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'Morsels for the gods': The delicious history of roasting marshmallows

Machine-made marshmallows are a 20th-century invention, but the "jolly good time" of gathering friends to roast the sweets was a hot summer trend decades earlier.

On the New Jersey shore 125 years ago, it was 'the newest thing in summer resort diversions'

Long before modern marshmallows could be bought in a supermarket, having a marshmallow roast was a summer fad. (Getty Images)

If summer finds you sitting around a campfire, patiently waiting for your marshmallow to brown, here's a story to tell.

Roasting marshmallows goes back decades before the machine-extruded candy we know was invented.

It predates daylight time, both world wars and the discovery of X-rays.

You could even call it a hot summer trend — 125 years ago.

"'Marshmallow roasts' are the newest thing in summer resort diversions," announced the New York World on Aug. 5, 1892, in a dispatch from Asbury Park on the New Jersey shore.

"The simplicity of this form of amusement is particularly charming ... the idea is sure to grow in favour."

Some things haven't changed — like the care needed to avoid a flaming ball of sugar — but the marshmallows themselves have undergone a major transformation, from expensive confection to cheap treat and back.

Asbury Park, seen here around 1910, was one of the seaside resorts in New Jersey where 'marshmallow roasts' became all the rage in the 1890s, according to newspaper archives. (Bain News Service/Library of Congress)

Medicine to meringue

Marshmallows take their name from a plant with sticky sap that's been used medicinally for millenniums.

But sorry, that doesn't mean today's sweet has healing properties.

The marshmallow plant has been used medicinally for thousands of years, but it's not an ingredient in today's marshmallows. (Lee Reich/Associated Press)

"There's archeological evidence going back a couple thousand years, so we know the plant itself was used, but what we think of as a marshmallow today is really an invention of the 20th century," said culinary historian Andrew F. Smith.

Its predecessor was whipped up in 19th-century French kitchens, where chefs are said to have created an expensive meringue-like confection with egg whites, sugar and marshmallow sap.

Commercial marshmallows, loosely based on that idea, didn't arrive until 1917 when a Milwaukee company started selling tins of Campfire Marshmallows, said Smith.

So in 1890s America — as what several newspapers called the "jolly good time" of a marshmallow roast started catching on — marshmallows were neither cheap nor universally easy to find.

"In any case, they are expensive, a fact which would deter many in planning a roast," wrote the Goshen (Ind.) Daily Democrat in 1898.

The newspaper instructed the home cook to make them with sugar, egg whites, gum arabic and "tincture of marshmallow," while other recipes from the time dropped the sap.

Campfire Marshmallows, which issued this cookbook in the 1930s, was the first commercial brand of marshmallows in 1917, said culinary historian Andrew F. Smith. (RustyCurios/Etsy)

Friends, a fire and sharp sticks

Even if the candy of the 1890s was quite different from today's marshmallows, which use gelatin instead of egg or sap, the ritual of roasting is remarkably familiar.

The first step, of course, is gathering friends around a fire.

"When the fire is blazing merrily, or, better still, when it has died down to red embers, each member of the party takes a sharpened stick and affixes upon the end of it a marshmallow," wrote the World's 1892 trend piece.

"The most interesting point about the process is that the marshmallows, in slowly roasting, swell up to considerably more than their normal size.

"When done, they are morsels for the gods."

Local newspapers, including this one from Rochester, Ind., trumpeted the hot marshmallow roasting trend. (Rochester Daily Republican)

This wasn't wilderness camping, but an evening's entertainment for "the younger element," as the New York Times put it in 1899. That element gathered around beach bonfires at New Jersey seaside resorts popular with the middle class.

Nibbling another's marshmallow made it "an excellent medium for flirtation."

Marshmallow roasts were especially popular with 'the younger element,' the New York Times noted in 1899. (Getty Images)

Cheap sweets

An important backdrop to this trend — and the march toward cheaper marshmallows ever since — is the cost of their prime ingredient: sugar.

"The price of sugar goes down every decade during the 19th century and early 20th century," said Smith, author of Sugar: A Global History.

Sugar production was being industrialized, reducing the need for labour and yielding "huge, huge production" by the early 20th century, said Smith.

In a patent filed in 1956, candy maker Alexander J. Doumak describes the marshmallow extrusion process he invented, making it faster and cheaper to make the popular sweet. (U.S. Patent 2,847,311)

Today's mass marshmallows — made even cheaper by an "extrusion" process invented  in the 1950s — can be sold in big plastic bags and still make money for candy makers, said the historian.

"Whatever you put into the bag is just virtually pure profit."

By that decade, big marshmallow brands including Campfire, Doumak and Kraft's "Jet-Puffed" were all in production. None of those companies were available for interviews.

Modern machine-extruded marshmallows were invented in the 1950s, but companies have introduced new shapes and colours. (Shutterstock)

'It's another level'

If this history makes you long for a taste of the pre-mechanized marshmallows, hand-made options are back, thanks to artisanal foodies.

Joanna McIntyre of Vancouver company Goodmallows adds grass-fed bovine gelatin to her industrial mixer, after flavouring it with crushed organic raspberries from Abbotsford, B.C. (Lisa Johnson/CBC)

"I was just flabbergasted at how much better they were than the ones we grew up with," said Joanna McIntyre, 32, who made her first pan of marshmallows four years ago and now runs Vancouver company Goodmallows.

"It shouldn't even be called the same thing."

They're more delicate — and of course, expensive — than the big brands, so is this really something to dangle over a fire?

"Highly recommended," said McIntyre, pulling out a blowtorch to deliver a caramelized crust.

"If you roast mine, the flavours intensify … it's another level."

The end result — warm, gooey and browned — leaves no doubt why the seaside trend caught on 125 summers ago.

The surprisingly long history of roasting marshmallows

4 years ago
2:02
Marshmallows have been a hot summer trend for nearly 125 years. 2:02

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lisa Johnson is an editor and senior writer at CBC News, and a producer of CBC Radio's What On Earth. She enjoys making sense of complicated things and has also reported for CBC TV and radio in B.C. with a specialty in science, nature, and the environment. Get in touch at Lisa.Johnson@cbc.ca or through Twitter at @lisasj.

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