History Wednesday: Some More Healthy Eating

S’mores are awesome. I would have definitely eaten more of them as a kid had I not despised camping so much.


Did I grow up in the wrong state, or what?
Image credit: CorrieRosetti

Still, there’s plenty of history in that three-ingredient delicacy. Like most things, a good portion of that history is a bit off.

The history of the s’more itself isn’t all that interesting. The concoction’s origin is generally credited to the Girl Scouts in the 1920s. Its name is likely a contraction of “some more.” As in, “I want some more!”

Get it? Hysterical! But not much of a History Wednesday post.

The real history lies in its three ingredients, two of which have been around in some form for a very long time. The third? Well, let’s just say that one is super special. All three have been touted as super health foods at some point as well. It’s a wonder why personal trainers don’t make us inhale this stuff.


Ever wonder what marshmallows have to do with marshes? At one time, it was obvious:


It’s because this plant grows in a marsh. How clever!
Image credit: Alberto Salguero

The Althaea officinalis, also known as the “marsh mallow,” has been used for medicinal purposes for millennia, ranging from treating ulcers to increasing breast milk flow. The ancient Egyptians were familiar with it, and it figures in traditional Chinese medicine.

It’s also what originally gave the marshmallow confection its gelatinous properties and its name. Sadly, the therapeutic properties this plant lent to the fluffy white stuff are long gone. Making marshmallows with Althaea officinalis is by all accounts a huge pain in the ass. It was replaced by gelatin – a more user-friendly if less nutritious ingredient – over a century ago.


Sorry about that.


The cacao tree is indigenous to tropical South America, so it should come as a surprise to absolutely no one that chocolate was first developed by native American cultures. Cacao was also cultivated very early on. The Olmecs in present-day Mexico were familiar with it by 1750 BCE, and the crop was a vital staple of every Mesoamerican civilization you care to name. Among other things, these civilizations used chocolate as a remedy for Hershey squirts diarrhea. On a (hopefully) unrelated note, the Aztecs also believed chocolate was an aphrodisiac.

In the 16th Century the Spanish came a-plundering, and before too much longer chocolate became popular in Europe as well, although it was considered an upper class luxury for some time. Noted teetotaler John Cadbury opened a chocolate shop in Birmingham, England, in 1822 in part because he considered chocolate to be a healthier substitute to alcohol.


Hilarious, considering chocolate was consumed as a fermented alcoholic drink for centuries.

Now, as any kid who had an unfortunate experience with unsweetened baking cocoa can tell you, chocolate by itself is very bitter. It’s also an acquired taste at best. It wasn’t until the late 19th Century that what we modern folk think of as chocolate – the sweet milk chocolate – was developed in Switzerland. It was also around this time the chocolate candy bar first appeared.

Although definitely not the drink the Aztecs enjoyed, I made and drank plenty of chocolate milk from the powder mix during my childhood. As with most things in my household, brand loyalty depended entirely on whatever was “on sale” at the time. Occasionally this translated to the no-longer-available Hershey’s Instant, which in my time always featured its “History of Chocolate and Cocoa” on the back of the packaging. In addition to its curious whitewashing of chocolate’s native American origins, I could have sworn it also said the Swiss invented milk chocolate because they believed “milk makes anything taste better.”


But apparently I remembered that bit wrong.
Image credit: Etsy.com

So I spent the better part of an hour futilely looking for a silly hook for milk chocolate, but apparently it’s just my own personal apocrypha.

Graham cracker

But that’s OK, because I knew this piece 19th Century silliness was coming up.


Wakka, wakka!
Image credit: NFLXpert17

I’m sure Sylvester Graham meant well. Indeed, he was a vocal opponent of unhealthy food additives and production methods decades before Upton Sinclair inspired food safety laws with The Jungle. Ultimately though, his crusade for clean living went well past Ralph Nader and wound up in a more Jim Jones type of territory.


Oh yeah!
Image credit: ~GrapeFruitDiesel

Graham was a Presbyterian minister, a hardcore vegetarian and prohibitionist. He was also freaked out about sex in general and masturbation in particular. I mean, really, really freaked out about it. He was absolutely convinced it would lead to insanity.

In fact, because it led to such impure thoughts Graham opposed excitement in general. What did he consider excitement? How about using common spices in cooking? Yup, that’s excitement all right. You know what’s evidently not exciting? Firing a professor for using a pepper shaker, as the Graham-influenced Oberlin College did in 1841.


Pictured: godless hedonism.
Image credit: Alan Creech

Yet people still have to eat. So to those ends Graham magnanimously invented the graham cracker, bland and formulated specifically to keep you from fapping. It was made out of unbleached flour and (in its original incarnation) unsweetened. Eat them and the other things prescribed in his diet, and Sylvester says you’ll live a clean life completely free of chemical additives, masturbation and excitement.

So how many people signed on with this ridiculous, off-the-rails crusade? Plenty. By the 1840s Graham had a large number of followers known as Grahamites, all of whom slavishly practiced his methods. Today we’d call them a cult. The movement slowly faded away after Graham died in 1851, but not before two brothers from Michigan developed a breakfast cereal based on his teachings.


You know what’s not exciting at all? A damn green rooster, that’s what!
Image credit: Ben Sutherland

So marshmallows include animal products, and chocolate is a reputed aphrodisiac. And you dare use those ingredients with his holy graham crackers? Remember that next time you enjoy a s’more next to a warm campfire at your idyllic mountain retreat, you horrible sinner!

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