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The Strange History of Brownies

NOV 24, 2021

Brownies are known for their simplicity: delicious, fudgy treats, cut into squares, to be shared with loved ones. Enjoy them with a cup of coffee or a scoop of ice cream and you might just feel like the gates of Heaven have opened up, especially for you.

On the other hand, the history of brownies is not as straightforward. The many myths and legends surrounding the origin of the brownie provide a rather convoluted story. Our aim here today is to unpack this strange history for you, and vote on the most convincing story.

While the brownie is a simple treat, its history is not as simple

One legend, which can be found in the book Betty Crocker’s Baking Habits, tells a story of a housewife in Maine who really enjoyed baking. One day she decided to bake a chocolate cake, but forgot to include baking powder in the recipe. When her cake didn’t rise, she decided to cut it into little pieces and serve it, and thus arose the first supposed adaptation of the brownie.

Another legend tells a tale of a Chicago socialite known as Bertha Palmer. Bertha was married to the millionaire Potter Palmer, who owned the famous luxury Palmer House Hotel. In 1893, Bertha was attending the World’s Columbian Exhibition, a Chicago fair which celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival to the New World. Prior to the exhibition, Bertha instructed a pastry chef to create a cake-like dessert, “suitable for ladies” (it was the 19th century, after all), and small enough to be packed into lunch boxes. The result was the first ever fudgy brownie, according to the legend, which was also topped with walnuts and an apricot glaze. Unfortunately, the name of this mysterious pastry chef has never been uncovered.

Bertha Palmer, as shown in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune

When our co-founders were asked to vote for the most believable origin story, they were in sync. Both agreed that the legend about Bertha Palmer seemed to be the more believable (and interesting) story. As the Marketing Associate and author of this blog, I personally felt the same way. Unfortunately, we will never know if any of the legends are true.

While the aforementioned origin stories are lacking in evidence, the first known recipe for chocolate brownies appeared in Machias Cookbook in 1899. The cookbook was a community-sourced cookbook in Maine, and the recipe itself was written by Marie Kelly. It is unclear where Kelly received the inspiration to publish this recipe. Perhaps she was in fact the inventor of the brownie? We may never know.

And what about the name “brownie”? Many believe that the name of the fudgy delicacy was inspired by a mythical creature known as a brownie, popularized by Scottish folklore. However, the link between the dessert and strange creature has not yet been fully established.

Palmer Cox, a Canadian author and illustrator, was known for writing about the brownie creatures

From Chicago socialites and forgetful chefs to mystical creatures, the history of the brownie proves to be a strange one. One thing we are certain of, however, is this: they sure are delicious!


Written by Yasmeen Jabri

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