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It probably won’t shock you to discover that marshmallows are not a natural substance. No, marshmallows don’t grow on trees, vines, or underground; but there is a mallow plant, which, not coincidentally, tends to grow on marshes. The first culture that we know to have eaten the mallow plant was ancient Egypt, long before the reign of Cleopatra. Egyptians dried and pulverized the plant and considered it a delicacy.

Marshmallows as we know them weren’t possible until someone came up with the idea of combining the mallow plant with sugar, and it was almost certainly an accident. Sugar’s first use was as a way of making medicines more palatable, but a recurring problem was the tendency of sugar to crystallize. In India, they solved the problem by using gum Arabic, but some countries did not have access to this form of gum. When boiled in hot water, the ground roots of the mallow plant turned out to be an effective gum. Combined with sugar, the first marshmallow was born.

The French were the first to turn marshmallows into a confection for the masses. Kraft Foods supplied a report researched by the Marshmallow research Foundation (there is a foundation or association for just about anything): “The marshmallow in its present fluffy form originated in France and was known as Pate de Guimauve. As made in the early nineteenth century, it contained the extract of the marshmallow root, dried and reduced to powder. A light cream in color, the genuine marshmallow base contained starch, sugar, pectin, asparagines and a substance allied to lecithin. The original marshmallow formula called for the following proportions – five pounds powdered marshmallow root, 50 pounds ground sugar, 30 pounds ground gum Arabic, 60 pounds orange flower water and 70 or more egg whites. European manufacturers of medicinal confectionery still use this formula. However, because marshmallow root reputedly possessed medicinal properties, it was early abandoned by confectioners as a necessary marshmallow ingredient.”

Mallow trees were naturalized in the salt marshes of the United States not long after they were introduced in Europe. At first, mallow root was used, but later was abandoned in order to save money, and replaced by a combination of gum Arabic and egg white.

Today, you can buy big marshmallows, little marshmallows, chocolate marshmallows, and coconut marshmallows. But you can’t find a marshmallow with mallow in it. We are left in the strange situation of eating a product that is named after an ingredient that is no longer in it.

(Submitted by Deb Buschur of Indianapolis, Indiana)

 

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