Quick History of Brownies, a True American Invention

No, brownies were not invented, so far as we know, by a Bangor housewife in a kitchen in Maine. Despite its populist outreach, the humble brownie actually has aristocratic origins. The invention in the late 1880s of a nameless chef at Chicago’s Palmer House, its creation was requested by restaurant co-owner, writer and socialite, Bertha HonorĀ© Palmer. The brownie was designed to give Chicago fair attending ladies a sweet snack, at Bertha’s directive, “smaller than a piece of cake, though still retaining cake-like characteristics and easily eaten from boxed lunches.” The original brownie featured an apricot glaze and walnuts. It is still on the menu at Chicago’s Palmer House.
The most widespread myth, that brownies originated in the Bangor kitchen of one Mildred “Brownie” Schrumpf has been largely discredited, in that Mrs. Schrumpf wasn’t born until 1903.
Brownies have since become popular across North America. In the last ten years, they have made headway onto international menus as well. Though there is thought to be no association, there is a similar Swedish confection called kladdkaka. The term “brownie” was formerly associated, in English, with a small molasses cake. Its rendering in chocolate would only come with Bertha’s inspiration.
The first known true chocolate brownie recipe in a cookbook was published in the Service Club of Chicago’s 1904 publication, followed shortly by Eleanor Quimby’s Home Cookery. The recipes, which were very similar, resulted in a less chocolatey, cake-like brownie. A fudgier brownie recipe, the Bangor Brownie, which added more chocolate, was published in 1907. The war between the cakies and fudgies thus ensued.
Brownies have since been modified with chocolate chips, walnuts, other kinds of nuts, coconut, cheesecake, caramel, butterscotch, fruit and even black beans. Brownies are sometimes topped with frosting of various types and often with powdered sugar. A non-chocolate variety of brownie was called a “blondie” and it has also become a staple of bakery fare.
Brownies are in the top ten of favorite bakery treats in the US. They rank higher than many forms of pastry. There are over-the-counter prepackaged brownies, brownie mixes and even brownie-flavored ice cream. They are easy and quick to make, simple and neat to eat, and comparatively economical to concoct. They have become so popular, the date of December 8th is designated as National Brownie Day.
From their not-so-humble beginnings to the present day, brownies have gone places. They have actually been to outer space, since they are easy to eat and pack a good, compact carbohydrate load. Given their popularity, they will also doubtless be with us into the distant future.