One bite of a delicious, warm, gooey, chocolate-y brownie fresh from the oven is enough to send most people to food heaven; but where did brownies come from, and who do we have to thank for one of the most delicious indulgences on the dessert menu?
The answer isn’t a very simple one; like any type of food, tracing the culinary history of the brownie is quite complicated. For example, some believe that a chef invented brownies accidentally when he made biscuits and added melted chocolate, or tried to make a chocolate cake but ran out of flour. Others trace it back to Bangor, Maine where a housewife left the baking powder of her chocolate cake. Most of the compelling evidence, though, leads to the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago, where the cooks crafted the first-ever brownies for 1893’s World Columbian Exposition.
Bertha Palmer, the hotel owner’s wife, was asked to create a special, unique dessert to include in boxed lunches that would be given out at the Women’s Pavilion – Palmer passed the task on to the hotel’s dessert and pastry cooks. She asked for a dessert that could be eaten with one hand without causing a mess and that was smaller than a slice of cake so it could fit into the boxed lunches. The result wasn’t too far off from the brownies we enjoy today, and included twice the amount of chocolate as well as an apricot glaze and walnuts.
However, brownies weren’t called brownies until after their debut at the Palmer House Hotel. The first time a recipe for brownies was published was in 1896, when a cookie recipe adapted for rectangular pans by Fanny Farmer was included in The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook. However, that recipe wasn’t at all like the brownies we know today, and included no chocolate: it was more like a blondie than a brownie. Later on in the 1890s, brownies were included in two advertisements from Sears and Roebuck and the Kansas City Journal. Sears and Roebuck included brownies in their 1897 catalogue, but it’s uncertain whether the brownies advertised were chocolate-based or molasses-based. The Kansas City Journal advertisement appeared in 1898 and were definitely chocolate-based, making this the first known usage of the term brownie as we know it.
The first time a recipe for modern chocolate brownies was published was in Machias Cookbook, a regional cookbook that collected recipes from the Main community in 1899. The recipe was labelled “Brownie’s Food” and includes all the major brownie ingredients, from chocolate to baking soda. In 1904, the brownie recipe made a second appearance in a cookbook published by The Club of Chicago under the label “Bangor Brownies”. A third appearance in 1906 in Fanny Farmer’s revised cookbook included the original “brownie” recipe as well as the chocolate version beloved today. It wasn’t long after this that brownies really hit their stride and became known all around the word!