The Mallow in the Marsh
It’s strange, what you’ll accept simply because it was always there. Take that thing going up in flames over your campfire, the marshmallow. So ubiquitous, so socially embedded as a food of summer, so utterly weird. What’s even weirder is that the marshmallow, overtly industrial in shape, texture and multiyear shelf-life, got its start thousands of years ago in ancient Egypt.
There, in salt marshes on the edge of the Mediterranean, grew a six foot tall variety of hibiscus, or mallow, as it is known in Europe. Althaea officinalis is a flowering plant that is a perennial, or rather, its long, thick roots are, which means that while the foliage dies back each year, the roots remain and the roots are the star attraction.
They’re a famine food for one thing, common, nutritious, and pretty palatable when cooked with onions. But their primary use — as noted by the name althaea, from the Greek “to heal” — was as part of the medicine cabinet. They happen to be extremely rich in mucilage, a term which may be vaguely familiar, the kind of thing you once heard your grandmother talking about.
Mucilage is a sort of thick, gooey stuff made by most plants — if you’ve ever had okra, then you’ve certainly noticed the peculiar “slipperiness” of it. That’s because okra, like marsh mallow, is rich in mucilage. Our ancestors, being clever enough to understand if you just look long enough you’ll finally find a plant diligently working away to do the very thing that you need done, discovered a multiple uses for mucilage.
One is a glue that you can eat. Thin mucilage with water and you get the adhesive that Rowland Hill specified when he designed the first adhesive postage stamps in 1840. It also had a long commercial life as a school glue.
But the original, Egyptian, use, was as a demulcent, which is a little something that lays a soothing coating over mucous membranes, like the ones in your throat. The Egyptian marshmallow used sap from the plant to glue together honey and nuts into a sort of crunchy cough drop. From there, marsh mallow had a good run as a medicinal, used as a laxative, a poultice for inflammations, an ulcer treatment and to increase production of breast milk. It wasn’t until centuries later that we find the first thing that could, vaguely, be recognized as the primordial ancestor of our marshmallow.
This involved peeling the bark from a stem and then boiling the spongy pith in a sweet syrup, a process which yielded a soft, chewy sweet. Then, in the 19th Century, the French got ahold of this and decided that it could use improving. First, they extracted the sap and whipped air and syrup into it, before casting each marshmallow in an individual mold. Here, at last, was the first recognizable marshmallow. Pâte de guimauve was the kind of thing you’d find your local village sweet shop making up themselves, and it seems to have been fairly popular. Popular enough that the artisan production of marshmallows fatally attracted the attention of food manufacturers.
Yes, even in the 19th Century, and even in France, industrial food was lurking. What they did was reduce the labor-intensity of marshmallow-making by the simple expedient of removing the actual marsh mallow from the marshmallow. The ditched the plant for a mixture of corn starch and either egg whites (fancier) or gelatin (cheaper) and got busy with the newly invented starch mogul system. The starch mogul was an assembly line way of automatically casting sticky foods, using corn starch to keep things from sticking to the molds. (The same invention, by the way, enabled the invention of the Gummi Bear.)
A side effect of these industrial transformations is that the marshmallow moved up the food chain, from a totally plant-based food (yes, marshmallows were once vegan) to one that was, and still is, based on animal-based gelatin, primarily from cattle bones and pig skin. (Just like the marshmallow’s unlikely doppelgänger, the Gummi Bear.)
By the first couple decades of the 20th Century, marshmallows looked like just what we expect them to — except they came in rather lovely tins, which suggests that unlike our modern-day marshmallows, they were capable of becoming stale.
What’s intriguing about the marshmallow of Jay Gatsby’s era is that it’s a food that Jay Gatsby might have eaten. Looking at advertisements of the time, what you are struck by is how seriously marshmallows are taken. The tins from Campfire, for instance, proudly announce “the original FOOD Marshmallow,” while their promotional materials take pains to point out that they are “made with the very finest pure-food ingredients.” Shotwell’s, a brand lost to history, trumpets their “scientific” cold-batch process and goes on to detail how their marshmallows are made from “the purest granulated sugar, corn syrup, gelatin, water, vanilla essence — and nothing else.” I can only imagine that this is a sort of cultural memory hangover from the days when marshmallows were something vaguely medicinal, or at least “good for you.”
But perhaps the reason Campfire is still with us while Shotwell’s has shuffled off the mortal coil, is that one Loretta Scott Crew appears in the 1927 edition of “Tramping and Trailing With the Girl Scouts” as the originator of a recipe called a S’more. The truth of this origin myth is not so certain, but we know now that the modern marshmallow had found its true calling by risking combustion over the campfire flames.
Today’s Campfire (the brand) Marshmallow isn’t the same as the “pure food” one that Loretta immortalized. Nineteen fifties food technology in the form of an “extruder” now hoses them out to be cut and bagged, and the ingredients opt for less expensive commodities than the “purest granulated sugar.” One of the effects of that kind of technological enhancement is that a modern marshmallow will remain “fresh” for two years after being exposed to air, which is a profound misunderstanding of the entire concept of fresh.
In a way, this has opened the door for things to come full circle. You can now find vegan marshmallows again, and the artisan marshmallow has become a sort of signature item in places like Manhattan’s City Bakery, where setting one of their marshmallows adrift on your hot chocolate will set you back a dollar.
So if you find yourself at the counter in the City Bakery, wondering if you should put an iceberg of marshmallow in that ocean of hot chocolate, consider this. Turns out that the marshmallow (plant) belongs to the malvaceae family, which so happens to include the cocoa plant. So go ahead. Marshmallow and chocolate were clearly always meant to be together.
The Plant Itself by Bambo
Guimauve in the Window by Jamie Anderson
Campfire Tin by Dazz DeLaMorte
Curtain of Mallow by Dennis Miyashiro
Hot Chocolate by David Vo
Shallow Focus S’more by Dottie B.
Guimauve Colors by Stéfan
Blow Dry S’mores by Renée S.