Everyone enjoys a nightcap when camping and what better way to end a crisp fall evening at a Hoosier campground than with toasted marshmallows. There are few people who don’t savor the crunchy brown treats and children consider them on par with puppies and chocolate ice cream. The outdoor humorist Patrick McManus even said that the toasted marshmallow is the kid campers peach brandy.
When the nights become cold enough to warrant cuddling up next to a roaring fire, it is marshmallow season. However, building a proper marshmallow fire is a technical exercise fraught with pitfalls with the risk of failure and third degree burns always present unless certain elements are in order. The first such component is the night.
A proper marshmallow night must be cool but not cold. If the temperature is too cold, the exercise quickly becomes a torture test without any social value. If the night is too warm, a fire becomes an annoyance instead of the centerpiece of social interaction.
Next is the fire. The bonfire should have been burning for at least an hour or two so that there is a good bed of coals. This is not so much necessary for the toasting process but rather for the ease of maintaining the fire while enjoying the company. If the fire has a good bed of coals, a log can be haphazardly thrown onto the pyre as necessary without much fiddling, allowing the fire warden to focus on important matters such as telling ghost stories.
The crowd is the next consideration. Any group of marshmallow roasters should include children, as they are usually the reason for going to the trouble of making toasted marshmallows in the first place. In a pinch, men in general will work because, psychologically, most are under 16 years of age anyway.
The choice of sticks is highly important. The technologically-inclined will choose metal skewers bought at the camping store. These are fine except that they tend to get hot, causing the marshmallow to slide into the fire unexpectedly. Sticks torn from surrounding trees are excellent aside from the ethical and legal problems of defoliating the already-defoliated trees in organized campgrounds. If you can craft a good-looking natural roasting stick from a nearby tree without inflicting unsightly or unlawful damage, you get ten bonus style points.
Arguably, the best sticks are made from 3/8 inch dowel rods bought at the hardware store and sharpened in a pencil sharpener. These are cheap, hold the marshmallow until next Tuesday and impart no nasty taste as green tree branches can sometimes do.
Once the preparations are in order, the roasting can begin. For the perfect overall brown surface, a marshmallow must be constantly rotated over a moderately hot spot in the fire. A hot bed of coals is ideal but you will still need to experiment with the amount of cooking time and turning. Using the leaping flames is difficult because the fire will momentarily die down then flash without warning. One minute you have a raw marshmallow then seconds later you are flailing around with a miniature road flare.
It is important to lecture the kids on the importance of not waving the stick wildly when the marshmallow catches fire. Such fires inevitably happen and without caution, there is a strong possibility that someone will end up with a wad of confectionery-based napalm in their lap. The sticks also tend to end up in someone’s eye unless strict twig discipline is observed.
Patience is the key to proper roasting. The champion in this category was my dear departed grandfather. While the kids were running around waving their flaming sticks in the air in a futile effort to quell the flames, he would leisurely spin his marshmallow over the coals until it was a perfect toasted brown. He would then pull off the skin and repeat the process, eventually pulling off several layers like a gummy onion. His record was five such skins. I’ve never gotten beyond two.
The topic of S'Mores always arises. When many of us were kids, we were happy enough to have marshmallows, let alone the additional supplies necessary to craft the incredibly tasty concoction of chocolate, marshmallow and graham crackers.
Today, it seems as if the marshmallow-roasting ritual is being turned into an elaborate Martha Stewart-esqe cooking frenzy. I've attended campfires where imported salted-caramel-machiatto chocolate is mated with organic, gluten free-graham crackers and hand-crafted free-range marshmallows. They were tasty but the whole process seemed more about the cooking rather than enjoying the fire and assembled company.
We've also noticed that after approximately half a s'more, most people (kids included) have had enough. If presented with a delicious already-prepared s'more, we'll attack it with gusto; however, we're merely trying to make the point that everyone complains about how complicated life has become, so maybe s'mores (especially the gourmet versions) should be considered a once-a-season treat rather a requirement under the Geneva Camping Convention. Just a thought...
Regardless of how simple or elaborate the proceedings, one of the most important elements for a good marshmallow roast is talk. Once the initial excitement has passed, everyone is satiated and smeared with the sticky remainders of the feast, it is time to sit back and look into the fire to mull answers and questions among the glowing orange caverns. Even the youngest members of the group will find enjoyment in quietly sitting back to watch the fire slowly transform wood into light and heat.
As the conversation dies into silence as the crackling wood turns to coals and finally ash, stillness settles over the scene until the only things spoken are thoughtful sentences carefully deliberated. The replies are equally considered and the topics flow aimlessly like water on a glass table. It is nice to see the kids staring into the fire, listening, lost in thought and sharing wisdom beyond their years.
At least until they unexpectedly lob a flaming blob of molten sugar into your face.