I T WAS A TOUCHING DISPLAY OF REVERENCE. When the hallowed Olympic flame, hand-carried from Greece to Canada in 1988, was left within easy reach of the masses, they roasted marshmallows over it.
The incident was another odd-ball moment in the 4000-year history of mankind’s favorite edible Styrofoam substitute. Since its invention in ancient Egypt, the marshmellow has changed dramatically. The 2000 B.C. version—offered to gods and royalty—was made with honey and the sap of the mallow plant, a hibiscus relative that grows in swamps (hence marsh mallow).
The plant’s botanical name is Althaeaofficinalic, loosely translated as “healer from the laboratory.” Indeed, mallow syrups and ointments were used to treat ulcers, sore throats and—by 1806—kidney ailments. Mallow is still an ingredient in herbal pills and lozenges. The modern marshmallow was introduced in France, a few decades after the death of Napoleon (who, if that was an ulcer he was clutching in all those paintings, could have used a few mallows). French candy makers whipped and molded the fluffy stuff from mallow sap, egg whites, cornstarch, sugar and water.
Around the turn of the century, as marshmallow mass production began, the sap was replaced by gelatin—and the candy was formed in wooden or steel molds. Marshmallow crème also grew in popularity, finally peaking during World War II as a substitute for heavily rationed sugar. (Sweet as they are, marshmallows are 8o-percent air. “That’s how smart we are,” a marshmallow executive told David Letterman in 1991. “We sell air.”)
The next quantum leap in marshmallow technology came in 1954 when Alex Doumakes, of Doumak, Inc., developed a secret cooking, extrusion and cooling process that slashed production time from 24 hours to 6o minutes. Instead of pouring the warm marshmallow foam into molds, Doumakes pushed it through pipes, forming marshmallow ropes that were dusted with non-stick cornstarch, cooled and guillotined into bite-size chunks. (The white powder that coats each marshmallow is still cornstarch—not sugar, as many suppose.) Unable to keep up with demand for his less expensive product, Doumakes licensed the patent to food conglomerate Kraft. He later sued Kraft for patent infringement and—in the ensuing court battle —the secret marshmallowmatic process was made public.
Today only a handful of U.S. marshmallow companies are still in business (down from 30 in 1955). But modern marshmallows come in a plethora of flavors, including traditional vanilla, chocolate, toasted coconut and such fruity concoctions as “astroberry” and “laser lime.” There are also kosher mallows. Indiana- based Kidd & Company employs a special marshmallow rabbi, to certify that its Passover candies are manufactured with beef-based gelatin instead of the normal pork base.
It is only in the past several years, however, that the ancient confection has taken some truly weird turns:
• Michigan Stadium outlawed the pillowy sweets at football games after
students stuffed them with coins and threw them at folks on the field.
• At a Minneapolis bar in 1979, former New York Yankees manager Billy Martin cold-cocked a Doumak marshmallow rep who asked if the baseball legend dyed his hair. “What’s a big guy like you doing selling marshmallows?” Martin retorted before decking him.
• A pair of baby elephants with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
circus refused every brand of marshmallows except Kraft’s Jet-Puffed.
• Helicopters drop tens of thousands of marshmallows onto suburbs of Detroit as part of Easter celebrations every year, thus raising the question: what velocity would a falling marshmallow have to achieve in order to self-toast? (Answer: much faster than it could ever fall, because its velocity is limited by wind
The epicenter of marshmallow madness lies in Indiana’s Noble County, home to two rival manufacturing plants (Kraft and Kidd). On Marshmallow Lane in the small city of Ligoflier, Kidd & Company’s factory churns out enough white blobs each year to circle the globe nearly twice, says company president Charlie Kidd. (Kraft, the leading manufacturer, declined to reveal its marshmallow output.)
Ligonier also has an annual Marshmallow Festival, complete with marshmallow golfing contests (bring your old clubs), a parade and some of the world’s largest marshmallows. In 1993, Kidd diverted its entire assembly line into one giant aluminum mold and created a 671-pound marshmallow. The record-setting glob, which took a full week to solidify, was regarded with awe by those who made the pilgrimage to see it. After the festival, it was chopped up and fed to hogs.
Last year, 1994, the company, which proclaims marshmallows “the funnest food in the world,” produced the planet’s biggest bag of the things, a seven-by-eleven foot monstrosity packed with marshmallows the size of basketballs. Kidd’s other products include such innovations as Smurfmallows (blue blobs that were a marketing flop), Martianmal of lows (saucer-shaped candies in flavors of “orbit orange” and “lunar lemon”) and Mickeymallows (produced for Euro Disney).
Flavored versions do well in Europe, but that’s just a trickle of the market. Canada and the United States dwarf the rest of the world in overall marshmallow consumption, Kidd says, with Northern states outselling Southern ones—and Utah leading them all. As for the size of marshmallows, sales of large and miniature ones are about equally divided, with the behemoths faring better during summer (peak roasting season) and the dwarfs in winter (peak cocoa and baking season).
Indeed, the marshmallow has become such a cultural icon that Smithsonian staff members toasted the great white globule last year at their “Conference on Stuff” (previous honorees: Jell-O and peanut butter).
The April Fools’ Day gathering in Washington, D.C., covered such topics as “The Marshmallow in Midwestern Male Courtship Rituals” and “The Secret Meaning of Marshmallows” (in which the speaker hypothesized a link between “recreational use of marshmallows and the development of the automotive air bag”).
In yet another presentation, Gary Aronsen showed slides of prehistoric marsh-mallows being attacked by dinosaurs and dissected by scientists. He said he was on the brink of discovering a genetic connection between the giant and the pygmy species, but couldn’t finish his research because “my dog ate all the evidence.”
LOS ANGELES TIMES
Copyright @ , March 3. 1995
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