In Search of Lost Marshmallow (Marshmallow Chronicles, Part I)
Every summer, my family takes a trip to a lake cabin in Wisconsin. Pine trees, squishy lake mud, roaring campfires. And of course, roasted marshmallows.
So when we arrived, I ran into the super-grocery in town to hustle up the marshmallows. And then I stood there, stumped. Where are marshmallows in a grocery store? I tried baking goods first, figuring they were a little bit like the chocolate chips and shredded cocoanut, sort of dessert add ins. Nope. Then I thought about all those Jello and marshmallow mystery salads I see up north and tried for the aisle with the gelatin dessert mixes. Nope. After asking two nice ladies who pointed in four different directions, and wandering aisles of ketchup and crackers, I found them at last. No wonder I had so much trouble. They were way down on the bottom shelf, in those sad, utilitarian plastic bags that look a little deflated and floppy. But there they were. In the candy aisle. Because, duh, marshmallows are candy.
We don’t eat marshmallows as candy much these days. Outside the annual S’mores, most of us will most likely encounter a marshmallow as an adjunct to something else: topping mashed yams at Thanksgiving, mixed in with ice cream for Rocky Road, or sprinkled on top of winter cocoa. Given how hard they were to find in the store, it seems like they are a little embarrassing, especially today now that those fantastical jewel-toned gelatin salads are less the rage.
You wouldn’t know, looking at that Jet-Puff, that the first marshmallow candy actually was made from a plant. The Marsh Mallow grows near salt marshes. It’s roots extrude a mucus-like goo that has long been prized for its medicinal powers. European apothecaries in the seventeenth and eighteenth century concocted sweet confections with marshmallow root which were prescribed for coughs and throat ailments.
But for candy purposes, there was a problem with marsh mallow: it doesn’t taste very good. By the 18th century, a new version of “marsh mallow paste” was being made with apple jelly or vegetable gums. Although these early marshmallows also incorporated beaten egg whites, they were much more dense and chewy than those we know today.
Marshmallow was a time consuming and difficult confection, and few confectioners had the know-how or the patience to produce marshmallow, so in the nineteenth century, unless you were fortunate to have a very skilled and devoted confectioner in your town, marshmallow would be unknown to you.
With the development of the starch mogul in the late 1800s, which allowed for easy moulding of the sticky marshmallow paste in starch-filled trays, marshmallows became more widely available. American confectioners developed new marshmallow recipes using gelatine and starch rather than more expensive gums. And behold: the American marshmallow, a fluffy, cloud-like, and inexpensive treat.
Love those marshmallows? Stay tuned, there’s much more coming in the Marshmallow Chronicles!
Marshmallow Confectionery History Sources: Marshmallow @ Made How; Laura Mason, Sugar Plums and Sorbets: The Prehistory of Sweets
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