From the desk of Balderdash, Poppycock & O’Pish, Etymological and Gastronomical Investigators:
Re: Your recent query (re: the curious tendency of some cooks to form conglomerates of tiny morsels of marshmallow with foods of the orange persuasion).
While our firm has normally dealt only with investigations of a linguistic nature, an increasing number of requests (such as your own) have induced us to diversify. You have the privilege, or ill-luck, to be the first client served under the new reorganization.
We found your recent request to be both oddly challenging and fascinatingly repugnant. This curious combination suggested that we indulge the former, while avoiding the taint of the latter, by sub-contracting the more odious portions of your case to our colleagues at the firm of Boyle, Boyle, Toyle and Trubble. In the interest of simplicity, the results of their research and ours have been merged into a single report. Should you require an itemized break-down of expenses incurred, we will be happy to provide one.
The question of the apparent affinity of these two dissimilar materials suggested that some understanding might be reached through the use of a two-staged investigation. In simple English, we utilized an open-ended exploratory method, which allowed us to increasingly focus our attentions as we gradually moved into a second, more analytical, modus operandi.
This approach was, in one sense, unexpectedly successful — as it quickly revealed that the affinity was not due to any intrinsic properties of the two materials. Indeed, the materials themselves are so inherently innocuous (even banal) that they might equally be expected to go with every other foodstuff as easily as with none at all. While we found ourselves increasingly drawn to the latter opinion, professional responsibility to our client (and the vast potential for padding of our bill) kept us doggedly at our research.
But I digress.
This inexplicable affinity, not based on any inherent qualities, appears to be a cultural anomaly. While (as we have discussed) Western menus generally eschew the use of sweet ingredients at any time before the conclusion of the meal, the use of small marshmallows (AKA “mini marshmallows”) signals an intentional deviation from cultural norms. Such deviations are frequently noted by anthropologists who observe group relations in times of stress and the methods used to by these groups to alleviate the pressure of such situations.
Before beginning the analysis, I must point out that marshmallows (of whatever dimension) may be assumed to be confections. As such, they can be expected to appear in desserts, atop hot chocolate for children, in melanges such as Rocky Road, as well as in similar diversions. Indeed, a single perfectly formed marshmallow, en brochet, brought judiciously to a point just short of flambé, is a toothsome snack that marks an important stage in the development of the young chef-to-be. As these can be considered normal (if somewhat pedestrian) uses for these gelatinous puffs, there seems little reason to investigate such usages.
We have chosen to examine only deviations from normal consumption patterns. If you look at Exhibit A, you will notice that the recipes naturally fall into two categories: starches and salads. Use of marshmallows in either of these categories is patently deviant behavior, hence fascinating to the professionally-trained investigator.
We suspected that the appearance of dishes composed of sweet potatoes, or yams, in combination with tiny marshmallows (significantly, such dishes often receive additional amelioration through the use of brown sugar) during traditionally savory portions of the meal might be a function of the special occasions in which such dishes are served. The single most significant occurrence of this deviant behavior is during the Thanksgiving meal. Western meals very rarely accompany meats with sweets, but here the turkey is served with this triply-saccharine substance — and cranberry jelly as well!
The answer, research tells us, is two-fold. First, the sweet foods are used as bribes to quiet unruly children who are forced to be on their best behavior through a long-protracted dinner. This is always difficult for children and, as a result, stressful for the adults who share their table. The holiday dinner is especially anxiety-laden because it is generally attended by a larger number of diners than is usual. The entire extended family may be there, with sibling and inter-generational rivalries held self-consciously in check.
Second, many of the adults feel oppressed by an unpleasant combination of over-warm, over-crowded rooms, familial tension and the requirement that they appear jovial, relaxed and (most difficult of all) fond of the people they have studiously avoided during the previous twelve months. There are performance anxieties for the hosts, and a different set of performance anxieties for the guests. When people are tormented by social situations, they tend to seek comfort foods, the sorts of foods that soothed them as children. What worked when they were the unhappy children at Thanksgiving dinner?
Sweet potatoes with marshmallows, of course.
This pernicious, pathological and perennial abuse is passed, like a bad penny, from generation to generation.
Returning to Exhibit A, the remaining recipes begin to become, if not palatable, at least comprehensible. What class of foodstuffs is, traditionally, most disliked by children? Vegetables. These plant products are the monster-under-the bed, an insurmountable barrier between the child and escape via television or a videogame. Salads are nothing more than vegetables au naturel. They constitute a major source of stress in the childhood dining experience. Given what we have seen above, what is the most likely strategy to be employed by a frazzled parent?
Sweeten and add tiny marshmallows.
What happens when adults are forced by societal pressures to attend pot-luck dinners (where every food is potentially poisonous or at least nauseating)? What do they bring to provide a little patch of safety, a haven from the threat of the unknown?
A sweetened salad with marshmallows, of course.
Does this seem too contrived, too pat? The narrow focus on special occasions might be misleading? What is the most stress-free part of the day? Sleep, obviously. What happens every day to put an end to that blissful time? Waking and breakfast. People tend to avoid overstimulation at breakfast. They want something predictable, something comforting.
Let us examine Exhibit B. The three items in this exhibit are concerned with one significant product that has been created to deal with the unique stresses of the first meal of the day: Lucky Charms.
It is significant that all of these items are written, not by children, the original intended market for this sweetened combination of starch and tiny marshmallows (sound familiar?) — but by adults, who should know better.
The first item (B1) is a round-about definition of sorts, a definition that tells us more about the definer’s insecurities than the cereal product itself. Its attempt to sound hip and adult is pathetic. It is exactly what one would expect from someone who ritually consumes his security blanket each morning.
Item number B2 attempts to impress us (with its allusion to a mature subject) as well. However, just as the term “Adult Books” is used to describe not mature subjects but a prolonged fascination with adolescent fantasies, this coördination of sexual modes and preferences for particular colors and shapes of marshmallows is puerile. It is no accident that the moment that an anxiety-ridden subject (sexual performance, in this case) is introduced, the author retreats to the relative safety of a marshmallow-laden cereal.
Item B3 reveals an adult, driven by demons we cannot begin to guess, indulging in a form of mental masturbation that is typical of intellectuals who do not, in the common parlance, “get out much.” The author has clearly delusional bouts of paranoia and a fixation upon the tiny marshmallows in Lucky Charms as the archetypes of a Big-Brother-like force that aims to deprive him of “magic.” We are intrigued by an unbidden introduction of the “Orange Theme” at the end of this passage.
The primary function of tiny marshmallows, then, is as an anodyne for stress, a bromide for the troubles of the modern world. If there remains any doubt about this, consider the items in Exhibit C. These non-culinary uses illustrate the extent to which the therapeutic use of marshmallows permeates our society.
Item C1 reflects an attempt to deflect the angst of academic competition by substituting a comfortingly innocuous material for the traditional (read: threatening) laboratory equipment. Item C2, the final piece of evidence, is a sort of coda, a recapitulation in refined form, of our basic premise. In a classic twist on the reductio ad absurdum argument, its author reveals the truth of attempting to render it ridiculous. The fact that it was necessary to try is proof that the concept of “marshmallow-as-cure-for-stress” is a fundamental, if anomalous, part of our culture.
We trust that you have found the enclosed report useful. We will (as is our custom) put it on your tab (invoice under separate cover).
As ever, we remain, true to our words.
The irascible Dr Sanscravat is something of a hermit — in fact, no one has ever actually seen him. However, his highly opinionated writings (often supported only by questionable facts and wild-eyed speculations) can be found at “The Digressions of Dr Sanscravat” . It’s part of a blog maintained by Roll’s own resident food writer, Gary Allen.