S'Mores Season Is Here

At backyard barbecues and around campfires all over America, this is what's for dessert

S'mores are the all-American summertime dessert. (Rumor has it that in Arizona, saying that you don't like s'mores is cause for immediate deportation.) Simple sandwiches of milk chocolate and fire-blackened marshmallow between a couple of graham crackers, s'mores — originally called Some Mores — were first mentioned in 1927, in a pamphlet called "Tramping and Trailing with the Girl Scouts," in which their invention was credited to a Scout named Loretta Scott Crew.

Everybody knows what s'mores taste like, and presumably how to make them (if you don't, we're calling the Men in Black). But did you every stop to think about where their ingredients came from?

Let's take marshmallows first. You'd need real imagination to envision a connection between the tangle of long, skinny roots of the plant known botanically as Althaea officinalis and the soft, puffy confection we call marshmallows, but there definitely is one: Althaea officinalis is the original marshmallow — that's its common name. It has long been used medicinally, in China, the Middle East, and Europe alike, particularly as a decongestant and a treatment for ulcers. The ancient Egyptians mixed the sap of the plant with honey to make a remedy for sore throats, and the medieval French refined the idea by adding egg whites to what they called pâte de guimauve, or marshmallow paste. By the late 19th century, French confectioners had figured out a way to mimic the flavor and consistency of this paste with gelatin and cornstarch, leaving out the marshmallow altogether. The modern recipe, innocent of anything medicinal, is made primarily with gelatin, sugar, and corn syrup, whipped into the familiar sticky but airy consistency.

The Doumak company started making marshmallows in Los Angeles in 1921. In 1954, Alex Doumakes, son of the firm's Greek immigrant founder, developed a process for extruding marshmallows in the form of long cylinders, which could be easily cut into pieces. This innovation is considered to have revolutionized the marshmallow business. Doumak, Inc. moved to Bensenville, Ill., near Chicago, in 1961, and today sells marshmallows under the Campfire name — an obvious reference to you-know-what.

Graham crackers were created by the Reverend Sylvester Graham, a 19th-century Presbyterian minister. Graham was ahead of his time in some ways: He thought that chemical additives in bread and other processed foods were unhealthy, he advocated vegetarianism and a high-fiber diet, and he helped introduce Americans to the once-radical notions that they should bathe and brush their teeth daily. His famous crackers, originally called Dr. Graham's Honey Biscuits and probably based on the so-called digestive biscuits popular in Britain, appeared in 1929, made with a combination of white and coarse-ground wheat flour and wheat germ, sweetened with honey. They were intentionally bland, because Graham believed that spicy and strong-flavored foods stimulated illicit sexual appetites; he promoted graham crackers, in fact, as a means of preventing or discouraging "self-abuse" — i.e., masturbation.

Nobody owns the patent on graham crackers today, and they are made by numerous bakeries large and small (Nabisco's Honey Maid brand seems to be the main grocery store interpretation). Some are constructed entirely of white flour, and most commercial versions include precisely the kinds of additives their inventor would have abhorred.

As for the chocolate that goes into s'mores, could it be anything other than pieces of the good old-fashioned Hershey Bar? Now, nobody would ever accuse the Hershey Bar of being the best chocolate in America. Not even close. It's a very widely distributed, mass-produced product, substantially less expensive than (for instance) artisanal dark chocolate, and it has none of such chocolate's exotic complexity and bittersweet appeal. What the Hershey Bar is is an American icon, an instantly recognizable object, a symbol of creativity-turned-commerce, a flavor of our childhoods. (Huge quantities were sent to our troops during World War II.) It doesn't put on airs, pretending to be something that it's not. It is to the best chocolate of Scharffen Berger, Patric, L. A. Burdick, or Norman Love what Coors is to your favorite microbrew — just simply on a different level, but perfectly enjoyable under some circumstances. In fact, there's something about the Hershey Bar's milk chocolate (in which cacao, in fact, plays a pretty small role) that is very appealing — something smooth and creamy, with a flavor of caramelized milk and a lingering mouth-coating sweetness.

The Hershey Bar is also a symbol of Yankee stick-to-itivity. It wouldn't be here if Milton Snavely Hershey hadn't persevered. Born in Derry Township, Pa., he apprenticed as a young man at a small candy factory in nearby Lancaster. In 1876, when he was 19, he started his own confectionary business in Philadelphia. He lasted six years, then had to close. Undeterred, he tried to manufacture candy in New York. When that effort failed, too, he moved west, to Denver, where he went to work for a candymaker who taught him how to make milk caramel. In 1886, returning to Pennsylvania, he founded the Lancaster Caramel Company, which was finally a success. On a visit to the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, he met a chocolatier and saw demonstrations of some German-made chocolate-making equipment. He bought it on the spot and shipped it home to produce chocolate coverings for his caramels. Around this time, he made the first version of what was to become the Hershey Bar.

In 1896, Hershey bought a milk processing plant to supply the milk chocolate he had developed. In 1899, he came up with a new method of making milk chocolate more cheaply and consistently than it had been made before, the particulars of which are still a trade secret. The next year, Hershey sold his caramel company for the then-astounding sum of $1 million, and a few years after that, he began construction on a chocolate plant in his hometown of Derry Township, in what came to be known as Hershey, Pa. The company subsequently rolled out many other varieties of chocolate, and today owns a number of famous candy brands, including Reese's, Kit Kat, and Cadbury, but the Hershey Bar remains, as one advertising slogan puts it, "America's Candy Bar" — and an all but essential ingredient in America's campfire dessert.