The history of America’s favorite campfire snack, the s’more
Perhaps you have the same Pavlovian response to a campfire as I have. I hear the crackling logs and the spitting flames and I immediately want to eat s’mores. I want to jab a skinny, foraged stick into a marshmallow and hold it over a fire until it gets bronzed and toasty. Until it gets so puffy, and heavy with melted marshmallow, it starts to sag, dangerously, over the flames.
As the beloved s’more approaches its 100th birthday, let’s take a look at its history.
First we’ll break down each of the components with Jeff Miller, who teaches a class on food and culture at Colorado State University.
The Graham cracker
Let’s starting with the graham cracker.
“Sylvester Graham was a student at Amherst College in Massachusetts,” Miller said. “He was thrown out of school for committing a sexual assault and sent home to ponder his evil ways. As he sat at home, trying to figure out what would make him do such a horrendous thing, he came to the idea that people probably ate too much meat. And all that meat consumption gave them these unnatural, untamable urges. So he set out to make a food that would be nutritious and delicious and vegetarian so people wouldn’t eat all this meat.”
He started working on a shelf stable product made from whole grains.
“He justified from Bible quotations that you’re not supposed to separate the wheat from the bran,” Miller said. “That God intended us to eat wholesome wheat bread. So he starts out to make a snack from the whole wheat that winds up very much like a cracker. It was not sweet at all. He was very much against sugar and white flour and all those things. I think he’s probably rolling in his grave thinking that the thing he is known for today is essentially some kind of candy.”
The original marshmallow actually came from a marsh dwelling plant called the marsh mallow, two words. The root was used to make a confection that was more like a sweetened lozenge. Miller speculates that today’s marshmallows don’t taste anything like the plant.
“It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that we see that big, soft, puffy marshmallow that we see today,” Miller said. “Today they take a lot of gelatin and a lot of powdered sugar and a little bit of cornstarch and just whip them up with a lot of air and then they extrude them. So the more air and the more gelatin is in there, you get that squishy, puffy thing that we think of today.”
The last component is the chocolate. Chocolate has a long, complicated history that, frankly, I don’t have the time to get into. But I will tell you that chocolate dates back to about 350 BC and was most commonly consumed as a drink by the Mayas and the Aztecs.
Like graham crackers, the original chocolate was not sweet. Cacao is naturally bitter and they didn’t have processed sugar to blend it with.
It wasn’t until the late 1800s that you could buy a bar of chocolate. And it wasn’t until the 1920s that the s’more was mentioned in a cookbook.
“Where it’s called ‘some mores,’ two different words,” Miller said. “Who invented it is one of those things that’s kind of lost in the mists of history. But if you look at what’s out in the market just prior to this recipe coming out, we have things like Mallomars and Moon Pies. So, something that has a cakey, cookie kind of base and then a marshmallow filling and then it’s enrobed in chocolate.”
Miller suggests that the s’more was possibly a homemade attempt at one of those treats. But the first time it’s seen as a s’more, with the apostrophe like we know it today, was in the Girl Scout handbook.
This bit of s’more history comes from the latest episode of my podcast, Your Last Meal, featuring Seattle band Tacocat. I also interview the owners of Pat’s and Geno’s – arguably Philly’s most famous cheesesteak shops.
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