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A Puff Piece


For the lowly marshmallow--whose normal fate is to be impaled on a coat hanger and immolated in a primitive, ritualistic sacrifice--1988 offered a brief flicker of glory.

The hallowed Olympic flame, hand-carried from Greece to Canada, had been left within easy reach of the masses. Swept up by the grand and solemn tradition of the Games, spectators approached the fire and--in a moving display of reverence--roasted marshmallows over it.

The incident was another oddball moment in the 4,000-year history of mankind's favorite edible Styrofoam substitute. Since its invention in ancient Egypt (apparently to keep Cleopatra's Hershey bars from sliding off her graham crackers), the marshmallow has appeared in everything from ulcer remedies to scratch-and-sniff T-shirts.

The squishy blob has also been honored by the Smithsonian, battled over in lawsuits and linked to a barroom brawl in which deceased Yankees boss Billy Martin punched out a marshmallow salesman from Minnesota.

All this for a substance that is 80% air.

"That's how smart we are," a marshmallow executive told David Letterman in 1991. "We sell air."

Well, flavored air. Modern marshmallows come in traditional vanilla, toasted coconut and such fruity concoctions as "astroberry" and "laser lime."

There are also kosher mallows. Indiana-based Kidd & Co. employs a special marshmallow rabbi from Syracuse, N.Y., to certify that its Passover candies are manufactured with beef-based gelatin instead of the normal pork base.

Kosher or not, the puffy orb has changed dramatically over the millennia.

The 2000 BC version--offered only to Egyptian gods and royalty--was made with honey and the sap of the mallow plant, a hibiscus relative that grows in swamps. Later, mallow syrups and ointments were used to treat ulcers, sore throats and--by 1806--kidney ailments.

The first modern marshmallow was introduced in France, a few decades after the death of Napoleon (who, if that was an ulcer he was clutching in all those paintings, perhaps could have used a few mallows). French candy makers whipped and molded the fluff stuff from a concoction of mallow sap, egg whites, corn syrup and water, according to research by marshmallow historian Brooke Ellen Kidd, of Kidd & Co.

Around the turn of the century, as marshmallow mass production began, the sap was replaced by gelatin--and the candy was formed in wooden or steel molds. Marshmallow creme also grew in popularity, finally peaking during World War II as a substitute for heavily rationed sugar.

The next quantum leap in marshmallow technology came in 1954: Alex Doumakes, of Doumak Inc., developed a secret cooking and cooling process that slashed production time from 24 hours to 60 minutes.

Instead of pouring the warm marshmallow foam into molds, Doumakes blasted it through pipes, forming marshmallow ropes that were guillotined into bite-sized chunks and cooled in a dust storm of anti-stick cornstarch.

Unable to keep up with demand for his less-expensive product, Doumakes licensed the patent to food conglomerate Kraft. He later sued Kraft for patent infringement and--in the ensuing court battle--the secret marshmallow-matic process was made public.

Today, with only a handful of U.S. marshmallow companies still in business (down from 30 in 1955), the ancient Egyptian confection has taken some pretty weird turns:

* Scientists use marshmallows to research human swallowing disorders, then publish the results in such medical journal articles as "Marshmallow for Investigating Functional Disturbances of the Esophageal Body."

* Michigan Stadium outlawed the pillowy sweets at football games after students stuffed them with pennies and pelted opposing teams and band members.

* In Henderson, Nev., a 1988 rocket-fuel plant explosion flattened a neighboring marshmallow factory, prompting jokes about passing airplanes being splattered with white goop. The Kidd factory has since been rebuilt--and now features a 20-minute tour that draws 10,000 people a month and a gift shop that sells scratch-and-sniff marshmallow shirts. Also nearby: the Ocean Spray cranberry juice tour.

* At a Minneapolis bar in 1979, Yankees manager Martin cold-cocked a Doumak marshmallow rep who, in the course of a barroom conversation, had asked if the baseball legend dyed his hair. "What's a big guy like you doing selling marshmallows?" Martin retorted before decking the rep with his World Series ring.

* Helicopters have dropped tens of thousands of marshmallows onto suburbs of Chicago and Detroit as part of Easter celebrations. This raises the question: What velocity would a falling marshmallow have to achieve in order to self-toast?


The epicenter of marshmallow madness lies in Indiana's Noble County, home to two rival manufacturing plants (Kraft and Kidd).

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