January 12, 2011
It’s a marshmallow world in the winter when the snow comes to cover the ground—as has been the the case for parts of the southeastern United States that have been dealing with some serious snowstorms. At times like this, it might be best to stay indoors and indulge in actual marshmallows, be they floating atop some hot cocoa or roasted in front of a roaring fire. (Those who don’t have a fire handy—such as apartment-bound urban dwellers—can make do with a can of Sterno.) But as you chomp down on a s’more or daintily decapitate a Peep, do you ever stop to wonder where these fluffy confections came from? If you think they come from a factory, you’d—well—you’d be absolutely correct. But there’s a little bit more to it than that.
Marshmallow is actually a plant. I’m not trying to ruin a perfectly good guilty pleasure food by telling you are ingesting wholesome vegetable matter. However, there is a connection between the sugary stuff you know and love and Althaea officinalis, an herb that, as its more familiar name implies, likes to call marshy, wet environments home. It’s native to Europe and West Asia. Greek physician Dioscorides advised that marshmallow extracts be used in treating wounds and inflammations. During the Renaissance, extracts from the plant’s roots and leaves were used for medicinal purposes, namely as an anti-inflamatory and soothing agent for sore throats.
The modern marshmallow confection is a mid-19th century French invention and was a cross between medicinal lozenge and bonbon. Originally, the marshmallow plant’s gummy root juices were combined with eggs and sugar and then beaten into a foamy paste. The plant extracts were later replaced by gelatin, which still gave the candy its signature pillowy texture and, given its ready availability, allowed for quicker, less labor-intensive production of the candy. Marshmallows gained in popularity and by the 1920s, they inspired edible novelties—such as Moon Pies—as well as derivative products to satisfy the sweet tooth, namely the incredible, spreadable Marshmallow Fluff. Some marshmallow companies even imagined up whimsical countertop toasters to give their powder-white sweets that much-desired golden brown hue.
And in the late 1960s, marshmallows began to foretell the future. Well, sort of. Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel conducted a series of experiments where children were seated at the table with a single marshmallow set before them and told that they could either eat the treat right away or, if they could wait a few minutes, they could have two. The whole endeavor was meant to explore the mechanism of delayed gratification—and the kids who were able to resist temptation performed better academically and were more adept in maintaining social relationships. (This test has since been repeated.) You might not want to think about this study if you’re reading this and just cracking into a fresh bag of marshmallows to snack on.
With that food for thought, I will leave you with the dulcet tones of the Flufferettes, the namesake of a New England radio show that aired in the 1930s and 1940s that, in addition to featuring musical acts and comedy sketches, hawked Marshmallow Fluff. I think it’s definitely about time for a Fluffernutter sandwich.
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