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On the Fourth of July, a pageant of Americana marched to the tune of kazoos through the holiday hamlet of Glen Arbor, Mich., down streets hung with flags, lined with toddlers and their parents. Watching the festivities, you might have thought you'd stumbled upon the most wholesome all-American celebration imaginable.
But a black spot marred this innocent-seeming idyll—a black spot with a white-hot molten core: the overhanging threat of the s'mores bonfires that would light up around the lakes at nightfall. The s'more, along with baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie, is an ineradicable component of the American tradition. Like every other American, I am sentimental about the pagan summertime ritual in which parents and grandparents pass the torch—or rather, a burning brand bearing a flaming marshmallow—to the next generation. As we all know, the spongy white puffs are toasted over an open flame until they are converted into a carbon shell with a tongue-searing marshmallow center, topped with corn-syrupy milk chocolate, and mashed between graham crackers.
I will defend to the death everyone's right to eat a s'more; and I will toast (incinerate) marshmallows for hours to keep a towheaded tot from singeing his fingernails. But I do not like to eat a s'more and never have. Until now, this has been my secret shame. This year at Glen Lake, I decided to let the deception cease. I said, out loud, in the presence of all those on whose good opinion I most rely, "No, I don't want a s'more. It makes me thirsty." Specifying my real objections—the bland, brittle dust of the cracker, the sticky cloyingness of the marshmallow, and the way the chocolate always falls into the sand as you take your first bite—would have seemed peevish. (And I didn't want to spoil the newbies' fun.) As I had feared, my refusal was met with disbelief, mockery, suspicion, then, lastly, a solemn sadness. I had to insist, apologetically, with a cringing, hopeful little smile: "No. I do not want one. Really." I then stuck my fingers into a tart cherry pie, pulled out a crumbling, delicious wedge, and crammed it into my mouth to shore up my sugar cred.
My family has an appetite for sugar that would make a fruit fly cough and beg for water.
My mother, for example, has been known to pour Karo syrup into her mouth while cooking and pop Mallomars into her mouth to cut the sweetness. This is typical family-wide. The fact that I don't share this sweet tooth with my relatives, or my nation, makes me wonder if I'm adopted from some parched, sugar-caneless locale. My missing s'mores-appreciation gene is proof.
But perhaps my s'mores aversion is not my fault. It may have started later than I think, during traumatic Girl Scout camping trips. An introverted child incapable of small talk, with brothers and no sisters, I was freaked out by the enforced sororal chumminess of Girl Scouts. For our obligatory weekend excursions to spider-filled tents on the banks of the Wabash, I put on the green sash and packed my overnight case with all the enthusiasm of a kid heading to a tonsillectomy. My mother always jokes that it was a cruel twist of fate that landed me in the only truly vicious group of Girl Scouts the country has ever known. But really, it was their friendly yammering that spooked me. I did not know how to yammer, then. I could, however, make s'mores over the campfire and pretend to like them in a doomed bid to fit in. Peer pressure starts early; it's hard to "just say no" to s'mores.
It was the Girl Scouts, according to legend, who invented the s'more, though their ingredients have been staples on store shelves (even in remote mountainside outposts) since the late 19th century. Campers were the first to magic them up, looking for an incentive sweeter than franks, beans, and catfish to entice their children to undergo the travails of muddy tromps and gelid nights in tents. But they didn't have 3x5 cards handy, so the Girl Scouts, spotting an opportunity, formalized the recipe. The name, it is said, grew out of the proven fact that anybody who tasted them (except for me) asked for "some more." The first known s'mores recipe appeared in 1927, in the Girl Scouts handbook Tramping and Trailing With the Girl Scouts, which I think of as "Sulking and Wailing With the Girl Scouts."
The ancestor of the s'more seems to have come from England, land of nursery food and trifle, and of "Please, sir, could I have some more?"; where Victorian mothers made gooey desserts portable by filling sponge cakes with jam or cream. We Americans, fond of roughing it, went and simplified the recipe. For Honey Maid, Hershey's, and Campfire, the invention has been a marketing eternal flame. In 2004, capitalizing on all the nostalgia, Hershey's spent $30 million in advertising to introduce the S'mores candy bar, and this May, they inaugurated the "Smoresfun" Web site—there's still time to send in your entry for the great s'mores Fun Family Time Sweepstakes.
The big three are not the only entrepreneurs who have feasted on Americans' bottomless appetite for the treats. Così sandwich shops sell toast-your-own s'mores (with mini fuel pot, cookies, marshmallows, and chocolate—$7.79 feeds two; $13.59 feeds four, or two wearing easy-fit jeans). And chi-chi restaurants offer them as amuse-gueules. Room 4 Dessert, a dessert boutique that opened in Manhattan in January, "always has s'mores-like desserts," according to the chef, Will Goldfarb, who trained at the famed El Bulli in Spain. If you want to go gourmet on your own hearth, Thomas Keller's French Laundry Cookbook has a recipe for homemade marshmallows with Knox gelatin taking the place of mallow sap and confectioners' sugar required for dredging. Put that in your knapsack and toast it. (But don't forget to take along a high-speed battery-operated mixer.)
Of course, these fancy incarnations defeat the original point of s'mores, which is that they're easy-to-make, guaranteed nostalgia-inducers, well within the reach of any parent's budget. Others may disagree, but I suspect that most us don't eat them for the taste. We eat them to relive our first s'mores experience, back when our taste buds were so rosy new that any sugar was ecstasy; back when our parents were the age we are now … and younger. S'mores take us back in time. You don't have to like them to love them.