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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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Oreo, Amazon
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Food
Try New Oreo Flavors Each Month With a Cookie Club Subscription Box
Oreo, Amazon
Oreo, Amazon

The best cookies are the kind that are delivered directly to your doorstep. Now, as delish reports, the Oreo cookie brand is offering that service to its customers on a monthly basis. Oreo fans who sign up for the Cookie Club will receive a curated box of goodies around the beginning of the month.

Each subscription package comes in a box decorated with the cookie’s iconic design. Inside recipients will find two snacks, which can be any combination of the brand’s many cookies and candy bar flavors (such as classic Oreo and golden Oreo cookies as their examples).

The delivery also includes a recipe card and an Oreo-inspired gift. That gift could be a mug, a hat, a game, or any piece of Oreo-branded swag the company can fit into the box. According to one Amazon user, the box for January included cinnamon Oreo cookies, chocolate hazelnut Oreos, Oreo hot cocoa mix, Oreo socks, and a recipe for cinnamon Oreo mug cake.

The subscription costs more than it would to purchase the cookies from a store, but for true fans the higher price tag may be worth it. The Cookie Club is an opportunity to try out new Oreo flavors that you may have had trouble finding otherwise. It also makes a great gift for any adventurous cookie fans in your life. Subscriptions are available to purchase exclusively through Amazon in 3-month, 6-month, or 12-month packages, with the prices for each coming out to around $20 a box.

[h/t delish]

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©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Inside the Kitchen of Thomas Jefferson's Acclaimed—and Enslaved—Chef James Hemings
 ©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello
©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

James Hemings once prepared lavish dishes for America's founding fathers at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's Virginia plantation. Though enslaved, he trained in France to become one of colonial America's most accomplished chefs. Now, archaeologists have uncovered the kitchen where Hemings created his elaborate banquets, LiveScience reports.

Researchers at Monticello are conducting a long-term effort, the Mountaintop Project, to restore plantation premises, including slave quarters, to their original appearance. Archaeologists excavated a previously filled-in cellar in the main house's South Pavilion, where they found artifacts like bones, toothbrushes, beads, and shards of glass and ceramics. Underneath layers of dirt, experts also uncovered the kitchen's original brick floor, remnants of a fireplace, and the foundations of four waist-high stew stoves.

"Stew stoves are the historic equivalent of a modern-day stovetop or cooking range," archaeological field researcher manager Crystal Ptacek explains in an online video chronicling the find. Each contained a small hole for hot coals; centuries later, the cellar floor still contains remains of ash and charcoal from blazing fires. Hemings himself would have toiled over these stoves.

During the colonial period, wealthy families had their slaves prepare large, labor-intensive meals. These multi-course feasts required stew stoves for boiling, roasting, and frying. Archaeologists think that Jefferson might have upgraded his kitchen after returning from Paris: Stew stoves were a rarity in North America, but de rigueur for making haute French cuisine.

Hemings traveled with Jefferson to France in the 1780s, where for five years he was trained in the French culinary arts. There, Hemings realized he was technically a free man. He met free black people and also learned he could sue for his freedom under French law, according to NPR.

And yet he returned to the U.S. to cook for Jefferson's family and guests, perhaps because he didn't want to be separated from his family members at Monticello, including his sister, Sally. He later negotiated his freedom from Jefferson and trained his brother Peter as his replacement. Hemings ended up cooking for a tavern keeper in Baltimore, and in 1801, shortly after turning down an offer from now-president Jefferson to be his personal chef, he died by suicide.

"We're thinking that James Hemings must have had ideals and aspirations about his life that could not be realized in his time and place," Susan Stein, senior curator at Monticello, told NPR in 2015. "And those factors probably contributed to his unhappiness and his depression, and ultimately to his death."

Hemings contributed to early America's culinary landscape through dessert recipes like snow eggs and by introducing colonial diners to macaroni and cheese, among other dishes. He also assisted today's historians by completing a 1796 inventory of Monticello's kitchen supplies—and he's probably left further clues in the estate's newly uncovered kitchen, says Gayle Jessup White, Monticello's community engagement officer—and one of James's relatives.

"My great-great-great-grandfather Peter Hemings learned to cook French cuisine from his brother James on this stove," White tells Mental Floss. "It was a spiritual moment for me to walk into the uncovered remains of Monticello's first kitchen, where my ancestors spent much of their lives. This discovery breathes life into the people who lived, worked and died at Monticello, and I hope people connect with their stories."

[h/t Live Science]

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