This summer, millions of marshmallows will be toasted over fires across America. Many will be used as an ingredient in the quintessential summer snack: the s’more.
Huddling around a campfire and eating gooey marshmallows and warm chocolate sandwiched between two graham crackers may feel like a primeval tradition.
But every part of the process – including the coat hanger we unbend to use as a roasting spit – is a product of the Industrial Revolution.
The oldest ingredient in the s'more’s holy trinity is the marshmallow, a sweet that gets its name from a plant called, appropriately enough, the marsh mallow. Marsh mallow, or Althea officinalis, is a plant indigenous to Eurasia and Northern Africa. For thousands of years, the root sap was boiled, strained and sweetened to cure sore throats or simply be eaten as a treat.
The white and puffy modern marshmallow looks much like its ancient ancestor. But for hundreds of years, creation of marshmallows was very time-consuming. Each marshmallow had to be manually poured and molded, and they were a treat that only the wealthy could afford. By the mid-19th century, the process had become mechanized and machines could make them so cheaply that they were included in most penny candy selections. Today the marshmallow on your s’more contains no marsh mallow sap at all. It’s mostly corn syrup, cornstarch and gelatin.
Chocolate is another ancient food. Mesoamericans have been eating or drinking it for 3,000 years. The Europeans who encountered indigenous people in Mexico in the 1500s noted that chocolate was used to treat numerous ailments ranging from dysentery and indigestion, to fatigue and dyspepsia.
But again, it was the Industrial Revolution that made chocolate cheap enough and palatable enough for the average person. The chocolate that the Mesoamericans ate was dark, grainy and tended to be somewhat bitter.
In 1875, a candlemaker-turned-chocolatier named Daniel Peter invented a process to mix milk with chocolate. He then added some more sugar, and the modern milk chocolate bar was born. Peter’s company eventually merged with Henri Nestle’s two companies, and Peter’s invention was dubbed the Nestle chocolate bar. It proved to be so much more popular than the darker bars on the market that other candy companies, from Cadbury to Hershey, released their own versions.