They Don’t Make Marshmallows Like They Used To

The marshmallows one can find in the stores today bear no resemblance to those of yesteryear. Oh —- I know what you’re thinking. “The older mind plays tricks when it comes to childhood memories.” Ordinarily, about most things, I might be inclined to agree. But not when it comes to marshmallows. I know marshmallows.

You see, back in the 1930’s, my cousins and I – by the time we had reached the ripe old age of seven or so – could have been considered experts on the subject of marshmallows.

Summers were spent with our grandparents at the country house. And many summer evenings, after dinner and until bedtime, we could be found engaged in that most delightful all-American pastime – toasting marshmallows.

Along about dusk Grandpa would start a small fire and light the punk. “Punk” is what we called the kerosene-soaked cattails which were supposed to keep mosquitoes at bay. As far as any of us could ever tell, the only thing punk kept away was the sweet smell of flowers or freshly-mown grass. But in those days before bug-bombs, Deet and zappers, anything “anti-mosquito” was worth a try. Once in a while the punk was augmented with some citronella, but that was deemed a waste of money since citronella didn’t seem to bother the mosquitoes any, and it sure did bother all of us. Mostly what we did about mosquitoes was scratch. We spent our summers scratching.

You know, now that I think of it, it occurs to me that in the 1930’s we never heard about the dangerous diseases and fevers that are transmitted by today’s mosquitoes. I wonder whether the mosquitoes back then were healthier – or whether we were. No matter. Perhaps I should Google it sometime.

Back to the marshmallows.

Grandpa would cut some appropriate “toasting sticks” form the surrounding trees, and Grandma would bring out the much-anticipated cellophane-wrapped red, white and blue cardboard box of Campfire Marshmallows. Those marshmallows were a treat worth putting up with the scratching for.

As I told you, the confections called marshmallows just aren’t the same today. They’re smaller, squishier and gooier. Thy have no character. Campfire Marshmallows were firm on the powder-covered outer surface. The insides were soft, yet firm enough to be easily pierced and properly positioned on the end of the toasting stick.

As with most art forms, there is a “Right Way” – a time proven protocol to be adhered to when toasting a marshmallow. The trick in the toasting is to hold the marshmallow in the flames long enough to get a crispy light black crust on the outside, but before it catches fire and starts to burn. Then you blow on the marshmallow for a couple of seconds, and ever so carefully pull off the crispy outer shell with your fingers and pop it into your mouth at just the right moment – after it has cooled enough so it won’t burn your tongue and will still taste sweet, but before it is cold and all you can taste is acrid burned sugar. Then of course, the remainder of the marshmallow goes right back over the fire to repeat the process. On the second go-round the entire remainder of the marshmallow is eaten all at once.

Once in a while one or another of the mothers would protest to the grandmother that eating burned sugar could not be all that good for the children. Grandma’s usual response was, “Don’t be such a ninny. That’s charcoal. Everybody knows that charcoal is good for you.” It was difficult for anyone – especially a daughter or daughter-in-law – to disagree with such an expert on everything as Grandma was.

(Years later when I learned that charcoal is, indeed, considered the “universal antidote” I marveled again, at how much my Grandmother really did know – about so many things. I’ll just bet that the same is true of most Grandmothers.)

Along about the time we started toasting our second marshmallows, the fireflies would start to flit about winking at us in the rapidly fading light. We sometimes called them “lightning bugs” as many of our playmates did, but Grandma preferred “fireflies”. She said that “fireflies was a prettier and more fitting name for such magical airborne creatures who “Just – might-really-be-fairies”. The last observation, delivered slowly and deliberately, was further emphasized with raised eyebrows, a knowing look, and a sideways tilt of the head. And so, as you might have guessed, we would never, ever, have thought to capture those ethereal creatures and imprison them in a jar. Just in case they might-really-be- you know…

Increasing darkness and the third marshmallow signaled the approaching end of our evening. (We were never allowed more than three marshmallows each on any given night. Whether the enforced limit was determined by budgetary or healthful dietary reasons, I never knew.)

The punk was sputtering and smoldering; the mosquitoes growing less aggressive now that they had feasted sufficiently; the fireflies were lighting up the darkness in a syncopated tap-dance busier and more intricate than any Busby-Berkeley routine ever seen on stage or film; the crickets, katydids, and tree frogs provided background music, punctuated occasionally by the sound of a distant train whistle or barking dog. By this time it would be so dark that we could barely distinguish the crispy exterior of the marshmallows by the light from the fire and the kerosene lanterns.

(Sometimes when I was a very little girl, I used to think that the gradual transition from dusk to dark was the day going to sleep in the same way that I did: eyelids starting to close little by little; head growing heavy and nodding lower; finally eyes closed completely and everything was dark. And the day was asleep.)

As soon as the third marshmallow was consumed, Grandma hustled us inside for a quick application of Calamine Lotion (not that it ever did all that much good). And so we cousins got into our beds to join the day in sleep – lulled by the night chorus drifting in through open windows – and with the sweet and sticky taste of Campfire Marshmallows lingering in young mouths and young memories. Memories to be recalled and cherished more than 75 years later. But never to be recaptured nor repeated.

It’s like I told you. They just don’t make marshmallows like they used to.

Jeanne Peck
Southbury, CT 2012

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