This column has been posted on February 14th, which is apparently some holiday that is either a celebration of the subversion of a martyred saint, a day to be with the one you love/loudly declare your single status, or an evil corporate concoction designed to sell greeting cards and contraceptives, depending on who’s doing the talking. I’ve already written a column about someone falling in love with a sandwich and the sandwich as a metaphor for dating, so that’s not what today’s installment is about.
Sandwiches aren’t exactly synonymous with love, or lust, even (except in that one scene in When Harry Met Sally). This is surprising, since so many regular sandwich ingredients have been classified as aphrodisiacs. Arugula, basil, garlic. The words “avocado tree” come from ahuacuatl, an Aztec word meaning “testicle tree.” Turkey, one of the most popular deli meats, has been suggested to be an aphrodisiac due to its high zinc content and impact thereof on the sex drive.
But Valentine’s Day is all about one aphrodisiac in particular—oysters. However, the powers that be who market aphrodisiacs and other Valentine’s Day-related paraphernalia feel otherwise, so let’s talk about chocolate instead. Let’s talk about the heart-shaped boxes, the studies circulating around the Internet every year linking chocolate to sexual desire, the constant ad messages that suggest the humble reinterpretation of the fruit of the cacao is the best way to express one’s affections or mourn/celebrate one’s singlehood. Valentine’s Day is a dessert holiday, in all forms, from the conclusion of a candlelit meal to the edible undergarments. There’s only one dessert sandwich, then, that seemed worth discussing today: the humble s’more.
The s’more is a conflicted entity. It certainly isn’t the most conflicted sandwich in existence—that would be a burrito trapped in the body of a wrap, or possibly a chicken panini with daddy issues, or maybe a grilled cheese, as a friend of mine suggested, because the expectation weighs so heavily on something so simple and it leads to the likelihood of a letdown. Much like Valentine’s Day. But what makes the s’more interesting—and conflicted—comes in breaking down its primary ingredients: chocolate, (associated in many cultures with love and sex and seen as an aphrodisiac) sandwiched in between graham crackers (the exact opposite) and marshmallow (a strange in-between case).
The graham cracker, the foundation of the s’more, was invented as a key component to a diet designed to curb sexual desires. No, really. Its creator, Presbyterian minister and gospel nutritionist Sylvester Graham believed that a bland diet consisting of grains and natural vegetation would help people suppress their evil, evil lust, thereby preventing illnesses and living longer. Graham decried the lack of nutrition in refined foods, so he probably would not have been too keen on the direction the graham cracker has taken, but given its history, there’s an interesting dynamic to be observed with the s’more. Pairing a bland grain foundation designed to soften carnal desires with chocolate, which has probably been mentioned in the same phrase as “orgasm” more than any other food, you could make the case that a s’more is a dessert-sandwich metaphor for the conflicted American discourse about love, lust, sex and how we talk and act about it.
The marshmallow, the final, gooey piece of this strange and delicious puzzle, is the glue that holds all the elements of the s’more together and, appropriately enough, the component that straddles the aphrodisiac and far more sedate, processed worlds. The marshmallow plant, although no longer the primary ingredient in the fluffy confection, possesses aphrodisiac qualities noted throughout history. It has been used to treat impotency and was even, according to some legendary practices, a topically applied precursor to a certain blue pill. It’s still used in Wiccan love and fertility spells and even used to lure wanderlust-stricken partners back home again. The marshmallow we know is far less mystical in its intimate powers, if it possesses any at all. Sugar and gelatin are a far less capable of charming wayward lovers or helping men in need get their groove back. It’s not the sexiest confection, especially in its roasted form, which can emerge as a messy, burnt letdown.
The marshmallow, the glue, I think, holds the key to all of this. Although the delight that is the s’more would not be nearly as delicious if the o.g. plant were used in lieu of the modern sugar-and-gelatin mixture, there is something romantic about its place in lore, its holding together these two strands of discourse.
It’s worth noting that the ingredients that are most often played up for their aphrodisiac qualities are the naturally inclined ones, as it is with the actions that make us feel the best: exercise, movement, touch, embracing, sex, what have you. You never hear anyone talking about something as an “artificial” or “man-made” aphrodisiac. It’s sometimes better to trust nature, to trust instinct, than to go with what’s been given to us, what we find to be convenient.
I’m not coming down on how you should view Valentine’s Day or sex or anything of that nature (the only person you should trust with any of that is yourself), but this holiday, whatever it is, use it to put aside those internal, sandwiched conflicts, figure out what’s at the center, at your gut, and go with that.
Or, just have a s’more. Conflicted or not, they’re still delicious.