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The Long, Sweet History of Marshmallows

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Springy, sweet, and puffed full of air, marshmallows as we know them are a pretty unnatural (albeit delicious) treat. It turns out, though, that the campfire-friendly confections originated thousands of years ago with the most basic of ingredients.

Start with the fact that the marshmallow is actually a plant. Found mostly in Europe and western Asia, Althaea officinalis grows as high as six feet tall and sprouts light pink flowers. A member of the mallow family, it grows mainly in wet or marshy areas—and thus, "marsh" meets "mallow."

Beginning around 9th century BCE, the Greeks used marshmallows to heal wounds and soothe sore throats. A balm made from the plant’s sap was often applied to toothaches and bee stings. The plant’s medicinal uses grew more varied in the centuries that followed: Arab physicians made a poultice from ground-up marshmallow leaves and used it as an anti-inflammatory. The Romans found that marshmallows worked well as a laxative, while numerous other civilizations found it had the opposite effect on one’s libido. By the Middle Ages, marshmallows served as a treatment for everything from upset stomachs to chest colds and insomnia.

Althaea officinalisMelanie Shaw via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The Ancient Egyptians were the first ones to make a sweet treat from the plant, when they combined marshmallow sap with nuts and honey. The dish bore no resemblance to today’s marshmallows, and was reserved for the nobility. The gods were supposedly big fans, as well.

For centuries afterwards, the plant served as a food source only in times of famine. In contrast to the marshmallow candy, the marshmallow plant is tough and very bitter. In 19th century France, confectioners married the plant’s medicinal side with the indulgent qualities revealed by the Egyptians. Pâté de guimauve was a spongy-soft dessert made from whipping dried marshmallow roots with sugar, water, and egg whites. Sold as a healthful treat in lozenge and bar form, the guimauve, as it was known, quickly became a hit. There was just one problem: Drying and preparing the marshmallow stretched production to a day or two. To cut down the time, confectioners substituted gelatin for the plant extract.

With production streamlined, marshmallows made their way to the U.S. in the late 1800s. Soon after arriving, the recipe was tweaked to make marshmallow crème (which, in keeping with the marshmallow's health food origins, was once advertised as a wrinkle cream). In 1927, the Girl Scouts Handbook came out with a recipe for "Some More." It instructed readers to "toast two marshmallows over the coals to a crisp gooey state and then put them inside a graham cracker and chocolate bar sandwich." The name was soon shortened, and s'mores have been an American campfire tradition ever since.

The next leap for marshmallows came in the 1950s, when manufacturer Alex Doumak developed a process called extrusion that forced marshmallow mixture through metal tubes, shaping it into long ropes that were then cut to uniform size. The process gave marshmallows their cylindrical shape and it pumped even more air into them, giving them the soft-but-firm quality that we associate with the treat today. Kraft’s "Jet Puffed" tagline rebranded this process, which subjects the marshmallow mixture to gas blasts at 200 pounds per square inch.

Thanks to the wonders of industrial processing, Americans today consume more than 90 million pounds of marshmallows every year. Companies now make all-natural marshmallows using vegan gelatin and alternative sweeteners. You can also make your own marshmallows with some corn syrup, granulated sugar, gelatin, and a few other ingredients.

If you’ve got time and the right equipment, you can even make marshmallows the really old-fashioned way, using marshmallow root. Step one: "Make sure the marshmallow roots aren't moldy or too woody." Good luck with that!

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Courtesy New District
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Food
Say ‘Cheers’ to the Holidays With This 24-Bottle Wine Advent Calendar
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Courtesy New District

This year, eschew your one-tiny-chocolate-a-day Advent calendar and count down to Christmas the boozy way. An article on the Georgia Straight tipped us off to New District’s annual wine Advent calendars, featuring 24 full-size bottles.

Each bottle of red, white, or sparkling wine is hand-picked by the company’s wine director, with selections from nine different countries. Should you be super picky, you can even order yourself a custom calendar, though that will likely add to the already-high price point. The basic 24-bottle order costs $999 (in Canadian dollars), and if you want to upgrade from cardboard boxes to pine, that will run you $100 more.

If you can’t quite handle 24 bottles (or $999), the company is introducing a 12-bottle version this year, too. For $500, you get 12 reds, whites, rosés, and sparkling wines from various unnamed “elite wine regions.”

With both products, each bottle is numbered, so you know exactly what you should be drinking every day if you really want to be a stickler for the Advent schedule. Whether you opt for 12 or 24 bottles, the price works out to about $42 per bottle, which is somewhere in between the “I buy all my wines based on what’s on sale at Trader Joe’s” level and “I am a master sommelier” status.

If you want to drink yourself through the holiday season, act now. To make sure you receive your shipment before December 1, you’ll need to order by November 20. Get it here.

[h/t the Georgia Straight]

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Wally Gobetz, flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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A Brief History of the Pickleback Shot
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Wally Gobetz, flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It's sour. It's briny. For some, it's nauseating. For others, a godsend.

It's the pickleback shot, an unusual combination of drinking whiskey and pickle brine that has quickly become a bartending staple. Case in point? Kelly Lewis, manager of New York City's popular Crocodile Lounge, estimates she sells at least 100 pickleback shots every week.

Pickleback loyalists may swear by it, but how did this peculiar pairing make its way into cocktail culture? On today's National Pickle Day, we hit the liquor history books to find out.

PICKLEBACK HISTORY, AS WE KNOW IT

As internet legend has it, Reggie Cunningham, a former employee of Brooklyn dive bar Bushwick Country Club, invented the shot in March 2006. He was half bartending, half nursing a hangover with McClure's pickles, when a customer challenged him to join her in doing a shot of Old Crow bourbon whiskey followed by a shot of pickle juice as a chaser. As he nostalgically tells YouTube channel Awesome Dreams, "the rest is history."

Cunningham went on to introduce the pairing to more and more customers, and the demand grew so much that he decided to charge an extra dollar per shot, just for the addition of pickle brine. After that, the mixture spread like wildfire, with bars across the world from New York to California and China to Amsterdam adding "pickleback" to their menus.

THE PICKLEBACK'S UNCLEAR ORIGIN

Two shot glasses topped with small pickles.

Neil Conway, flickr // CC BY 2.0

Sure, Cunningham may have named it the pickleback shot, but after reviewing mixed reports, it appears pickle juice as a chaser is hardly novel. In Texas, for example, pickle brine was paired with tequila well before Cunningham's discovery, according to Men’s Journal. And in Russia, pickles have long been used to follow vodka shots, according to an NPR report on traditional Russian cuisine.

Unfortunately, no true, Britannica-approved record of the pickleback's origin exists, like so many do for other popular drinks, from the Manhattan to the Gin Rickey; it's internet hearsay—and in this case, Cunningham's tale is on top.

SO, WHY PICKLES?

Not sold yet? Sure, a pickle's most common companion is a sandwich, but the salty snack and its brine have terrific taste-masking powers.

"People who don't like the taste of whiskey love taking picklebacks because they completely cut the taste, which makes the shots very easy to drink," Lewis told Mental Floss. "Plus, they add a bit of salt, which blends nicely with the smooth flavor of Jameson."

Beyond taste masking, pickle juice is also a commonly used hangover cure, with the idea being that the salty brine will replenish electrolytes and reduce cramping. In fact, after a famed NFL "pickle juice game" in 2000, during which the Philadelphia Eagles destroyed the Dallas Cowboys in 109 degree weather (with the Eagles crediting their trainer for recommending they drink the sour juice throughout the game), studies have seemed to confirm that drinks with a vinegary base like pickle juice can help reduce or relieve muscle cramping.

WAYS TO PARTAKE

While core pickleback ingredients always involve, well, pickles, each bar tends to have a signature style. For example, Lewis swears by Crocodile Lounge's mix of pickle brine and Jameson; it pairs perfectly with the bar's free savory pizza served with each drink.

For Cunningham, the "Pickleback OG," it's Old Crow and brine from McClure's pickles. And on the more daring side, rather than doing a chaser shot of pickle juice, Café Sam of Pittsburgh mixes jalapeños, homemade pickle juice, and gin together for a "hot and sour martini."

If pickles and whiskey aren't up your alley, you can still get in on the pickle-liquor movement with one of the newer adaptations, including a "beet pickleback" or—gulp!—the pickled-egg and Jägermeister shot, also known as an Eggermeister.

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