From back when a woman’s place was cooking in her elite private college dorm room.
The word “fudge” has existed in English since the 17th century, meaning either “to make suit” or “go away,” depending on which root you think originated it. Either way, it served many roles. You could offer to fudge a round peg into a square hole; your disbelieving friend could say, “fudge and nonsense” in response; and when you realized you were wrong, you could exclaim, “Oh, fudge!”
(Fudge was also a last name of Anglo-Norman extraction, which served for the mid-19th century joke of the hypothetical Oscar Fudge, a contractor who painted his name on his truck and lost business: O. FUDGE.)
But it wasn’t anything else until sometime in 1886, as far as anyone can tell. In recent posts, we talked about invert sugar and how traditional fudge differs from caramels is that it has small sucrose crystals in it, remember? That’ll come in handy, here.
The exact inventor is unknown and the exact origin is disputed, but what details we have come from Emelyn Battersby Hartridge, Vassar College, Class of 1892. According to Hartridge, in 1886, a classmate’s cousin was making fudge in Baltimore and selling it for 40 cents a pound. In 1888, Hartridge made 30 pounds for the senior auction and sold it at Vassar.
A Vassar dorm room c. 1878. Notice the desktop gas lamp fed by a hose from the ceiling; that’s the “drop light.” Vassar students would remove the shade and chimney and place a pan directly over the flame to cook fudge. From Vassar College Libraries.
To anyone’s best guess, the likely origin behind Hartridge’s report is that, sometime around Valentine’s Day 1886, a candy-maker was trying to make a batch of caramels. To make caramels (as we learned in our Cream Candy post), the sugar must not re-crystallize. Unfortunately, this particular batch of caramels started to form small, barely perceptible crystals at the very end. Instead of being chewy, it was stiff but yielding, dissolving on the tongue.
You can easily imagine the reaction of the candy-maker: “Oh, fudge!” And fudge was born. But equally important is how fudge was popularized. As mentioned before, Hartridge made 30 pounds for a school event in 1888, and it caught on quickly.
Soon, it was a tradition at Vassar for students to make fudge in their dorm rooms, which presented certain practical difficulties. On February 24, 1894, Vassar student Adelaide Mansfield wrote to her father to wish him a happy birthday and explain the effort that went into the gift she’d sent him:
[…] birthday present: For I sent by express today, some “Vassar Fudges.” I made them all myself–the first time I have made any all alone. Ray wanted to make a box ot put them in, so I was glad to let her. She worked at the box while I stirred the fudge, and then we both made the flowers. We can’t make fudges in the day time because the gas is turned off. And there was such an interesting lecture last night that we did not want to miss it, so we made it after the lecture was over, when all was still. We don’t borrow stoves any more, but cook it on the drop light after taking off the shade and chimney. To be sure it makes ever so much soot on the bottom of the saucepan and consequently it takes about half an hour to wash the saucepan, but never mind. I don’t know how fudges taste when they are two or three days old, as I have never eaten any that were more than two hours old.
News of the confection soon traveled. A report made it into the April 8, 1895 edition of The (Brownsville, Texas) Daily Herald–impressive, given that Vassar is in Poughkeepsie, New York:
Almost every night at Vassar some girl may be found somewhere who is making “fudges” or giving a “fudge party.” “Fudges” are Vassar chocolates. They are the most delicious edible ever concocted either in or out of school. Nobody knows just when and how they first originated, but they are now just as much a part of the college curriculum as logarithms and Latin. The recipe is handed down year after year from old students to new. The Vassar girl who has never tasted a fudge is considered of far less account than the girl who has been merely conditioned in all her studies. For the benefit of non-Vassarites and all unfortunates as yet uninitiated into the mystery of “fudgemaking,” the following recipe is appended:
Two cups of sugar, one cup of milk, one-quarter of bar of chocolate, a piece of butter one-half the size of an egg, and a teaspoonful of vanilla extract. The mixture is cooked until it begins to grain, when it is taken from the fire, stirred briskly, turned into a buttered tin and cut into squares. The fudge may be served either cold or hot, as preferred, and, although delicious anywhere, is especially so when made at college over a gas lamp in your own room.
Of course, like anything delicious, fudge had some rather Victorian opponents who felt it was a vice. Remember, after all, that a generation earlier, it was thought women needed bland food that wouldn’t upset their frail composition. Consider the words of Katharine Foster, teacher at Pelton Preparatory School, to her former pupil Mary Brown, then matriculating at Vassar, on April 12, 1897 (this from a retyped collection):
Since I prepared you for college, I felt justified in looking up your record at the President’s office; but, Mary, child, I fear you are being beguiled into too much frivoloity, for your marks showed some sad deficiencies. You students do altogether too much eating. One piece of fudge now and then is all very well, but this constant cooking is carrying you beyond the bounds of prudence. I hear a report at which I am much scandalized, and which I hope you will refute when next you write. Do the girls actually abstract milk and butter from the pantry for the purpose of making fudges? Can it be that the Vassar girl has fallen so low? In my day we ate our good wholesome mutton-stew without a thought of such proceedings, destructive alike to physical and moral welfare.
Forgive me for being so frank, but believe that these criticisms are from one deeply interested in the welfare of the college, who signs herself,
Your affectionate teacher,
From there, the fudge moved to other of Seven Sisters schools, and each school started to make its own variety. An early example of one variety (compared to the original Vasser Fudge) is in 1903’s The First Reformed Church Cook Book by the Ladies Aid Society of the Schenectady, New York First Reformed Church:
Vassar Fudge. — One cup sugar, one-half cup milk, one square chocolate, pinch of salt, add walnut meats broken in pieces if liked. Boil twenty minutes; add butter size of English walnut, one-quarter teaspoonful vanilla. Beat until it begins to thicken.
Smith College Fudge — Melt one-quarter cup butter, mix together in separate dish one cup white sugar, one cup brown sugar, one-quarter cup molasses, one-half cup cream. Add this to the butter and after it has been brought to a boil continue boiling for two and one-half minutes, stirring rapidly. Add two squares Baker’s chocolate scraped fine. Boil this five minutes, stirring rapidly at first and then more slowly. After it has been taken from the fire add one and one-half teaspoonfuls Burnett’s flavoring extract of vanilla, then stir constantly until the mass thickens. Pour in buttered pans and set in a cool place.
Soon after fudge started to be popularized, someone had the bright idea to include marshmallows. The most difficult part in making traditional fudge is knowing exactly when to stop cooking it. Overcook it and you make caramel; undercook it and the crystals will be too large and you’ll end up with something brittle and crunchy. The correct crystal size is essential to forming the creamy texture.
But if you include something else to form the structure–say, marshmallows, which also inhibit crystallization–you have a much bigger window of time where the product will form a fudge-like consistency. As much as you may think those are a convenience food invention of the 1960s, recipes for marshmallow fudge go back to the early 20th century, including the Wellesley College iteration, back when fudge was still something you made over gaslights in your dorm room.
From the box of A.D. from Lutz, Florida, by way of Pennsylvania in the 1940s, and originating in Ohio in the 1920s.
1 Tbsp. Snowdrift [shortening]
2 cups sugar
2 oz. squares chocolate
1/2 cup milk
1/8 tsp. cream of tartar
few grains of salt
1/2 tsp. vanilla
Stir until mixture is dissolved.
Boil until it forms a soft ball.