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A fudge counter in Nottingham, England (Photograph by Terry Mathews, Alamy)

The Curious Case of Fudge

People like to debate the differences between “travelers” and “tourists”—and whether such distinctions exist or even matter. I listen to them sometimes, nodding at the points being made. And then I change the subject to fudge.

Because, at least in America, wherever you roam, you can only go to one of two kinds of destinations: those with fudge, and those without. That’s significant, because nothing else—not even DIY T-shirt shops—is a surer indicator that you’ve arrived at a commercialized strip bent on selling you stuff you didn’t think you needed or wanted. You know, a “tourist trap.”

Fudge is always there (and nowhere else) because people on holiday buy and eat fudge and locals do not.

And so it goes.

Ever wonder why?

“Fudge is an impulse thing,” claims Sally Lowe of the Fudge House, a mainstay of San Francisco’s high-traffic Pier 39 since 1991. “No one wakes up in the morning and goes, ‘Hmm, I need fudge today.’”

Lowe should know. She and her husband, Tom, have been making and selling fudge for the past 43 years, beginning in Idaho. The couple is in the process of retiring (“I know I’m going to be sad down the road,” she says), but Sally took the time to share the secret to fudge-hawking success: zeroing in on a place that attracts pedestrians who have free time and money to spare. In other words, people on vacation.

“The smell of it [fudge] just hooks them in, like a drug,” Sally says.

And it’s been that way for more than a century.

The modern-day fudge aficionado’s itinerary around the U.S. comes off like a who’s-who of emerging tourist destinations of the Victorian Era: Niagara Falls, Gettysburg, Jackson Hole, and Michigan’s Mackinac Island. I guess you could say that once you’ve gone fudge, you don’t go back.

A century ago, visitors to such places couldn’t escape the “unmistakable fragrance of fudge”—as Lee Edwards Benning describes it in his 1990 book Oh, Fudge!—or resist watching the confection being made.

From sidewalks outside candy shops, tourists would peer through plate-glass windows in awe as mustachioed fudgeteers confidently combined vats of sugar, butter, and milk, then guided the mixture into oversized machines that noisily churned out delicious slabs of sticky goodness.

This was on purpose.

A 1901 pamphlet—cheerfully titled “The Candy Maker: A Practical Guide to the Manufacture of Various Kinds of Plain and Fancy Candy”—casually observed that “people will stop to see almost anything done… especially if the performance requires some particular knowledge.”

That last bit is funny because, in truth, fudge is the result of an accident. No one agrees on who made it first, or why. Yet everyone can agree that it was indeed a mistake.

Benning, the author of Oh, Fudge!, claims to have tried “hundreds of experiments” to determine the exact scenario that produced the glorious goop. He concluded that it was most likely the result of some candymaker “taking the ingredients for caramel and handling them as if making a fondant… maybe even deliberately, who knows?”

No matter its origins, fudge in its earliest days was commonly associated with Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. The earliest known reference to a recipe for the candy appears in an 1888 letter written by a freshman named Emelyn Battersby Hartridge. From that point on, the all-female student body carried on quite the tradition, swapping fudge recipes, singing songs about it, and making it in bulk to raise money for the school.

Though fudge is universally accepted as a wholly American accident, its name comes from across the pond.

“Fudge” has been synonymous with “nonsense” or “put together clumsily or dishonestly” in Britain for more than 200 years. In 1818, the Irish-by-birth poet Thomas Moore parodied English tourists making faux pas after faux pas while on holiday in France and called it “The Fudge Family in Paris.” (One member of the clan, in Moore’s hands, helplessly coos, “Who can help loving the land that has taught us 685 ways to dress eggs?”)

Fittingly, fudge has found its way overseas. True-blue American-style fudge is now big (ish) in the United Kingdom. And they’re using the same recipe for success that Lowe prescribed.

“We can’t be in a shopping center,” claims Patch Hyde of the Fudge Kitchen, a national chain (with American roots) that sets up near popular attractions. “We have to have tourists walking slowly by—smiling, having a good day—just to survive.”

One reason the company has been successful, Hyde told me by phone from one location amidst a strip of “wonky” buildings facing Windsor Castle, is that “fudge in the U.K. is rubbish.”

It’s mostly gritty, flaky, dry “tablets”—nothing like American fudge, which is what Fudge Kitchen makes, using a traditional recipe à la Mackinac Island (a true fudge lover’s dream destination with well over a dozen fudgeries, some of which have been carrying on their trade since the 19th century, and a festival devoted to the stuff each August).

Hyde, who fell into the business only after failing at acting (a “lack of options, really”), believes fudge offers a higher purpose, too.

“It’s so obviously bad for you that it’s wonderfully indulgent to have a hand-worked lump of sugar,” he says. “It’s like living outrageously for a short amount of time. It feels euphoric.”

And why resist euphoria for the price of a small hand-worked lump of sugar?

Celebrated travel writer and former Lonely Planet guidebook author Robert Reid is a featured digital reporter for Nat Geo Travel. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram