Marshmallow Fluff, that gooey and spreadable New England delight, has been a family business since his father starting peddling the treat door-to-door in 1920. Scores of school children across the Northeast grew up on Fluffernutter sandwiches – peanut butter and a layer of mushy marshmallow goodness on bread.

Now, in its home state of Massachusetts, Fluff has come under fire. A state senator is pushing to limit its availability in school lunchrooms to once a week, horrified at the prospect of it being a daily staple of kids’ diets. Another lawmaker jumped to Fluff’s defense, nominating the Fluffernutter as the official state sandwich.

The kerfuffle over Fluff has stirred passions in generations of New Englanders who recall fond childhood memories of eating the stuff, while others question its value in an increasingly obese world. In some corners of the Northeast, Fluffernutter are held in almost the same esteem as lobsters and the Boston Red Sox.

No such debates take place inside the Durkee-Mower Inc. headquarters in Lynn, an industrial city about 10 miles north of Boston, where Durkee and his 20 employees churn out the gooey stuff by the ton.

It is the only product made by the company, which was founded by his father and now is on the brink of selling 7 million pounds of Fluff this year for the first time in its history.

Durkee isn’t one for the spotlight. He’s content to make Fluff and nothing else, and has resisted hundreds of calls from reporters since the controversy broke out.

“Like most people, I think it is a little frivolous to bring it to the attention of our governing bodies,” Durkee said during a recent interview with The Associated Press as he sat in his wood-paneled office and fidgeted with his reading glasses. “I think obesity is a problem, but I don’t think it can be legislated.”

With wispy gray hair, he leaned back and spoke in measured tones as he picked at the ripped fabric on the arm of his desk chair. On a wall hangs a faded photograph of two members of the 1980 U.S. Ski Team, which the company sponsored. Two cross-country skiers – Durkee can’t quite remember their names – smile next to a 16-oz. jug of Fluff.

Fluff has always been just four ingredients: corn syrup, sugar, dried egg white and vanilla.

The corn syrup and sugar are cooked and poured into 13 mixing bowls that stand six feet tall. One person measures the egg whites and vanilla for every batch by hand.

“I can’t tell you how long we whip it for,” Durkee said without smiling. “That’s about the only part of the trade secret. You could almost invent it by accident.”

Fluff was invented by in the Somerville kitchen of Archibald Query, who sold it door-to-door just before World War I.

In 1920, two Infantry veterans of the war – H. Allen Durkee and Fred L. Mower – bought the recipe from Query for $500. With a barrel of sugar and a secondhand Ford, the pair began driving around looking for customers. Back then, a gallon of the stuff sold for about $1; these days, a 16-oz. jar goes for a little over $2.

While most other companies start with one product and then branch out, Durkee-Mower has only made one thing: Fluff. About as diverse as it has gotten is making different versions of the gooey substance, such as raspberry and strawberry flavored versions.

“While it looks like it’s old-fashioned, they are not so dumb,” said Roberta Clarke, a marketing professor at Boston University. “There is no other word for Fluff. They own the category.”

Durkee-Mower does have some competition in the spreadable marshmallow racket, including Kraft Food Inc., which makes Jet-Puffed Marshmallow Creme. Kraft would not disclose sales figures or poundage.

No one questions the allure of Fluff, at least in its home state.

Even state Sen. Jarrett Barrios, D-Cambridge – the lawmaker who proposed limiting schools to serving Fluffernutter sandwiches to once a week as the main meal served in the cafeteria – says he has the stuff at home.

“He loves Fluff as much as the next legislator,” said Barrios aide Colin Durrant. Barrios later backed off the proposal.

But the proposal has stirred passions as it sparked childhood memories of the comfort food.

State Rep. Kathi-Anne Reinstein, D-Revere, fired off an e-mail announcing her own legislation designating the Fluffernutter the “official sandwich of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

“I believe we need to preserve the legacy of this local delicacy,” Reinstein wrote in the letter to fellow lawmakers.

“I’m going to fight to the death for Fluff,” Reinstein later said. “It’s out of control. It’s ridiculous that with all the things going on in the state and in the world, we’re having this conversation. It’s insane.”

Durkee took over the business from his father, and his own son, Jonathan Durkee, 42, is a current vice president and treasurer.

Durkee-Mower doesn’t have any of its own distribution trucks, and its advertising budget is “peanuts,” Durkee said.

What’s the secret?

“Long ago we decided rather than come up with new products, we decided to come up for new uses with this product,” Durkee said.

The privately held company says it can be used in fruit salads, cheesecakes, lemon meringue pies, fruit flavored shakes and desert bars. Dollops of Fluff can go in hot chocolate or be used as the base for cake frosting. The Yummy Book, a Fluff cookbook, includes recipes for Sweet Potato Souffle, Never Fail Fudge and Popcorn Fluff Puffs.

“It makes great Whoopie Pies,” Durkee added, nodding his head.

Over 50 percent of the Fluff sold is in New England and upstate New York, said Durkee, who wouldn’t disclose exact figures. However, as Northeasterners move west and south – and supermarket chains merge – Fluff has followed.

Annual sales are rising about 3 percent a year, Durkee said. He hasn’t tallied the latest figures, but he is pretty sure the company hit the 7 million pound mark for this fiscal year.

But Durkee isn’t really concerned about records.

“Fluff has gone through so many generations – parents, children – so many people grew up on it,” Durkee said with a grin. “It’s convenient. And kids like it.”



On the Net:

Fluff: www.marshmallowfluff.com


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