Photo credit flickr.com/mackinacislandgal
Photo credit flickr.com/mackinacislandgal

In our Michigan Moments: Food series, we’re checking out the history behind iconic Michigan foods and beverages. This is the sixth article of the series. Look for a new one every Wednesday!

MICHIGAN — Midwestern cooking often combines culinary traditions from our families’ immigrant backgrounds, locally grown and produced ingredients, and the foods of Indigenous tribes. And in Michigan especially, our home cookin’ includes provisions that were concocted, bottled, and packaged by mitten-state entrepreneurs. If you’re curious about the history of some of your favorite foods and beverages, read on to discover how Michigan history creates Michigan culture.

Mackinac Island Fudge

Arguably Michigan’s most well-known food, Mackinac Island fudge is so famous, we have a name for the tourists who flock to the island specifically to swarm the fudge shops — fudgies. During tourism season, Mackinac Island handcrafts an average of ten thousand pounds of fudge daily and imports an average of twenty thousand pounds of sugar every week.

Mackinac Island didn’t invent fudge, but it did turn it into a delightful slice of Americana. The sugar candy treat was purportedly invented in the 1880s in Baltimore, Maryland. According to culinary legend, a hapless baker discovered the treat when they “fudged” a batch of caramel. The first written record of fudge’s existence was at a bake sale at Vassar College in 1886.

One year later, in 1887, Sara Murdick and her family arrived at Mackinac Island and would soon kickstart Mackinac’s fudge empire. The men of the Murdick family worked on canvas awnings at the then-new Grand Hotel. At the time, Mackinac Island was a former fur-trading post that was quickly becoming a summer vacation destination. Tourists began to associate the island with sweets (with maple sugar being the most popular at the time), and Murdick’s Candy Kitchen opened to meet the demand.

Using his mother Sara’s recipes, Rome Murdick was the first person on Mackinac Island to make fudge on marble slabs, which also created an entertaining show for customers. The art of fudge-making soon became competitive, as spectators watched as Rome and his competitors delicately balanced and shaped cooling fudge on the marble slabs. 

The industry survived the sugar rationing of the Great Depression, and by the 1960s, fudge tourism was in full swing. The economic boom following World War II made it easier than ever before for Americans to get on the highway and drive “up north,” and fudge shops started experimenting with flavors that would surprise their visitors. 

Today, Mackinac Island boasts 13 different fudge shops. And while Murdick’s was the island’s first, it’s a topic of fierce debate and loyalty about which shop is the best. If you’re thinking of weighing in, a proper taste test is a great reason to ferry on over.

Visit the Mackinac Island official website for more information about its fudge shops.