker "sanitycheck."
At the Fluff factory in Lynn, north of Boston, the president of the 86-year-old company sloughed off Barrios' charge that his product lacked nutritional value.
"It's not marketed as a health food," Don Durkee noted.
Fluff has about the same caloric value as jam or jelly, Durkee said, and no one in the Legislature is picking on those American sandwich staples. Moreover, Fluff has no fat or cholesterol, "and almost immeasurable sodium," Durkee pointed out.
"Peanut butter," he said, "offsets the things we don't have, by adding protein."
H. Allen Durkee, Don's father, and friend Fred L. Mower paid $500 for the Fluff recipe in 1920 and began marketing the concoction door-to-door. The history section on the company website describes how the entrepreneurs had to cut back production during World War II, when sugar rations were low.
After the war, Fluff flourished. The two business partners and staffers, called Flufferettes, redesigned the packaging to introduce the familiar jar that sits on grocery shelves today.
Don Durkee took over after his father died. The privately held company has 21 employees and makes about 7 million pounds of Fluff annually. Durkee would not discuss Fluff finances.
He said he did not know how many schools in Massachusetts or anywhere else served Fluff as a peanut butter accompaniment. Many schools have banned peanut butter, he said, because some children -- including his own grandson -- suffer nut allergies.
Durkee said that at one point, he wrapped his product with a "FlufferLunch" label, showing how whole-wheat Fluffernutter sandwiches could be served alongside an apple, some carrot slices and a glass of milk.
"We gave it nutritional value as a respectable lunch," said Durkee. At 81, the chief Flufferette said he still dipped into a jar of the marshmallow cream from time to time.
The sandwich is such an institution that every Oct. 8, people celebrate National Fluffernutter Day, Durkee said. And until Barrios' assault on Fluff, he said, the worst publicity the company had encountered was when former First Lady Barbara Bush wrote in a memoir that she had eaten an entire jar of Fluff in one sitting. Mrs. Bush, said Durkee, did not feel well afterward.
Another first lady, Mamie Eisenhower, recommended using a pint of marshmallow cream (i.e., Fluff) in her chocolate fudge recipe, said food historian Barbara Haber, a former curator at Radcliffe Institute's Schlesinger Library.
Haber said Barrios probably did not realize what he had taken on when he faulted Fluff.
"Everybody hates the food police," she said. "And there is built-in resistance when it involves any food that involves comfort -- that they love and they connect childhood."
For her part, Reinstein said she broke into a "delirium laugh" when she heard that her otherwise reasonable colleague was firing on Fluff.
"With all the things going on in the world, it is totally insane that we are having this discussion about Fluff," Reinstein said. "The Legislature has done all these incredible things. We passed universal healthcare. We passed fire-safe cigarettes. And now we're going to take Fluff down? I just don't get it."
On Wednesday, Barrios left town on a business trip that aide Colin Durrant said was long-planned. Durrant said Barrios drafted his amendment not to bury Fluff but to generate discussion about what constitutes a nutritious school meal.
The pro- and anti-Fluff bills take their place on a legislative calendar that is already backed up in a session that expires July 31, Durrant said. So it remains to be seen how or even whether the state's lawmakers will weigh in on Fluff.
Barrios is lean and health-conscious, his aide said. The senator is an avid salsa dancer and has won awards as the state's best-dressed legislator.
And guess what? said Durrant: "He's got Fluff in his kitchen, too."