How a Klutzy Chef Created a Cult Confection

How a Klutzy Chef Created a Cult Confection
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Why you should care

Because sometimes it pays to be a klutz.

Oh, fudge! Utter those words and you might be either quaintly expressing frustration at your latest oops, or recommending a delicious confection. That fudge can be used to refer to a goof is, as it happens, no mistake. The sweet treat actually owes its very existence to the klutziness of an anonymous chef.

“It was likely a batch of caramels that didn’t turn out quite right,” says Mark Wurzel, president of Calico Cottage, which sells fudge-making equipment to retailers worldwide. There is debate about the exact nature of this error. It’s possible a careless baker inverted the amount of sugar and cream in the recipe, or forgot to add an essential ingredient. One thing all experts can agree on: The mistake was a delicious one.

Good things often come from accidents.

Mark Wurzel, president, Calico Cottage

“Good things often come from accidents,” concedes Wurzel.

Fudge has a long history of courting mishaps. It’s a wonder more fires weren’t started in the first years after the candy’s invention. The first known written version of a fudge recipe appeared in an 1888 letter from Vassar student Emelyn Battersby Hartridge. Fudge-making quickly became a nightly event, with treats passed around the dorms. At the turn of the 19th century, scores of young women at Vassar College in upstate New York were whipped into a frenzy over the substance, happy to ignore their studies and ruin their health in pursuit of the sweet stuff (one student even penned a clever ditty titled “A Song of the Fudge Pan”). Worse still, they became so hooked on the treat that they stood on rickety chairs close to the open flame of the gas lamps to transform a mixture of sugar, milk, butter, vanilla and a bit of cocoa into a delectable pan of fudge.

Even if these collegiate cooks did manage to avoid setting their dorm rooms on fire, there’s little doubt their clothes were the worse for wear. Wurzel admits that an accidental flick of the spatula means “fudge gets flung all over the counter and nearby walls!” Sadly, getting the stains out would not have been a simple affair for the fudge-addicted college girls: Clorox wouldn’t make its debut in the retail market until 1923 — and now there’s even Clorox Splash-Less Bleach, a true boon to klutzes all over the world.

Shortly after becoming a dorm room sensation, fudge became an inescapable part of vacation spots, from the Jersey Shore to California beach towns, and especially on Michigan’s Mackinac Island, where tourists are referred to as “Fudgies.” In the days before air-conditioning, confectioners were happy to make the switch from making chocolate, since regular chocolate becomes grainy in summer heat, while fudge can withstand soaring temperatures.

Fudge also provided good family entertainment (remember, this was before the days of Netflix). Murdick’s Candy Kitchen was the first sweetshop to open on Mackinac Island, in 1889, and soon, customers were flocking to the store to watch workers pour a vat of molten candy onto a marble table, stir it with long-handled paddles, occasionally letting the rapidly cooling fudge come close to dripping off the table — causing audible gasps to rise from the crowd — and then cut the fudge into still-warm slices. It’s a tradition that continues today at the seven fudge shops on the island.

“It creates a sense of drama,” says Phil Porter, author of Fudge: Mackinac’s Sweet Souvenir. “People want to buy the candy they just watched being made. It’s like Pavlov’s dogs,” a reaction no doubt helped along by the fans that pump the fudge’s aroma onto the street. And as fudge gained in popularity, so too have the accompanying stains — which, Wurzel says, are an occupational hazard (and likely a hazard for aficionados as well).

“It’s common to get cocoa powder and other ingredients splashed onto a white uniform,” he says, adding that when fudge is done cooking but before it has hardened, it can easily splatter onto clothing as well. Fortunately, Wurzel says, no item of clothing has been beyond saving.

“Clorox gets the stains right out,” he says.

Like fudge’s mysterious inventor, Wurzel admits to having had his own mishaps in the kitchen. It’s not uncommon to drop ingredients in the fudge — something he’s turned to his advantage with the creation of “kitchen-sink fudge,” which he made by mixing leftover flavors together.

“It has an odd color and tons of add-in items, but the name sells it!” he says.

The fudge business continues to thrive, and people can indulge — for better or worse — 365 days a year, not just when they’re on vacation. “What’s the happiest time of year?” asks Wurzel. “It’s summer vacation, when time, money and calories don’t count. With a single piece of fudge, you can re-create your summer vacation for a few minutes, even in the middle of winter.”

And that’s a happy accident indeed.