“What do you think of when I say Mackinac Island?” I ask a group of friends.
I watch as smiles brighten their faces, and, as a lifelong Michigan resident, I have a fairly good idea of what they are thinking about. It’s what almost everyone thinks about when Mackinac Island is mentioned: fudge. However, I wonder what it is about Mackinac Island fudge that makes it so memorable.
Why is fudge so intricately tied to mentions of the island in the Straits of Mackinac? According to Michael Whitney, who’s visited only once but says that trip remains one of his favorite memories, “The island has a magical quality about it that can become associated with the taste of their fudge. So whenever I have good fudge I am transported back to the mysteries and beauty of Mackinac Island.”
There is a magical quality surrounding the island—something about taking a step back in time to a place with no cars, where horses and bicycles are used to get around, and where the sweet scent of fudge follows you along Main Street.
But how did fudge became so tightly woven into Mackinac Island culture? It started in 1887, when the Murdick family opened the island’s first candy shop to appeal to the growing tourism business. Competing confectioneries popped up, but struggled due to sugar rationing during World War I which, according to Phil Porter, director of the Mackinac State Historic Parks, “had a dramatic impact on Mackinac Island’s tourist economy, especially the candy makers.” However, says the author of the book Fudge: “Mackinac’s Sweet Souvenir,” “buying a box of fudge has been a ‘must-do’ Mackinac Island activity since the Roaring Twenties.” Through the decades the fudge craze spread to the mainland, and today, Mackinac Island fudge is found across the country.
The sweet souvenir is still the island’s most popular take-away, and visitors can experience the fun of purchasing fudge much like they did in the 1920s. Step off the ferry onto the island and the aroma of sugar and chocolate fills the air, prompting anticipation for that very first bite. Fortunately, the fudge shops are generous with free samples.
While tasting your way through the variety of flavors, be sure to watch the skillful fudge makers hard at work as they combine fresh butter, cream, sugar and flavorings in large copper kettles, and slowly bring the temperature to around 230 degrees. Once the ingredients are at the right temperature—it can’t vary by more than two to three degrees—the thick liquid is poured onto a large marble slab. As the fudge starts to cool the candy maker uses a large paddle to repeatedly fold the fudge onto itself, and before your eyes as the liquid cools, it’s shaped into a solid 35-pound block of creamy goodness. The massive bar is then cut into half-pound bricks, packed into fudge boxes and taken home by tourists—which explains why islanders refer to visitors as “fudgies.” During the summer season, 10,000 pounds of fudge leave the island daily. In order to make that much fudge, the island’s businesses have to import 10 tons of sugar weekly and 10 tons of butter annually.
The island has over a dozen tempting fudge shops. Some offer only a handful of flavors while others concoct almost 30. The most popular is double chocolate, but if you’re wondering which ones you should choose, take the advice of Tim Hygh, executive director at Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau, and “try ‘em all!”
Although you can have fudge shipped from online shops directly to your door, the best experience happens on the island when you create an entire memory that is wrapped up with the fudge. Then, as you savor the sweet souvenir, you’re reminded of the sights, sounds and beauty of Mackinac, and time spent on a quaint little island in northern Michigan.
This article originally appeared in the 2017 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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