July 22, 2011
Occasionally a discussion crops up over what constitutes “American food,” wherein some smarty-pants debunks the claim that [insert cherished culinary icon] originated here. I can just picture this person, pushing up her glasses and saying, “Well, actually…” (OK, sometimes this person is me.)
To such know-it-alls I say this: Back off the s’mores. As far as anyone can tell, the ultimate campfire treat is one food that’s as American as apple pie—and even apple pie isn’t an original American creation. But who else would think to sandwich a fire-blistered marshmallow and a chocolate bar between graham crackers, creating a delicious but incredibly sticky mess? If that’s not American ingenuity I don’t know what is.
Frankly, s’mores are a concoction that people of other nationalities often find mystifying; one commenter with the handle English Girl remarked on the blog Unclutterer, “I had no idea what s’mores are but reading through it sounds like a weird roasted combination of marshmallows and um ‘stuff’. Are Graham crackers a sort of savoury biscuit? Sorry but it sounds horrible!” Fine, more for us.
Though no one knows the identity of the genius who invented them (surely not the same person who gave them such a ridiculous name), the first recipe for “some mores” appeared in a Girl Scout booklet in the 1920s. Some sources say the Camp Fire Girls actually came up with the treat first; as a former vest-wearing member of the Shle-Ta tribe, it’s a story I’m inclined to believe.
Of the three main components of a s’more, only one is a natural-born American. Marshmallows date back to ancient Egypt (where they were made from the actual marsh mallow plant). Chocolate is of Mesoamerican origin. But Graham crackers were invented—or at least inspired—by a Connecticut Presbyterian minister, Rev. Sylvester Graham, in the 1820s. Sly Graham was a bit of a health nut and a prude to boot. He advocated a vegetarian diet that included unrefined wheat flour, which he believed would help suppress naughty carnal urges and “self-abuse.” If he were alive today he would probably keel over when he saw the orgy of sugar and refined carbs that is the s’more.
Although kids love roasting their own marshmallows, it usually takes an adult’s patience to do it just right. I define marshmallow perfection as a completely gooey interior encased in a lightly caramelized shell. Achieving this is a delicate art: If you try to rush things by sticking the marshmallow directly into the fire and igniting it, all you’ll have is a charred sponge. If you leave it near the fire too long, or tilt it at the wrong angle, you risk having it slide right into the embers.
Some people like to soften the chocolate by leaving it next to the fire. I’ve also seen people stick pre-assembled s’mores wrapped in foil close to the flames—not a bad idea if gooeyness is your main objective, but I would miss the crispy marshmallow exterior you can only get through unprotected proximity to fire.
Once, during a camping trip on Catalina Island, my friends and I experimented with substituting other candy bars for the chocolate. Peanut butter cups were a hit. Peppermint patties, less so. But I still prefer the original. Why mess with an American classic?
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