It’s the longest night of the year–a perfect time to curl up with some marshmallowy hot chocolate and learn about some food history.
Marshmallows and hot chocolate has become such a commonplace combination that you can even buy hot chocolate that comes pre-mixed with marshmallows. But this combination, like a number of the other marshmallow-topped dishes Americans have come to enjoy, dates back to the early-twentieth-century entrepreneurial efforts of the Angelus Marshmallows company.
“In 1917, Angelus Marshmallows… commissioned a recipe booklet to popularize novel uses of marshmallows,” writes Sidney Mintz in The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets. Janet Hill, who founded the Boston Cooking School Magazine, wrote the booklet, which pioneered the use of marshmallows on hot chocolate as well as atop sweet potato casserole. “These seasonal uses hint at another fateful property of the marshmallow,” Mintz writes: “thermoreversibility. That is to say, marshmallows can revert to their original viscous state when heated.”
This gooiness made marshmallows a popular novelty, and marshmallow companies continued producing cookbooks that featured prominent cooks experimenting with the new food. Some of these recipes–like s'mores or their winter equivalent, comforting, silky-sweet marshmallowey hot chocolate–stuck around. Others, such as a gag-worthy 1930s concoction of marshmallows and mayonnaise served cold on lettuce leaves, blessedly passed into history.
Long before marshmallows came along, Mesoamericans frothed their chocolate drinks to give them that airy feel, so obviously the pillowy clouds of sugar were a good match with the Olmec beverage’s descendant. But along the way, in the West, both hot chocolate and marshmallows gained–and lost–a medical connotation.
In the case of marshmallows, writes Alex Swerdloff for Munchies, “they started out as a medicine, used to treat problems like sore throats.” A medicine derived from the marsh mallow plant was used, as far back as ancient Egypt, “served up in a sweetened glob, thereby making it more palatable." (A small handful of modern studies have found that marsh mallow does help soothe irritated mucous membranes.)
Fast-forward to 19th-century France, Swerdloff writes. "Confectioners figured out that the glob of marshmallow sweetness was pretty tasty in and of itself even without the medicinal mallow root. And it could be made simply from sugar, water, and gelatin. A candy was born.”
Marshmallows were at first meticulously produced by hand. But mass production made them much more widely available, and companies like Angelus tried to make consumers more aware of their possible uses–which is where the cookbooks come from. Today, marshmallows aren’t the only hot chocolate add-on: As Meredith Danko writes for Mental Floss, your mix-in options range from cinnamon and candy canes to peanut butter and, believe it or not, banana peels–further proof that people just can’t stop experimenting with food. Marshmallows, however, remain the classic cozy topping.