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Smithsonian Explores History, Technology, Culture of Marshmallows With AM-Marshmallow Lectures

April 1, 1994

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The marshmallow’s place in American culture is between bittersweet chocolate and warm graham crackers, the Smithsonian Institution declared Friday.

″It’s a sticky subject″ admitted Richard Ahlborn, opening the Third Annual Smithsonian Conference on Stuff.

A palatable mass of information followed.

Panelists discussed paleomarshmallows in prehistoric times, the medical uses of marshmallows, the rigid social implications of the Moon Pie versus the amorphous Goo Goo Cluster, marshmallows in art and music and the evolution of the modern marshmallow.

Indeed, asserted Katherine Ott of the Smithsonian’s Division of Medical Sciences, marshmallows have even found a place in the healing arts.

Originally one of the five humors of the body identified by the ancient Greek physician Galen - along with lymph, blood, bile and beer - it was later dropped after a lawsuit by the Good Humor man, she said.

Modern experiments, Ott went on, have suggested the use of marshmallows rather than silicone in implants. Marshmallows don’t migrate around the body, she said, although there was a tendency to gravitate toward campfires.

Gary Aronsen of the Museum of Natural History took up the origins of the marshmallow (Staypufii alabastus), which he traced through the fossils found in a petrified marshmallow bed in the West.

The miniature marshmallow was first sighted on an island in 1832, said Aronsen, who sought to determine whether the large and small versions are the same species - being similar in every way except size. Both types of marshmallow have evolved under intense predation by humans, he observed.

″I can’t believe I’m doing this,″ the scientist muttered before regaining his composure and explaining he was unable to complete his research - because his dog ate the subjects.

″Most of us never kissed a girl until we had first pressed a marshmallow to her lips,″ said folklorist Thomas M. Kirlin in a lecture entitled: ″The Marshmallow in Midwestern Male Courtship Rituals.″

Kirlin recalled his efforts as a 14-year-old to enchant a girl by toasting a marshmallow over a bonfire - losing several into the flames and burning his fingers before succeeding.

Finally, he said, ″we feasted on marshmallows, the magic of courtship worked, we kissed. It lasted about a week.″

Turning to today’s information society, John Fleckner and Thomas Bickley told of a visit to cybermallow, in the Internet marsh.

Searching the worldwide computer network for marshmallow references, they discovered an 1806 treatise on using marshmallow mucilage to treat kidney stones, an experimental paper on the heat released by burning marshmallows, a news story about football fans pelting players with frozen marshmallows and hundreds more.

Marshmallows haven’t had a grand place in popular song, though, lamented Dwight Bowers of the Smithsonian.

In 1951 Dinah Shore recorded ″Marshmallow Moon″ including the lyric, ″There’s a marshmallow m-o-o-o-n on a velvet sky tonight.″

Marshmallow mashed into velvet: not an image that conjures romance.

Camy Clough went to the source for her experiment, offering school children a choice of marshmallows in a taste test.

″There was a gender difference in marshmallows,″ she found, with boys preferring big ones and girls the miniatures. Offered a choice of colors and flavors, boys went for green while girls liked orange and pink.

A post-lecture scientific experiment was even arranged involving a microwave oven and marshmallow Easter chicks to test whether the result would be ″steady state″ or ″big bang.″

The sugar-rich marshmallow plant was once the source of the confection, researchers said, with the plant root producing mucilage for texture. Modern marshmallows, however, are made from corn syrup, gelatin sugar and water, said Beth Richwine of the National Museum of American History.

The Smithsonian’s conferences on stuff are held each year on April Fool’s Day. Previous years have focused on Jell-O and peanut butter.

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