The Gooey Story of S’mores

Though nobody quite agrees on where s’mores came from (or who gave them their silly name), it’s clear to me that the things could only have been invented by a kid. Nobody over ten years-old would ever think of squishing together a chocolate bar, a toasted marshmallow, and a pair of graham crackers, and calling it food.

That said, the s’more’s long yet vague history, dates back at least to 1927 when a recipe for the more formally designated “some mores” appeared in Tramping and Trailing with the Girl Scouts, a helpful tome which also includes instructions for building 12 different kinds of campfires. Other sources attribute the original recipe to the Campfire Girls; and there’s also an argument that the gooey treat has its origins in the Victorian era, when popular picks for desserts were “sandwich cookies” and sponge cakes, variously filled with jam, cream, or lemon curd.

Alternatively, if the jump from elegant tea cake to sticky campfire snack seems a little much, other inspirational possibilities include the Mallomar—a graham cracker cookie topped with a blob of marshmallow and coated with chocolate, manufactured by Nabisco and first sold in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1913; or the MoonPie—a pair of graham cracker cookies with a marshmallow filling, dipped in chocolate – that first went on the market in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1917.

Well, maybe. But my bet is still on a bunch of messily-experimental little girls.

By the time the Scouts were first scarfing down their s’mores, the marshmallow was no longer the healthful all-natural preparation it had been in ancient times. According to Tim Richardson’s Sweets: A History of Candy, the original marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis) was a swamp plant somewhat resembling a hollyhock, native to Europe and West Asia. Its roots produce a sticky white sap used medicinally for centuries as a sore-throat cure. In the Middle Ages, chunks of the marsh mallow root were candied to make “suckets,” the medieval version of cough drops.

In the mid-1800s, the culinarily adept French came up with the idea of turning marsh mallow sap into something that was simply good to eat, whipping it into a meringue-like froth with egg whites and sugar and pouring it into molds to form fat, squashy confections that Richardson describes as “halfway between air and toffee.” Producing these primal marshmallows was time-consuming and labor-intensive. They were accordingly expensive and only the upper classes got them.

By the late 1800s, however, the mallow plant extract was replaced by the more readily available gelatin, which is what keeps modern marshmallows so light and fluffy. The average marshmallow is over half just plain air. (Don’t believe it? Check out this experiment.) The gelatin – a breakdown product of collagen—provides the skeleton that holds the air bubbles securely in place. Cheap gelatin combined with faster production processes meant that marshmallows were now affordable, and—no longer an elite treat—they were soon increasingly ubiquitous.

By the 1890s, according to period newspaper reports, marshmallow roasts were the latest in summer fads. “The simplicity of this form of amusement is particularly charming,” reads a description of 1892. “One buys two or three pounds of marshmallows, invites half a dozen friends, and that is all the preparation required.” The proper means of consuming marshmallows, the author adds, is to nibble them directly off the end of the stick—or off the end of your neighbor’s stick, which may be why the author also touts the marshmallow roast as “an excellent medium for flirtation.”

The roasted marshmallow—and by extrapolation, the s’more—traditionally requires a campfire. (Unless, like New Zealand climber Simon Turner, you’re brave enough to roast your marshmallows over an active volcano.) Most of us, after a couple of incendiary experiments, come to terms with the best way to brown a marshmallow, though for those who don’t, the National Marshmallow Roasters Institute (which has branches in Sacramento, Columbus, and Paris) provides helpful tips.

Once you’ve mastered the marshmallow, the s’more is simply a matter of assembly. The original 1827 recipe (for 8) calls for eight sticks, 16 graham crackers, 8 bars of plain chocolate (each broken in half), and 16 marshmallows.

“Toast two marshmallows over the coals to a crisp gooey state and then put them inside a graham cracker and chocolate bar sandwich. The heat of the marshmallow between the halves of chocolate bar will melt the chocolate a bit.”

Nowadays alternative fillings for s’mores include everything from raspberry jam to peanut butter, hazelnut butter, Nutella, caramel, and lemon curd; substitutes for graham crackers include chocolate chip cookies and wheat crackers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, cautioning that the traditional s’more is hardly a healthy snack, proposes substituting low-fat vanilla yogurt and strawberries for the chocolate and marshmallow. The graham crackers, says the government, are still OK.

Or s’mores eaters can simply exercise restraint.

“Though it tastes like ‘some more,’” the 1827 directions conclude dampingly, “one is really enough.”

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