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The Confusing Origin Story Of Brownies

Homemade brownies on a cooling rack
Homemade brownies on a cooling rack - Fcafotodigital/Getty Images

When you're making fudgy brownies at home, chances are you're focusing on whether to add an extra egg to the box mix (or maybe swap in mayo) or about how many excruciating minutes are left on the oven timer, not about where brownies came from in the first place. The story is more confusing than sweet.

It's widely agreed upon that the treat was created in the United States. According to some culinary historians, the first brownie can be credited to wealthy Chicago socialite Bertha Palmer. Per the lore, Palmer had just married her husband Potter Palmer, who gifted her The Palmer House Hotel as a wedding present. Now, Mrs. Palmer was a businesswoman with an exciting opportunity — the 1893 World's Fair, as well as the fashionable crowd it attracted, was on its way to Chicago.

The story goes that Bertha asked the hotel's pastry chef to create a small pastry that could be easily packed in boxed lunches for the ladies who came to visit the Fair. Other sources say those lunch boxes were intended for the "women's board" of the Fair, not the visitors. Alas, the pastry chef's name seems lost to history. But, either way, we have Palmer's hostess sensibilities and an anonymous pastry chef to thank for one of our most beloved chocolatey treats. The first proto-brownie was a dense, fudgy square covered in walnuts and jammy vanilla apricot glaze – and thanks to its uniqueness, the dessert caught on quickly.

Read more: 30 Types Of Cake, Explained

20th Century Foodies Knew A Good Thing When They Saw It

Stack of homemade brownies on a platter
Stack of homemade brownies on a platter - this_baker/Shutterstock

It wasn't long before other bakers caught wind and started making their own versions. In 1896, a brownie-adjacent recipe for molasses cakes baked in individual pans appeared in the "Boston Cooking School Cookbook" (a long way to go from the fudgy beauties fans know today, but everybody has to start somewhere). Then, in 1905, a recipe for "Bangor Brownies" resembling the modern brownie cropped up in the Boston Globe. Also in 1905, Fannie Farmer of cookbook stardom adapted her chocolate cookie recipe to a bar baked in a rectangular sheet pan, cementing the treat's position.

While the Palmer account is the most polished origin story, it certainly isn't the only one. Some historians theorize that the brownie's creation was a less formal confectionery flub, the product of a housewife in Bangor, Maine who tried to make chocolate cake and forgot to add the baking powder, so the cake stayed fudgy and didn't rise (which would explain the "Bangor Brownies" recipe printed in the Globe).

So, when did the name "brownies" enter the picture? That part of the story is less clear. Of course, the color of the treat seems to be the name's inspiration. But, a trio of mischievous, adventure-loving pixie-like characters called "brownies" starred in the 1926 children's book "Enid Blyton's Book of Brownies," which was popular during the period. Their playful name seems like a playful fit for the fun, then-new treat.

Read the original article on Tasting Table.