Why are marshmallows cylindrical?

I had a short email conversation with a reader over the weekend. She’d commented on how odd my cubical marshmallows appeared, which prompted my reply: well, what shape should they be? For marshmallow is like fudge, or peanut butter or jelly: it doesn’t have a “shape”, per se. Marshmallows are cylindrical in the grocery store because, well, that’s the way confectioners make them. Contrary to myth, the white cylinder bears no relation to the root — or any other part — of the marsh mallow plant. So then why the stout, round form?

I suppose if you think back to the marshmallow’s heyday, the early 60’s, the odd shape makes a sort of sense. True, it was 1940’s-era extrusion techniques that originally created the marshmallow’s cylinder shape, but it took a culture in love with progress and scientific advancement to truly champion it. The early 60’s, let us recall, was the era when Kennedy set the nation on the path to the moon. Freud’s psychoanalytical theories were all over popular culture (think Hitchcock movies). People scratched their heads over Warhol, and debated whether John Coltrane and the Classic Quartet had pushed atonality to the point that modern jazz had become unlistenable. High abstraction, in short, was the order of the day.

In the kitchen this aesthetic translated to convenience (electric stoves, canned and packaged foods of all types), but also into space-age looking food. Tube-like asparagus rolls, cube-shaped meat aspics (the great aunt I mentioned last week couldn’t get enough of those — even into the 80’s) and of course Jell-O molds of every description and shape…from cone to ovoid to torus.

The marshmallow fit perfectly into this geometric, inorganic framework. Sure, before long the late 60’s and 70’s would arrive, and pop cuisine would be all brown rice and tamari. But for a brief period, in an other-worldly food universe, the marshmallow was king.

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