Off-Campus Explorations: Union Square Main Streets organizes 11th annual Fluff Festival

Crowds enjoy the Fluff Festival food trucks and booths in Union Square on Sept. 24. (Hailey Gavin / The Tufts Daily)

This article is the first part in a series that features businesses, organizations and communities in the Medford/Somerville area.

This year marks the 99th anniversary of the invention of Marshmallow Fluff. The marshmallow-like spread was invented in Somerville by Archibald Query, a confectioner who concocted it in 1917 and began selling it door-to-door in his neighborhood. Since 2006, the city of Somerville has celebrated the invention of Marshmallow Fluff with an annual “Fluff Festival” hosted in Union Square.

The theme of this year’s festival, which took place on Sept. 24 and drew over 20 thousand visitors to Somerville, was “Fluff U: A Sweet Education.” The goal was to turn Union Square into “our very own sticky, sweet campus,” according to the festival’s website.

Esther Hanig is the executive director of Union Square Main Streets (USMS), a community development organization that works to enhance the economic viability of the area surrounding Union Square. USMS has hosted the Fluff Festival since its inception, according to Hanig.

In keeping with this year’s theme, Hanig said the organizers of the event renamed some of the traditional aspects of the festival to fit in with “Fluff U.” Those who helped cook Fluff and other treats in the cooking contest were referred to as the “Department of Culinary Arts,” the area of the festival where storytelling took place was called the “Extension School” and the “Shenanigans Stage,” a fixture from past festivals that features comedy, was this year called the “Department of Shenanigans.” 

Mike Katz, the Query impersonator who leads the festivities on the Shenanigans Stage, is fond of one festival game called Fluff Musical Chairs – musical chairs but with one chair covered in Fluff.

“People have to not only find this chair but decide whether or not they’re willing to get Fluffed in a major way,” Katz said.

In addition to Fluff Musical Chairs, Katz described many different events and competitions that took place on the Shenanigans Stage. Fluff Jousting requires participants to stand on a low balance beam and hit each other with pool noodles covered in Fluff. Additionally, during Fluff Hair Dos, participants use tubs full of Fluff and peanut butter to style each other’s hair.

Katz went on to explain more fluff-covered diversions: In Blind Man’s Fluff, one partner has to make a fluffernutter sandwich while blindfolded, and the other must eat it while singing a jingle from a 1950s Fluff commercial; during Fluff Lick-Offs, a volunteer holds a plate covered in Fluff must face the audience and lick the plate clean of marshmallow cream as fast as they can. 

Finally, Hanig praised the Fluff cooking contest, the winner of which is granted a tour of the modern Fluff factory in Lynn, MA. According to Hanig, this is the only tour that Durkee-Mower, the company that now owns Query’s invention, offers of its facility.

Chloe Boehm, a junior, attended the festival with other Tufts students.

“Lots of the Union Square institutions were represented, and although I didn’t brave the line for Union Square Donuts, they had a fluffernutter donut that was apparently really great,” she told the Daily in an electronic message.

Katz, who has been impersonating Query at the festival since its inception, said he once taught theater as the assistant technical director at Tufts. He has also taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Massachusetts Boston (UMass Boston).

Since retiring from his teaching post at UMass Boston in August, Katz said that he has been able to take on more responsibility at the festival. He added that his training in technical theater feeds directly into his work at the festival.

“I’ve dealt with crowds, I’ve dealt with safety, I’ve dealt with making sure things go on schedule,” he said. “It’s the same kind of work.”

Though Katz impersonates Query at the festival, he said that he does not fit historical descriptions of the Fluff inventor.

“We actually got in touch with Query’s grandson,” Katz said. “And Archibald was a very quiet, shy man. He was very calm and cool, and he always had candy in his pockets that he would give to the neighborhood kids for free.”

Katz described himself as loud and lively, quite the opposite of the man he impersonates. Although he is unlike Query in appearance and demeanor, Katz said he seems to have become the face of the festival.

“Usually you’ll get me if you Google ‘Archibald Query,’” he said.

Hanig said that the festival showcases Somerville’s innovations and attracts more people to the Union Square neighborhood. She described it as another example of the city’s economic and cultural growth over the last several decades, which she attributed to its mayor Joseph Curtatone as well as to its proximity to Harvard Square and Kendall Square.

She cited Curtatone’s efforts to improve the city’s public transportation and his response to the Black Lives Matter movement as evidence of his dedication to improving Somerville. In July, Curtatone refused to take down a Black Lives Matter banner outside of City Hall despite the requests of the city’s police union, arguing that, “We can fight to protect minorities and still praise the hard work of law enforcement officials.”

“[Curtatone is focusing on] how we can make Somerville a really special place,” Hanig said.

She also emphasized the presence of organizations and projects in Somerville today that reflect Query’s spirit of invention. These include the restaurant Juliet, which incorporates tips into its meal prices in order to ensure high wages for all the restaurant’s staff, and Greentown Labs, a space for clean technology hardware startups to meet and find solutions to global energy issues.

While some businesses complain that the festival makes parking scarce or slows down foot traffic by their  stores, Hanig believes it has positive economic outcomes overall by calling attention to the square.

“[The Fluff Festival] makes people aware of Union Square when they might not have known about us or thought about us,” she said.

Katz said the festival provides an opportunity for people to reflect on all that Union Square has to offer.

“It’s about us as a community saying, hey, there are some cool things that have gone on in Somerville and in Union Square, this is our chance to celebrate them,” he said.

Katz added that his favorite aspect of the Fluff Festival is the joy it instills in its visitors.

“There were a lot of people here in the square, and everyone was smiling,” Katz said. “I had people covered in Fluff, I mean, literally, covered in Fluff, and they had the biggest, goofiest grins on their faces and [were] just loving it. And how often can you say that happens?”