Who Invented the Brownie?

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The other day, I was eating a brownie. A really good brownie. And I thought to myself, “Who invented this? I would like to kiss that person.” So I decided to do some research.

The invention of culinary dishes can be complicated, and the brownie is no exception. Some myths state that a chef accidentally added melted chocolate to some biscuits, or was making cake but didn’t have enough flour; still others say that a housewife in Bangor, Maine, forgot to add baking powder to her chocolate cake. But most evidence points to one source: Chefs at Chicago’s Palmer House Hotel, who created the tasty treat for the World Columbian Exposition of 1893.

The origin story goes like this: Bertha Palmer, the wife of Palmer hotel owner Potter Palmer, was president of the Ladies Board for Managers for Exposition. When organizers of the event asked her to create a dessert especially for the boxed lunches at the Women’s Pavilion, Palmer went to her hotel’s pastry chefs and gave them the task of creating a dessert that was easier to eat than a piece of pie and smaller than a layer cake that could easily be served in boxed lunches. The result was a brownie made with double the chocolate normal brownies use, walnuts, and an apricot glaze that’s still made at the hotel to this day (and you can make it for yourself by following this recipe).

But there’s no evidence the Palmer House desserts were called brownies, and just who first dubbed them that isn't clear. The first person to put a recipe for "brownies" in a cookbook was Fanny Farmer, who adapted her cookie recipe to be baked in a rectangular pan, in the 1896 edition of The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook. But: that recipe contained no chocolate! Farmer had basically made what we today call a Blondie. Then, in the late 1890s, two advertisements referring to brownies appeared. The first, in the 1897 Sears and Roebuck catalog, advertised brownies underneath the heading “Fancy Crackers, Discuits [sic], Etc.,” but those treats could have been either chocolate- or molasses-based. The second, from an 1898 issue of the Kansas City Journal, advertised chocolate brownies—the first definitive reference to chocolate and brownies together.

The first known recipe for chocolate brownies—called Brownie's Food—appeared in Machias Cookbook, a Maine community-sourced cookbook, in 1899. The recipe features chocolate, flour, milk, baking soda—all the relevant parts of a brownie. (Oddly, though, the contributor was from Wisconsin, and no one knows how a Wisconsin woman’s recipe found its way into a Maine cookbook.) Then, in 1904, The Club of Chicago published a cookbook with a recipe for Bangor Brownies. (Bangor, like Machias, is a town in Maine; they are about 90 miles apart. So, that's kind of weird!) Finally, in 1906, Farmer published an updated version of her cookbook that included a blondie recipe and a brownie recipe, both called brownies. After that, the recipes started spreading nationally, and eventually, brownies conquered the world!

So just how did brownies come to be called that? Some believe that the treats were named after the traditional mythical sprites popularized by Palmer Cox’s The Brownies: Their Book, published in 1887. But there’s no proof of that, and we'll probably never know for sure.

Additional reporting by Austin Thompson.