Mackinac Island: land of fudge, lots of it

Mackinac isn’t the birthplace of fudge, but the 3.8-square-mile Michigan island in Lake Huron may well be the nation’s epicenter for it.

The island kinda smells like fudge, thanks to exhaust fans strategically positioned near the ferry dock. About 10,000 pounds of fudge are carted away daily, usually in half-pound slabs. An annual fudge festival happens in August. Locals call tourists “fudgies” all year.

Fudge is to Mackinac Island what salt water taffy is to beachside boardwalks in Atlantic City. The first fudge maker, Murdick’s, opened 130 years ago. Now at least one dozen fudge shops are in business, most within one-quarter mile on Main Street.

Exact wording is important here. Grandiose advertising claims – oldest, best, most famous, fudge king – brought otherwise civil competitors to a boil one-half century ago. Fudge was important enough to fight over, so that era of ill will and lawsuits remains known as the Fudge Wars.

Much happened before then – fewer tourists during the Great Depression, sugar rationing during World War II – but Murdick’s survived both and was the island’s lone fudge shop in the mid 1940s. That’s when the owner decided to retire and sell the business to longtime employees Harold and Ethel May, who changed the name.

May’s Candy Shop remains in business, but Murdick’s re-emerged too, thanks to half-brother Jerome Murdick’s involvement, then family friend Bob Benser’s, who learned the craft when Jerome became ill. Since buying the enterprise in 1969, he and son Bob Jr. added Murdick’s shops in Mackinaw City and St. Ignace, Mich., plus three in Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.

“Fudge is an everyday, every-corner kind of product,” Bob Jr. says, to explain why the product sells well. The basic recipe – sugar, unsweetened chocolate, cream, corn syrup, shortening and salt – is the same as 130 years ago. He’s proud that even the sugar comes from Michigan (it’s Pioneer Sugar, made from sugar beets).

Here and elsewhere on Mackinac, ingredients heat in a copper kettle, which the fudge maker stirs with a wooden paddle. When hot enough, the mix is poured onto a marble table and deftly maneuvered by hand with a trowel. As the candy cools, it’s formed into a 5-foot-long loaf.

So the customer draw is culinary theater, too, because fudge making usually is a transparent process, done in full view of passersby.

The tabletop work happens quickly and tires the muscles. Having a marble surface matters, and so does the humidity level, which some say is a part of what makes Mackinac Island’s fudge exceptional.

At Murdick’s, 18 kinds of fudge are made and sold. That doesn’t include packaged Murdles, fudge “puddles” with pecans, caramel, cashews and/or sea salt. originalmurdicksfudge.com, 906-847-3530

And although fudge was not the first confection sold to island visitors – Native Americans made maple sugar treats – it’s hard to imagine any other concoction gaining the same level of celebrity.

BTW: Americans get credit for inventing fudge, but the first may have been a botched batch of toffee on the East Coast. “Oh, fudge” was an acknowledgement of the error. The earliest reference to a fudge recipe was in an 1886 letter that a Vassar College student used to make 30 pounds of fudge for a college fundraiser two years later.

It reportedly went over well.

You just missed National Fudge Day (June 16), but no need for despair: The annual Mackinac Island Fudge Festival is Aug. 19-20.

Expect fudge-infused cocktails, beer-fudge pairings, fudge-making demos, sugar-sack races, a multi-course Dining Under the Influence of Fudge dinner and Great Turtle Slow Ride, which rewards a bike race’s slowest rider with a basket of fudge.

All take place on the charming little island best known for its horsepower and bicycles. Autos were banned in 1898. mackinacisland.org, 906-847-3783

Henry and Jerome Murdick did not travel to Mackinac Island to make fudge. They were sail makers hired in 1887 to make canvas awnings for Grand Hotel, which turns 130 years old this summer.

The hotel is known for its bold decorating schemes and 660-foot-long front porch, largest in the world and dotted with 2,500 red geraniums. None of the four-diamond hotel’s 393 rooms are decorated alike.

Overnight rates begin at $319 per person, which includes a breakfast, lunch buffet and five-course dinner. The hotel offers 130th celebration packages that include a history lecture, garden tour or art museum admission.

Grand Hotel was the site for “Somewhere in Time,” a 1979 film with Jane Seymour, Christopher Reeve and Christopher Plummer. A fan club for the movie still meets at Grand Hotel every October. somewhereintime.tv

The cost to simply take a gander at Grand Hotel and its grounds is $10, which can be applied to the $47 lunch buffet. grandhotel.com, 800-334-7263

Islanders tend to wear more than one hat, and that’s the case for Bob Benser Jr., who has his hands into much more than fudge on Mackinac Island. He also is tax assessor and president of the tourism bureau.

This month he opened the new Good Day Café, a breakfast-lunch spot on Main Street. Café fare includes sweet and savory crepes, plus 16 flavors of Moomers farmstead ice cream from Traverse City, Mich. Both are firsts for the island.

The cafe is so new that there is no website, and Bob is adding a third floor to the building, for apartments. Nearby is his family-friendly Island Slice Pizzeria, which makes pie deliveries by bike. islandslicepizzeria.com, 906-847-8100

Around the block is another business of Bob’s, The Cottage Inn, a bed-and-breakfast whose summer rates start at $210 per night. It is one block from the mainland ferry, and the afternoon snack for guests includes Murdick’s fudge peanut brittle. cottageinnofmackinac.com, 906-847-4000

Bob Jr. is part-owner of three other downtown businesses. That includes the historic Chippewa Hotel and its Pink Pony watering hole, known for waterfront patio seating, rum runners and whitefish dip. Summer hotel rates start at $199. chippewahotel.com, 800-241-3341

Newer is the Lilac Tree Suites and Spa, whose summer rates start at $289. Fudge doesn’t show up on the menu of spa services, yet. lilactree.com, 866-847-6575