The chocolate brownie’s triumph over a lifetime of sordid scandal, over the many obstacles tossed into its path by an uncaring fate on its tortured and tortuous road to culinary respectability, is one of the great-untold stories of modern history. After several centuries of extensive study historians cannot determine why this should be the case, although a sustained lack of interest in the subject on the part of just about everyone involved cannot be ruled out.
In the beginning, or shortly thereafter, Domenico Sbaglio and his half-whittled brother, Guido, scions of an ancient baking house that had fallen on hard times and couldn’t get up, discovered the brownie in 1477; she was working part-time in a bagnio-cum-tire store, swiping the steel belts out of new radial tires and selling them to the rag trade for corset stays. It was love at first slight. Politically, both brothers were supporters of the Pazzi family in their vendetta against the Medicis, who dominated Florence and her sister Sally in those days; the sisters have since moved on to bigger and better things; recent credit bureau reports show that they are now working the perfume counter at the Wal-Mart on the outskirts of Davenport, Iowa and still have trouble paying their bills. Domenico, the moodier of the two brothers, blamed Lorenzo (Il Magnifico) de Medici for destroying the Sbaglio family fortune, ruining the family’s good name, and stealing their ancestral recipe for chocolate bundt cake, which you can have but not eat, although in the interests of cultural and idiomatic verisimilitude this historian must point out that in Italy cake is not involved in this sort of thing; Italians, sensibly enough, worry about having a full bottle and a wife who is three sheets to the wind, and cleans those sheets with back issues of thyme and Tide, which wait for no man, but will certainly wait on any attractive blonde who leaves a nice tip. Guido didn’t know why he went along with his brother in blaming Lorenzo for the loss of the family bundt cake recipe. He didn’t like bundt cake to begin with and he was not sure he liked his brother constantly calling him a halfwit; he thought he possessed enough of his wits to get by and he told everyone he knew that he only put up with his brother in order to pick up girls.
As luck would not have it, the Sbaglio brothers died violently in the aftermath of the failed Pazzi plot to kill Lorenzo de Medici in 1478. Lorenzo had both brothers boiled in cooking oil and then baked in chocolate sauce, brownie battered with bats and balls, and then pitched headfirst into the Arno River with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and a man on third. Leonardo da Vinci sketched the details of these horrific deaths from life; Lorenzo later wrote satiric verses under the sketch of each brother mocking them, their suddenly unfashionable brownies, and their family’s recipe for bundt cake.
Leonardo later used details from these sketches in his painting of The Last Supper. The passionate art lover looking at the last plate on the left will see that the maitre’d has piled a stack of brownies upon said plate, a stack that is shaped remarkably like the faces of the Sbaglio brothers. St. James the Lesser stares wildly at the brownies, struck dumb by this grim omen, although St. Thomas the Doubter looks as though he’s saying sometimes brownies are just brownies, dammit, while the far end of the table St. Jude the Finder of Lost Things is speaking to an insurance salesman trying to get a better deal on his homeowner's insurance.
A little after the beginning
The brownie’s popularity took another hit in the 1480’s and 1490’s when the fiery friar Savonarola first denounced the brownie as sinful and luxurious excess, a vanity worth of the hottest bonfire. At the height of his political and religious influence in Florence Savonarola changed the recipe and his tune, demanding that the faithful eat his newly constituted brownie as a symbol of their devotion to the Church, a change of heart that convinced the Florentines that Savonarola was himself a servant of the Anti-Christ. Arrested, charged with heresy, treason, blasphemy, and sodomy for the unnatural act of adding walnuts to brownie batter, the Florentine mob burned Savonarola at the stake until well done for his crimes against God and man.
The brownie’s popularity waned after the Renaissance; the Baroque elite found the brownie too bland, a trifle fit only for pigs and peasants, in that order, and the philosophes of the Enlightenment, with the exception of de Sade, believed that brownies were a symbol of the ancien regime. Rousseau believed man is everywhere born free but was everywhere enslaved by brownies. Diderot wrote an extensive article in the Encyclopedie on the brownie, an article that gave recipes, glorified the brownie as one of the mainstays of popular French culture, and lashed out at greedy aristocrats who abused their hereditary rights to the first brownies out of the oven. Beaumarchais based the plot of Le Mariage de Figaro on this article, although he had to make extensive changes in the plot to make the play even vaguely acceptable to the censor. His original play circulated in manuscript throughout Europe, running up bar tabs and hotel bills that nearly drove Beaumarchais to bankruptcy. Mozart based the first version of La Nozze de Figaro on this manuscript, in which his villain, Count Almaviva, attempts to use his hereditary rights to filch Suzanne’s brownies. This depiction of aristocratic oppression of the working class proved too controversial for the time; previews of the opera caused riots in Prague, during which several people accidentally impaled themselves on the bayonets of soldiers sent to restore order. This is what the soldiers claimed, of course, and many people still have their suspicions about this story, even though the Warren Commission's final report on the matter exonerated the soldiers and the grassy knoll they stood on.
After extensive background Czechs and trial by combat, the government trainspotted thousands of rioters to penile colonies in Austria for their crimes. Following the riots the Emperor, Joseph II, ordered Mozart to change his heroine’s brownies to something less likely to cause property damage. Mozart changed the brownies to cherries, believing no one would care about servant girls losing their cherries. Sade, on the other hand, supported brownies vigorously, thinking since brownies were the color and texture of excrement, he could use them to introduce the squeamish to the joys of coprophagy, the Squeamish being a tribe of South American Indians then living on a diet of Brazil nuts and archbishops. The experiment was not successful. Sade himself was inordinately fond of brownies and once served three years and a cup of hot milk and cookies on a cold winter’s night for attempting to poison several prostitutes with brownies laced with arsenic and old masons.
Some more after the beginning
Brownies remained unacceptable in polite French society throughout the First Empire and the Bourbon Restoration, partly because of their connection with Sade and also because Napoleon, Louis XVIII, and Charles X all loathed walnuts, now an integral part of any brownie recipe, despite the cautionary example of Savonarola. Brownies enjoyed a comeback during the Second Empire, when the Empress Eugenie scored a tremendous suces de scandale serving brownies at a state dinner for the newly appointed Papal Nunzio. The British Ambassador, Sir Thomas Culdeane, attended that state dinner, found the brownies first rate, and came away believing that the brownie was much maligned and that he should do something to improve their reputation. Upon his return to England Sir Thomas introduced the brownie to high London society. British reservations about the brownie were numerous, with some tables booked for the early evening and then again around 10:30-11:00 pm to catch the after-theater crowd, but many people decided to wait and see the brownies at home on HBO, and still others waited to hear what Queen Victoria thought of the scandalous French import.
Brownie lovers need not have worried. Victoria loved brownies and her good opinion started brownies down the road to full moral rehabilitation, except for the addition of hashish to the recipe. This specialty brownie was her husband’s discovery; entries in Victoria’s diary for August of 1854 make clear that the Akhmet of Swat introduced Prince Albert to the hash brownie in May of that year, when the Akhmet and Prince Albert were vacationing in Cannes. Victoria, in short, brought the brownie out of moral mothballs and into the parlor, and then into the laundry to get rid of the camper smell. She ate one publicly at her son Albert’s investiture as Prince of Wales, surreptitiously putting one into her mouth in the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who held that brownies were an abomination on the order of the African slave trade, the theory of evolution, and Roman Catholicism, nearly causing an apolexiglass window in the cathedral to break. Even with the Queen’s approval the brownie still retained a moral ambiguity that troubled the Victorians, a hint of the sinister and depraved that kept the brownie from being completely accepted by the middle classes in Britain and for years made the brownie unwelcome in the United States.
Charles Dickens discovered this fierce antipathy when he inadvertently introduced the brownie to the United States during a reading tour in 1857, a tour that nearly ended with an international incident. After a particularly fervid reading of the death of Little Nell, Dickens calmed himself with a glass of rum punch and a brownie. For a moment the audience at the Boston Athenaeum sat in shocked and horrified silence; the next moment the enraged audience charged the stage with murder and mayhem on its mind. The police beat the crowd off with gunfire and truncheons, killing twelve and injuring another sixty before they finally put down the uprising. The police detained Dickens for his own protection afterwards; the great author could not return to his hotel because there was a lynch mob waiting for him there; and then rode him out of town on a railroad. Dickens wrote polite letters of protest to all the leading newspapers of the day, but to Noah Vale, his American publisher, he wrote that by and large that his American audiences were little more than lice-ridden mobs of provincial ignoramuses, permanently addled by strong drink and chewing tobacco, a judgment preserved in his travel book, American Notes.
Way after the beginning, but not terribly close to the end
For the next twenty years, brownies remained an occasion of scandal in the United States. Matters came to a head in 1878 when President Rutherford B. Hayes and his wife Lucy (a temperance advocate best known for banning alcohol from White House functions, a decision which led to that most alliterative of all First Ladies’ nicknames: Lemonade Lucy) consented, at the urging of Alexander Graham Bell and the Emperor Pedro of Brazil, to eat some brownies with their Sunday dinner. Afterwards the President dined on stewed tomatoes.
The firestorm of protest from the churches the following Sunday was intense. One preacher in Kansas warned his flock that the Devil surely reined in Washington, D. C., and from his pulpit in Brooklyn the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher commented on the sad decline of the nation’s morals when the President, of all people, and at the behest of foreigners no less, should consent to eat brownies and stewed tomatoes on the Sabbath. Reverend Beecher predicted there would be “…abominations committed freely, and the young people of this poor, benighted country would revel in lewdness, fornication, and debauchery the like of which has not been seen since the fall of the Roman Empire,” which immediately led to a black market in brownies amongst Brooklyn’s teenagers and widespread bloody battles between the Pillsbury and Freihofer mobs for control of the illicit traffic. Several well-known Southern preachers intimated darkly that the uninhibited consumption of brownies would lead to miscegenation and other forms of ungodly race mixing.
In the midst of this crisis brownies received some crucial support from some important and sometimes unexpected quarters. The presidents of the Grand Army of the Republic and the United Confederate Veterans, the powerful Civil War veterans’ organizations, for example, both came out in support of brownies, as did Mark Twain, whose characterization of the protesting preachers as a passel of praying jackasses only served to heighten the controversy. When asked for his comments on the controversy William Tecumseh Sherman stated that the whole matter was a waste of time not worth thinking about, much less commenting on. Brownies received a tremendous boost when Ulysses S. Grant supported President Hayes in a newspaper interview, saying that if brownies were beneficial they would do no harm. Millions of Union veterans and stalwart Republicans accepted Grant’s dictum as the final word on the subject, although brownie consumption lagged in the South for several years due to the same raisin being used over and over again instead of walnuts.
The end of the beginning
By 1900, everyone ate brownies in the United States, North and South. Brownies were so widely accepted, in fact, that Teddy Roosevelt ate a brownie before charging up San Juan Hill without his horse de combat and most people thought nothing of it. In some areas of the country, however, many people refused to accept the brownie's slow acceptance into the mainstream. In Boston, for example, brownies remained banned well into the 20th century as a result of the Roman Catholic Church's ongoing war against birth control, and in southern Utah, several fundamentalist Mormon sects saw a connection with the arrival of brownies and the disappearance of polygamy and decided therefore that brownies were an obvious instrument of Satan (people will believe some pretty silly crap if you give them half a chance). But for most Americans, with the victory over Spain complete and some small portion of peace restored to an otherwise unhappy world, the brownie’s place in American life was at last secured, and today the once penniless brownie is a much loved institution of American life and culinary culture.