No children’s birthday party in Brazil is complete without brigadeiro—a fudgy combination of sweetened condensed milk, cocoa powder, and butter that looks like a truffle and tastes like chocolate caramel. But brigadeiros are not just for kids—they’re everywhere in Brazil: baby showers, weddings, and corner bodegas. There are even gourmet brigadeiro shops dedicated to selling the dessert by the jarful. Brigadeiro is as Brazilian as Carnival. But the candy’s path to become a national symbol has been short and strange, and the story is as much about Brazil’s turbulent political history as it is about sugar.
The history of brigadeiro starts with sweetened condensed milk. Originally developed in 1866 as a method for preserving dairy, then marketed as a war ration, sweetened condensed milk arrived in Brazil around the turn of the century. The Nestlé Milkmaid found a receptive market in a country that has been sugar-crazed since it became one of the largest sugar producers in the world in the sixteenth century. Dairy was also a large part of Brazil’s the agricultural industry and the national diet. Leite Moca—“milk with the young woman” as Milkmaid came to be known—conveniently combined both of these Brazilian favorites, and in 1921 Nestlé built a factory in Brazil to produce sweetened condensed milk closer to a major market.
Milk in Brazil, however, was not just a foodstuff. It was political power. Since 1889, when Brazil transitioned from a monarchy to a federal republic, the government had been controlled by what was called “café com leite” politics, literally “coffee with milk” political alliance. Coffee and dairy were the primary commodities produced in the two economically and politically dominant states. Vast coffee plantations covered São Paolo, while dairy reigned supreme in Minas Gerais. These states joined forces to control and corrupt the newly established federal government.
It was opposition to the “coffee with milk” coalition that brought the candy’s namesake to fame. In 1922, a group of young low-ranking military officers tired of the electoral monopoly of the corrupt ruling coalition launched a series of revolts in the states of Rio de Janeiro and Mato Grosso. The most important military installation they captured was the recently inaugurated Copacabana Fort in Rio de Janeiro, then the capital. The revolt fell apart quickly, and most of the renegade officers abandoned the fort just one day after its capture. Only eleven remained for a suicidal standoff on the beach. One of these eleven soldiers was Eduardo Gomes, the man who would go on to inspire the brigadeiro.
Gomes was then a young unknown military officer. But the battle—in which he was seriously injured—made him famous. Gomes spent the years following the Copacabana revolt in and out of jail, participating in uprisings around the country, all the while remaining active in the military. In 1941, he was promoted to “brigadeiro”—“brigadier” in Portuguese. During World War II he acted as the military liaison to the United States even as he opposed President Getúlio Vargas’s dictatorial government.
In 1945, Gomes finally got a chance to mount his resistance. Vargas’s government ended and new presidential elections were scheduled for December. Gomes founded the National Democratic Union and made himself its presidential candidate. Gomes’ capitalized on his prominent military position, calling himself “The Brigadier,” in Portuguese: “O Brigadeiro.” 1945 was also the first time women could vote in a presidential election, and Gomes actively tried to galvanize this new electoral block, perhaps in the most sexist way possible: his campaign slogan was “Vote for the Brigadier. He is good-looking and single.”
It worked, though. Women where a major source of support, and these same women created the brigadeiro candy to help Gomes’ campaign, selling the confection to raise money. While Gomes’s campaign ended in defeat, the sweet did manage to capture the sugar-loving country.
Over the next decades, brigadeiro’s popularity grew, quickly becoming the country’s unofficial dessert. Served in small paper cups and decorated with sprinkles, brigadeiro looks like, and is, a kid’s snack. But at the same time the chocolate linked to the ever-fraught story of democracy in Brazil.