A Brief History
On August 30, 2018, we celebrate National Toasted Marshmallow Day, a day in late summer when we gather around the campfire with long forks or even sharpened sticks and toast our bubbly, gooey marshmallow treats. Be careful not to burn your mouth! Our more sophisticated marshmallow connoisseurs may ratchet things up a notch by making “Smores,” another gooey treat in which one smears melted, toasted marshmallows on a graham cracker with melted milk chocolate. MMMM! A tradition among campers and Scouts (Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts).
So what are those white, spongy cubes we call marshmallows made from? The ones you can buy today in the store are simple concoctions of sugar, water and gelatin, usually formed into cubes, either the standard size (about an inch on each side) or the miniature variety. Although the gooey stuff can be found in various other shapes and colors, or even within some other confection, the usual cubes are white with a light cornstarch coating to keep them from sticking together.
Originally marshmallows were made from the plant that gives them their name, Althaea officinalis, a plant found in Europe, North Africa and the Near East. Called marshmallow or marsh mallow, this plant was used as an ornamental plant as well as an important source of herbal medicine, with the flowers, leaves and roots all having various uses, usually for sore throat, gastric distress and mucous membrane irritation. In culinary use the flowers and leaves can be eaten raw in salads or added to various dishes, and the extract of the root (halawa) was used by Middle Easterners to flavor their halva confection, a sweet treat made in different ways by different cultures that is kind of fudge-like in consistency. The French version, called pate de guimauve, somewhat resembles modern marshmallows The ancestor of modern marshmallows were made from the sap pressed from marshmallow root whipped up with egg whites and fcorn starch or gelatin and sugar. In 1954 an American of Greek descent, Alex Doumak, invented an automated machine that made production of marshmallows faster and easier, resulting in mass production. Marshmallows are a sort of foam product, with air whipped into the mixture to make them somewhat fluffy.
Not only do humans love to eat marshmallows, toasted or otherwise, but so do many animals, such as bears, but feeding marshmallows to animals (especially bears!) is not recommended. The miniature variety of marshmallows, especially colorful dyed examples, are often used as fish bait.
Not only can you toast marshmallows over an open fire made from real wood (by far the best way), you can also toast marshmallows over a charcoal or gas stove if you have no option. Commercial electric heated machines are made specifically for toasting marshmallows, but they do not really have the same cachet as a real fire. Although we already said it, be careful not to burn your mouth! As evidenced by the fact that marshmallows can catch on fire when toasting, they are hot.
Are you a marshmallow fan? Have you sat around a campfire toasting the spongy cubes? Have you slapped together gooey and sloppy oh so sweet s’mores? Tell us your favorite marshmallow stories.
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For more information, please see…
Arce, Tricia and Joanie Simon. Marshmallow Heaven: Delicious, Unique, and Fun Recipes for Sweet Homemade Treats. Skyhorse Publishing, 2017.
Sever, Shauna. Marshmallow Madness!: Dozens of Puffalicious Recipes. Quirk Books, 2013.