Yes, the marshmallow really is from the marshmallow plant. The marshmallow plant, or Althaea officinalis, is a relative of the hollyhock, with pastel-colored, papery flowers.[i] The plant, especially its roots, have a sticky substance that once gave the marshmallow its taste and texture. Today, the root is available as a tea: the mucilage is like a syrup in hot water but thickens into a strangely sweet gel when cool.
The plant originated in Europe and West Asia where the ancients used it to treat coughs and sore throats. The marshmallow was also a sweet where the Ancient Egyptians boiled with sugar or mixed with honey around 2000 BCE.[ii] The result must have been very thick, very sweet, and very hard to make given the stickiness of the plant.
When the marshmallow appeared in the US is unclear, but the marshmallow candy originated in France around 1850 where confectioners blended the mallow root with egg whites, sugar, and water. By the mid-1800s, cookbooks such as the Complete Confectioner, written by Eleanor Parkinson in 1864, contained recipes such as this:
Pate de Guimauve Take of decoction of: marshmallow roots 4 ounces; water 1 gallon.
Boil down to 4 pints and strain; then add gum Arabic 1/2 a pound; refined sugar 2 pounds.
Evaporate to an extract; then take from the fire, stir it quickly with: the whites of 12 eggs previously beaten to a froth; then add, while stirring.[iii]
Within thirty years, marshmallow candy was advertised as a penny candy. The recipes remained unchanged except for one omission: the marshmallow root. In its place, was an ingredient that took the food world by storm: the instant gelatin, which was developed around 1845 by Peter Cooper, the inventor of the Steam Locomotive, who was looking to make glue, instead.
For candy-makers, the gelatin enabled them to do something they probably yearned for: kick the marshmallow plant out of the marshmallow. It was too sticky, too unmanageable, and too expensive to use. They replaced it with gelatin. The marshmallow was fun, tasty and eclectic, effortlessly crossing the lines between candy and other foods. Newspapers had ads for such unlikely possibilities as Pineapple Parfait with Marshmallows, Almond Marshmallow Fudge, and Marshmallow Delight with more ingredients than you’d want to know.[iv]
The marshmallow also appeared deep in the candy bar, enrobed in chocolate, engulfed in caramel, sandwiched in the Girl Scouts’ S’more, and a turn-of-the-century phenomenon, the marshmallow roast. The marshmallow also morphed into the Circus Peanut, really made for the 19th century travelling circus, which became the prototype for -who would believe it? – the 20th century Lucky Charms. One article in 1892 described them as the “Latest Diversion to Amuse the Summer Girl…” and provided detailed advice on how to brown the marshmallow without burning it. “When done they are morsels for the gods,” the author wrote, “resembling in flavor the most excellent meringue, with a delicious nutty and crusty outside. They are a sort of sublimated combination of candy and cake, all in one bite.”
If you are not convinced, the author adds: “Marshmallow roasts are an excellent medium for flirtation, mutual regard between a young lady and a young gentleman being appropriately exhibited by nibbling the marshmallow off of each other’s sticks.” Personally, I never considered the marshmallow that way but it does give you something to think about.
[i] Katie Liesner, “Marshmallow” Sugar and Sweets pp. 430-431
[ii] Kristin Krapp. How Products Are Made: An Illustrated Guide to Product Manufacturing,Volume 3, (Detroit: Gale, 1997), p. 276-277.
[iii] Eleanor Parkinson. The Complete Confectioner, Pastry-Cook, and Baker: Plain and Practical Directions for Making Confectionary and Pastry (J.B. Lippincott, 1864) p. 162.
[iv]The Monroe News Star, “First Annual Cookbook” November 20, 1935, p. 24.
I recently got a call from a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, asking about the background of peppermint in the U.S.: Was it a breath freshener? A medicine? A treat? The answer is “yes.” Peppermint was all this and more.
The peppermint originated as a naturally occurring hybrid of water mint and spearmint. The exact date of this union is unknown, but the ancient Egyptians and likely, the Greeks, did use it. In Europe, the peppermint appeared in John Ray’s book Methodus Plantarum Nova in 1682 and was listed in the London Pharmacopceia in 1721. From there, the peppermint’s popularity skyrocketed. It had a place in the gardens of the the early colonists who used the plant as a medicine as well as a treat in early versions of candy. It was tasty, effective, and grew and spread effortlessly, perhaps viciously: by the early 1800s, it was considered an obnoxious weed. People continued to use the peppermint, of course, but one man effectively drove the peppermint into primetime. He was New Yorker Hiram G. Hotchkiss.
According to an 1886 article in the McCook Tribune, Hotchkiss, then a “plump and robust” 75 years old, started out as a grocery-man when he was 18, but soon saw the future of peppermint – and the future looked good. With financial and agricultural prowess, he and a handful of others catapulted peppermint oil into an profitable industry, appreciated for its value in medicine for stomach aches and a joyous and equally appreciated candy.
When I say “candy” I mean it in the broadest sense. The peppermint was used as a breath freshener, in such products as the turn-of-century Pep-O-Mint Lifesaver, especially useful at saloons to mask the smell of smoke and drink; a holiday flavoring, especially at Christmas time; and an addition to everything from cocktails to cakes.
Today, the peppermint retains its value in all of the above, quite often encompassing all at once.
We sent our official candy tasters a variety of chocolates to try …and the verdict is in! Out of two cordials – Irish cream and peach – chocolate covered figs, milk Wilbur Buds, chocolate cayenne pepper balls, hostess mints, and the great outlier of them all chocolate covered gummy bears…the winner is the Hostess Mints!! So what about the Hostess Mints? They’re a classic treat with chocolate enrobed or sandwiched mint. and a favorite of bridge players from the 1920s through 1950s… Among the positive reviews were that the hostess mint was “GREAT! Much better than the Andes mints I’ve had before…” and that “Hostess mints were the classic mint/chocolate with a good mouth feel.” Another taster put it quite elegantly: Just lovely. Really liked these,” and another simply said: “Delicious.”
Our take-away: They’re a keeper!
2 Wilbur Buds. Made in the late 19th century, they were the model Hershey used for making the Kiss. The Bud now uses Daniel Peters’ chocolate – Peters is the Swiss chocolatier who invented milk chocolate with help from his neighbor – Henri Nestle. We carry these already and they’re a hit; in fact, people order them online and contact us specifically to see if we have them. Of course, not everyone will be a fan and it’s always interesting to hear other opinions!
Here is what the tasters thought: “I love the Wilbur buds- the texture is fantastic, as well as the creamy milk chocolate…” and “Overall, I’d say my favorite was the Wilbur buds- I am partial to milk chocolate, but the texture is what really pulled me to them.” One taster told us:: “I was excited to see the Wilbur Buds in the package. Last winter, Hershey Kisses had a manufacturing issue, where the tips were broken. Bakers around the world were upset, as holiday cookies were not perfect. Several bakers switched to Wilbur Buds, but I couldn’t find any locally. I was impressed by the quality of the chocolate, and will definitely look for these!” One taster wanted more: “Wilbur Buds — smooth – really enjoyed these – are there larger versions?” Not as far as I know. The lone descent was: “Wilbur Buds are the classic watery American chocolate.” We welcome all opinions and this was a good one!
Our take-away: We love the Buds and have them in milk and dark. They’re a favorite at our Talks and Tastings series. But, we will remind customers that tastes vary and this chocolate will not be a favorite of everyone.
3. Cordials – Irish Cream and Peach Brandy. If not the highest-rated candy, the history of the cordial is definitely the most intriguing. Originating in Renaissance-period apothecaries, the cordial was an alcohol-based medicine made with fermented fruits, spices, and herbs that helped stimulate the heart and improve circulation. The cordial came to signify a fruit-based beverage, a liqueur, and, eventually, a kind of tempting sweet, where a cherry was tucked into a chocolate shell. No alcohol was involved (but the feel-good effect may have been the same!). Today, some chocolatiers stretch the word “cordial” to include all kinds of alcohol-tasting centers.
We offered our tasters two kinds of cordials – Irish Cream and Peach Brandy. Said one taster, “While I’m not usually a fan of Irish Creme, these were delightful!” Another said, “Really like the Irish cream; an interesting crunch to the shell. The Peach brandy was yummy and had a nice crunch to it as well. Is it real alcohol or flavoring? The taste of the alcohol was quite accurate.” Another taster said: “The cordials are my favorite. I would have liked them better with a creamier chocolate but I have a thing about that. I enjoyed the flavor of the cordial with the chocolate.
Our favorite critique was definitely this one – truly visceral and experiential: “The Peach Brandy Cordials. Definitely not what I was expecting! I bit into the first one, and was amazed as the brandy center poured over my tongue. As I enjoyed it, I realized that there was a crisp inner shell that had separated the liquid from the chocolate….The Irish Cream was very deliberately allowed to melt in my mouth, revealing the crisp sugar shell …. Both ways of eating this candy were exquisitely enjoyable, and I would need many many more samples to decide which way is my favorite way to eat them!”
Not all were a positive: “The Irish cream cordial was- okay… not my favorite. The Peach Brandy cordial was much better than the Irish cream, but still not my favorite.”
Our take-away: The Irish Creams stay…we’ll consider the Peach Brandy for later.
4. Cayenne Pepper Savouries.A natural fit – the cayenne pepper and the chocolate were both eaten by the indigenous people of Central America and the Southwest. Thousands of years later, they appeared in this modern sweet, the union of two foods the ancients would never have imaged. The reviews were basically positive, depending on whether the taster liked Cayenne pepper. “The cayenne pepper chocolates were very intriguing! Just the right amount of spice, so I enjoyed that.” Along the same lines, we see: “I started with the Cayenne Pepper Savories. The rich chocolate flavor pulls you in, and then the heat kicks in. Not so unbearable as to be unpleasant, but it begs to be taken seriously. These are a real favorite for me!!!”
Others were less inclined: Cayenne pepper would have been better with creamier chocolate. I was surprised at the crunchiness. It was a fun change, though, like the Mexican candies I remember,” and a non-pepper taster dutifully tried the chocolate, but it was a no-go: “Not at all a fan of spicy chocolates; I did try one; but would not buy them.” For the record, we at True Treats had an informal Cayenne Pepper tasting and the results were the same. Love cayenne, love the chocolate.
Our take-away: The cayenne pepper is a relatively new candy flavoring…albeit an old spice. So why not? People like them and they add a new dimension to the chocolate line and they date back to the Native Americans.
5. Chocolate covered gummy candies. Gummy candy, circa 1920s, are based on the ancient Turkish delight. German-made, they were originally called “Rubber Candy” for the texture. The German word for “rubber” is “gummi.” The chocolate covered Turkish delight has long been a hit in most places (especially England), so the chocolate-covered gummy bear seemed like a natural extension. But the reviews were mixed. The thumbs up tasters said: “These were delightful! The gummi bears were fresh under the coating of chocolate, and I found myself devouring the entire sample in short order,” and “The chocolate was less intense than that in the Cayenne savories, but still rich. Another winner!” Then the opinions started to wan. “The chocolate gummy bears were very strange, but they tasted good! I think kids would love them…” then, “Okay, just not a fan of gummies,” and leaving off with: “Chocolate gummy bears were not my favorite. They reminded me of the jellied chocolates that get left in the box because nobody like them.”
Our take-away: We don’t carry the chocolate-covered gummies now and probably won’t. Not enough enthusiasm.
6. Chocolate Fig. The fig has it all!It’s an ancient fruit, rich in symbolism, a favorite of the Colonists, and now thrives in North America. Knowing that chocolatiers of the late 19th and 2oth centuries coated all sorts of fruits and nuts in chocolate, we figured why not… The feedback was a mixed bag. “The chocolate fig was DIVINE- I love figs- so coating it in chocolate was fantastic,” said one taster and another agreed, sharinga recommendation we heard several times: “Really liked this. A little large, so had to share it. Are there smaller figs in life? However, it was delicious – and was thinking this would be a lovely gift in a box of 6 or so.” Again, we heard: “I think of this batch, the Hostess mint and the fig were my favorite (although as I said the fig was too large for one serving for me)” and “Chocolate figs were too big to eat comfortably. I would have liked a smaller version with creamier chocolate.
Others were less positive: “I decided to face my fears next, and try the Chocolate Fig. To be honest, I never have had a fig before, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. The chewiness of the fig was a challenge, as it made the Chocolate flake off with every bite. I’m sure that, historically speaking, this is right on the money. That being said, however, the texture of the fig combined with the Chocolate coming off and melting in my hand made this less than enjoyable” and “My least favorite was the chocolate fig.”
Our take-away: We can’t turn away from this candy for its rich historic value and flavor. Next step: we’ll try a smaller size fruit for the dipping.
We then asked out tasters if they had other thoughts. Here is what we got: “I have a favorite from childhood; but don’t have a name for either — they were purchased individually from a penny candy store. One was a small chocolate with a soft maple interior; the other a sort of “rice” cake; although I do wonder if that is what it really was made of. We kids would buy one of each, squash the maple candy onto the cake and pop it in our mouths all in one bite. Your store already carries many of my childhood’s favorites otherwise.” Thanks! I’ve heard stories about the rice cake and will try to track it down. As for the maple…very interesting. I’ll ask our maple-maker!
This is interesting for us to hear: “I was curious as to the ingredients in the chocolates – such as is there corn syrup or do you label the original boxes with the chocolate of origin? I know many folks who are careful about the country of origin or company that they buy chocolates from because of child labor, processing or pesticides, etc.” A good point, but not what we do. Roughly 90% is made in the USA, overwhelmingly in small commercial kitchens. BUT – we look at history. Items such as corn syrup? A native North American sugar, used by the Native Americans in various forms. If you’re using processed sugar, why not corn? Country of origin? Mostly everything we eat originated elsewhere and in most cases, such as coffee and chocolate, grows far outside their natural environment. I get the point, though.
Here’s two more: “I used to love Cherry Mash as a kid but may find them too sweet now. I liked the Chunky bars, too. I grew up near a small candy store that made their own and loved their caramels and chocolates …. At St. Patrick’s Day he would make lime candy snakes and at Easter he would make sugar eggs with scenes inside.” Lime candy snakes! Wow! Finally, one taster commented: “I …want to try pulled creams and all the liqueur chocolates. I love maple candy (the real kind) too. It is fun to try things I have read about, like the Turkish Delight from Narnia. My sister-in-law brought some back from Turkey and it was great to satisfy curiosity.” We sell them right here. Online. Why wait?
Taken, in part, from “Sweet as Sin” (Prometheus, 2016)
Strawberry is one of the most popular candy flavors in the nation. It’s in chewing gum, hard candies, jelly beans, taffy, Caramel Creams. Strawberry leaves make a healthy and delicious tea and chocolate covered strawberries are unbeatable. Yet, the most intriguing aspect of the strawberry is its story, involving three continents, international spies, life at the high seas, and science.
Originally, North American strawberries were tiny little nuggets, a humble yet wild plant. They held special meaning for Native Americans because they were the first to produce fruit in spring. No part was forgotten, overlooked or thrown away. Depending on the tribe, they boiled the leaves into a tea, used the root to relieve stomach problems, and ate the fruit for health and pleasure.[i]
Thomas Jefferson, whose botanical prowess is legendary, grew strawberries in his garden. In 1767, he wrote in the Garden Book that “100 fill half a pint,” which indicates how remarkably small these berries were.[ii]
Three events occurred to change the legacy of the strawberry. First, an American strawberry, known in the scientific sounding name of F. virginiana or Virginia strawberry, appeared in France in the 1600s and traveled around Europe from garden to garden, without much fanfare.[iii] How it got there exactly no one seems to know, but it showed up in a manual of botany complied for Louis XIII in 1624.[iv]
A second event occurred in 1771 – about 150 years later. King Louis XIV of France sent a spy, Lieutenant Colonel Frézier, to Chile to gather information about the Spanish who had gained control over the nation. The Royal family was enamored with Frézier because of a book he wrote as an infantryman in the royal service. In it, he explored the many possibilities of munitions, including a favorite for celebratory events: fireworks. His book on the subject became a standard of the time.[v]
By the time he left for Chile, Frézier was an experienced and enthusiastic officer and an excellent spy. He hobnobbed with his targets, posing as a merchant sea caption and visited garrisons, forts, and armaments as an eager tourist. He befriended Spanish officers, observed the native inhabitants, and studied the native terrain, drafting detailed maps to bring home. All of this he recorded in copious notes which later became a popular book, read throughout Europe.
And there, among riff-raff and royalty, Frézier discovered the Chilean strawberry. The plant had one distinguishing quality compared to its European and North American cousins. As Frézier put it in a 1917 English translation: “The fruit is as big as a walnut or a hen’s egg…” In other words, unlike the petite varieties at home, the Chilean strawberry had heft. In addition, the flowers were enormous, the runners long, and the berries didn’t bow down like other varieties, but thrust their seeded chins up to the sun.[vi] As for the downside – it was less flavorful than the other varieties.
Regardless, Frézier nursed the strawberry on the 160-day voyage back to France, where he, and it, survived storms, churning waves, and the threat of pirates. It’s worth noting that the French enjoyed pirating as much as anyone else but, due to time constraints, resisted the temptation to target a small, Portuguese fishing boat and, most likely, others.
Once the strawberry was settled in France, safe among botanists and gardeners, a third event happened that made today’s strawberry complete: it co-mingled with the F. virginiana. How exactly that happened no one seems to know, but the prevailing thought is the union was accidental. The culprit could have been a French botanist, perhaps Frézier himself,[vii] or George Clifford,[viii] a botanist and director of the Netherlands East India Company. Anyway, someone put the large, yet relatively tasteless Chilean variety next to the sweet Virginia berry and soon an amazing hybrid was born – a big, robust, and tasty fruit.
One more note about Frézier: his name derived from the French word “fraise” meaning “strawberry.” His ancestor Julius de Berry gave the King of France a gift of strawberries in 916. As a thank you, the king knighted and changed his name from Berry to Fraise, later to become Frézier. As for the coat of arms –the king gave him three stalks of strawberries. Whether Frézier was aware of this or not, is anyone’s guess. He never mentioned it in his writings or referred to it in any way.[ix]
The Hovey Influence
In the early nineteenth century, while strawberry cultivation was booming in Europe, in the US it trotted along. Around Boston, they were primarily grown in gardens by amateurs who hoped for the best. In New York, strawberries were more or less dropped in sandy soil in fields and mountainsides and left to fend for themselves. In North Carolina, amateurs wrote articles and experimented with the plant, but not much came of it.[x] Other efforts to create hybrids brought so-so results.
In 1834, Boston horticulturist Charles Hovey (1810-1887) changed all that. Hovey was born in Cambridge in 1810, which was at that time a rural town.[xii] Nearby Boston, however, was a center of horticultural activity. The influential Massachusetts Horticultural Society was newly formed, marking the separation between horticulture and agriculture. It’s still around today. Hovey, whose father owned a grocery and property in Cambridge when Hovey was a boy, went on to start a nursery, a seed operation, and the nation’s first horticultural magazine which ran for 40-some years.[xiii]
During this time, Hovey cross-pollenated a number of varieties to come up with the first cultivated American strawberry aptly named the “Hovey”. At the Massachusetts Horticultural Society exhibition in 1835 strawberry lovers were dumb-struck by the size and quality of the fruit. It was deemed “perfect” and viewed as the first worthy cultivated strawberry, the one the nation was waiting for. In 1840 a dozen of the plants sold for the vast sum of $5.00.[xiv]
The Hovey remained a hit through the late 1800s.[xv] In 1894 the American Naturalist proclaimed that the Hovey strawberry
“revolutionized strawberry growing in this country…American varieties appeared from year to year and the greater part of them have come directly or indirectly from the Hovey…”
Call it irony, call it fate, but the DNA of the fabulous strawberry is unknown as Hovey lost the markers indicating the cross of the berry.[xvi] Regardless, even today, botanists agree that the orphan plant was a star and with it Hovey created the cultivated strawberry market. Every strawberry ice cream, candy, pie, or tea is evidence that the Hovey strawberry triumphs today.