Palmer House Brownies
A storied-dessert's roots go back to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
The first Ferris wheel, neon lights and the forerunner to the zipper all made their debut at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. So did Juicy Fruit gum, Shredded Wheat and Cream of Wheat. But bakers and chocolate lovers the world over fell in love with another invention, quietly unveiled at the Women’s Pavilion during the fair: the brownie.
Chicago socialite and philanthropist Bertha Palmer had asked the pastry chefs at her husband’s hotel, The Palmer House, to come up with some sort of dessert that wasn’t as messy as a cake or pastry, that could fit inside the box lunches for the ladies at the fair. “She wanted to a kind of picnic dessert that was rich, and the chef at the time put something together and came up with the brownie,” says Fabrice Bouet, pastry chef at the Palmer House Hilton.
The delicious dessert began to spread. In 1898, the Sears Roebuck Company, then based in Chicago, published the first reference to the “brownie” in its catalogue that year. The brownie didn’t become a household dessert, however, until the 1920s, when chocolate became more available to everyday cooks.
The original recipe at the Palmer House was handed down, chef to chef, and a variation of the original brownie is still served today.
“The brownie is our trademark dessert,” Bouet says. “When you make brownies at home, you don’t need to use expensive chocolate. In fact, regular semisweet chocolate is best because it’s got the right ratio of sugar to chocolate.”
By Jeanette Hurt