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[whitespace] Natural Disaster

A square marshmallow is not a square deal

By Marina Wolf

CALL IT THE CASE of the nonround marshmallows. I wasn't looking for them, but there they were, tucked into a corner shelf at a local natural-foods emporium, where such "all-natural" atrocities tend to gather. Before I even picked up the unassuming plastic bag to look at the list of ingredients, I knew something was wrong: these so-called marshmallows were square.

Now, I'm no food cop, but if I were, you bet I'd be enforcing some ordinances around here. Pepper must be freshly ground. Nuts must be toasted before being added to recipes. And marshmallows must be round. In an ideal world, that last little law would be a redundant statement of fact. But as I was reminded that day in the store, we live in an imperfect world with people who are ever tempted to take a good thing and fuck with it.

Reading the label, I had even more questions. These were touted as handcrafted. But it's not as if cutting a sheet of sugary goo into squares is particularly artful. Handcrafted marshmallows ought to be more, well, round, patted lovingly into shape by a studio full of smiling older women whose hair is white from the cornstarch.

These squares are about as mass-produced-looking as you can get.

And you'd think "natural marshmallows" would be vegan, right? I mean, if you're going to tamper with the basic molecular structure of marshmallows for the sake of some groovy, good-for-body-and-planet ideal, powdered cow hooves--aka gelatin--would be the first thing to go. But no: the manufacturers left in gelatin, and also sugar and corn syrup--two ways of saying the same thing.

They did remove dextrose, water, artificial color, Blue No. 1, and tetrasodium pyrophosphate, which probably was their real mistake. One of those items must be the active ingredient in marshmallows, the thing that makes them melt in so many fabulous ways: in crisp brown little cobblestones on top of yams, in a thin wash of foam on cocoa. Most important, marshmallows must be sturdy enough to fit on a stick and stay there through repeated toastings, forming layer after layer of browned outer crust, each one to be slipped off and eaten before the gradually shrinking confection is thrust back over the fire again.

It's not too much to ask, but by these standards the "natural" marshmallow is not a marshmallow, but some kind of fancy-shmancy Turkish nougat that overrefined ladies might once have offered to visitors in their salons. Such a delicacy should never go anywhere near a vulgar source of heat such as cocoa or a campfire. In one field trial, my square marshmallow set a world speed record for sliding off into the flames: five seconds.

So why are these mushy misnomers still made and marketed? Either shoppers at natural-foods stores are complete dupes, or else we're losing our collective sense of proportion. A few chemical-filled marshmallows once or twice a year on a camping trip isn't going to kill you, no matter how much tetrasodium pyrophosphate they have in them.

Unfortunately, it's all part of a trend toward the total healthification of our food supply. Sundae toppings are "naturally fat free." Sour cream is low fat. Milk is skim-to-none. Bread has no preservatives and tastes great until the next day. Healthy cheese puffs are an oxymoron, and they taste like it, too. The low-salt V-8 has so much less oomph that they should call it V-6. Of course, the original sodium-fueled formula burned the hell out of the roof of my mouth, which is why I usually do drink V-6, in spite of its complete lack of flavor.

We all make our compromises. I'm resigned to that, as long as the unabashedly unnatural foods are offered alongside the "natural" versions--as long as we still have a choice about round or (shudder) square.

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From the November 2-8, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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