Candy Salad (Marshmallow Chronicles, Part IV)
The rage for all things marshmallow that newspapers noted in the early 1900s also inspired creative cooks to propose new ways of incorporating marshmallow into desserts. While candy promoters sometimes struggled to have their products accepted as “good food,” in the case of marshmallow the passage between candy and pantry staple seemed exceptionally smooth.
The years of marshmallow’s transition from specialty confection to national candy craze were also the years of stunning innovation in American cooking. The movement known as “domestic science” advocated a rational approach to cooking that emphasized consistency, nutritive value, uniformity, and blandness and rejected the traditional, the intuitive, and the flavorful. Untamed, messy, irregular foods were not modern or hygienic. The task of the scientific cook was to regulate, control, and master her ingredients.
At the pinnacle of turn of the century scientific cooking stood white sauce. There was no dish that could not be improved by the addition of a coating of white sauce, a bland mixture of milk, butter and flour. And while marshmallow was perhaps slightly less versatile, to a generation of scientific cooks trained at the knee of white sauce, its white, bland appeal must have been irresistible. Just as white sauce improved every meat and vegetable, so would marshmallow improve every cake, pudding and ice cream.
At first, the marshmallow incursion was limited to the most simple and straightforward sorts of additions. Fanny Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cook book included a recipe for “marshmallow cake” in 1896, yellow cake with a marshmallow crème in between the layers. Recipes for marshmallow cakes and marshmallow frostings were published several times in the Boston Daily Globe’s “Housekeeper” column in the early 1900s, suggesting that home made cakes featuring marshmallows were a popular dessert item.
The cake recipes added sweet to sweet: marshmallow’s pure sugar hit would intensify the dessert sensation offered by tender cakes and succulent sugar frostings.
But marshmallow would not be stopped. By the ‘teens, the layering of sweet on sweet led to dessert innovations like gingerbread with melted marshmallow, ice cream re-frozen with melted marshmallow then topped with marshmallow, and cakes with names like “Ecstasy” or “Heavenly Pudding” which combined “marshmallows, candied fruit, macaroons, white cake, gelatin, and whipped cream in one fashion or another.”
These and other marshmallow creations are described by Laura Shapiro in Perfection Salad, an indispensable history of the emergence of “scientific cookery” at the turn of the century. Shapiro’s book explains the trends and attitudes that would pave the way for a new phenomenon that flourished at mid-century: Candy Cookery. The marshmallow was just the beginning.
As a distinctively American style of cooking and presentation took hold of American stomachs and American kitchens in the early 1900s, sweet flavors were less and less confined to the final course. The versatile marshmallow presented the inventive cook with sweetness, volume, and texture, but no particular flavor or color to intrude on other ingredients.
Nothing was immune from marshmallow improvement. The line between dessert and salad quickly blurred. Shapiro describes Fanny Farmer’s famous Los Angeles Fruit Salad: canned pineapple, grapes, walnuts, and marshmallows, “an innovation in sweetening that was remarkable even by [Farmer’s] own standards” (Shapiro 194). And many marshmallow concoctions defied categorization entirely. Shapiro describes a Boston Cooking School Magazine recipe for cream cheese and marshmallow sandwiches to be served for tea, as well as the mania for toasted marshmallows stuffed with raisins as a luncheon buffet specialty. Such culinary innovations seemed to fall entirely outside traditional categories of salad, dessert, or even candy.
Marshmallows were destined for great things in the kitchen. By 1913, the grocery magazine Table Talk was pushing marshmallows as a regular pantry staple. In an article titled “Marshmallow Mixtures” Eva Alice Miller scolds the cooks of America for their narrow marshmallow prejudice:
Many housekeepers consider marshmallows simply a confection, and make no use of them in their cooking. They are very useful, however, in many ways, and make a pleasing variety in the bill of fare.
Alongside the pudding and pie recipes, Miller included instructions for Marshmallow Omlette, Marshmallow Toast, Marshmallow Salad, all of which would seem at home on a breakfast or lunch plate.
Marshmallow cooking was no joke. Witness this antique marshmallow tin for Gordon’s Household Marshmallows (offered for sale by Rion’s Relics). It is big enough to hold ten pounds of the puffy stuff. Eat up, America!
For more on turn of the century ideas about American cookery, see Laura Shapiro, Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century (1986; University of California, 2009).