My Grandma Made the Worst Sandwiches: A Personal History of the Fluffernutter
Fluffernutter is New England's favorite idiosyncratic sandwich. It's also a window into a lifetime of memories.
Nostalgia has a way of coloring your memories, favorably tilting the scales until you reposition the past as a colorful anecdote tied up with a bow in the form of a lesson. So I want to be careful when I tell you about the things my grandmother, Lorraine Tuller, was good at. She was good at smoking unfiltered Chesterfield cigarettes while watching Murder She Wrote and Loveboat and The Thornbirds. She was good at drinking Canadian Club whisky on the rocks and talking about how handsome Ted Williams was, or how Senator Edward Brooke once asked her to dance. She was good at making Key lime pies and candied yams and caramel popcorn balls and throwing plates at my grandfather and letting us stay up way past our bedtimes. But god bless her soul, my grandmother was not good at making Fluffernutter sandwiches.
The Fluffernutter is a New England tradition, a prized piece of the Northeast’s regional kitchen diorama. The quick history of the sandwich goes something like this: in the 19th century, pharmacists in France created a throat remedy that consisted of a marshmallow cream, but the first real successful commercial product in the USA came from Amory and Emma Curtis of Melrose, Massachusetts. Descendants of Revolutionary War all-star Paul Revere, the Curtis family used to market their Snowflake Marshmallow Creme with peanut butter on bread during World War I as the “Liberty Sandwich” (a Mental Floss article notes that this wasn’t even the first pre-Fluffernutter, as the very sexy sounding trade journal Candy and Ice Cream put out a similar recipe in 1915).
Though the Curtis family had the name recognition and a catchy sandwich name, in the marshmallow cream game, they were merely the Nikola Tesla to Archibald Query’s Thomas Edison. Query, a French Canadian immigrant originally from Quebec, hawked his Marshmallow Fluff product out of his home on Springfield Street in Somerville, Massachusetts starting in 1917 before selling it for $500 to Durkee-Mower, a candy manufacturer started by two enterprising World War I vets from Swampscott, Massachusetts. Originally calling it "Toot Sweet Marshmallow Fluff," they thankfully shortened the name, and by the '30s had begun advertising the product (knocking out competitors like Snowflake in the process) with a radio show featuring “The Flufferettes” and, as Paste Magazine recounts, “a fictional Boston Brahmin scholar named Lowell Cabot presenting fractured tales from American history."
In the '50s and '60s, as the post-World War II era suburban boom begged for more quick and easy (long lasting) lunch options, they expanded their scope (if you want really want to dig into this, I highly recommend Mimi Graney's 2017 book Fluff: The Sticky Sweet Story of an American Icon), made a damn catchy jingle (listen to it here), and the Fluffernutter sandwich reached a national audience.
My grandmother was born in 1920 in Newark, New Jersey. She moved to Springfield, Massachusetts in 1935 and attended Classical High School with my grandfather, Ray Tuller. They met ice skating on Porter Lake and got married in 1942 before my grandfather shipped off to Europe for World War II. After the war, they bought a house on Chalmers Street in Springfield and had three kids (my mother being the middle one). My grandfather ran his family's cold food storage in downtown Springfield, unsuccessfully ran for mayor, and then later operated one of the city's ice skating rinks. My grandmother taught reading and special education at Putnam Vocational High School and volunteered at the House of the Good Shepherd and Western Maternity Hospital.
Often during the summer, my sister and I and our cousins would stay at their house for a few weeks so we could attend the skating camps (for free!) at the rink my grandfather ran. Despite a low income and no clear savings (my grandfather used to joke that the only thing we'd inherit when he died was his debts), my grandparents enjoyed eating dinner out, so we'd go to the Fort (aka The Student Prince) for schnitzel, Ruprecht's bratwurst, and fried camembert cheese; The White Hut for cheeseburgs with fried onions; The Monte Cristo for red-sauce Italian and conversations with my grandfather's bookie; or Red Rose Pizzeria for one of their house-recipe oval pies.
But lunches were a wild card, and the card my grandmother usually ended up playing was the Fluffernutter. Like most of her tendencies, her sandwich-making style was unconventional. Though they often had standard-issue Pepperidge Farm white bread around the house, she considered that the fancy bread to be too nice to be used for a kids' daytime meal. Fluffernutters were on Wonder Bread. She also rejected the use of a knife to spread both the peanut butter and the Fluff, so you'd end up with two large spoonfuls in the middle of the bread. Once ladled on, the brown-and-white blob would not cross the picket line to the other side of the bread, even when my grandmother attempted to force the issue by pushing the other slice down. When all was said and done, you ended up with an extremely middle-heavy sandwich, nearly impossible to bite into without copious liquids to wash it down. Even now, 30 years later, when I texted my older sister Kathryn to ask if she had any memories of the Fluffernutters grandma used to make, she responded immediately:
"They were soggy because she used basic Wonder bread. And too much peanut butter. And too much Fluff."
The next text came after a pause, as my sister's tub of nostalgia clearly started to fill.
"But we still enjoyed them!"
Nowadays, as the only thing most trendy diets seem to agree on is that sugar is the scourge of our society, the Fluffernutter has retreated back into more of a regional curiosity than a national lunch staple. When I called a local New England grocery chain to see if there is some number on Marshmallow Fluff sales, there was a pause, then a laugh. "I'm not sure I can get that," the woman on the line said. "I don't think we sell too much of that anymore."
The product itself, which is still produced by Durkee-Mower in Massachusetts, turned into a political fight in 2006, when State Senator Jarrett T. Barrios, incensed when his son asked for a Fluffernutter at home after eating one at school, proposed an amendment to a school nutrition bill limiting the number of Fluffernutters that could be served each week at Massachusetts schools. This shot across the bow fired up the Mass legislature, and was countered by State Representative Kathi-Anne Reinstein of Revere, who went over the top and put forth a bill to make the Fluffernutter the official sandwich of Massachusetts. In the end, a truce was called, and Barrios and Reinstein both dropped their proposals, but the press, normally bored to tears covering the goings on in the Statehouse, delighted in the week long fight, titling it "FluffGate."
Unlike most modern products, Marshmallow Fluff has not iterated into a whole rainbow of flavors aimed at micro-niche consumers. In fact, the only other flavor available is Strawberry (a third flavor, Raspberry, was discontinued in 2015, and the butterfat in chocolate makes it a non-starter). It still comes in the jar with the same image from the 1960s (drawn by an artist who worked on the original GI Joe packaging!) and the iconic red top. And a six pack of 16oz jars is currently available for me to purchase from some company called Since 1901 (orders fulfilled by Amazon, of course) for the price of $26.68. According to Amazon, it is currently the 92,336th most popular food product in their Grocery & Gourmet Food category, and #132 in Marshmallows. It is not, as they say, trending upward.
My grandmother died on Christmas Day, 2007. You could say that the years of smoking Chesterfield unfiltered cigarettes and drinking whisky caught up with her, but I might argue the opposite -- by the time it got her she was 87 and rarely went to the doctor. She'd let it catch up.
My grandmother waited until her family - having come from Boston, Florida, Ohio and everywhere else -- had surrounded her, and then she passed. Whether or not you believe in a higher power is immaterial when you witness a person hold on to something fiercely, and once they have it, finally feel ready to let go.
In her honor, my sister and cousins and everyone else raised a glass of Canadian Club on rocks and did what we do when honoring the dead: talked about her foibles and idiosyncrasies. We joked about her tendency to meet any talk of sickness with a better, more debilitating sickness ("if you said you had a cold, she had the flu. If you had the flu, she had pneumonia. If you had pneumonia, she said she was dead," my grandfather used to joke). We talked about her love of big-band music and playing the penny slots, the way she could respond to my grandfather with bitingly funny retorts in her unmistakable low voice, pebbled by years of smoking and drinking.
There was talk of finding a pack of Chesterfield cigarettes or eating the full-size candy bars she kept in her drawer. No one mentioned Fluffernutters. But around midnight, as I grew hungry, I found myself milling about the kitchen and, for whatever reason, I decided I needed to make one of those damn sandwiches. I found the Fluff, and the peanut butter, and saw a leftover half-loaf of bread from an Italian dinner we’d had earlier. The bread inside was fresh baked and dense and would be delicious slightly toasted and spread with peanut butter and Fluff. But that wasn't my purpose. I pushed it aside and found the Wonder Bread, took out a spoon and, in my grandmother's style, shoveled three helpings onto the middle of the bread, which sagged like an overweighted trampoline.
I smooshed it together and took a bite.
It was gloppy and soggy and almost uneatable. It was perfect.