Offbeat
2:02 pm
Thu June 13, 2013

Michigan holds the nation's fudge capital - Mackinac Island

This coming Sunday isn’t just Father's Day -- it is also National Fudge Day.

By most accounts, the first batch of fudge was concocted in Baltimore in the 1880s. By the turn of the century, fudge-making arrived on Mackinac Island in northern Michigan, which today has a legitimate claim as the modern day fudge capital.

Tourists pile off ferries and onto Mackinac Island by the thousands every day during the summer. For many, one of the first stops when they arrive or the last stop before they board a ferry back home, is one of the island’s 15 or so fudge shops. 

Island-wide, the favorite is plain, unadulterated chocolate fudge.

Ed Turbin is a fudge-maker at Ryba’s Fudge Shop. 

He explained the fudge-making process.

“We start with the basic ingredients – the sugar and the corn syrup and cream and the chocolate, and we blend those altogether and mix ‘em and cook ‘em in the big copper kettle up to 232 degrees. When it gets to that temperature, we bring it out and we pour it here on the marble slabs into this frame.” 

After the mixture cools a bit, Ed Turbin goes to work, mixing, twisting and flipping the fudge, lifting it into the air and slapping it down. It’s a storefront operation. Tourists stop to watch through the window, or they come into the store.                                                  

...he's not just a fudge-maker - he's a showman.

Turbin explained that he’s not just a fudge-maker – he’s a showman.

“In fact, when no one’s around for me to interact with, it’s kind of a dull job for me just to make fudge," Turbin said. "I know how to make fudge. But if I can do it for people, and they come and they talk and they want a taste. They all ask the same questions, but they don’t know the last person asked the same questions, so it’s all new to them,  so I treat every one of them like it’s the first time.”

The most common questions are:

  • “Do you ever get it on the floor?” (Answer: Never)
  • “Are your arms tired?” (Answer: All the time)
  • and, “How long have you been doing this?” (Answer: 37 years)

Phil Porter is an island resident who wrote a short history of Mackinac’s fudge business.

“What’s unique about Mackinac fudge is the way that it’s made, on the marble slabs, large batches at a time in a very dramatic process,” Porter explained.

According to Porter, candy has been a popular foodie souvenir here since Mackinac Island became a popular tourist destination in the late 1800s.

"Today, we accept candy as an everyday phenomenon. Back then it was a treat. It was a treat that you did on vacation."

“One of the things people did on vacation back then was they liked to enjoy candy. Today, we accept candy as an everyday phenomenon. Back then it was a treat. It was a treat that you did on vacation.”

At first, the mainstay was maple syrup candy in little birchbark canoes. It was a cottage industry for nearby American Indian tribes.

The candy shops expanded their sales over time to include taffy and peanut brittle. But Phil Porter says Mackinac’s confectionary future was in fudge.

By the 1920s, fudge shops lined the streets of Mackinac’s downtown. Porter says electric fans pushed the smell into the streets – streets emptied of cars and trucks since they were banned in 1898. 

“And pretty soon people were like Pavlov’s dogs. They had no choice but to go in and buy the fudge, and it’s taken off since then,” Porter explained.

The most common forms of transport on the island are bikes and horse-drawn carriages.

On a hot summer day, the smell of fudge cooking wafts from the shops and combines with what the horses leave in the streets to make a visit to Mackinac a unique olfactory experience.