Sunday, September 16, 2012


On one of the delightful reruns of Julia Child shows, she and Jacques Pepin make a turkey dinner with all the traditional side dishes. As she heaps sweet potatoes into a serving dish, she says something like this to the audience, "These are plain mashed sweet potatoes, but you could make candied sweet potatoes with marshmallows. I love candied sweet potatoes."

Pepin says "I don't like marshmallows," and she answers, "Of course not, you're French."

I've been aware for ages that French people generally don't like marshmallows -- I've probably already mentioned somewhere in this blog how a French friend trying a toasted marshmallow said "It's like a jellyfish."

But here's the odd thing: the French invented marshmallows as we know them today, which in French are called guimauves. According to "It's a Marshmallow World," in Smithsonian: "The modern marshmallow confection is a mid-19th century French invention and was a cross between medicinal lozenge and bonbon."

Like the English word marshmallow, the French guimauve is the name of a marsh plant whose root produces a sticky substance. An extract of this substance was originally used to provide the unique texture of marshmallows -- sticky but firm, I guess you could say. Gelatine was soon substituted for the extract of plant roots, and for a long time, the classic marshmallow or guimauve was made by confectioners. I'm curious how its popularity grew in the US while obviously declining or maybe never taking off in France.

Use of the marshmallow plant (illustration at right from Wikipedia -- scientific name Althaea officinalis) has a long history. Smithsonian: "Greek physician Dioscorides advised that marshmallow extracts be used in treating wounds and inflammations. During the Renaissance, extracts from the plant’s roots and leaves were used for medicinal purposes, namely as an anti-inflamatory and soothing agent for sore throats." Wikipedia says that the Romans considered them a delicacy.

Today's New York Times Magazine article "Who Made that Marshmallow?" contains the most recent history of how marshmallows are made. The 1950s saw the development of industrial processes to "jet puff" the marshmallows (note the words "Jet Puffed" on the marshmallow bag in the top photo). An invention created a series of machines that forced a "marshmallow slurry through tubes, subjected it to blasts of gas at 200 pounds per square inch, extruded it into long tails and then cut it into bite-size chunks."

The traditional mixture of sugar, egg white, and gelatine required a long and labor-intensive treatment to produce marshmallows, though marshmallows appear to have been mass produced early in the 20th century, when products like Mallomars were introduced. A brief history of Smores says that camping was growing in popularity and the ingredients -- marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate bars -- were quite portable. I remember carefully packed boxes of Campfire marshmallows with two layers of around 10 marshmallows each, probably when they were not quite as speedily and cheaply produced.

So I wonder, what were the French doing in 1927 when the Girl Scout Handbook published the first recipe for S'Mores? In 1919 when "a booklet from the Barrett Company on Sweet Potato and Yams ... suggests adding marshmallows to candied yams"? (Referenced here) In 1913 when Nabisco made the first Mallomars? What about Whippets, moon pies, Peeps, and those jellyfish-like toasted marshmallows? I guess they were eating mousse au chocolate, grilling steaks, and maybe avoiding the yams as well as the candied part.

And the French still hand-make their marshmallows -- for a photo see this blog post.

1 comment:

~~louise~~ said...

When it comes to me and marshmallows Mae, I must confess, we have a love/hate relationship. Right now, I'm not liking them too much not even Mallomars my one time favorite. I don't know what it is but they seem to have gotten sweeter if that's at all possible.

I don't have any theories as to why they never took off in France especially since as you say, they did "invent" the process of using them in confections. Although I'm pretty sure marshmallow root was experimented with way before the French got to "playing" with it. I have a feeling gelatin desserts here in the states really catapulted their popularity. Perhaps even before the camp fires lit with S'mores.

Thanks for sharing this post, Mae. Now I'm going to have to dig deeper into the relationship of French Marshmallow making, lol...